My alarm rang me awake at 6:25 AM, and I drowsily yet eagerly tapped my way to YouTube, blinking my bleary eyes to see clearly. There was SpaceX’s livestream of its latest spectacle: the orbital flight test of its gargantuan new spacecraft and rocket, Starship, designed to take dozens of humans or heavy cargo to the moon, Mars, and the rest of the solar system. Millions had tuned in to watch it, excited by the uncertainty of what would happen. 

I dropped in with the launch countdown at … three minutes! My heart began racing knowing those 33 engines might actually ignite, with double the thrust of the Saturn V (the rocket that took NASA’s Apollo crews to the moon). The SpaceX employees at the Hawthorne, California, headquarters sounded rapturous. At 30 seconds on the clock, they were cheering or shrieking with unhinged glee. Liftoff! I’ve watched so many CGI renders of Starship launching, it was uncanny witnessing the real thing. As if the engineers found some loophole in the physics of reality to get this 390-foot tall spacecraft off the ground. But that surreal sense gave way when Starship began cartwheeling in the clouds. It wasn’t long before it disintegrated (a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”) with a puff of smoke, like a magician disappearing from the stage. “Welcome to the Starship era, humanity,” tweeted Eric Berger, author of Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, who was at the scene. “It began with a bang, as big things often do. The universe awaits.”

The one time we tried to establish a full-fledged sealed-off habitation it failed spectacularly.

That worries Mary-Jane Rubenstein, a professor of religion and science in society at Wesleyan University. She’s the author of the recent book Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. I spoke with her last week, ahead of Starship’s flight test, to understand what concerns her about the technical strides and aspirations of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. We talked about the company’s mission of enabling thousands of people to live on Mars, and the ethics of terraforming the planet to be more like Earth. We discussed the danger of how unregulated space remains for nations and corporations, which risks stoking strife and violence. Rubenstein also explained, among other things, the religious underpinnings of the United States’ space program, and how even modern science is still hostage to imperialistic Christian ideas.

“I started realizing that religion shows up in the natural sciences and the contemporary world in a funny and alarming way,” Rubenstein said. “Because sciences tend to think of themselves as something as far away as possible from religion, as having freed themselves from God. To an extent that’s true. But in the process, they tend to generate these big stories, big mythologies, about the origins and the ends of the world. And conjure characters who are heroes, gods, and monsters. I started tracking the way that the natural sciences themselves generate new ways of understanding the world that, a couple centuries ago, we would have called religion.” But that’s no criticism of religion. In fact, she thinks the leaders of the space race could benefit from considering “pantheistic mysticism.”

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SPACE FOR CAUTION: Mary-Jane Rubenstein, author of Astrotopia, believes we should be careful not to disrespectfully colonize space the way we did Earth. Photo courtesy of Mary-Jane Rubenstein.

What do you think of SpaceX’s mission “to enable a future where humanity is out exploring among the stars?”

Under many conditions, a future where humanity is out exploring among the stars is a perfectly admirable future to aim for. I am worried about the way in which SpaceX is getting there, the day-to-day operations. The more near-term goals tend to be obscured by these lofty humanitarian goals of saving humanity, or spreading consciousness to the stars. Because of the way that charismatic techno-prophets like Musk talk about them, they feel somehow possible and palpable. Not only has nobody ever lived on Mars, nobody has set foot on Mars. We’ve sent rovers, but it seems to be an absolutely awful planet in terms of human habitation. The one time we tried to establish a full-fledged sealed-off habitation—Biosphere 2—it failed spectacularly. And it was on Earth. And it had a connection to an external power source.

What’s most troubling to you about Elon Musk leading the charge to Mars? Your book Astrotopia likens the corporate space race to a “dangerous religion.”

The reason that the corporate space is dangerous—whether or not it’s a religion—is because it’s so unregulated. We have very weak international protocols regulating how nations can behave in outer space. We have nothing regulating how transnational corporations can operate in space. There’s nobody to hold them accountable. There’s nobody to hold their impulses in check. And in fact, if you get your internet through Elon Musk’s satellite constellation, Starlink, you have agreed in the fine print—which you probably didn’t read—to recognize Mars as a “free planet,” subject to no Earth-based regulation at all. So he’s already declared sovereignty for Mars, for a planet that he’s never been to, on behalf of, from a certain perspective, the Martians who make it there under the aegis of SpaceX. I worry that this is actually the exact opposite of what the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was aiming for, which is to say a multilateral, cooperative, commons-based approach to outer space, to minimize fighting, strife, and violence. This seems to be the unilateral opposite of that.

So the idea of going to Mars isn’t dangerous because it’s ultimately some false illusion.

Right. I’m sure human beings will live underground for a little while, shielded from radiation. Will they get cancer? Absolutely. It’s going to be really hard. Are some people’s faces going to explode? Yes. But considering the exceeding difficulty—the extent to which Mars wants to absolutely obliterate us—I don’t know that bleeding edge, corporate capital is the model to follow when human beings go about trying to make their lives work there. The model on which these new colonies might be started, historically speaking, sets a really bad precedent. It’s a bad model. The conditions under which it might happen are damaging to the Earth, perhaps beyond repair. What’s most troubling is that the vision can seem, for some people, more possible and palpable than, say, reversing or slowing the course of climate change on Earth. 

How is the corporate space race, as it’s being led by SpaceX, religious?

Certainly the salvation-of-humanity aspect. That would be the religious message there. But I’m not sure that all of humanity has asked Elon Musk to save them in this way. There might be more pressing concerns that a whole lot of us have than the fact that Earth will one day burn up in the expanding sun. 

Do you think that if SpaceX could bring humans to Mars, it would be as unifying as NASA’s moon landing?

It depends on the extent to which you feel included in that kind of humanity. In the late 1960s, the jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron published the spoken word piece called “Whitey on the Moon.” He’s like, “Look, I can’t afford my rent. A rat bit my sister in this horrible flea bag apartment that I’m having to live in where I can’t afford the rent. I can’t afford my taxes. There’s not enough money for groceries. And there’s a white guy bounding around the moon.” He did not feel included, or lifted up, by that white guy bounding around. He felt that that move contributed further to his exploitation by rerouting funds that could have been used to lift up the poor, to the moon instead, which wasn’t having any kind of concrete benefit at all. 

Are some people’s faces going to explode? Yes.

Similarly, when NASA leased land from the Navajo to test their rockets in the late ’60s, a Navajo poet said, “Could you deliver a message to the moon people, please?” And NASA executives were like, “Sure, we’ll deliver a message to the moon people.” And the message the Navajo folks wanted to send was, “Watch out for these white guys.” Because they’re going to destroy the moon people in the same way they destroy the Earth. So in that case, too, the Navajo speaker did not feel included in this walk on the moon. He was feeling like this was going to be an extension of the same thing that displaced his people. I don’t know how you would measure comparative benefits, but it’s not immediately clear that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon has done anything for poor and oppressed folks as a net good, if you can even speak that way.

Musk is interested in terraforming Mars once we’re there, making it Earth-like. Would that be good?

A great place to start is to think about how it might be possible, whom it would benefit, what it might destroy or unsettle, and who gets to make these decisions on behalf of the planet. There are a lot of different proposals out there for terraforming Mars. There’s a slower biogenesis possibility of sending a good deal of proto-biotic stuff that might end up seeding itself and, in thousands of years, become something like green stuff that might slowly change the planet to be more friendly to what we understand as life. There’s the possibility of slowly warming the planet, with the extreme being Elon Musk’s idea to drop nuclear warheads on Mars’ ice caps to set off greenhouse effects that would make it more habitable for human beings. Carl Sagan is famous for saying that, if there are even microbes on Mars, that Mars belongs to the Martians. It is Mars’ prerogative to develop as it’s trying to develop already, and that human beings don’t have any business interfering there. Other people disagree with him. Robert Zubrin, the President of the Mars Society, says that’s absolutely ridiculous: Of course, humans and human interests override those of microbes. But this would be an ethical conversation to have among the international space community.

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“EXCITEMENT GUARANTEED”: That’s what SpaceX promised in its official flight plan—and it didn’t disappoint. After Starship, attached to the Super Heavy booster, reached an apogee of around 24 miles, it cartwheeled and then experienced a spectacular “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Would terraforming Mars run the risk of destroying parts of the planet that are worth preserving?

Possibly. There are certainly people who say that human beings have absolutely no right to do anything to Mars. I don’t think I’m in that camp. But doing something like nuking Mars would amount to destroying an archaeological site from the outset, so that we would have no possibility of determining what the history of Mars, and maybe life on Mars, has been. We would cut ourselves off from understanding a key part of our solar system. We don’t have a fantastic track record in preserving the habitability of the planet that we’ve already got. Our track record has been to make it less biodiverse and less habitable. I’m not sure why we think that we would know how to take a totally uninhabitable planet and make it more habitable. So it seems to be in part a kind of fantasy. One would think we might first start attempting those techniques on Earth rather than exporting the techniques that have currently destroyed Earth onto Mars. But I certainly think it would help to talk to as many different stakeholders, and as many different kinds of scholars and religious practitioners and planetary scientists, as possible, before trying to come up with a plan for terraforming Mars. I certainly don’t think that it should be the prerogative of one CEO to determine how an entire planet is going to be affected.

How did space come to be known as “the last frontier”?

The language seems to be traceable back to Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist to whom the U.S. granted amnesty through Operation Paperclip after World War II. The Americans brought von Braun and some of his colleagues over to develop rockets, in exchange for not being prosecuted for war crimes. As the U.S. had expanded westward during the 19th century, the then-Governor of California called California “the final frontier.” Then, when Hawaii was annexed, it was said there was one more frontier: Hawaii. And then in 1953, von Braun started saying, “There’s actually a last frontier. And this time it’s an infinite frontier. This is outer space.” Von Braun extended this logic of manifest destiny—the idea that God wants Americans to take this land—into the universe, that it’s America’s destiny to conquer space, and to conquer it not just for the U.S., but actually also for Christ. Because von Braun became an evangelical Christian when he was undergoing deNazification on American soil. 

Was Nietzsche right to say that modern science is an inheritance of ancient Christianity?

Nietzsche is always right. Ha! No, he’s not always right. But yes, Nietzsche was right. He got really cranky at the extent to which Christianity had taken over absolutely everything. He was upset that it vanquished Greece and Rome, and these aesthetic marvels of culture. What he means by Christianity is a particularly other-worldly form of Christianity that says this Earth is a veil of tears, the material world is sinful. Bodies are sinful. Everything that we can see and touch is not real. What’s really real is in heaven. Nietzsche says that kind of thinking, an insistence on a singular truth outside the world, now has been taken up by modern science, which insists that it doesn’t create truth but discovers truth: The truth is singular, out there, disembodied. He says the priests of the modern world are actually scientists, dedicating themselves monastically to the singular pursuit of a truth outside the world.

You point out that the companies in the corporate space race often pay lip service to secular, scientific goals and aspirations, as well as that modern science has “taken up imperial Christianity’s world-denying, even world-destroying ideology, which is that it’s not an ideology, but just the truth.” And that includes ideas like supremacy of humanity, exploitation of Earth, and the inanimacy of the land. Can you explain how science today has taken that up?

The historian Lynn White Jr. traces the ecological crisis on Earth to Christianity’s victory over what it called paganism, which is to say, those indigenous traditions throughout the globe that have affirmed the animacy, or liveliness, of rocks, rivers, trees, and so on. White says Christianity makes two ecologically disastrous assertions, the first of which is that only humans are made in the image of God, and that therefore, humans have dominion over the whole world. And second, that the material world itself is not in fact alive. There are no spirits in trees. Rivers are not alive. Mountains are not sacred. These moves, he says, enabled the technological exploitation of the Earth because, after all, if a river is alive, you can’t just damn it without really asking permission. You can’t just cut down forests if the trees are persons. So you’d need to enter into a more careful relationship with the natural world. This initially Christian insistence that the land is not alive, and that human beings are the most important thing on the planet, has become just part of the assumptions of modern science. So when, for example, probes on Mars, say, reveal—or people on the moon say—there’s nothing here, it’s totally uninhabited, it seems like it’s just straightforwardly true. And yet, if you ask the Inuit, for example, whether the moon is uninhabited, they’d be like, “No, of course, it’s inhabited. Our relatives are there and we can go visit them in shamanic states.”

Are you suggesting that the perspective of modern science is in some deep sense false?

No. I’m saying it’s not universally true. It’s true from a particular perspective. And that perspective, which has become the perspective of modern science, was initially a perspective actually based in Genesis. So it makes sense that the Apollo 8 crew, for instance, read Genesis, because it’s based in Genesis. It’s based on this idea that human beings are the most important things around. It might actually be better for everybody to treat planetary bodies with care. I don’t think, for example, you need to affirm a particular mountain as sacred to avoid removing the mountaintop to extract resources. We could develop more peaceful practices in outer space if we were to listen to the perspectives of people who do think that the planetary bodies are themselves inhabited or sacred. Just better practices of visiting—the kind of thing akin to taking off your shoes when you go into the household of somebody who asks you to take off your shoes. 

I’m not sure that all of humanity has asked Elon Musk to save them in this way.

There’s a Buddhist space ecologist named Daniel Capper, who has worked with all these American Buddhists to propose that there be places on the moon, for example, that are absolutely off limits: This is too beautiful, this is too important. We need to maintain places that look as pristine as possible. Mine resources over there, do not mine over here. And you could imagine that being applied to Mars and at least some of the asteroids.

I want to come back to what you said about the astronauts reading Genesis. They really did that?

So few people know about it. It tends to surprise them when they find out that when the astronauts finally saw what was referred to as lunar sunrise, and the moment just seemed enormous, they engaged in a ritual. They didn’t just say, “Wow, look at that. That’s cool.” That ritual was this very solemn reading of Genesis. The whole first chapter, I think. They timed the mission to happen on Christmas Eve. The administrator of NASA told the astronauts, “Look, more people are going to be watching this broadcast than any other broadcast in human history. Say something appropriate.” They asked a bunch of friends and somebody suggested Genesis, and they thought this was good.

How’d they think that?

It’s helpful to think about the propaganda that they were responding to, the propaganda circulated right after the successful flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to reach orbit. When he comes back down, he is said to have said, “I was in the heavens, and there was no God.” It is not clear that he said it. But the leader of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, absolutely circulated this idea. That he hadn’t seen angels. That he hadn’t seen St. Peter. Khrushchev enumerated all of the things Gagarin had not seen when he was up there. All these propaganda posters were circulated with cosmonauts in outer space being like, “No God.” As we know, the impetus for John F. Kennedy’s insistence that we land on the moon before the ’60s were out, was that we were trying to beat the Soviets there, because whoever got to the moon first controls the moon, and whoever controlled the moon would control the ultimate military position. We’re in the context of the Cold War. So when the astronauts are reading Genesis, they’re basically speaking back to the Soviet idea that atheist communism had won. They’re saying, “No, communism has not won. What’s won is this watered down Christian-American patriotism.” 

Was it weird that they planted an American flag on the moon?

It was weird, right? Because in 1967, the United States, among almost every other nation, signed a treaty saying no planetary body or planetoid is subject to ownership by a nation. You can’t own the moon. You can’t own part of the moon. And yet they stuck a flag there. They were not claiming the moon. They can’t claim the moon, technically. But they were making a gesture to say, “We got here. First.” 

What was the point of having a little plaque on the lunar lander that said, “We came in peace for all mankind”?

They’re trying to issue this dual message that America did it first … for all mankind. The logic is that if America hadn’t done it first, the USSR would have done it first, and would have destroyed all humanity. So it’s a good thing that Americans are the first, to save all of humanity. The idea was floated at NASA, in a ritual committee, that maybe they could plant a United Nations flag, or some sort of Earth flag. Ultimately the House and Senate were like, “No, if we’re planting anything, it’s got to be an American flag.” A gesture that America did this on behalf of everybody else. 

It would have been interesting if they’d planted a U.N. flag. Because what the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 seems to have said in spirit is: “There’s more land out there, in outer space. Let’s not do this again. Let’s not do space the same way we did Earth. After all, we are still reeling from two world wars, Vietnam, and Korea. These disastrous terrestrial conflicts that have been the direct result of the way that we colonize Earth. Let’s do it differently. Let’s call space the space of all mankind.” Would you have escaped all the colonial resonances with the U.N. flag? No. Are you still based on the nation-state? Yes. Is it still colonial? Yes. But I think it would have at least been in the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty, to try actually to be acting on behalf of most of the people of the world.

If there are even microbes on Mars, Mars belongs to the Martians.

If you think about the combined reading of Genesis and the planting of the American flag, this looks a lot like what Europe did to colonize the so-called New World beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries. Which is to say, they usually read either a Biblical text, a text written by the Pope, or a text written about what the Pope thought and said, and planted a flag or a cross. So retelling a mythic story, and putting a vertical thing in the ground, have tended to be the way that Europe has claimed land for a long time. So in that sense, this is just a cosmic extension of the same kind of strategy that colonized Earth.

Why do you say that “maybe ancient pantheistic mysticism” is a remedy for the way the private space industry regards space today?

I use the term “pantheistic mysticism,” but it’s not my term. I’m taking it from Robert Zubrin, who’s accusing what he calls “wokeists” at NASA of being pantheistic mystics. Pantheism is the idea that God is the universe itself. And mysticism is a weird term that just means the unification of any individual within a system with the source of that system. So when a number of advisors to NASA suggest that, rather than deploying the same tactics that the descendants of Europeans used to colonize a good deal of the globe, with respect to outer space, NASA could try to get what they call “community input” instead, particularly from the indigenous people of the world. NASA could ask them exactly how they would suggest approaching the cosmos in a respectful way. 

For entertaining this idea, Zubrin accuses the NASA advisors of pantheistic mysticism, the idea that the planets might be sacred, or the rocks might have some kind of agency. I’m cheekily saying back, “Well, I don’t know, the opposite of pantheistic mysticism, which is to say scientific instrumentalism, has been really devastating for the Earth.” So I don’t know if that technological instrumentalism is a great system to export somewhere else. And if what you mean by “pantheistic mysticism” is a regard for the more-than-human world as important in its own right, maybe that would be a better basis to start from. Am I suggesting that everybody become pantheists? Absolutely not. But many of the religious and philosophical traditions of the world have these pantheistic leanings that recognize the importance of beings other than human beings. That might actually be a pretty promising place to start.

Musk has said that what drives him is a philosophy of curiosity. He wants humanity to grow in space for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reasons—to expand the scope and scale of consciousness, so we can ask better questions about reality and our purpose within it. What do you think of that?

I would share his value of science for the purpose of understanding, for asking better questions, for finding more answers. I mean, if we could get that Elon Musk to guide things, that would be absolutely delightful. But scientific priorities tend to take the backseat to everything else when it comes to funding in space. I think Musk is hopeful that putting economic priorities first, and by serving military priorities, we will eventually get to the place where we can do the kinds of science that we want to do. I don’t know that it’s right to ask the task of science to take a perpetual backseat to the pursuit of profit and military one-upmanship. So yeah—set that Musk free! Absolutely let him roam the cosmos and learn without trying to conquer it.

Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.

Lead image: Mano Kors / Shutterstock