Feminist Astropolitics with Erika Nesvold
Updated: Oct 11
As told to Kirthi Jayakumar
Erika Nesvold has a PhD in Physics and a background in computational astrophysics research, and enjoys teaching computers how to simulate the universe. She is currently an Astrophysicst and Developer for Universe Sandbox. She also looks at space from the human perspective, and contemplates on the profound question of how we will learn from history, ethics, and the social sciences to build a better future in space. She hosted the podcast, Making New Worlds, and co-founded a non-profit organization, the JustSpace Alliance, with the mission to advocate for a more inclusive and ethical future in space, and to harness visions of tomorrow for a more just and equitable world today. Erika also wrote "Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space," and co-edited "Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration."
Erika is pictured before a backdrop presenting an artistic rendition of The Whirlpool Galaxy, which includes two galaxies - M51a (the big spiral) and M51b (the small yellow clump). M51b is gravitationally interacting with the large M51a galaxy, which contributes to the pronounced spiral structure in M51a. In Erika's words: "I’ve always thought there was something terribly poetic about that—M51a’s companion is tearing it apart, but that’s what makes the galaxy so beautiful." (Photo credits: Erika Nesvold - Profile picture | Kirthi Jayakumar - Astronomical Art)
Can you start by sharing your background and what got you interested in the field of space law?
I am trained as an astronomer, an astrophysicist more specifically. When I was in academia, I was working as a research scientist. I had the opportunity to talk to some people in the growing private space industry out in Silicon Valley, California in the United States. It was exciting to me because I've always been very interested in the idea of human space exploration and settlement. This was in around 2016, when people were talking about space mining. I thought about moving into the industry and I was very excited about it. Then, I found that when I was talking to some of these entrepreneurs, I was rather disappointed in their answers to my questions about what I foresaw as being important issues we were going to have to deal with in space. For example, I'd ask them about how we were going to protect the moon's environment from harmful contamination from mining equipment and how we would handle labor rights issues when we have part of the workforce in space. The answers I kept getting were very much along the lines of, “Oh, we'll worry about that later!” I knew that wasn't right, but, I also recognized that they probably were suffering from the same thing I was, which is that our background did not train us to think about these problems.
Most people in the space industry are either coming from a business background or from a STEM background – that is, science, technology, engineering, and math. Certainly, in the United States and in many places in the world, we're not really trained to think about ethical or human rights issues in our work. When I came back from my trip to California, I decided to consult some experts who are trained to think about these things and I ended up making a podcast that was really just an excuse to get people to talk to me. I talked to historians, especially colonial historians, sociologists, artists, lawyers and policymakers about all of the different ethical and human rights challenges that I could think of that we will face as we try to expand our civilization into space. I've since adapted the podcast into a book called “Off Earth,” and co-edited another book along similar lines, called “Reclaiming Space.” I've also started a nonprofit that advocates for a more ethical feature in space called the Just Space Alliance.
Everything about outer space law is centred on the idea of a common resource for human kind and equality of access. But reality suggests otherwise in terms of access. Drawing from your work on ethics and inclusion in spacefaring, what are some of the ways in which we can shift this reality?
I absolutely agree with your assessment there. One of the things I do in my work is to really pay attention to the narratives and rhetoric around space and human space exploration, especially in the space industry, of course, but also in the government and larger science context. Most discussions of space reference this ideal of space as something that should benefit all humankind. A lot of people love to say that. But the policies that are being put into place and the action of these space companies and agencies don't always reflect this ideal.
For example, one big example that I like to talk about a lot is, if we consider the low Earth orbit, where we put our satellites, a space resource, we can see how things like fleets of satellites, Internet providing satellites in particular, can provide a service to people who live in places on earth where they don't otherwise have access to broadband internet. That's great because the internet provides so much in terms of education and communication and jobs and such else. But if the satellite company is charging exorbitant amounts for the service, are we actually distributing that resource? Is it benefiting all of humankind?
We also have to ask questions about the risks of overusing these resources. If we fill up orbital space with debris or with satellites, it could make it impossible for future generations to take advantage of this resource. There are already these satellite mega constellations like Starlink, which are interfering with things like astronomical observations of the night sky. There are a lot of astronomers concerned about these issues. We need to center this ideal of space for everyone along with the more challenging work of environmental justice, which is the idea that we should ensure that both the benefits and the risks of using the costs of using a natural resource like space are equally distributed.
We really need to also interrogate the idea that space is a resource that's just sitting there waiting to be used by us, and ask whether it maybe has its own intrinsic value and should be protected from interference and overuse by us. These are all lessons we can learn from people doing similar work on the Earth environment. We must take advantage of this wealth of knowledge from Earth environmentalists and environmental justice workers so we don't end up just repeating all the same mistakes in space.
You are strongly committed to encouraging everyone working on space to learn from our past and present here on Earth to avoid repeating humanity's mistakes in space in the future. Can you share a glimpse at what those mistakes are, and what we should be learning from them?
The history of colonization on earth has included all sorts of terrible things, like violence, displacement, slavery, genocide, and a massive exploitation of the natural world. We’re still grappling with their effects today. Part of the problem, especially when people try to apply this colonial idea to space, this colonial mindset views expansion as humanity's destiny, and space resources as the rightful tools that belong to us to achieve that destiny. Staying with this mindset is just going to lead us to repeat the same kinds of exploitative behaviors and environmental damage that we've seen in history and today on Earth.
This includes exploiting the environment and people. I've heard people argue that there's no need to refer to activities in space as colonization because there are no indigenous people in space to hurt which erases indigenous people from the narrative and ignores the fact that there are so many aspects of colonization that were harmful – such as the impact on labor and martialized groups within the colonizing communities and the environment as well. Fortunately, there are a lot of other ways of viewing the world and the natural environment besides colonization. There are other models for how we can live sustainably with our environment instead of just this manifest destiny myth that that Americans, in particular, seem to cling to. I recommend that we look at other ways that human cultures have explored our planet and interacted with new environments both in the past and in non-western cultures today, and to think about how we might do things differently in space.
Tell us about your recent edited volume, Reclaiming Space. What are some of the key takeaways from the book that you can share as maybe guidance for the future of spacefaring?
Both of my books, “Off Earth” and “Reclaiming Space” were published this year - I didn't expect this. Reclaiming Space is a wonderful anthology that I had the opportunity to co-edit. Both books point out these public conversations that people have been having about humanity's future in space. These days, these conversations are dominated by a narrow set of ideologies and by certain types of people – typically Westerners who are usually richer, white, and male. The ones dominating these conversations and sometimes even welcoming people seem to think that they’re the only group that is thinking about space, but this is not true. All humans think about space, and we think about our future. There's so much discussion we can have beyond this narrow worldview.
The goal of “Reclaiming Space” was to help amplify this diverse range of voices and their perspectives on how we can think about space and our future there. We included contributions from artists, which was amazing for me – there are so many artists working on these ideas, alongside philosophers and anthropologists. There were a couple of science fiction authors too, because they’ve been thinking about space ethics since before humans went into space. All the contributors talked about a huge variety of topics, such as disability and space travel, the space environment, and how we look at the space environment in itself. There are also a few contributions from lawyers and inclusion in space in general. With about 20 chapters, though, I still don't feel like we included enough diverse backgrounds and perspectives – I especially wish we had a done a better job including indigenous perspectives.
One important message of the book as a whole is just that these perspectives on space are out there already. It is vital that we explore them by intentionally seeking out as many different voices as possible.
The colonization of space has become entrenched with the private sector coming on board - be it Musk or Bezos or so many more that are busy working their way into the beyond. How can we decolonize our approach to engaging with and using space?
There's a very important paper that I like to go back to often. It's called “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” and it's by two scholars, Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang. Everyone is talking about decolonization these days, which is great, but these authors have pointed out that “decolonization” is starting to be used as sort of a catch-all term for social justice movements in general, when in fact it very specifically addresses the injustices faced by indigenous people who continue to suffer under the effects of colonization today. As much as I believe that it is important to do the work of recognizing the presence and effects of this colonial mindset in our discussions of space exploration, it is vital that we recognize the ways in which the space industry is helping perpetuate these kinds of injustices on earth right now today. A big issue that I like to talk about concerns these space launch centers. For example, SpaceX has a launch center called Starbase in, Texas in the US.
There's been a lot of controversy around it over the past few years because the construction of it has displaced local residents who are often in similar situations. They're usually poor and/or indigenous. Putting launch centers in their community tends to cut off their access to public beaches, cause damage to their local environment, and cause risks and harms to their own homes. Starbase is not the only example – it is just the one that's been in the news lately. Physics dictates that it is useful to build launch sites closer to the equator and near an ocean, and far away from high population areas. The lands they tend to get built on and the harmful effects of these sites tends to fall more on rural, and often indigenous communities.
Whenever people start talking about decolonizing our approach to space, I argue that we need to start right here on Earth today because if we ignore the injustices that are caused by our very first steps into space in the name of improving humanity's glorious future or whatnot, then we're building that future on a very shaky foundation and our efforts to decolonize the rest of it are just going to be disingenuous.
This is, of course, true on the labor side as well. One thing I write a lot about is my concerns around how labor will be treated in space. These work sites and environments will be very dangerous, remote, and isolated, far away from any sort of regulators. Imagine working there – if you want to quit your job and go home to Earth, that's going to be very difficult. It will be difficult to protest or go on strike, too. I can see this making people very vulnerable to exploitation. But of course we need to be paying attention to see the kind of labor exploitation is happening in the space industry today. We need to ask if we're starting out with the right set of values and cultural norms. If we're not, then the rest of our plans, our legal systems, and the way we build our habitats will also be affected – this mindset in the here and now will not help the future.
For generations, outer space has been a source of knowledge, wisdom, and succour for indigenous communities world over. Their way of accessing space has had little to do with technology. Do you believe a spacefaring future that would allow both sides to coexist is possible? What might it take for us to get there?
Indigenous approaches to space also include technology – except it is not the kind that we immediately picture when we think of the word “technology.” That speaks to the very root of problems – we have a very narrow view of what space technology and the future looks like. I'm an optimist, so I believe that a spacefaring future that includes diversity of worldviews and cultural approaches is possible and desirable, compared to just having a monoculture, especially one that just emphasizes profit or expansion over justice and sustainability. Getting there will take work. Another thing I try to point out is that we can't just count on space making us better people. The way some of these space colonization advocates try to talk. I really believe that if we don't put in the work, thought, and effort we need in order to build a better future in space, we're just going to end up repeating all the mistakes we’ve seen unfold in history, which is effectively a waste of all that history.
That work includes incorporating more viewpoints and cultures into our planning for engagements with space, and that’s not just in the sense of inviting people to the table - a phrase that gets used a lot - but funding. We need to put money into the work that's being done by people who have been and are still being marginalized, excluded, and left out of these conversations. That goes even if we disagree with their views on what our future and space should be, because no one group or nation should get to speak for all of humanity. I've tried to criticize the lack of engagement in these ways amongst this vanguard of people who are trying to start a space industry.
This interview series was supported by The Maypole Fund.