Expanding our Solution Space: How can we build an Inclusive Future

by Deji Bryce Olukotun

In early 2016, a 14-year-old email scam resurfaced about an astronaut from Nigeria who was lost in space. The premise of the scam, which had been updated for Facebook, was that the astronaut had been left behind on a secret Soviet space station during the Cold War, and his family needed money to bring him back to Earth. The scam was popular enough to circulate on the site BoingBoing as yet another example of the silly stuff the internet coughs up.

But that same year, Nigeria announced that it would send a real-life astronaut into space by the year 2030. Speaking from the capital of Abuja, minister of science and technology Ogbonnaya Onu said Nigeria would join the growing league of spacefaring nations, which now includes India, China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and the 22 member states of the European Space Agency. The list seems to grow every day—Nigeria’s nearby neighbor in West Africa, Ghana, also announced a program in 2012 to expand into space. The idea of Africans walking on the Moon can sound absurd in light of the fact that many, if not most, images of Africa portray its wild animals and its poverty, and not its space-age technology. It’s partly why I named my first novel “Nigerians in Space”, and it’s also why the email scam above continues to circulate on the internet.

Inclusion can mean many things in space. Countries with space programs handle diversity in different ways, and some may attempt to include as many people from their societies as possible, such as women and religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities. For example, the Russian space program could continue the Soviet tradition of launching women cosmonauts in Soyuz rockets. Then there is inclusion on the planetary scale, which means giving people from all regions and nations of the world equitable access to outer space. An example of this might be the crews that operate on the International Space Station as it orbits about 400 kilometres above the Earth. Even that is an exclusive club—only 15 countries signed its foundational agreement, and astronauts from 18 countries have visited the station. Sixty-three percent of the astronauts were from the U.S., 20 percent from Russia, and about 4 percent from Japan.

There is ample evidence of the benefits of inclusion, such as improvements in innovation, creativity, and resilience. But for our purposes, inclusion means giving more people access to the benefits of space. Inclusion can expand the range of solutions available to the complex problems inherent in space activity, and also advance notions of fairness and equity. In other words, the more inclusive the spacefaring community, the more challenges we can solve. But it’s also the right thing to do.

The Silicon Valley space race

Questions of representation become more complicated when you realize that the future of space exploration will likely soon involve dozens of private companies, each with its own understanding of inclusion. Private companies run by businesspeople from Silicon Valley are beginning to upset the traditional dominance of space contracting that has been enjoyed by consortia such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s joint venture, the United Launch Alliance. While private industry has always played a role in the development of space programs, we’ve entered a new era in which space projects are led by billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. These initiatives are far from vanity projects, and mark the beginning of a concerted scramble for profit off-planet. Elon Musk is supporting SpaceX and Jeff Bezos has put his financial muscle behind Blue Origin. These companies are striving to lower the cost of launches by developing reusable rockets and experimenting with new sources of fuel, one of the most expensive aspects of launching cargo and satellites into space.

The problem is that Silicon Valley has a terrible track record of inclusion—only about 1 percent of the technology team at Facebook are black Americans, 3 percent Hispanic, and 17 percent women, according to Fortune. As these tech titans aim their rockets at the Moon, or Mars, or wherever they can make money, it’s plausible this new form of exploration will only exacerbate existing inequities. Even entrepreneurs seeking to expand access to space are catering to these divisions, like Richard Branson and his $250,000 tickets to orbit on Virgin Galactic. Moreover, as author Cory Doctorow has observed, technology—and certainly space technology—can exacerbate inequality, leading to instability and collapse. “As rich people get richer,” Doctorow writes, “their wealth translates into political influence, and their ideas—especially their terrible ideas—take on outsized importance.

It’s possible that the private space ventures led by Bezos, Musk, and Branson may bring excellent innovations, but they may also inculcate “terrible ideas” as well through their individual influence, with little accountability. Doctorow posits that “without a free, fair and open network with which to rally and marshal the forces of justice, the battle is lost before it’s even joined.” NASA shares as much license-free data as it can in the interest of science, except where such technology could be used for military purposes. But Blue Origin, SpaceX, or Virgin Galactic don’t necessarily share their innovations through a “free, fair and open network”—even when they receive government contracts. The shifting ground rules of commercialization may only accelerate these inequalities, as the U.S. Congress has subtly begun chipping away at the United Nations Space Treaty of 1967 and the U.N. Moon Agreement, which together forbid ownership of space resources. In 2015, U.S. lawmakers opened space for business and asteroid mining with the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The law aims to open up outer space to market forces. Congress is betting that the American space industry can beat the rest of the world to lucrative new markets in a scramble for space. And other countries are equally interested—Luxembourg is encouraging private space companies to register there to take advantage of the country’s new space commercialization law ensuring that “private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract in outer space.

Creating an inclusive Space Bureaucracy

The cost savings promised by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other new space ventures may lower the barriers to entry considerably, but international agencies still have a major role to play in space technology. One way to foster inclusion in space is to promote it inside country-level space programs. The first American astronauts were white and the program deliberately excluded women and African Americans as astronauts, but the country has made great strides in including more marginalized voices. Charles Bolden served as administrator of NASA throughout the Obama administration. Moreover, there have been many black astronauts, including Bolden himself, Mae Jemison, and Ronald McNair. Worldwide, there have been more than 60 women astronauts from 13 countries, with many more waiting in the wings. And yet this represents a minute percentage of the whole. Of the 560 astronauts trained to participate in a human spaceflight program around the world, almost 500 astronauts were men, and the majority of those astronauts were white.

It’s possible to promote inclusion by aggressively hiring, training, and promoting marginalized people to become not just astronauts, but bureaucrats, too. NASA does this through its Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity, which can field complaints of discrimination and offer solutions. As former administrator Charles Bolden outlined in NASA’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement.

Astronauts are important as symbols and public figures, but space agencies also need administrators from diverse backgrounds. They need to hire and promote more people like Bolden, who conducted the less glamorous work of managing a gigantic bureaucracy. That’s how programs can bake in inclusion from the outset to celebrate people who have been historically excluded.

Private space companies would benefit from incorporating this approach early on. Instead of taking their usual approach of starting a company, scaling it, and then taking a look at inclusion after a public outcry, they can begin now, and NASA’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement is an excellent starting point. NASA should even require that private space agencies that win NASA contracts—which now include companies like SpaceX—include a credible diversity plan. The plan should address inclusion at all positions of the company, including upper management.

Should emerging economies have space programs?

Improving inclusion within national space programs is just one part of the puzzle. Another essential aspect to a more inclusive future is the international exploration of space, and enabling more countries to join the party. That’s not easy. Space exploration is expensive and demands tremendous financial power. Developing countries face basic problems related to infrastructure, health, and poverty.

This is why Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon” continues to resonate today. In the piece, Scott-Heron contrasts the needs of poor people in America with the fact that the country spent billions of dollars to reach the Moon: “I can’t pay no doctor’s bills, but whitey’s on the moon.

Scott-Heron published his poem the year after Neil Armstrong touched down on the Sea of Tranquility. The U.S. was embroiled in Vietnam, and people were skeptical of the value of spending so much money on the space program. To overcome skeptics in the 1960s, NASA’s missions were supported by one of the most sophisticated publicity programs the world had ever seen.

In “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program”, authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek detail the complex apparatus NASA developed to promote the space program. This was not just propaganda. NASA employed a staff of 35, plus 35 contract employees in its Public Affairs office, who carefully reported the Apollo missions with an emphasis on facts.

Space programs in developing countries face equally harsh public backlash for spending money when there are critical needs to address. One reason is that these countries have a track record of corruption with major development projects such as railroads, dams, and bridges that involve large sums of money. Turner T. Isoun founded the Nigerian space program as the country’s minister of science and technology. In his 2013 memoir “Why Run before Learning to Walk?”, he explains the deep skepticism he faced when trying to establish the program under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. As he writes:

“Sometimes, in Nigeria, poverty is treated like a malaria infection, you can simply inject a drug and the disease goes away and you can simply inject cash and poverty will go away. Of course neither problem is really solved this simplistically. Rather, it is likely that the solutions to both problems may be found in science and technology and most likely in high technology combinations”

Isoun argues that Nigeria needs to “shift the scope” of its “solution space” in order to confront a wide variety of problems—an argument that NASA itself makes every day on its website in a section called “Benefits to You”. “The skeptics … often ask me,” Isoun goes on, “What is the return on Nigerian investment in space technology? I always tell them that the most significant return on our investment is the recovery of Nigeria’s, indeed Black Africa’s self-confidence in its capacity and capability in science and technology and innovation, and this cannot be measured in Nigerian naira, Kenya shillings, or U.S. dollars.

In specifically noting that “black Africans” have been excluded from space exploration, Isoun is making the point that there is a symbolic return on investment in space initiatives for Nigerians, beyond their economic impact. Investing in space technology can remove limitations, and free the imaginations of African scientists. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”, the Nobel laureate expressed his shock at meeting black airline pilots in Ethiopia: “How could a black man fly an airplane?” But he quickly added, “A moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mindset, thinking that Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat and chided myself for such thoughts.” Mandela’s story is instructive: ingrained stereotypes can prevent even the most enlightened thinker from believing that marginalized peoples can embrace space technology.

Taken out of context, it may read as if Turner Isoun is suggesting that Nigeria build its own space program from scratch. But that isn’t the case. He was arguing that Nigeria should do something even if it lags behind in other areas, because exposure to space technology, with proper training, could lead to local innovations that would benefit Nigerians. These thoughts are echoed by Harvard scholar Calestous Juma, who has stated that African countries don’t need to focus all their energies on conducting basic research, and can instead embrace existing technology to add a uniquely African flavor. In his view, this requires strong education and building out infrastructure to absorb knowledge and spur innovation. Turner Isoun agrees: “The critical lesson here is that Nigerians do not need to master obsolete science and technology before going straight to cutting edge science and technology.

Each country will have its own unique approach, and it’s not always clear what the inflection point is for when they should enter the space age. In India, for example, the program developed in parallel with the race to acquire nuclear weapons in its regional rivalry with Pakistan. The Korean Space Program enjoys a strong bilateral partnership with the United States. Egypt, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Malaysia have all announced plans to develop or expand their own space programs—and the list appears to be growing.

China’s space diplomacy

China has increasingly positioned itself to enable developing countries to benefit from outer space in a remarkable new form of space diplomacy. The country has signed numerous bilateral agreements with countries, includ­ing Nigeria, Venezuela, and Indonesia, to launch communications and observation satellites. These satellites are often designed and built by Chinese scientists, with significant knowledge sharing and training for people from the partner countries.

Satellites are arguably the quickest and most proven path for countries to reap benefits from space technology, as they can open up entire swaths of countries to the digital age. Nigeria, for example, partnered with China and the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom to free its economy from dependence on expensive commercial communications satellites that it did not control. China has also joined several multilateral organizations that promote knowledge sharing and the joint use of satellite constellations for science and disaster reduction. These agreements have happened as the country has expanded its own capabilities in space exploration, such as developing the first quantum satellite. Importantly, China is developing a space station that should launch in the next decade, and it may open it up to use by countries with which it has established partnerships.

One reason for China developing its own space station is its own national ambition—another is that China is excluded from using the International Space Station for fear that it will steal technology that could be used to improve its military. The U.S. was a driving force behind this prohibition.

China’s rapidly improving capabilities in space do not threaten the exclusion of the U.S., but they do complicate the dynamics of the playing field. NASA remains the world’s most powerful and best funded space agency and has numerous bilateral and multilateral agreements, including many that are driven purely in the interest of science and the peaceful exploration of space. Since the Nixon era, the U.S. has extended a welcoming hand to countries to jointly explore space. But any developing nation looking for help or financing for their space programs to launch satellites into space, or explore some other technology, would likely at least sit down with China. In closing a channel of diplomacy with China, the U.S. may have undermined the possibility of collaboration on such development projects.

But it’s worth being cautious about China’s intentions in space with developing countries as well. The country’s behavior in Africa on major development projects is not without controversy. For example, China has funded a number of state capitol buildings and has built large-scale infrastructure projects, including dams, highways, and railroads. Instead of creating local jobs, China tends to import its own construction firms and labor force, and there have been instances of workplace exploitation of African workers by Chinese management. Resentment at these policies has even resulted in violent protests and xenophobic backlashes against the Chinese in countries like Kenya. We don’t know if China’s collaborations in space may be equally extractive. Perhaps China’s space diplomacy and the lure of its new space station will encourage NASA, through competition, to expand its partnerships with other countries interested in space exploration. NASA may do well to copy China’s model through partnerships, training, providing grants, encouraging financial transparency, and explaining the benefits of the technology. Otherwise, they may find that countries decline an invitation to join the International Space Station and travel to China’s space station instead.

Imagining an inclusive future: the popular imagination

As suggested by the description of the intangible return on investment in space technology by the founder of Nigeria’s space program, there’s another essential aspect of fostering inclusion in space: influencing our vision of the future as expressed in the popular imagination. Space programs have been intertwined with entertainment since their outset. Wernher von Braun, the founder of the U.S. space program, wrote a science fiction novel about Mars, and Neil Armstrong read Jules Verne while promoting the Apollo missions, as authors Scott and Jurek have noted. Professor John E. Bowit has described how the Soviet program was inspired by painters such as Ivan Kliun, Aleksandr Labas, Ivan Kudriashev, and Kazimir Malevich.

The grand visions of traveling to the Moon—or beyond—were imagined not in a lab but by creative artists. In many cases, the scientists themselves consumed this entertainment to inspire their own work. That’s why it’s crucial for entertainment to include diverse voices, whether in literature, art, film, or whatever comes next. Science fiction entertainment doesn’t have to just mirror the status quo, and its more hopeful predictions of humanity’s future can help break existing barriers of racial discrimination.

However, even if actors from marginalized groups grab leading roles in movies, there is an enormous apparatus behind each entertainment product—the producers, directors, and agents—who are not representative of a diverse society. The bankable star Will Smith may land a multimillion-dollar contract for himself and his son in a science fiction epic like After Earth, but that doesn’t mean the people working behind the scenes are diverse. Entertainment needs administrators like Charles Bolden, too. That’s not to say that entertainment has denied the achievements of marginalized communities entirely. Recent scholarship has celebrated women pioneers of the space program, such as Nathalia Holt’s “Rise of the Rocket Girls“.

Existing movements such as Afrofuturism can offer eye-opening examples of how our creative culture can meaningfully contribute to a new vision of our space programs. Loosely marked by a passion for technology and innovation, as well as mysticism rooted in African American and African culture, Afrofuturism encompasses a wide variety of creative explorations across numerous fields—music, art, film, and literature—over nearly a half-century in black culture. Narratives often feature black protagonists, and the aesthetic can draw upon design elements sourced from the rich traditions of the diaspora. Afrofuturism democratizes storytelling by allowing people to share their own narratives in which they have an important role.

Today, numerous stories are being told that could be considered Afrofuturism, and in these stories, we can envision space programs in which Africans—or Indians, Native Americans, or anyone—participate fully and equally in our exploration of the cosmos.

We may be standing on the doorstep of a future in which all nations participate in the exploration of outer space and enjoy its wonder. Or we may see global inequality projected into Low Earth Orbit, and find the gap between the haves and have-nots widening as a battle for dominion over the sky rages between space powers, private space companies, and countries focused wholly on terrestrial matters.

Humanity’s future in space will be shaped by the decisions we make—we can start by creating a more inclusive vision of that shared adventure.


About the author

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of two novels, “Nigerians in Space” and “After the Flare”, and his fiction has appeared in four different book collections. He is a Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation and also works at the digital rights organization Access Now, where he drives campaigns on fighting internet shutdowns, cybersecurity, and online censorship. Before that, he fought for free expression and the defense of writers around the world at PEN American Center with support from the Ford Foundation. Olukotun graduated from Yale College, Stanford Law School, and the MA in creative writing at the University of Cape Town. His work has been featured in Electric Literature, Quartz, Vice, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, the Atlantic, and Guernica.

Further learning

Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun

After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun

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