Diamonds on Black Velvet: Colonialism’s Legacy on Space Science and Space Exploration (Part 4)

“We’re in the space exploration business, and the outer solar system is a wild, wooly place. We haven’t explored it very well.” -Alan Stern

Origins of the US Rocket Program

With the end of World War II came the start of the Cold War, and through this new battle for political, technical, and military superiority, the beginning of the Space Race. The defeat of Germany gave the United States access to coveted German engineers and technology specialists, including those who worked on the V-2 rocket engine. Sixteen hundred of the top Nazi scientists, many of whom were tied to Nazi war crimes or were themselves Nazis, were recruited by the US during the then-secret Operation Paperclip. Among those individuals was Wernher von Braun, who led the US rocket program. As a classified operation, the truth was kept secret and the version fed to the public was that of beneficence. Space dreams of the 1950s and 60s served as a way to preserve the American way of life, and to expand its horizons. The political reality was also interested in preserving the way of American life, and it had no qualms about using any means necessary.

Wernher von Braun as the Director of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. (Image credit: NASA)

Wernher von Braun, heralded as a hero and a space visionary, would go on to join science popularizers in their push for sharing those visions, with documentaries in collaboration with Disney. No doubt von Braun believed in his dreams of space, just as scientists, academics, and science fiction writers of the time did. While history may never determine the depths to which he was involved with the Nazi party, nor fully understand his personal beliefs, we do know that it was “his technocratic amorality, his single-minded obsession with his technical dreams that is so disturbing”[1]. That his rockets while he was in Germany were built using concentration camp labor was of little consequence, so long as it advanced his interests. von Braun’s moral failing ought serve as a cautionary tale to all of us: we must be willing to have an awareness of and take political and moral responsibility for our actions.

Manifest Destiny in the Stars

With the flood of technology brought by the Cold War era, the science fiction of the time was beginning to make a transformation from space opera to hard science fiction. Here, as in Westerns, space was a frontier — the final frontier — where humans were often the technically superior race, and the future was by and large a white utopia. If they appeared at all, characters of color often served as a support. Their identities left unexplored, these characters were dispensable, used to ensure the success of the (white) protagonist. In situations where humans had learned tolerance, presumably through contact with alien species, racism was framed as an illness one could recover from given the right kind of environment.

More often than not, science fiction functioned to drive a white, western, patriarchal, technocratic narrative whose origins began with the colonization of North America: the “inevitable” march of progress towards civilization. Astrofuturists were devoted to “breaking the limits placed on humanity by the surface of this planet”, and astrofuturism forecasted “an escape from terrestrial history”[2].

The Free Market Approach to Space

The late 1970s saw the beginning of the end of the space dreams of the 50s. NASA funding began to fizzle out, as it was no longer tied to the same national security interests that had driven the previous generation. In 2019, NASA’s budget is just shy of half a percent of the total federal budget — at the height of its funding in the late 1960s, its budget averaged well over four percent. The shuttle program had a thirty year run, though never got us beyond our cosmic backyard, and the definitive fate of the International Space Station (ISS), too expensive for NASA to keep if it wants to consider missions to the Moon and Mars, is unknown. Public opinion fizzled out along with the funding, though a wave of academics, science popularizers, and science fiction visionaries across creative mediums have attempted to keep the astrofuturist spirit alive. In his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan writes,

Of course, exploration and settlement ought to be done equitably and transnationally, by representatives of the entire human species. Our past colonial history is not encouraging in these regards; but this time we are not motivated by gold or spices or slaves…as were the European explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Martian habitat featured in National Geographic’s television series “MARS” (Image: National Geographic)

It could be argued, however, that human expansionist development beyond low earth orbit will have the same imperial motivators, namely economic expansion and continued military dominance. The concept of asteroid mining is essentially resource extraction, in space. Commercial aerospace companies, the two most well known of which are the competitors Space X and Blue Origin, are interested in the privatization of space — the colonization of Mars for Space X and of the Moon for Blue Origin — to the benefit of their customers; and such companies are of great interest to the US military for their ability to put satellites into orbit. One NASA is considering for the ISS is opening it to tourists, and Virgin Galactic aims to provide space tourists suborbital flights.

Where free market reigns, we must push ourselves to ask: Where do the raw materials come from? What environmental, social, and political impacts do these ambition have? Perhaps the dreams of the 50s can be realized, but for whom?

Tomorrow, Part 5: Radical Dreaming as Resistance. (


[1] Neufeld, M. J. (2002). Wernher von Braun, the SS, and concentration camp labor: Questions of moral, political, and criminal responsibility. German Studies Review, 25(1), 57–78.

[2] Kilgore, D. (2003). Astrofuturism: Science, race, and visions of utopia in space. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Edit 6/29/2019: Added link to next article.




Recovering Astrophysicist. Disruptor & Storyteller.

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Isabel J. Rodriguez

Isabel J. Rodriguez

Recovering Astrophysicist. Disruptor & Storyteller.

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