Sun Ra and his Arkestra. Credit: By Andy Newcombe CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shock election as President of the United States, social media channels have been buzzing with disillusioned calls to escape to Canada or even Mars. Earlier in 2016, President Barack Obama had already promised a giant leap to the Red Planet, adding further momentum to technology entrepreneur Elon Musk’s futuristic prospect of colonization.
But as the writer Martin Robbins has argued, “space is white,” and it’s a myth to believe that “when we go into space, we will all magically become nice.” Now more than ever we need to reflect on a cultural history of space exclusion that may come to define “whose version of humanity is being targeted for saving”, as D N Lee so eloquently worries.
In 1969, the same the year in which NASA famously landed three men on the light side of the moon, a black man called Sun Ra made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Ra and his ‘Arkestra’ band of jazz musicians had already left for Philadelphia from their eclectic commune on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, just a few blocks from where they played on Monday nights at Slug’s Saloon. They made sure to leave New York with a parting gift: Atlantis. It was the first of Ra’s interstellar, free-jazz records to use the clavinet—their so-called ‘solar sound instrument’—to convey the groovy, electric notes of space.
As half a billion people watched Apollo 11’s all-white, all-male crew, capsule communicators, support staff, and flight directors make history on the moon, Sun Ra was jazzing up Earth with a call to Mars and beyond—well before NASA or companies like SpaceX or Amazon were building rockets in order to get there.
Ra has since come to represent many things, and one of the most important is the exclusion of black people from space. Born ‘Herman Poole Blount’ one spring in Birmingham, Alabama, Ra was an avant-garde jazz musician, poet, and Afro-futuristic philosopher. His work pioneered the field as a collection of ways in which black identity and cosmologies re-conceptualise both the future and the past by blending science with art into a new techno-cultural aesthetic.
Somewhere in the early 20th century, Ra had a vision of himself as an interstellar visitor from Saturn on a mission of peace. Discarding the shackles of his birth name and former identity, he mantled himself in the likeness and headdresses of Ancient Egypt’s great Nubians. Ra then gathered his Arkestra of musical disciples to preach his musical gospel. Perhaps in protest at the institutional forces that kept black people off the moon, Ra’s 1973 album Space Is The Place firmly opened up the cosmos for all.
With techno-funk jazz and mesmerising vocals, Space Is The Place offers an important glimpse of black imagination beyond Earth. A year later it was expressed visually in an 85-minute science-fiction film of the same title. In the film, Ra attempts to emancipate black identity from its self-imposed limits and those set by white agents and institutions. Ultimately, he uses the power of music to transport his community of free blacks to settle on a new planet. His biblical struggle to free people for a home in space anticipated the challenges of representation that face societies today as they move further into space.
Today, there’s a risk that rivalry between different countries in the new space race will ignore the issues of extra-terrestrial diversity. Though the competition that governed relations between the US and USSR in the second half of the 20th century eventually gave way to increased cooperation, the tempo has changed again with the entry of players like China and Russia, and the evolving racial and political dynamics of the USA. Diversity is often lost sight of in the frantic struggle for national progress and competitive advantage. For example, though NASA has explicitly made a commitment to diversify its workforce, 77 per cent of its engineers, 85 per cent of its physical scientists, and 86 per cent of its senior executives are white.
It’s therefore important to ask whether representation on Mars—and in the space industry more broadly—risks losing much of the Earth’s human plurality. The issue of racial diversity is exacerbated by the fact only a handful of other nations possess the capacity to launch people into space. This is where international bodies such as the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) could play a useful role by monitoring and overseeing future Martian exploration and space colonization. Building on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, they could lead the development of new space law and constitutionalism in order to balance progress with diversity.
That still leaves the problem of under-representation in industry. Technology companies are notoriously deaf in this regard. In Silicon Valley, reliable data is hard to find, though leading reports indicate that amongst top companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, minorities constitute at most 37 per cent of the workforce, and black workers never more than four per cent. InfoWorld executive editor Galen Gruman stresses how this pattern of representation owes itself to Silicon Valley’s inherent elitism, along with the implicit biases that go with it.
Elitism operates to turn otherwise neutral policies into exclusionary practices. SpaceX, for example, is currently projecting the cost of its tickets to Mars at $200,000 each, a price that limits participation from minority groups who make up a disproportionately poor part of the population. Former employees have also accused SpaceX of racist policies. A spokesman for the company responded like this: “At SpaceX, we don’t care about your gender, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, age or anything else of that nature—to succeed here, the only requirement is to work hard and produce outstanding results.”
This type of post-racial, meritocratic thinking is symptomatic of Silicon Valley's elitism, and perhaps it’s too far ahead of its time—ironically echoing Sun Ra’s own disillusioned views in his later days. It has the danger of failing to recognise that formal equality is a necessary but insufficient step towards substantive equity in society. Companies like SpaceX and Amazon should not only make effective commitments to diversity in the workforce, but also develop plans to show how diversity will play into their extra-terrestrial ambitions. Doing so will help to avoid repeating the patterns of inequality on Earth that restrict representation to those who have been historically privileged.
Fundamental to this process is the recognition that space is a potential destination for everyone. Contemporary Afro-futurist Denenge Akpem has attempted to spark this discussion through, “The MARS Project – Teaching Afro-futurism as Methodology of Liberation.” Akpem, a performance artist and sculptor who has taught at both the School of the Art Institute Chicago and Columbia College Chicago, invites her students to imagine the first mission to, and settlement of Mars through the lens of Afro-futurism and diversity.
In contrast, Mars One, a private Dutch initiative to settle Mars by 2026, has raised eyebrows for seeming to select its astronauts using a format akin to reality TV. And while National Geographic’s upcoming docu-drama miniseries MARS features an internationally, racially and gender diverse crew in 2033 aboard the Daedalus, it’s noticeable that they are led by an all-American white male mission commander who will “be the first to walk on Mars”.
In addition, if we are to colonize Mars or any other planet or space station for that matter, then genetics and population dynamics call for the largest and broadest sample of who we are to be included among the settlers. As Sun Ra highlights, the worlds of art, music, philosophy, science and literature are created by all of us. In space as on Earth, there is a deep value to embracing and maintaining the plurality of our existence: it celebrates our empathy and love for one another.
As Ra presaged, Space Is The Place for us to take this love—the best of Earth’s legacy—to Mars and beyond.