Reconceptualizing Outer Space

Lea Rekow

How we conceptualize space helps to construct the meanings by which it is imbued, and in turn, implicates our understanding of it. Outer space both challenges and redefines traditional notions of sovereignty, and presents us with a radical example in which the theoretical and practical realities of globalization, corporatization, and the space commons, must be reconceived.

The “space race” and our quest for technological superiority that fueled the Cold War and the competition to land on the moon offer critical insight into the collective consciousness of a long-standing American mainstream narrative. At the time the white press was heralding the landing of Apollo 11 as proof of U.S. global superiority, the counter-narrative in the black press characterized the landing as “a giant step in the wrong direction…” This sentiment was reflected in Gil Scott Heron's 1970 lyrics to Whitey on the Moon.

A rat done bit my sister Nell (with Whitey on the moon).
Her face and arms began to swell (and Whitey's on the moon).
I can't pay no doctor bill (but Whitey's on the moon).
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still (while Whitey's on the moon).
The man jus' upped my rent las' night ('cause Whitey's on the moon).
No hot water, no toilets, no lights (but Whitey's on the moon).
I wonder why he's uppi' me ('cause Whitey's on the moon)?
I wuz already payin' 'im fifty a week (with Whitey on the moon).
Taxes takin' my whole damn check, Junkies makin' me a nervous wreck,The price of food is goin' up, An' as if all that shit wuzn't enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell (with Whitey on the moon).
Her face an' arm began to swell (but Whitey's on the moon).
Was all that money I made las' year (for Whitey on the moon)?
How come there ain't no money here? (Hmm! Whitey's on the moon.)
Y'know I jus' 'bout had my fill (of Whitey on the moon).
I think I'll sen' these doctor bills, Airmail special (to Whitey on the moon).

Whitey on the Moon, by Gil Scott Heron

These lyrics, inspired by the ‘69 moon landing, were a reaction to the use of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money being funneled toward NASA’s space program while the plight of black poverty in the United States was largely ignored. Rose Viega’s 1962 offer to volunteer as an astronaut (in a letter addressed to President Kennedy) outlined the racial injustices of growing up in America. Her letter is a poignant African American testament connecting space travel to the overwhelming issues of poverty and discrimination faced by people of color in the United States.

Over the course of the 1960s, the polarized racial divide in perceptions of NASA's space program grew. NASA’s discriminative policies played out as a microcosm of a larger domestic reality; excluding blacks from holding positions of seniority, housing and employment discrimination, and biased reportage by the mainstream media. The growing cultural critique of White mainstream psyche was articulated mostly through the Black publication Ebony, as well as being expressed in a wide range of music from groups like George Clinton's Parliament and Sun Ra. These critiques characterized the quest for outer space as a Western imagining of mythic proportions and a fantastical cosmology of White collective consciousness.[1]

Outer space continues to pose unique conceptual (and legal) challenges. There are several practical and theoretical areas of concern tied to governance in the cosmos. Though territory is technically disconnected from State sovereignty in deep space, the exploration of outer space itself links to the classical concept of sovereignty, [2] which is currently held hostage by militarization (Orr: 2004).[3]

Outer space is governed by individual status under customary international law.[4] Our accepted principles as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty—that space will be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” that astronauts are the “envoys of mankind,” and that “exploration and use of the moon…shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”[5]—may be seen as an ideology that moves to transcend nation-state sovereignty (Held: 2002).[6] However, it is in the context of this ambiguous language that these treaties continue to be exploited. Weaponization in space has been justified by claims that “peaceful purposes” do not constitute demilitarization, but the absence of war, while China's proposal to mine the moon for water asserts that it will “benefit humanity”.[7]

Our collective consciousness around the subject of space has evolved through images since Earthrise first became available for mass consumption. This seminal moment in the history of photography was shot by William Anders on Christmas Eve in 1968, from Apollo 8, on the command of Frank Borman. This crew was the first ever to see and document Earth from the perspective of orbiting the moon. The photograph became a universal symbol of human “progress” and American domination. Positioned in a frame that simultaneously embodies representation, reportage, document, manipulation, and fiction, Earth photography in all its various forms is now an unparalleled means for influencing our views, opinions, and perceptions of our planet on many scales. The social and political significance of iconic photographs such as Earthrise are early signifiers of contemporary cosmologies. We have now moved far past these first images that first centralized our concept of the “whole earth,” and are able to deconstruct phenomenon such as climate change and its causes through sophisticated imaging technologies that positions Earthrise as quaint.

Though Earth monitoring implies a more commons-based approach to environmental governance, the private sector dominates the space commons.[8] U.S. defense and intelligence agencies have become so dependent on commercial satellites for their communication and imaging needs, that they now subsidize the commercial Earth Observing (EO) industry. The military’s historic fixation around issues of surveillance and data, associated technologies, and global monitoring capabilities are highly problematic. Instead of public/ scientific utilization of EO satellites for continuing environmental planning and monitoring, our satellites are being enclosed for military, defense and intelligence purposes. The military’s dominating influence over the remote sensing market effectively locks out public access to specific spatiotemporal knowledge.

There are four major perceived threats from existing U.S. policies concerning outer space. 1. The U.S. is vulnerable (both internally and externally) from the consequences of more than sixty years of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, including its aging nuclear arsenals. 2. Communication and military devices in orbit have reached epic proportions and created an abundance of stratospheric space junk that present a real environmental threat. 3. Economic and technological systems have become more sophisticated and integrated, creating the possibility that a major technological communication failure might trigger a global catastrophe. 4. The funding required to secure and extend the militarization of space and all of its related limbs (such as nuclear stewardship and waste disposal) have been compromised.[9] U.S. military vulnerability has been created due to an overdependence on space assets that are integrated into military training, operations, and war (for example, China’s reliance on satellite telecommunications is only ten to twenty percent compared to over eighty percent for the U.S. military). The global proliferation of space communications and military technology also includes the emergence of Iran, Israel, the greater Middle East, South America, and in particular Brazil, as materializing space powers and regional rivals in the “global space race,” leaving the historical U.S. policy of deterrence and mitigation inadequate. Space deterrence now runs a complex gamut of power relations and elements, and must be strategically understood in relation to different international agendas and interests among states and powers that complicates the threat assessment landscape. Another U.S. vulnerability arises from its inability to look beyond the immediate funding, designing, and building, of space assets.[10]

Between the launch of Sputnik on 4 October 1957 and 1 January 2008, approximately 4600 launches have placed some 6000 satellites into orbit, of which about 400 are travelling beyond geostationary orbit or on interplanetary trajectories. Today, it is estimated that only 800 satellites are operational—roughly 45 percent of these are both in LEO and GEO. Space debris comprise the ever-increasing amount of inactive space hardware in orbit around the Earth as well as fragments of spacecraft that have broken up, exploded or otherwise become abandoned.

European Space Operations Center (ESOC). [11]

Obsolete rockets, non-operational satellites, and millions of chunks of orbital debris have now reached grave proportions. 38 million pieces of space junk ranging in size from a few millimeters to almost 50 meters in length have been documented. Approximately 17,000 pieces currently in orbit around the Earth are being tracked by the U.S. Airforce. The continual increase in the amount of space debris threatens communication satellites already in operation, as well as future space launches. The presupposition that space belongs to everyone, and not just the space superpowers, creates endless dilemmas of ownership, privilege, and responsibility. There are already a number of registered public and private initiatives for reusing space debris, but they always come up against the question of who owns the individual pieces of junk.

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space considers space “a global commons and part of the common heritage” of humankind.[12] They see its future as a resource not so much dependent on technology, as on the struggle to establish international institutions to mindfully manage it, and most of all, on our ability to prevent an arms race in space. There is great potential for space technology to monitor the Earth's vital signs. If we intend to respond effectively to the consequences of anthropogenic climate change—increased atmospheric CO2 buildup, the depletion of ozone in the stratosphere, acidic precipitation, and deforestation—gathering remote sensing data on our natural systems from space will become increasingly crucial. Currently, several dozen satellites contribute to the accumulation of knowledge about the Earth’s systems.[13] There is both the potential and the critical need to develop a combined earth/space monitoring system; an agency with the resources to acquire, monitor and report fundamental ecological information about the biosphere (Cohen: 1986).[14] A major frustration is that the deluge of data and information that is currently generated is selectively dispersed among governments and institutions, rather than being collectively pooled. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Environment Monitoring System is a greatly under-funded attempt to organize and assemble space data to monitor patterns of the Earth's changing habitability.

Our listening technologies is the field in which the amateur voice has been perhaps most able to insert itself into conversation. Amateur radio astronomy has a long history. Ross Bateman and William Smith received radio signals bounced off the moon as early as 1953. During the Apollo missions, amateur radio operators received communications transmissions from lunar orbit. In 1969, the U.S. Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) was founded as an educational non-profit that has since expanded into an international project, mostly relying on volunteer labor and donations to design, construct and launch (with the assistance of government and commercial space agencies) more than twenty amateur radio communications satellites into Earth orbit. Its predecessor was Project OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio), a U.S. based group that built and launched the first amateur radio satellites. These satellites, OSCAR 1 and OSCAR 2, were launched in 1961/62, following the USSR's first Sputnik by little more than four years. They were literally built in enthusiasts’ garages and basements using simple beacon transmitters. The term OSCAR is still used to identify most amateur radio satellites. AMSAT has now expanded its collaborations with government and commercial space agencies to further the field of satellite communications technology. Yet whatever our advances in listening technologies, the ultimate irony is that sound cannot be heard in outer space. There, in its hard vacuum of low-density particles, nobody can hear you scream.

Our collective dominant and resistive narratives are cultivated through exposure to the socio-cultural icons to which we are exposed. In other words, our concept of outer space is constructed through a psychological inner space that produces, and is produced by, deeply embedded social ways of seeing.[15] Ultimately, as we look through a lens of science, defense, or culture, whether it be from the perspective of national pride, threat, or abuse, radical theorizing about the occupation of space in all its various forms can help us better comprehend and confront the challenging landscape of our post 9/11 psyche.


1] See Outer Space and Inner Cities: African American Responses to NASA, in Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs, by Lynn Spigel, pp. 141-170.

2] The classical, modern concept of nation-state or Westphalian sovereignty is based on two things: territoriality, and the absence of external intervention in domestic state structures. Our contemporary reconfiguration of sovereignty, as steered by globalization, transterritorial issues, and theories such as cosmopolitanism, already confront traditional concepts and legalities of State dominion. For more on the subject of outer space sovereignty, refer to Unbundling sovereignty, territory and the state in outer space: two approaches, by Dr. Jill Stuart, in Securing outer space: international relations theory and the politics of space, Natalie Bormann and Michael Sheehan (Eds.), Routledge, Oxford, UK, 2009. pp. 8-23.

3] The psychological life of U.S. citizens as “military asset” is a complex, fractured story that can be traced into the 21st century through the scattered historical archives of the psyche of the United States, and its business of war.  According to Jackie Orr, if “the militarization of outer space is an essential component of Full Spectrum Dominance, and if the so-called ‘war against terrorism’ must be situated within broader U.S. ambitions for global empire, it is perhaps useful…to wonder just how wide and deep is a ‘full spectrum’ of dominance?” This militarization of space is also an interior space connected to the American psyche, which Orr regards as “a strategic set of psychological operations aimed at the militarization of civil society.”
Jackie Orr, from the Department of Sociology at Syracuse University, The Militarization of Inner Space, Critical Sociology, March 2004, volume 2, issue 30, pg. 451-481.

4] Under the non-binding guidelines of customary law, no State may assert sovereignty over any part of outer space; all States have the freedom to use outer space for peaceful purposes; and States on whose registry a space object is launched shall retain jurisdiction and control over the space object and over any persons on board the space object. Introduction to International Law, by Robert Beckman and Dagmar Butte (date unknown). Available at:

5] The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies). Available at:

6] David Held, Cosmopolitanism & Globalization, Logos, summer 2002, vol. 1., issue 3, pp. 1-17.

7] Quote by Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s Moon exploration program, to the Beijing Morning Post. As reported in the BBC world news article, China sets date for the Moon, 20 May, 2002.  Available at:

8] The U.S. Land Remote Sensing Policy Act (1992) provided the opportunity to develop commercial undertakings in satellite Earth Observing systems (EO), operating within the global market system on the basis of competition, privatization, and proprietary technology, concepts closely aligned with the traditional concept of sovereignty.  A number of countries now operate high-resolution satellite imaging platforms. The UN registry of objects in space lists 20 states with a capacity for remote sensing and Earth monitoring capabilities.  In addition to the U.S., Canada, Russia, Japan, China, the European Commission (through the European Space Agency), France, UK, India, Israel and Brazil, countries such as Algeria and Nigeria now have satellite monitoring equipment (to aid a disaster monitoring network for Africa).

9] For more on this, see Collective Security in Space—European Perspectives, by John M. Logsdon, James Clay Moltz, Emma S. Hinds (Eds.), Space Policy Institute, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, January, 2007.

10] From the U.S. perspective, see the agenda from The Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies fourth annual National Space Forum, September, 2009, held in Washington, DC.

11] Available at:

12] Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 - Development and International Co-operation: Environment, 4 August 1987. Available at:

13] Archived satellite data provided historical records of seasonal ozone fluctuation after the discovery of the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer in 1986. The severe drought throughout Africa’s Sahel belt in the 1980s also employed historical satallite data for comparison over time. Satellite maps of rainfall patterns and biomass have served to aid in understanding changing “natural” phenomena, and have aided in targeting relief efforts.

14] Maxwell Cohen presented this concept at the University of Ottawa, World Commission on Environment ands Development (WCED) Public Hearing in Ottawa on 26-27 May 1986. As well, an interdisciplinary group of international scientists have lobbied a proposal for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) to be coordinated through The International Council for Science (ICSU) since 1987.
15] Laura McEnaney postulates that “the ‘ambient militarism’ of Cold War U.S. culture translated the very meaning of national security into a ‘perception, a state of mind…in which the civilian psyche became a…pervasive variable in military planning.

Laura McEnaney, Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. pp. 39, p. 12-15. McEnaney references Daniel Yergin’s Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War, by Penguin books, 1990.  On p. 14, Yergin quotes national security as a “…state of mind.”