Future Tense

We’re Already Colonizing Mars

It starts with Instagram posts and discarded parachutes, and the sense that a world is ours for the taking.

An illustration showing the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Sometime in April, the Ingenuity helicopter will take to the Martian air, making it, in NASA’s words, “the first attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.” Or, to put it in more mundane terms, Mars will have become another airport. Of course, many crafts have already landed on Mars—the most recent carrying the rover Perseverance, with the Ingenuity copter nested inside.

That landing spot was named by the NASA team “Octavia E. Butler Landing.” (Official site christenings throughout the solar system must be bestowed by the International Astronomical Union.) At first blush, this seems like a deserved homage to Butler as a visionary artist (for her contributions to the genre of speculative fiction) and as a pathbreaking figure (as the first sci-fi author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship). The name conjoins the daring mission of the Perseverance rover with the legacy of a luminous writer of intellectually daring novels. It also meaningfully honors a Black woman, on behalf of NASA.

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However, in the context of Butler’s work this appellation becomes deeply complicated. Few writers have been as acutely aware of the moral quandaries of human domination and planetary colonization (see Dawn), and of how colonies function as palimpsests of slavery and other cross-generational patterns of violence (consider Kindred). To call the landing site “Octavia E. Butler Landing” is somewhat paradoxical; it might as well have been named “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Evoking Butler only highlights the ongoing, fraught conversations around Mars and colonization. Elon Musk has been adamant about the need to get to Mars. The SpaceX webpage titled “Mars & Beyond” quotes Musk’s broad ambitions directly: “I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” This aspirational claim may sound innocent enough, but it assumes we have a right to be there in the first place—indeed, to colonize it, as evinced by an early name for his planned spaceship, the Mars Colonial Transporter. Musk argues that in order for humans to survive, it’s necessary for the species to become “spacefaring” and “multiplanetary.” But colonizing is no innocent practice: Humans have been reckoning with the fraught consequences of colonization on our planet for some time now.

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Musk is perhaps the most egregious example of the extraterrestrial colonizing mindset and is an easy target for criticism: another rich white boy who assumes he can conquer the universe, while turning away from systemic problems on Earth. As Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel bluntly stated in an article at Aeon: “At this point in human history, the colonisation of Mars is a distraction from the severe problems facing human societies.” And it’s notable that Musk does not shy away from his plans for Mars being described as colonization. Even when Musk isn’t saying the word directly, the concept lurks and cannot be disconnected from its brutal legacies.

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But even space exploration framed as science instead of colonization risks reproducing troubling patterns. Consider the official view of NASA: “Even if Mars is devoid of past or present life, however, there’s still much excitement on the horizon. We ourselves might become the ‘life on Mars’ should humans choose to travel there one day. Meanwhile, we still have a lot to learn about this amazing planet and its extreme environments.” Bowie allusion aside, NASA seems to consider Mars exploration to be both enticing and almost a matter of disinterest (“should humans choose to travel there”). Rover landings on Mars manage to straddle this curious divide, allowing exploration without human presence, while laying the groundwork for future journeys that may indeed involve human settlements. And in the meantime, science-driven exploration is not as neutral as it seems. Marina Koren described the Perseverance mission at the Atlantic as “reminiscent of an older way of doing science [where] naturalists and other explorers traveled, welcome or not, to faraway places to gather trunkfuls of specimens for closer study.” Even though there are no humans yet on Mars, a pattern of entitlement via science is being established.

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If science is the quest to understand nature, then it requires that Mars become naturalized. In other words, Mars has to become more Earth-like, in order to rationalize our study (and potential inhabitance of) the planet. In this way, the desert photographs beamed back from Perseverance are hardly simple recordings of what Mars looks like. Rather, they show a nonhuman nature that we already understand, in a way. As William Cronon explained nearly 30 years ago, such seemingly natural landscapes are always doing cultural work: “[W]e too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.” Concomitant with these assumptions are fantasies of hidden resource reserves, or perhaps even property that can be declared private, owned, and kept from others. When we imagine Mars as inhabitable, such fantasies are simmering in the unconscious of exploration. The desolate horizons and rocky terrains, cropped and crafted into artfully enhanced digital images, all but overdetermine the point: Mars is simply there for the taking, and it’s full of possibility. Yet if Mars is a hypostatized version of earthly nature, separate from humans, it is also something we’ve projected ourselves onto—and are already laying waste to.

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Colonialism can be cloaked as a natural impulse to explore. As science writer Ramin Skibba put it, even in an article critically interrogating such missions, “Humans love to explore. It’s in our blood.” This may sound like common sense, but it in fact rationalizes elaborate projects that are always also geopolitical choices. With each landing site, discarded parachute, cast off heat shields and other debris on the surface, with all the innumerable images shared on Instagram and seemingly indifferent recordings of the alien wind tweeted, with every drone flown (or lost) and each bit of dust gathered for later examination, humans are continuing the fraught practice of acting as if we can and should go wherever we want, take whatever we please, send back postcards … and leave behind our trash.

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Edward Abbey, writing in Desert Solitaire upon finding himself “in the middle ground and foreground of the picture” of Arches national monument in 1956, declared himself “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian.” From this vantage point, Abbey wrote in defense of the nature—if complicatedly so, still aware of his own interloping status. Abbey’s ruminations were always by default colonialist, based on and protected by governmental power previously exerted over the land. And at the expense of Indigenous populations.

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Today, we can see traces of Abbey in the Twitter voice and Instagram lens of the rover, nicknamed Percy. (Not to be confused with another Percy, who once warned of the hubris involved when such “lone and level sands stretch far away.”) Percy’s tweets and pics share seemingly neutral perspectives, as if the rover just happened to find itself in the Jezero Crater on Mars. These social media feeds are participating in the colonizing of Mars in a more subtle way than leaving behind detritus or inhabiting other peoples’ lands. Arguably mere communications and publicity efforts, Percy’s online persona nevertheless perpetuates the idea that rolling over it, studying it, snapping pics, collecting … it’s just what we do, without questioning why we’re doing it. “Following” Percy on Mars makes whatever comes next more palatable.

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As Mars becomes normalized as a destination for our technology and trash, and as we come to expect social media missives from the Red Planet, its status is shifting in our minds. The planet is not merely revealing itself to humans but being colonized: by our stuff and our accepted ways of seeing and communicating. These may seem like negligible imprints on a relatively barren planet. There’s no denying the technical brilliance, innovation, and determination that go into missions like Percy’s. But we also should acknowledge the philosophical underpinnings, the implications of which are all too often glossed over. This is how colonizing Mars begins. And even if it seems like no lives are at stake, no violence being committed there now, we should pause to seriously consider what we take with us, when we continue colonizing places.

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When I mentioned what I thought was the odd naming of the landing site to my colleague Scott Heath, who teaches a course on Octavia Butler, he reminded me of the moments in the novel Parable of the Sower that reference Mars explicitly. The main character, Lauren Olamina, admires a female astronaut who made it all the way to Mars only to die tragically there. Butler’s Olamina is an emergent prophet, a visionary herself who believes that “space exploration and colonization are among the few things left over from the last century that can help us more than they hurt us.” (So it’s not just Elon Musk who champions this vexed notion.)

In Butler’s novel, it’s 2024 and the world is a post-apocalyptic horrorscape, with environmental disasters rapidly intensifying and extremist groups committing terrible acts of violence with impunity. Olamina sees Mars as “heaven in a way … but too nearby, too close within reach of the people who’ve made such a hell of life here on Earth.” She wants to go way beyond Mars, beyond anything we’ve experienced on Earth. She will go on to found a new religion called Earthseed, which advocates a radically dynamic idea of existence: for beings not to dwell on the past or dominate the present, but to adapt toward a future to come. The story makes its indictment of so-called human progress clear: The 21st century of the novel is a terrifying dystopia hung up on old power structures—in many ways that readers are now calling prophetic.

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NASA’s space exploration today, while uncannily aligning with the timeline of Parable of the Sower, is decidedly not the vision of the would-be spacefaring Lauren Olamina. Indeed, as Rebecca Onion wrote here last fall, “You don’t have to believe in space colonization, I don’t think, to believe in the idea of Earthseed.”

Parable of the Sower is obviously just a novel—and Lauren Olamina is not Octavia Butler. But as long as NASA is channeling the author as honorary, we ought to take her work seriously. What narratives are we committing to, as we carry out the slow march of colonizing Mars? Is Butler’s 2024 version of Mars exploration, with a ravaged Earth left behind, the version that we hope to actually emulate?

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When Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas during the polar vortex that left millions without power and water, it quickly became a scandal: How could a publicly elected official so brazenly abandon his people in a time of need? In a bizarre coincidence, the social media capture of Cruz in the Houston airport occurred on the same day that Percy arrived on Mars. An ill-timed vacation to Mexico and a long-awaited landing on the Red Planet became entangled, as if to expose the truth of both. Cruz the insensitive colonialist tourist, a self-serving politician out of an Octavia Butler novel; Percy a scientific wonder as much as another inane internet delight, entertaining people as the world burns.

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One early Twitter post from Percy relayed a wind recording on Mars, with Bill Nye’s optimistic commentary, “It’s out of this world!” Nye’s enthusiasm is infectious, and his sentiment genuine. But when science gets conflated with spectacle and peddled for likes and follows on social media, we need to consider if we’re ushering in the next phase of colonization. When colonizing gets repackaged as the latest cool thing, something fun to take part in from afar—especially if you have enough privilege—we should be alert to the histories of violence that come with it. I thought of this again when the code “dare mighty things” was deciphered in the pattern of the now jettisoned parachute. Another social media flurry, one more piece of space garbage, and a further indication that what was happening is nothing less than the colonizing of the Red Planet—on a spot named after a Black writer who well understood the haunting, unresolved problems of colonialism back here on Earth.

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Octavia Butler may have been particularly adept at speculating about possible futures of space colonization, and some of her characters might even endorse such journeys, to achieve varying ends. But to harness these visions as destiny or justification would be to make a hubristic mistake right out of one of her fictions, too. Space colonization will bring the thorny problems of Earth colonization along for the ride—we probably just won’t see these problems, until it’s too late.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

For more on the Red Planet, listen to Mission: Interplanetary’s discussion of whether the first mission to Mars should have an all-women crew.

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