NASA is enlisting the help of universities throughout the country as it moves to solve the problem of extraterrestrial living quarters. The agency announced it has chosen two Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) to take on developing automated habitats that would be able to sustain for extended periods of time without human interference. Each of the STRIs will have a particular focus: in the case of Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration researchers will tackle machine learning, maintenance and developing autonomous systems; the Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats institute is tasked with getting autonomous robots to recover from unforeseen disruptions as well as developing autonomous machine adaption.
The agency has been bombarded by demands from the Trump administration to put astronauts on the moon on an accelerated schedule and make getting a manned mission to Mars another top priority, all with a $500 billion cut to its 2020 budget.
The agency is optimistic about its prospects of achieving these goals; at least, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine appeared to see the slimmer budget as nothing to fret over, calling the budget request “strong” in a speech in early March. NASA is moving forward in response to the president’s mandates as if automated habitats could very well become a reality someday, coupled with Trump’s push for commercial space travel. On the one hand, advancements by NASA and their researchers are an exciting feat of human ability. But on the other, these advancements make the notion of leaving Earth behind to live on other planets, namely Mars, even more of a real possibility.
Flirting with the idea of leaving our current planet behind for an upgrade is romantic-sounding on its face, but systematically troubling. Assuming we could logistically figure out how to sustain life on another planet, beyond the legal battle that would likely ensue (let’s remember, the U.S. doesn’t have sole domain to do as it pleases in space),who gets to leave the climate-change-ravaged Earth behind? Even the language we use to talk about this possibility (“colonization”) betrays the systems of oppression at hand.This option would not likely be available for a very, very long time to anyone but extremely wealthy, powerful individuals, the very people who bear responsibility for the climate problems and growing class disparity that make us wish to start over on another planet in the first place.