Rethinking the Narrative of Mars Colonisation

Rethinking the Narrative of Mars ColonisationBiologist Dr D. N. Lee has been doing an amazing job educating on how enthusiastic narratives of “colonising” Mars are problematic. On her Twitter, Lee notes that the dominant ways of talking about colonisation add to the marginalisation of under-represented minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). If we want to make science more inclusive, we need to better understand how the stories we tell about STEM may exclude and damage under-represented groups we are trying to support.

Not Just Semantics

Lee notes that talking about Mars in terms of colonisation is not simply an issue of semantics – for example using “settlement” instead of colonising. Rather, media narratives unquestioningly champion rich White men’s ideas about what Mars travel should mean: “we don’t have to be stuck on Earth!” The narrative is being framed around “saving” humanity. (See a Storify of Lee’s discussion for further context.)

Lee asks: saving from what, whom, and why? And in this re-imagining of humanity’s salvation, who is left behind? Who does the dangerous, under-paid work of building new colonised spaces? In short, what have we learned from history about colonisation? It is rooted in exploitation and inequality. On Twitter, Lee writes:

“When I hear scientists discuss “for the good of humanity” I check who is talking and if they listen to “others.” History AND Contemporary events have demonstrated how often people will exploit and harm ‘others’ when diverse ppl cant inform policy… If Mars will be better place (where the wealthy are clamoring to) & earth is the place to be “stuck”, then WHO is stuck & w/ what resources… In human history there’s a profound diff in exploration, recon, even trading with other peoples vs Imperialism, conquering & colonization…Thing is, when Some of us hear Colonization, Enterprise Expansion, New wealth acquisition, we have a VERY different Movie trailer playing”

Lee is clear that space exploration is not the problem; she is questioning the context of talking about Mars as a place to colonise, as a way to escape problems on Earth, which have arisen as a result of colonial practices in the first place.

White Male Privilege in STEM Narratives

Mars colonisation
Mission to Mars. You to got to be rich to see it. Via D. N. Lee

Lee demonstrates that White male entrepreneurs encourage the public to give up on our responsibilities on Earth, both environmentally and socially. They do so in ways that mirror the colonisation of Indigenous cultures.

Lee shows that this Mars narrative is exclusionary. The reaction to her discussion amplifies this exclusion.

White male space enthusiasts have been arguing back at Lee on Twitter, saying that Mars represents an opportunity to start over; to get social justice right. They tell her that if she continues to be “negative,” she will miss out on the opportunity to engage with the future of space science, because the public will turn off her. One White man even said to Lee the equivalent of: We need women like you on Mars to procreate! (As if women’s special place in this brave new world is solely to reproduce, rather than her scientific practice and the leadership she is demonstrating.)

Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam was one of the men who dismissed Lee’s conversation as “silly.” Hickam is someone Lee says she looked up to (Hickam’s life story inspired the movie October Sky starring Jake Gyllenhaal). She tried to engage him in a discussion about why the points of view of people of colour (POC) matter. She discussed colonialism and White male privilege. For example, his views as a White man dominate STEM, but her views as woman of colour are dismissed.

Hickam responded that he is proud that his ancestors had social privilege because that means they were successful and earned their place in colonised spaces. He applauds manifest destiny more than once. He evoked a Native American ancestor to justify his racist comments (whilst celebrating the tenacity of his White ancestors to colonise). Hickam derided Lee’s concerns as a fellow scientist because she is a woman of colour. He then blocked her, effectively shutting down the conversation about inclusion. As a senior figure in STEM with greater social power, Hickam proves Lee’s argument, that only White men’s views are allowed respect in STEM.

Lee notes that if we can’t get the conversation about diversity and inclusion right, here and now – then how can we ever hope to restart afresh elsewhere?

Why Understanding Colonialism Matters in STEM

Exploration can happen in many ways, and these do not necessarily have to involve exploitation, enslavement, dispossession, rape, genocide, removal of children from their communities, being forced into missionary settlements, forced to convert religion and violently made to assimilate. Colonialism only happens through violence – including all the methods mentioned, which have happened to Indigenous groups around the world. This colonial violence continues in the present day.

Indigenous Australians were the first to migrate out of Africa 75,000 years ago. Their population was decimated when Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788. The colonisers declared Australia “terra nullius” (uninhabited land). Indigenous Australians, like all other Indigenous groups, have suffered violence and inequalities ever since. In fact, right now, the Australian Government is forcing 150 Indigenous communities off their ancestral lands in Western Australia. This will make 12,000 Aboriginal people refugees in their own country.

Why is this happening? Because the Government says living in these lands is not economically viable and wanting to live there is a “lifestyle choice” the Government does not support. More to the point, these communities are set up on land that is rich in natural resources. Other parts of Western Australia are just as remote, yet business and Government made them viable so mining towns could be set up.

So the point Lee makes about colonial narratives is valid and pressing: rich White men make decisions that adversely affect minorities. They talk about these decisions in ways that replicate historical violence, and in so doing, they compound inequalities happening on Earth. Lee is saying: why would Mars be any different if Indigenous and POC perspectives are being forced out of discussions and policy making?

Imagine you are a young Indigenous child intrigued about space. Indigenous groups, including in Australia, already have many sacred stories about the stars that have influenced science. Indigenous Australians may be “the world’s oldest astronomers.” What a great way to connect Indigenous youth with STEM careers! But now imagine they see these media stories, where White men conceive of space travel in colonial terms, while at the same time they are living through their communities being pushed off their lands. They also see only a few brave people of colour, like Lee, standing up to big-name White men in STEM, while these leaders and other so-called “allies” are calling this Black scientist “silly.”

We have so few Indigenous groups in STEM as it is; the numbers in astronomy can be counted in one hand when we look at gender breakdowns in different locations.* So why would these minorities want to join a STEM profession if White scientists want to assert their right to ignore historical violence? STEM pushes out minorities in many ways; this is just one example.

Language is not benign. Language matters for diversity and inclusion, as do the ideas informing our choice of words, and the stories we choose to weave, and those we ignore.

Making STEM Inclusive

Lee’s Storify only covers the first day of comments; Lee fended off racist push-back for a couple of days. I encourage you to go to Lee’s Twitter feed to read how she further connects her argument to discussions about diversity in STEM.

Lee’s key point is on the importance of framing STEM stories in a more inclusive manner. It’s not just words; it’s the thinking behind these words that also influences how we teach and learn science; it’s how existing policies are maintained; it’s how some voices continue to shout down Others.

For a complementary perspective, see science artist Glendon Mellow’s tweets, where he uses an art metaphor. The culture, training and perspective of the first artists and architects sent to Mars will shape how the new world is designed. If that view is White, male and framed around colonialism, that will be reflected in the infrastructure.

The conversation we need to have: how can we learn from Lee’s arguments to make science more inclusive? How might we use this perspective in our teaching and advocacy? How can we use post-colonial theory (study of how history of colonial oppression shapes modern-day inequalities) to support diversity and inclusion?

Learn More

On inclusion of Indigenous groups in STEM:

Read my other posts on Indigenous Australians:

About the ongoing impact of colonialism in Australia:

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The most recent Australian Census of 2011 finds that 548,400 people identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin, representing 2.5% of our national population. This was an increase of 21% since the previous Census in 2006. New South Wales has the highest number of Indigenous Australians (32%), while the Northern Terriory has the highest rate of Indigenous people as a proportion of the population of any state (27%). Victoria has the smallest proportion (1%). This photo from the Share the Spirit event celebrating Survival Day. #survivalday #Indigenous #IndigenousAustralians #Australia #indigenous #melbourne #sociology #health #visualsociology #sociologyofmelbourne #australianbureauofstatistics #absstatistics #victoria #Melbourne #igersmelbourne #survivalday #australiaday

A post shared by Dr Zuleyka Zevallos (@othersociology) on

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In 2013, Michael Mansell, lawyer and activist from the Palawa, Trawlwoolway and Pinterrairer people, noted that "Australia is the only country that relies on the arrival of Europeans on its shores as being so significant it should herald the official national day." Earlier this week, Former Australian of the year Dr Tom Calma, Aboriginal elder of the Kungarakan tribal group and a member of the Iwaidja tribal group, argued that Australia Day/Survival Day is an opportunity to learn about Indigenous history, something that is not formally acknowledged as part of our national celebrations. Pictured here is raper PHILLY, WembaWemba man based in Melbourne, and winner of last year's Unearthed, who was amazing onstage at the Share the Spirit festival. He had many skilled MCs join him as guests. Hosted by @songlines_music #survivalday #australiaday #IndigenousAustralians #Indigenous #Melbourne #victoria #Australia #history #sociology #visualsociology #socialscience #sociologyofmelbourne #music #philly #igersmelbourne #WembaWemba #philly #michaelmansell #tomcalma #Palawa# Trawlwoolway #Pinterrairer #Kungarakan #Iwaidja #rap #hiphop #sharethespirit #songlines

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  • Top image: Original by NASA, via Wikimedia. Adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos.
  • Centre image: [White woman showing a story that reads “Mission to Mars.” She says: “Yay! Mars. Let’s go!” Group gathered around her frowns. Man of colour thinks “This is some bull.” Another woman of colour thinks “I don’t see it. Do you see it? You got to be rich to see it.”] Source: via Lee.

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12 thoughts on “Rethinking the Narrative of Mars Colonisation

  1. Didn’t quite get why you blocked me on G+, Zuleyka Zevallos, I guess it was a collective punishment that included me together with more noxious commenters for failure of catering to the subtlety of criticizing the Mars colonisation narrative not for its purpose but for its lack of inclusiveness – kind of validates my initial question on whether I’d be inconvenient as a white male thinking that the Mars colonisation narrative is BS but without particularly relating it to issues of privilege. A pity though, I was slowly warming up to your POV, although, to be sure, not – or not yet – to the point of agreeing to the presumption that better inclusiveness would repair its faults; more like in the direction of having privilege explain how it could be that popular despite its absurdities. Whatever, adieu!


    1. You were blocked because I was explicit on my post that the conversation I was leading was specifically about addressing the racism of colonial narratives. Your first comment was that you wanted to talk about something else. I repeated that I was only interested in discussing the topic I had clearly set out. Instead of respecting this, and even though I had to repeat my aims to others trying to derail the discussion, you persisted to go off on a tangent. There are many places where you can talk about the ill conceived aspects of Mars travel without taking seriously the perspective of people of colour. You don’t get to do this on a thread about racism in STEM discussing the anti-racism efforts of a woman scientist of colour written by another woman scientist of colour. Ignoring race in a discussion of racism is derailment. My threads are focused for a reason: people of colour are ignored by mainstream STEM. For that reason, a White man wanting to talk about issues other than race only perpetuates this pattern. Having ignored my repeated direction it’s clear that the inclusion of minorities doesn’t interest you hence you are blocked. I won’t debate this further. Best of luck to you.


      1. I don’t agree with your narrative. I first came to your discussion because (and I mean cause, not reason) – because of your choice of using criticism of the Mars narrative as eg click-bait for discussing (nothing but) privilege, and I feel you very much invert who gets credit and who debit for that initial circumstance. I first did nothing more that ask just the question necessitated by the existence of such unintended bycatch as I represented, of people with strong negative opinions of the Mars colonisation narrative and not prima facie ready to align with your proposition that ostensibly aims at no more than reforming the narrative with “proprietary” ingredients it means to sell to presumed adepts – adepts which it privileges for that reason. To cut things short, your main shortcoming is to not allow for the need particular to such a party as I represent, to rotate the issue around in search of a coordinated perspective, what’s encapsulated by your characterization of the thread as being primarily about race and not the defects of the Mars colonization narrative (despite the over-broad title).


      2. Boris this is the last interaction I’ll have with you; I’m allowing your second comment only to make a point about White male privilege in STEM discussions. You’re trying to use big words here and your meaning is unclear as a result. Sorting through your word salad, you are essentially asserting your White male privilege. Your feelings are hurt that you did not get to continue to derail my thread on Google+. You came to a discussion about racism in colonial narratives about Mars but you did not want to talk about racism. Then you have followed me to my blog to complain, not once but twice. Once again you’ve ignored my express request to respect the fact that, as a STEM WOC running a discussion on STEM WOC and other minorities, it is up to me to decide the direction of that discussion. You illustrate one example of White male privilege here: hounding a WOC for not allowing you to shift a conversation on racism your way. It’s pretty clear you don’t want to learn; you simply demand that POC should let you assert your dominance. Whiteness theory shows how not wanting to talk about race is a strategy of racism. By leaving out race from discussions of Mars travel, White men’s taken-for-granted ideas prevail, and POC are rendered invisible. You perfectly encapsulate Dr Lee’s original argument.

        You have an incorrect idea about what click bait is by the way. Click bait in STEM is something I write a lot about. (E.g. BroScience: Sexism in Click Bait Science News and Recognising Sexism: Boobs to ‘Broteomics’).


  2. But “what I want to talk about IS more important than your topic so I will come to YOUR Space and insert myself, my values and my narrative”.

    He is dead serious. That makes his behavior (and whining) frustrating and amusing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unbelievable, huh? Men who say they love science but don’t want to discuss anything that challenges their taken for granted assumptions. I had to ban him from here. He wrote yet another long comment which I’m not allowing then he got himself a new email address and wrote me a letter essay about how upset he is. Aggrieved entitlement in full display! Women’s writing is just that dangerous.


  3. Thank you Dr. Zevallos for this excellent post!

    As an anthropologist of space this is especially interesting to me. There are a few anthropologists working on space who have engaged with political economic frameworks in critical ethnographic studies of the connections between space science, nationalism, capitalism, colonialism, and disaster (e.g., Barker 2005; Redfield 2000; Valentine 2012; Vaughan 1996; Zabusky 1995). For a more recent example, see the forthcoming book “Space and Race: The Politics of Inequality at Brazil’s Satellite Launch Center” by Sean T. Mitchell as well as his other publications (e.g., Mitchell 2013).

    But this is just a small beginning and I hope to see/learn about more work by women, POC, and queer thinkers on these matters. As well as to continue contributing to the conversation. Thank you for taking time to share your voice and analysis here. It is much needed.


  4. Modern science has some very dirty diapers. ( V-2, ICBM,The eugenics movement etc.) but suggest this conversation should be directed toward making people with non-European male ancestry aware of both the mathematical and scientific contributions of female (ex. R. Franklyn) and non-western peoples (ex Indian hindu decimal numeral place systems and the role of “0” ) in same. But it also involves the painful process of looking at how non-European political and I underline the word political cultures did not encourage the development of modern science.

    Note numerous articles on Chinese and Portugues parallel exploration of Africa in the 14th/15th centuries with comparable technologies and note what happens afterwards. The painful question for so called white males to face is how great a debt modern technology owes to females ( reference J Chicago Dinner party) and the third world ( ref arithmetic). The painful question for those in the third world to face is what their political leadership did between 1400 to 2100. Neither is a painless story.

    Both I believe would be helped by a Mars after Moon sequence. The journey to Mars selected as we become more technically and politically mature about space by doing lunar exploration internationally first. It has always seemed a little out of place to say the place that controls the tides on which both the Portuguese and Chinese ships road and today cover 72% of the earth, the place that taught us we are all astronauts on the “good ship earth” is good for only 5 manned spot missions. I do not think it should have been set aside with the political comment that “5 times is enough”. That comment seeming to imitate the white Merchants seeking gold, spices, and slaves and ignoring the environmental and technical challenges as they went.

    An international exploration of the lunar body while using it as a more effective platform for looking at our own planets’ problems seems the place to start on all our own problems. Not imitating the colonial dash to colonize and exploit far reaches. That seems to me to imitate nothing so much as the spice islands of the indies or the plantation horrors of the sugar rum and slave trade in the Caribbean. We need to go where it makes technical and scientific sense to risk going, as we can, and we need to go together internationally with eyes forward on where we are going and backward toward where we have come from. It has been a wonderful and horrible journey and we need to apply its painful lessons carefully as we go.

    Pax Vobiscum H. Law


    1. Hi Howard. Your comments are a bit hard to read, but I think you are making three key points. First, you think women’s contributions to science have been undervalued. I agree and write about this often on my blog. Second, you say non-European cultures have not encouraged the development of modern science. This is incorrect. Cultures all over the world have contributed to modern science, including physics.

      Third, the rest of your comment is arguing that colonising Mars would be of benefit to humanity and that you do not see this as having the same impact as other forms of colonisation. It also seems that you are arguing that “non-European” forms of colonialism are worse than those involving White people. While many cultures have colonised other societies, what makes European colonialism distinct is its expansive and violent influence on global relations. Specifically, the transatlantic slave trade has far-reaching consequences across the world, especially throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa. European colonisation continues to have multi-generational impact on Indigenous people all over the world, including in Australia, that adversely affects the health and socio-economic opportunities of Indigenous people. This includes their ability to fully participate in science and academia.

      Dr Lee argues that the narrative of colonisation is alienating to Indigenous scholars, who have much to contribute to scientific endeavours including in astronomy and astrophysics. Moreover, her point is that an enterprise for Mars colonisation that begins with the premise that the Earth is doomed has inherent problems. For starters, the idea of abandoning Earth because of human-made ecological disaster only ensures we: 1) do not take responsibility for our environment; 2) we go to another planet having learned nothing about environmental conservation. Second, colonising Mars will require building infrastructure; it will be expensive; and it will benefit rich people. Like all other business ventures that ignore environmental sustainability, the work of building another habitat will be undertaken by the most exploited, the most vulnerable, the most marginalised – such as people of colour. Dr Lee is not saying that scientific exploration of Mars is without merit. She questions the logic of Mars colonisation, which will only replicate existing environmental and social inequalities.


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