A Socialist Vision for Space Exploration Must Include Disability

Yesterday, Jacobin published a piece by Spencer Roberts outlining a socialist vision for space exploration—a necessary vision to advance while we watch a group of billionaires compete in an astro-pissing contest as they live out their colonial fever dreams with little concern for the environmental, social, or working class. Roberts terms the detritus of these space jaunts “redundant and dangerous monuments to the egos of oligarchs,” reminding us that the adventures of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are more than bemusing narcissism; they are a dangerous part of the colonialist, capitalist, racist project these men have advanced throughout their careers.

It is well know that this space-race between three white, cis-het men collectively worth nearly 380 billion dollars isn’t without cost to the non-billionaire class: New Mexico taxpayers contributed 220 million dollars to Branson’s journey, Musk’s new German factory was constructed over environmental protests about its harmful effects on (among other things) water pollution in an area in which nearly all drinking water comes from groundwater reserves, and Bezo’s extractive practices as Amazon’s CEO are well-documented. What’s more, this ego-driven contest plays out as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has decimated public health systems, increased the number of families experiencing food insecurity, put millions into unstable housing situations, exacerbated educational inequities, and left communities reeling from the personal, economic, and health effects of the past year and a half. A year that laid stark our unequal access to healthcare, housing and food, and employment stability has almost completely eroded away to the faintest gossamers that archive our early-pandemic call for national quarantine and masking solidarity, government aid for all that needed it, and dreams of healing environmental woes. Many have leveled racial critiques of white men going to space while Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities bear the greatest impact of economic, environmental, educational, and health inequities here on Earth. Yet, one critique is missing: how consideration of disability, now and in the future, influence the way we might read the privatization of space.

For most of us, this bizarrely out-of-touch mission to flee Earth for the chromatic possibilities of futurism is something entirely alien. Yet, for disabled people, it represents the next instance of an ongoing pattern of abandonment, another move toward a future of which they are not imagined to be a part. This past year, COVID cast a hypervisible spotlight in which folks with immuno-compromises were at first the center of liberal arguments to wear masks and think collectively to stop the spread of disease. But as vaccines became accessible (to people with transportation, paid time off to burn during the work week, and proximity to medical facilities), many returned to a pre-pandemic life in which practices of solidarity like masking, quarantining, and even switching to take-out are the cultural markers of their own altruism, rather than a daily personal hurdle. The disposability of disabled people was laid barer than ever, particularly in a world in which many refused to quarantine or vaccinate, backed by the argument that only the elderly, disabled, and young were dangerously susceptible to contamination. (Something about climate change and the particular effect of natural disasters of disabled people? Anything from Ida?) In critiques of everything from genetic testing to feminist science fiction novels, disability studies scholars confront us with the question of whether disability is desired in our collective future; in Musk’s dreams of colonizing Mars as Earth-bound humanity falls to the effects of climate change, it’s easy to wonder whether disabled people will be seen as “fit” for space travel.

At an almost wryly comic point, the billionaire space race and the disposability of “weak” populations cross in the explosive lack of charisma that is the persona of Pixar-reimagined Bond villain, Elon Musk. On May 8, just a few weeks after Musk’s SpaceX company sent four NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, Musk hosted Saturday Night Live, where, during his opening monologue, he shared that he has Aspergers and claimed to be the first person on the autism spectrum ever to host SNL. As with many white explorers, his claim of novelty was proven demonstrably false only moments after his utterance (Dan Akroyd, a former cast member and host, has long been public about his autism diagnosis). While we have no intention of engaging in any conversation about the validity of Musk’s diagnosis–such questioning of whether one’s disability identity is “real” serves only to reinscribe the failure of a medical (rather than social) understanding of disability that too often most impacts the queer, trans, and BIPOC disabled folks denied access to trusting and gender-affirming healthcare–Musk’s strategic disability disclosure at this particular moment and on this particular platform must be viewed as an attempt at self-exoneration from any semblance of public accountability for the impacts of his role in the capitalist project, and it should be criticized as such. For those of us rooted in disability scholarship and experiences of non-normative bodyminds, this is an all-too-familiar positioning of disability that preys on neoliberal understandings of disability as pathology, especially at its intersections with race and class.

The “anything can be funny” vibe of SNL effectively shields Musk’s “poor attempt at laundering his image as a heartless billionaire more concerned with cryptocurrency and rocket ships than the lives of others” as it grants cover for a disability narrative founded on harmful stereotypes of autistic people as unfeeling robots whose hyper-literal speaking styles are easy targets for cheap comedy. Autistic journalist Sara Luterman’s think-piece in Slate critiques the ways this atmosphere creates a narrative in which Musk’s social transgressions and lack of humane empathy are something that “could be dismissed as mere autistic eccentricity. Backed by popular caricatures like Sheldon Cooper, Dr. House, and Raymond Babbitt, autism is often explicitly and implicitly depicted in popular media as an antisocial and largely unempathetic “disorder” that comes as the natural price to an individual’s remarkable genius. This fallacy reflects a kind of cyborgian trope of superhuman intelligence in tandem with a un-human coldness, a characterization that dehumanizes people with Autism as an uncanny humanlike but not-quite-human subhumans. Musk’s opening-monologue disclosure that, “Sometimes after I say something I have to say, ‘I mean that.’ Some people rarely know what I mean. That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak, which I’m told makes for great comedy,” amplifies this trope, effectively employing a kind of pass he insinuates he has to be blunter, which he implies balances out his innovativeness. It’s followed by an assurance that he’ll look cast members in the eye, because he knows how to run “human and emulation mode.”

Authenticating autism as something monolithic, and then coding it as an irreprehensible excuse for a lack of accountability is not the only dimension of Musk’s remarks that are troubling. The dangers of this rhetoric become starkly more apparent when autism is racialized and classed beyond a presumed middle-class whiteness. Do a quick Google image search of autism, autistic child, or autistic person and nearly every face is white. White autistic people are typically diagnosed in early childhood, seen by medical and educational professionals as deserving of early intervention services and supports. Most autistic people of color aren’t diagnosed until much later. In school settings, the same differences in social skills or physicality that might send a white student to a psychologist for an autism evaluation send Black children to detention, to a specialist for an “emotional disturbance” label, and, as labels and referrals compound, to jails. Diagnostic testing for autism is expensive, as are the intensive services clinics suggest for early intervention. For poor and working-class folks denied access to a healthcare system free from racial discrimination, resources that promote integration of neurodivergent young people into classes with their nondisabled peers are often unavailable, leading to the early segregation that we know predicts low levels of high school graduation and employment and high levels of involvement with police. These realities, along with social security policies that keep disabled folks in poverty, make class mobility out of reach for many disabled people. In a job market in which research shows candidates with Black names and records of incarceration are less likely to be hired, Musk can name his son X Æ A-12 anyway, because concerns about economic positioning in the capitalist American hellscape won’t apply to him. By lifting up a white, autistic billionaire like Musk and legitimizing his strategic deployment of disability as “pass” for abhorrent behavior, SNL plays an active role in perpetuating the material impacts of the “awkward white intellectual” autistic stereotype. When Musk lays claim to disability identity while actively creating barriers that disable so many others, he dangerously transgresses the cross-racial, working class, disability solidarity necessary to advance economic, educational, healthcare, and climate justice for the billions of disabled folks in the global majority. When we imagine a socialist future that views space exploration as a potential antidote to many of these societal inequities, but fail to explicitly name the importance of considering disability in those advancements, we commit a similar, if much less obvious, transgression.

Despite our investments in “inspiration porn” or an infantilizing devotion to self-help care ethics, capitalism has made us wary of disability. Whether we would like to admit it or not, our most unexamined discomforts around disability are tethered to the idea that disability is a burden rather than an asset to society: disabled people can’t hold normal jobs and are relegated to the realm of Walmart greeters, two disabled people should not have kids as they can only “produce” more disability, we have to make heroes of parents who have “given up” their entire lives to care for their disabled children. Disability represents a drain on our collective resources unreplenished by a group of people with little productive value in capitalist society. In this world, disability needs to be cured and snuffed out in order for us to achieve a progressive utopia. Musk himself covertly acknowledges this in his own work through Neuralink to “create brain implants that would ‘solve’ autism, along with conditions like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.” Our world becomes better when we “cure” disability, in literal and figurative ways. Disability, especially in tandem with Anti-Black racism, produces an underclass through necropolitics–a social metric to determine who flourishes in society, and who we would let passively die out.

The survival of folks with disabilities signals dystopia, one that Musk doesn’t have to stick around for because of his access to resources and incredible wealth, and his entrepreneurial colonial pizazz (which looks more enduring when it’s a creepy white billionaire overcoming autism than just a creepy white billionaire). With the bargaining chips of white supremacy and venture capitalism in his pocket, Musk transcends his presumptive oppressions as a person with autism to secure a spot in the ruling class, the cosmic neo-settlers of the space race novelty. With no problem burning up the resources of a planet that he has the riches to source internationally, Elon Columbus and other space bros get to profit off the subjugation of people affected by poverty, racism, and ableism while leaving the ruffage back to gaze at their moon dust on their way to another, more ideal future.

At the core, Musk, along with astro-pals Bezos and Branson, are creating a world in which the ruling class can escape from the consequences of their behavior. With cover given by tax breaks, neoliberal policy, and charitable giving (Musk’s $100 million prize for carbon capture feels particularly insidious in this moment), they remind us that part of capitalism’s danger lies in its ability to claim status as the only solution for problems it alone has created. Musk, Bezos, and Branson need not concern themselves with the fact that the world is burning when they can buy their way off of it. By presenting his disability as an excuse for his role in this project, Musk further underscores the inextricability of disability justice from class and racial solidarity.

Musk’s intentional employment of his experience with autism in his SNL monologue undergirds our fascination with the capitalist conquerer and how easily radical conversations around disenfranchisement of certain identities can be coopted as a means to quell potential public outrage. His autism is the shield that exonerates his failures to reflect humanely on his brutal business practices with what he hopes is a quirky shrug. Experiencing some kind of disenfranchisement humanizes him in a way, even as he plays with our perceptions of Aspergers as something almost cyborgian. Musk additionally sparks a conversation around progress, one that is dear to the same liberal actors that used disabled bodies as a platform to get into Facebook arguments about masking while bored in quarantine. We are left with the uneasy realization that progress may actually not be moving forward to a better future, but instead, laterally, where the same racist capitalists rely on the pathologization of undesirable populations to push forward a creme-of-the-crop rhetoric that protects their own questionable capitalist ethics.

Disability justice is not a single issue. It is a workers’ rights issue, a racial justice issue, an environmental issue, a healthcare issue, an educational issue… even, yes, a space exploration issue. Rooted in anticapitalist politics and an emphasis on interdependence, disability justice is deeply connected to the socialist project. Part of why it’s so easy for society to silo disability justice as a separate consideration is because, by and large, society still views disability as an immutable, biological fact, a pathology to fix or a charity-case to save. We take the view that, like race, disability is a social construct, the material impacts of which can be seen in daily oppressions such as those described above. The historical ways in which race and disability have been conflated and weaponized in service of white supremacy and racial capitalism have brought us to this moment, in which a TV show gives cover to a wealthy white man’s efforts to deploy disability as an excuse for his sins before rocketing off to Mars, leaving behind the structural inequities he’s created. We share in the belief that a socialist vision for space exploration counteracts Musk’s ego-driven, colonial project, and we agree with Roberts’ assertion that this is not an issue of “fate,” but rather something over which we earthlings have control. Yet in visioning a socialist future without explicit commitment to solidarity with our disabled comrades, we risk leaving too many futures up to fate.

Jenna Gabriel a PhD student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where her research looks at how disabled students develop a political identity in the context of neoliberal capitalism’s influence on schools. An artist and educator, Jenna’s professional background is in theatrical co-creation with disabled young people and in teacher training. She lives with her partner and dogs in Richmond, VA on unceded Powhatan land, where she has refined the art of tea-drinking as nonverbal communication via zoom. She can be reached at gabrielj@vcu.edu.
Tosha Yingling is currently a doctoral student studying social justice in education. Her previous studies are grounded in feminist theory, DisCrit, and prison abolition. In her free time, she enjoys speculative fiction and Queer cinema. She can be reached at yinglingnc@vcu.edu.