The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Richard Branson and his critics both get wrong about equal access to space

The Milky Way rises above the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park in June 2018. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor of physics and a core faculty member in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire and the author of “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred.”

“Imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity have equal access to space.”

After traveling over 50 miles from Earth’s surface on Sunday, an adrenaline-fueled English billionaire Richard Branson issued a call to charitably diversify the chosen few who can travel beyond Earth’s immediate atmosphere. On social media, people predictably called for him to direct that charity toward Earth instead.

But philanthropy isn’t the solution to inequality, and we don’t actually face a choice between basic human needs and exciting journeys into the universe. We cannot create equal access to a dark night sky — even from the ground — until we radically revise how resources are distributed. For starters, billionaires such as Branson should pay more in taxes so we the people can decide what to invest in. And guaranteeing basic necessities for everyone is a starting point, not the end. Creating a just society on Earth is the best way to build a just future for space, one defined by more than the passing generosity of billionaires.

I think I have some insight into how thrilled Branson and his fellow passengers must have felt, even if perhaps I will never experience something so exhilarating.

I grew up in a working-class Black and Jewish family in Latinx East Los Angeles and went to school in South L.A. near what is now called the California Science Center. There, I saw Imax films that showed the beauty and promise of spaceflight. I came of age with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which helped probe many of the key questions in astronomy and astrophysics, all while sending back images that brought the beauty of space to those of us who are earthbound.

For years, nothing seemed more beautiful to me than looking at Earth from space. And while I haven’t made it past the atmosphere myself, as a professor of physics and astronomy who specializes in particle astrophysics, my life has been shaped immeasurably by low-earth orbit space travel and facilities.

From my point of view, the ability to see and study the sky isn’t a luxury, but a fundamental part of what liberation looks like. As a species, we evolved under the night sky. Every single community has studied the stars and developed cosmologies: origin stories that explain not just our universe, but also ourselves. In turn, the stars help us find our way here on the ground; heroes such as Harriet Tubman are believed to have used constellations to navigate their journeys to freedom. To look at the sky and wonder is a fundamentally human activity. It is part of who we are.

Yet today, we find ourselves trying to look at the universe through an increasingly polluted atmosphere and a low-earth orbit that is progressively filling with more and more poorly regulated satellite constellations and space junk. Many of us are also living in light-polluted urban areas, that are also redlined in a way that makes it especially difficult for the poorest among us — who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous-descended folks — to access a dark night sky. It shouldn’t be necessary to board a spaceship to experience the wonder of the cosmos. But it may seem that way in communities where even a clear view of the stars is out of reach.

No wonder so many people responded to Branson’s giddiness by suggesting he prioritize equal access to housing, medical care and education over equal access to space. It is absolutely true that a child cannot comfortably experience the awe of the universe if they are hungry, sick from drinking poisoned water, or traumatized by racist violence.

Ultimately, in the scenario where these needs are met, our work would not be finished. The opportunity to experience and indulge curiosity about space is one of those basic human needs. We must ensure that we always have space and time to be curious about spacetime. There is no reason to think we have to choose between food and basic human curiosity, either. The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2022 budget request is $752.9 billion. Meanwhile, NASA sent the Perseverance rover to Mars with less than 0.4 percent of that budget — spent over a decade.

When it comes to both feeding people and learning about space, we do not face an affordability crisis: We face a resource distribution crisis. Protecting the deeply human connection we all have to the wider universe should motivate us to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are taken care of. We can afford to do the caring work of sustaining people, including honoring everyone’s right to know and love the night sky.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: Some one-star Yelp reviews of space travel from the near future

Megan McArdle: The billionaires’ space race benefits the rest of us. Really.

Paul Byrne: NASA is planning to return to Venus. It’s about time.

Mitch Daniels: The U.S. put a man on the moon. But it might be harder to do the same on Mars.

Mary Robinette Kowal: If space is the future, that future needs to include everyone