Stephen Hawking's argument that humans have to colonise space or be doomed to extinction provided a bit of filler for the papers today. He is right of course. The Earth could get blasted by an asteroid, comet or gamma ray burst any second and it will be lights out for everything but a few inconsequential microbes scrubbing an existence out of the sea bed. I don't know about you, but I for one would like to see our species carry on and not perish in some horrific global catastrophe. So building a rocket, travelling to another planet and colonising it seems a neat (if technologically challenging) way of ensuring humanity's long-term survival. But present day space programmes not only fall well short of science fiction's promise, they, like any other technology, offer repressive and progressive potentials.
The argument is often made - as it was during the Apollo Moon landings - that it's criminal to sink resources in technologically sophisticated circuses while so many are for want of bread. That's an argument that can't really be contested: there is something morally abhorrent about packing people off to space when society cannot meet the basic needs of those at the bottom of the pile. But then, this could imply that if capitalism dumped its space programme it would suddenly convert itself into an altruistic social system. For instance, since that nice Mr Obama dumped Bush Jr's ambitious Moon and Mars landing programme we have not seen the US evolve toward a gentle, Scandinavian-style social democracy. Under the new management American capitalism remains as rapacious as it ever was.
As far as socialists are concerned, it's infinitely desirable monies be directed toward stuff like space probes and rockets than lining the pockets of the rich in tax cuts or, worse, feeding military budgets. Like any other form of state-directed economic activity, space programmes have their multiplier effects. They provide skilled jobs and drive high-tech innovation. Of course, you could say military projects do the same thing. But then again, space technologies provide the sort of use values that could be genuinely useful later on. Whatever spin you like to put on it, military is only good for war, and we know what that's good for. But we shouldn't forget there is overlap between the two sectors. Our friends the Neocons would love to see the planet ringed with orbiting missile platforms to maintain American supremacy and, since becoming a viable option, no US administration has ruled out weaponising space. So while its okay to cheerlead NASA's efforts in mapping Mercury and pinpointing ice deposits on the Moon, such dazzling technological achievements should never blind us to the militaristic uses space programmes can be put.
Then there is space exploration as ideology. Generally, non-dystopian science fiction hasn't moved on from Jules Verne's day. This is best exemplified by Star Trek. Set in a socialist society that dare not speak its name, we are presented with a technotopian realisation of progress and Enlightenment values. Kirk, Picard, Cisko, Janeway and Archer used a combination of wits, diplomacy and gadgetry to overcome problems, resorting only to force in the final instance. The idea of hope through technology is rammed home in the cringeworthy opening credits to Star Trek: Enterprise. NASA doesn't mind this romanticisation, and the US networks and Hollywood are only too happy to oblige. Whether exploring the solar system, destroying threatening space rocks or whatever, space ideology promises a better tomorrow today.
What is interesting is how space demarcates the (very blurred) political boundaries between the Republicans and Democrats. It was a Democrat who committed the US to the Moon, and a Republican who cancelled the programme. Since the 80s the positions have reversed. Reagan and Dubya were mad keen about all things space related. Clinton and Obama much less so. One doesn't want to read too much into what the former represented, but there is something about the final frontier that appeals to bootstraps/self-reliance conservatism that doesn't connect with the managerial liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Absurdly the party of intelligent design and climate change denialism is also the party of space colonies and interplanetary flight.
Returning to Stephen Hawking's interview, the chance of a meteor smacking into the Earth and causing mass casualties is ridiculously low. But the ecological damage capitalism is wreaking unfortunately isn't. Climate change may not spell the end of our species, but in what sense can we speak of human civilisation if capitalism condemns billions to a brute existence of starvation, water shortages and turf wars over scarce resources? As far as I'm concerned, the starting point for securing our future involves moving beyond this antiquated and irrationally destructive system, and unless we get rid of capitalism we run the risk of taking the same old crap to the stars.