the system

A Cosmologist’s Case for Staying Put on Earth

Photo: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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In October 2020, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein tuned in to a livestream from the Wisconsin Book Festival, where poet Nikki Giovanni was talking about growing okra on Mars. “I was like, ‘No, Nikki, no!’” Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist, told me, laughing. “‘We can’t grow okra on Mars! That will completely contaminate the environment!’” But the more she thought about it, the less Prescod-Weinstein saw an actual game plan for sustaining human life on the red planet than a sketching of ideals with Mars as Giovanni’s “canvas.” The okra proposition wasn’t really about growing a Black southern staple crop, she realized, but establishing a more harmonious relationship with our ecosystems that doesn’t rely on exploitation.

Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire, where her specialty is dark matter, the hypothetical substance that is believed to make up more than 80 percent of the universe. Humans can’t see dark matter and don’t know what it’s made of, but its existence is implied by how other things behave in its presence — the way galaxies rotate, how light from distant objects gets bent on its way to Earth. Her job includes a lot of theorizing and calculating, mostly with a pen and paper — the ideal workflow for a wispy 40-year-old who was, by her own admission, a devoted indoor kid. But she’s also on the women’s and gender studies faculty at UNH and writes polymathic books like 2021’s memoir-meets-science manifesto Disordered Cosmos. Planning space colonies is not her job, but it’s becoming clearer every day that it had better be her business.

In 2022, less than a month after SpaceX launched 52 new satellites into Earth’s orbit, Prescod-Weinstein published an essay in The Baffler called “Becoming Martian,” a withering assessment of capital-driven space conquest. Elon Musk, she writes, “claims that he is planning to take humanity to Mars” just as Earth is collapsing under the “centuries of white supremacist, capitalist colonialism” that made his fortune possible. Along with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, she argues, Musk has launched a rocket company that “claims to be rooted in humanitarian impulses” but looks more like “a power-hungry vanity project.” Theirs is a smash-and-grab approach to terrestrial life, in which a planet is only as useful as the resources they can extract from it. “The idea that we can abandon Earth and just move on and not meet the same fate somewhere else is silly,” she writes.

At the core of these proclamations was a simple question inspired by Giovanni’s framework: How do we live on better terms with our environment — whatever planet it happens to be on? Taking care of the Earth and expanding humanity’s reach into the cosmos may not be mutually exclusive, Prescod-Weinstein writes, but the process seems to be unfolding as if they were. This realization has started to haunt the triumphalism around recent launches. When Bezos’s company Blue Origin sent Star Trek actor William Shatner into orbit in October 2021, Shatner expected a transcendent experience, but he couldn’t keep his mind off of the human-driven destruction unfolding below. “My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration,” he wrote in Variety. “Instead, it felt like a funeral.”

Prescod-Weinstein is as critical of the practical drawbacks to these adventures as she is of the principled ones. “As a member of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory Dark Matter Working Group,” she writes, “I am keenly aware that [Musk’s] satellites have materially damaged our ability to observe the night sky.” She acknowledges that satellite internet can be a lifeline for rural communities — including the one where her mother and stepfather live. But when its costs preclude observing more of the universe we’re seeking to understand, something is off about the process. “We’re going to have to teach kids how to tell the difference between a comet and a satellite,” she says. The same can be said of space travel’s reliance on the global mining industry, with its brutal colonial underpinnings, and the fact that Indigenous tribes in Brazil and Indonesia are being displaced to make room for bigger spaceports. “This colonialism seems inescapable,” she writes.

If this outlook seems grim for someone with her head among the stars, she got it honestly. Prescod-Weinstein’s mother, activist Margaret Prescod, raised her daughter in East L.A. in the 1980s as “a campaign kid,” bringing her to many of the meetings and demonstrations she helped organize. Prescod-Weinstein’s father, Sam Weinstein, was a labor organizer and the son of activist Selma James and stepson to C.L.R. James — the Trinidadian Marxist who wrote The Black Jacobins, the best-known history of the Haitian Revolution. “All of us who grew up” in this milieu, says Prescod-Weinstein, “learned a certain mode of collaboration and community responsibility that was very politically rooted.” It could also get heavy.

When Prescod-Weinstein was 3 years old, her mother founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, which urged cops and policy-makers to confront the slayings of 11 Black women that had scarred South Los Angeles. It was one of several ways Prescod-Weinstein’s childhood lacked the trappings of that of the stereotypical future space professional, which tends to include lots of backyard stargazing. Off the 10 freeway at Eastern Avenue, where Prescod-Weinstein grew up, the mix of smog and light pollution cast a perpetual brown pall over the sky, making the stars almost impossible to see. She dislikes the outdoors — they “look great through my window,” she says — which is consistent with her sensory aversions: She can’t stand the feeling of chalk, save for a special brand she orders from Japan, and until recently could only bear to write on “glossy brochure paper using a fountain pen.” (She has since graduated to a favored brand of gel pen and heavy printer paper.)

This peculiar alchemy is how you get a lifelong Trekkie who never really wanted to leave Earth. “My relationship with Star Trek was that I wanted to travel to the Star Trek future,” Prescod-Weinstein says. “I didn’t want to go to space in our present.” Instead, she has always approached the cosmos as a “mathematical problem” — something to be worked out on paper, indoors, in community with other people. So she spends a lot of time thinking and writing about the nature of that community and what its behavior says about its values.

But beyond this inclination toward cleaning her own house, Prescod-Weinstein’s most compelling beef with today’s space-travel boosterism is logistical. She writes, “Part of the problem with being the kind of scientist I am is knowing how improbable” making a viable off-planet home would actually be. This is especially true if terraforming Mars doesn’t work out: “We still don’t understand our own atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine we’ll be building a new one any time soon.” The next-closest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, whose two known orbiting planets are 4.2 light-years away — a 114,080-year journey for someone traveling the fastest a human has ever traveled in space, which is roughly 25,000 mph.

“We are apparently stuck here,” Prescod-Weinstein concludes. But the great revelation behind our surging interest in space travel is that there’s a lot of imaginative and technological energy circulating that could do wonders if aimed homeward. Earth isn’t dead yet — it just needs a more concerted effort to make it livable long-term. Our billionaire overlords don’t seem up to the task, but that doesn’t mean space isn’t worth continuing to explore. “I do believe that there is a place for a space program of some kind,” Prescod-Weinstein told me, but “that means thinking holistically about the impact on our ecosystems and the people who are in those ecosystems. That’s a calculation that we’re not really doing right now. Things are moving quickly.”

A Cosmologist’s Case for Staying Put on Earth