Image Credit: Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space by Fred Scharmen (Verso Books, 2021)

Should humans try to live in outer space? If we did, what would that existence look like—and who would be allowed to go? Architect Fred Scharmen spoke with Public Seminar about his recent book Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space (Verso Books, 2021) and discussed the ways in which imaginations of the future can impact our lives today—both out in space and here on Earth.

Emma Celebrezze [EC]: Could you tell me a little bit about this book and how you came to this topic of a history of life in outer space?

Fred Scharmen [FS]: My field is urban design and architecture, so I’m really interested in the way we represent future spaces, whether that’s future space as in “we’re going to build a new building across the street next year,” or future space as in “here’s how people are going to live [in] the next century.”

I got really obsessed with these paintings from a NASA project that was about designing giant, free-floating, spinning cities to orbit Earth. I decided to take them seriously as real proposals that were in the lineage of architecture and urban design. What I found was that far from being this bizarre utopian future, they’re really of a piece with other things that were going on in design culture and in culture at large in their era.

After working on that for a few years and being able to publish a book on that one project, I realized that there were so many other stories to tell from this long, 150-year history of different people talking about what would be a human future in space. How will we go and live off of Earth—if that’s even possible or desirable?

The current book is seven stories from that 150-year timeline that reveal interesting, constructive, productive, sometimes dangerous, and scary things about how humans think about this strange idea that we should go and live in orbit or on other planets or in other solar systems.

EC: You’ve previously spoken about how architecture involves literally designing the air: inclusions and exclusions are inherent to that. How does that relate to some of the suggestions or possibilities that you point to for a potential space future?

FS: That’s one of the ways that I like to onboard people in my home disciplines of architecture and landscape architecture and urban design, because it foregrounds every aspect of what we do when we’re designing spaces. Even just building the ordinary buildings on Earth that aren’t necessarily technologically advanced, explicit choices that we let fall to the background come right back to the foreground, such as “Okay, now wait, how do we design the air, now that the air has to be designed and specified?” We make drawings and we make pictures of what the spaces should be like, but we also write detailed technical specifications of how things should perform. What should be the nature of this surface? How hard should it be? How much should this door resist, or not, my effort to push or pull it?

The nature of all those things comes back to who that human is that’s pushing or pulling that door. That person in the space and their abilities to access a surface or to move across it in different ways, their relative level of comfort in the air that we design—we’re literally producing or inviting a certain kind of human subject into the spaces we make every day on Earth as we simply practice architecture.

That’s easy to forget when you’re thinking about these things all day and you’re trying to follow building code, but it can also give you optimism about the future. We’ve enshrined these ideals of inclusivity into things like building code. There are other mechanisms that ensure inclusive futures in other environments: things like valuing, as architects are legally required to do, the health, safety, and welfare of the public. This is a utopian proposition but placing that at the center of your professional and personal identity as a practitioner is important.

EC: It was interesting how some of the visions [of human futures in space] seemed to rely on the special value of preserving Earth.

FS: I’m really grateful to the anthropologist and sociologist Lisa Messeri for letting me borrow and adapt her concept of the planetary imagination. The exercise of the planetary imagination, for Messeri, is what makes scientists able to reconstruct a world. “What are the things that are important about a world?” is the kind of question they ask.

I found the idea of a planetary imagination to be useful as a way of revealing assumptions about what planets are for generally and, more specifically, what the Earth is for. Is the Earth something that should be totally optimized to support as many living humans as possible? Or is it a place that should be more like a park that should be depopulated, maybe via an exodus to other worlds? Of course, the assumptions behind the idea of a park or wilderness can be problematic, but they must all be part of a planetary imagination.

EC: I was really struck by how much conflict, even military conflict, was implicit in visions of space. For example, that if we encounter other life forms, we need to be prepared that they’ll be a threat to us, or perhaps that we need internal conflict on Earth in order to get to space. Were you surprised by this?

FS: I was surprised by its coherence, and by its consistency. But it seems that there is a coherent worldview underneath these assumptions that life in general is defined by conflict, or that success is the result of resolving conflict in a hierarchical way. That worldview is baked into a need or desire for this ultimate high ground, either to militarily dominate a unified Earth or to be in a position from which you can then go on to conquer the cosmos.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but it was for me—when you start to realize all these individual moments where the intersection of military worldviews and space exploration become apparent, they are just the manifestation of these dark things under the surface that have been there for quite a long time.

I think I’m still shocked by other things too. Daniel Deudney, a political scientist here at The Johns Hopkins University, has a book called Dark Skies, where he points out that intercontinental ballistic missiles go much, much higher than objects in low Earth orbit like the International Space Station. GPS was originally developed for American military communication. Satellites are crucial to wartime and peacetime. Almost everything about space is dual use. And because of the energies and distances and speeds involved, almost everything in space is a potential kinetic weapon as well.

EC: So, even if we assume a utopian non-violence-based future, a lot of the very base infrastructure at any moment could revert back or switch its purpose.

FS: Yes, and for me that’s a moment where conscious choice comes into play. Because of the dangers involved, we can’t accidentally stumble into the production of this kind of future. There is inherent danger in using these huge energies, these fast speeds, these huge distances, not to mention the fragility that is built into living up there. So, we have to be very intentional about our goals.

EC: What was it like looking at different assumptions or visions about human collectivity in the context of COVID and other things that have presented challenges to our ability to mobilize as a society for the betterment of all?

FS: I think in basic concrete terms, we’ve all gotten a taste over the past two or three years of what it might be like to be inside all the time. On a year-and-a-half long mission to Mars, our scope of mobility would be very limited, and the number of people we encounter on a daily basis would be very, very restricted. That’s how we have lived for the past couple of years. There has been a sense that we’re all isolating together, and that if there is a way through this, it would be through collective effort.

But this whole scenario has also revealed fault lines in the way people think about collective effort. Will there always be a portion of humanity that just says, “Screw that, I’m not going to play along with that scenario, and you can’t tell me what to do?” After 2020, 2021, and into 2022, I think it is hard to say that that kind of attitude is going to go away.

Living in outer space is a generator for different kinds of cultural imaginations, not just planetary imaginations, but also what we think about what a culture could be. Is there a utopian future where collective effort is the only way through, the only way we can commit as a species or as a civilization to that big project of creating new worlds in a future away from Earth?

Certainly, the real-world projects emerging from the space program are upheld as examples of what’s possible through human collective effort. The International Space Station is still a place where Russians and Americans are cooperating today, even as political tensions between the earthly nations of Russia and the United States are at an all-time high. The power of collective effort is part of that story.

But there’s also a set of people who imagine that a space future would be this ultimate libertarian opportunity for individualistic expression to get out from under earthly restrictions, earthly politics, earthly histories, older cultures—and be able to do whatever they want.

EC: You noted an almost binary tension between people who want to go to space, whether they see a space future as collective or libertarian, and then people who are not into the idea of going to space.

FS: Anti-escapists are the other side of this. They are people who don’t want to go to space and think of themselves as fighting this idea that humans will escape Earth and its problems. To them, this means not having to reckon with the legacies of climate change or political turmoil, of all these material and cultural pasts and frameworks that exist here.

EC: One concern is that what happens on Earth happens in space, so we’ll just recreate the same issues. We spend a lot of time and money, thought, and resources getting to space, and we aren’t spending that same time and those same resources on pressing terrestrial problems.

FS: Right. If you do the simple math, what would it cost to feed the hungry and the needy on planet Earth? It’s less than Jeff Bezos’ net worth, right? In theory that could be a zero-sum game that could transfer those funds elsewhere and be a part of a greater good.

But I don’t think that a zero-sum argument is the best framework for sitting with those questions, because money is a sometimes tangible—sometimes not even tangible—record of human priorities and desires. If there’s not that collective effort that prioritizes something like solving world hunger, then the money doesn’t matter. I say that as somebody who’s worked on architecture projects at all scales: you have to mobilize the buy-in. You have to make the rendering that compels and builds a constituency for the project. If you want a future to happen, you have to go out there and advocate on its behalf and create a constituency around the production of that future.

These futures have other benefits too: as we’ve been discussing, the net value of space projects is bigger than the sum of its parts. In creating that collective effort, building that community around the project, you create something greater. For example, human cultures wouldn’t have been aware of climate change as early as we were if we hadn’t studied the atmosphere of Venus so closely and wondered, “Huh. Well, yeah, it’s close to the sun, but that planet’s a lot warmer than it should be, according to these numbers we’ve got here. What’s going on with their atmosphere that is creating a situation where that planet’s retaining way more heat than our models show it should?”

Well, it turns out those models, when we apply them to Earth’s atmosphere, tell us and have told us quite a bit about what we’re doing to our own planet. Every aspect of trying to make a world will help us consciously and with positive intent adjust the course of the world that we are in here on Earth. As a general condition, I would make the case that trying to solve problems that are related to living in space has a huge net benefit to anyone still living on Earth for all kinds of reasons.

EC: When you finished this book, did you feel neutral, optimistic, pessimistic?

FS: Oh, definitely, optimistic. Recent popular culture about space futures aligns really well with ideals enshrined in international law and documents like the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement. These principles affirm that space and celestial bodies are a kind of undiscovered or untouched commons, and that maybe they should be left as such—or at least respected as such—as a kind of common heritage for all of humanity. They affirm that when we’re undergoing activities in space, the most important things are mutual aid, sharing resources, and pooling knowledge. These ideas are in the foundational documents that somehow came out of scary times like the Cold War. We get this bureaucratic utopia that is mapped out in these legal frameworks.

Now what we have to do is just really hold the current actors to their own stated ideals. I think if we can hold that kind of idealism as a fire to the feet of those who have the capabilities to do stuff, then I have a lot of hope for human futures in space—and here on Earth.

Emma Celebrezze is a MA Candidate in Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.

Fred Scharmen teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning in Baltimore, Maryland.