The New World

Erica Dawn Lyle on Florida’s Space Coast

SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, January 7, 2020. Photo: Erica Dawn Lyle.

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.” —Elon Musk

I TRY TO GO SEE the SpaceX rocket launches whenever I am back home in Florida. I attended one in the very first week of this year, pulling off to the side of the road on a little sandbar between Titusville and the Cape and parking with a direct view across the water to the launchpad. It was a tradition that I knew from childhood on the Space Coast of Florida: the prelaunch tailgate party. These days, SpaceX simulcasts all of its launches on its website, along with a kind of warmup show made by an in-house production team. Since I was the first one there, I opened up the back of my van, which faced the launchpad five miles away, and I loaded SpaceX TV on my phone, the voice of the announcer mingling with the sound of gulls and traffic on the causeway.

All systems go and smooth sailing, folks! It’s another stunning evening here in Florida, highs of seventy-two degrees, as you see the Falcon 9 rocket out there on historic Launch Complex 39A—the very same launchpad from which the Apollo rocket took the first humans to the moon!

Others began to arrive. Fathers wearing baseball caps and mustaches, carrying little kids on their shoulders. Senior citizens, arriving two by two, husband and wife, stayed in their cars, gray-haired and mute. Soon there were maybe a dozen cars parked any which way on the sandbar, like how kids leave their toys lying around.

Mars and Earth get close to each other about once every two years, creating windows of time when it’s quicker to reach the red planet. The next best window to launch a cargo rocket to Mars would be the summer of 2022. If the launch is successful, SpaceX intends to send humans to the surface of Mars when the next window arrives in 2024!

As a crowd slowly gathered, I remembered my first SpaceX launch back in 2016. On that day, only a handful of NASA-launch buffs with binoculars and fancy cameras stood out among the usual surfers and sunbathers gathered along the shore north of the Cocoa Beach pier.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes a human-extinction event of some kind is likely on Earth, and that the inevitable future of humankind is as an interplanetary species!

It seemed to me an enormously underrecognized moment in human history. Just a couple of months before, a widely read New Yorker essay had flatly declared that much of the state’s shoreline—along with its most heavily populated areas—would be underwater within a couple of decades. Now here was a crowd of ordinary Floridians, watching the earliest stages of a proposed effort to relocate humankind to a new planet from the very shores where those rising waters literally lapped at their feet.

By establishing a human colony on Mars, SpaceX hopes to help make a “backup” of human civilization so the human race will be saved if something happens to Earth!

At liftoff, we all dutifully raised our cell phones above our heads to record the moment. The next day, commentators filed mostly puff pieces, musing on the personal question: Would you go to Mars? But for me, the launch signified a crossroads: Would humans unite to mitigate climate change and save the Earth, or would we abandon our planet of origin in hopes of starting over elsewhere in the solar system? 

I have watched each year as the crowd of spectators at the launches grows larger and larger.

SpaceX’s mission to Mars is an expression of the innate human nomadic urge to explore. The effort to establish a human colony on Mars will restore to humanity a shared sense of purpose and a belief in a better tomorrow!

Rendering of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket igniting to send the company’s Dragon capsule into orbit as the first stage falls away. Photo: SpaceX.

Despite his avowed futurism, Musk’s evocation of an era of long-lost human consensus has slowly begun to rhyme in spirit with President Trump’s promise to return us to an age of American exceptionalism and white, male hegemony. Both men obscure their own personal ambitions behind a nostalgic appeal to restore an imaginary, uncomplicated past when our nation’s people were supposedly united all as one. Indeed, obsessed with the symbolic import of space travel, Trump has promised to “Make Space Great Again,” declaring that the US will return to the surface of the moon by 2024.

Tonight’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is the first launch to take place under the command of the newest branch of the military, the United States Space Force, which President Trump signed into existence just a few weeks ago!

The press mostly covered Trump’s announcement of the new Space Force in a tone of ironic distance, regarding him rather like adults humoring an eight-year-old boy as he explains the maneuvers of his toy army figures in a sandbox. When I was a kid, they mocked Reagan, too, when he proposed to ring the world with a ballistic defense system that would supposedly shoot down incoming Soviet missiles.

SpaceX expects to have a global constellation of 4,000 Low Earth Orbit Starlink satellites by 2022!

Reagan’s missile defense plan ate up $30 billion in government money during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The press called it “Star Wars,” but Reagan rode that blend of Hollywood fantasy and paranoid Strangelovian logic to two landslide victories.

The Falcon Heavy is named after the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s sweet ride in Star Wars!

With regular demonstrations of its triumphal rocketeering prowess, SpaceX has become the face of the increasingly privatized US space program. Whatever Musk’s pretensions to saving the human race, as the president raves about space war with China, the company’s mission to Mars has now become complicit in Trump’s escalating instrumentalization of space as a speculative staging ground for fascist spectacle.

The Low Earth Orbit satellites SpaceX is launching tonight are part of our effort to help people in “underserved communities”—places like southeastern Africa and the northern extremes of Canada—have high-speed internet connections. Building and launching the Starlink network here on Earth will raise the investment capital required for the project of sending humans to Mars!

Whatever. Honestly, these days I just tune out when men tell me things. This time, I begin to tune out after learning that the launch’s mission had little to do with Mars. That night, the Falcon 9 would send dozens of SpaceX’s new Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) communications satellites into the atmosphere. I wondered if those who gathered with me along the shore that night to view the takeoff realized they were about to become spectators of the opening salvo of a race between two of the world’s richest men, Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, to corner the market on high-speed internet connection.

A Low-Earth Satellite recorded an average latency of thirty-two milliseconds last July. Speeds like that have made Starlink satellites of interest to financial trading firms and other companies that rely on having the fastest possible connections to trading exchanges!

Spectators on Florida’s Space Coast. Photo: Erica Dawn Lyle.

THE MOOD AN HOUR BEFORE LAUNCH is festive. Someone has ordered several pizzas to the barrier island and the guy who receives them walks around offering his fellow launchgoers a slice. I notice the guy offers a slice to everyone but me. Which brings me inevitably to the question: Will trans people be allowed on the flights to Mars?

Under a Trump Administration, one might guess we would be banned. Ah, but that’s the thing about us! We often look just like everyone else. . .until, all of a sudden, we don’t. Those around me get out of their cars to stand together in a circle, eating their slices and chatting easily together about the launch. As the announcers’ voices echo in surround sound from several phones, I drift off into a daydream of a transfuturist Mars.

Mars Base Alpha, the first permanent Martian base, will be established in 2028. The base will begin with just the most elementary fundamental infrastructure without which the colonists cannot survive. The base will be able to create rocket fuel, provide a power station, and will feature blast domes in which to grow crops!

I can see how it would go down. The first colonists to arrive on Mars are just getting settled when the voyage’s captain—Amab, of course—shows up at the daily check-in with Ground Control with some important news. “So, I have something to tell you,” she says, knowing the communication is also being broadcast live to news networks back on Earth. “From now on . . .”

Once the base is established, we predict an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity. Mars, of course, will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints and really great bars!

The other astronauts are inspired by their mission leader’s bravery, and as the influence of Ground Control on faraway Earth loses its hold on them, they begin to rely more on their trust in one another. As they begin to feel themselves free from demands to perform unwanted assigned gender roles, the colonists gradually dissolve the crew’s ranks and hierarchies and establish an extraterrestrial autonomous zone beyond the sovereignty of the gender binary, where the colonists’ lives are not restricted by heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalist, or white-supremacist structures.

In the 2030s, SpaceX aims to establish the first cities on Mars! By the year 2100, Martian colonists should be able to begin terraforming Mars in order to transform it into a much warmer and wetter world!

Eventually the Martian colony becomes a sexy utopia of gender-free trans babes living, loving, and playing together—their new civilization ruled not by a constitution, a mission statement, the teachings of the Invisible Committee, or even a fucking chore wheel, but instead by a profound commitment to a radical ethics of care, their society evolving always in real time, according to the changing needs of individual and their shared commitment to horizontal organization and mutual aid. Over subsequent generations of communal living the colonists’ language and thought adapt—they eventually have no words, for instance, for the concept of private property—and in the radically lower gravity and sunlight of Mars, their gender-free bodies even begin to slowly mutate into a new species.

Terraforming is a type of climate change, but deliberate and more rapid than what’s happening on Earth right now. By using carbon emissions to heat the planet, we will melt the planet’s carbon-dioxide-rich icecaps in order to create an atmosphere like Earth’s which can sustain human life!

But I find the specifics—how to get from colony to utopia—almost impossible to bring into focus. The announcers’ voices are too intrusive; there are too many men moving around outside my van. I slowly relax again into a dream of myself as commander, vaulting across the red planet’s low-gravity surface in four-inch heels, feeling boundless and expansive, like after I got my shot of E, the hormones erasing gravity and all body memories of ancient defeats. And then I see the men gaining on me, a cloud of red dust billowing behind their trucks, as they aim their handguns out the window, and the thought balloon abruptly explodes.

As this daydream evaporates, though, I see it is probably for the best. After all, I’m not sure that even a group as oppressed as trans people has a right to simply claim for themselves any land they like on so-called Mars. And the utopia I long for is not a blank slate but one that through its evolution of human relationships and language and its dissolution of coercive hierarchies begins the necessary work of healing the dying planet I live on now.

MORE PEOPLE ARE ARRIVING. I still feel a wariness toward the rednecks sitting in their trucks, but in a way, I am also of them. My childhood summers were spent on the Space Coast, my family driving their pickups around in circles all afternoon in pits of mud out at Lost Lake, as if made mad by the enormous Florida sky. And the Fourth of July, the rockets, the race . . . all those cars revving on the hardpacked sand on the beach at Daytona. The poor whites and their sad magic: anything to get out of their skin.

Would you go to Mars? In many ways, the question has always been a part of my life. I grew up with these launches. My uncle worked out on the Cape for a company that built the solid rocket boosters on the Space Shuttles.

1970s rendering of a NASA space colony by Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill.

My mom’s first husband was a programmer at IBM. He read to me at bedtime from the science magazines he got in the mail, articles about how humans would soon settle in free-floating colonies in space. If I hadn’t been in algebra class at junior high that morning in January 1986, I could simply have looked up in the sky and watched the Challenger disintegrate as flames engulfed it.

Which is just to say, I always understood that the enormous postcard-blue Florida sky concealed a void, a blue that faded to black if you went into it deep enough.

Though, of course, while we understand the void of outer space to be black, a void is just as often depicted as white. Whiteout. White bread. If you see a white light, go to it.

By which I mean, things seemed orderly enough on the surface, but just looking around me, I could see from a very early age that the place I grew up was defined in some integral way by what was absent.

The articles my mom’s husband read to me were accompanied by lavish color illustrations of toroid space stations full of neat, orderly subdivisions. The people laughed at picnics on summer lawns and enjoyed drinks by the pool, or they rode the escalator up into vast atriums on their way to work or shop. In the spirit of their era, the planners of these colonies were obsessed with engineering a perfect system. They had determined that there should be exactly three rabbits, six chickens, and twenty-six fish for every human. They claimed they had ways of growing nutritious food without soil. In a controlled environment, they believed mankind could engineer systems far more efficient and frictionless than even those that controlled nature.

I would learn years later that in the early-twentieth century, part of my hometown had been settled by a colony of Japanese farmers who successfully lived off the land for more than four decades before their property was taken from them by the government under the executive order that allowed Japanese American internment during World War II.

In the 1960s, IBM used a portion of that land to build the massive campus where my mom’s husband worked. His team of programmers and engineers would create the first IBM PC, which became Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1982.

Following this success, IBM donated computers to my public school, and the teachers began to train us in programming. I remember one teacher telling a roomful of nine-year-olds that it was especially important for us “to do good in computer class.” Because the future was in computers. Because we were the future of America.

And because we had to keep up with the Japanese.

Did you know that it’s just a popular myth that Ponce de León came to America looking for The Fountain of Youth? Did you know that Cape Canaveral comes from the name given to the cape by Spanish explorers, meaning “sugar plantation”? Did you know that it is said that 30 percent of all modern-day Puerto Ricans are descended from Ponce de León?

In Travels in Florida, published in 1791, the great naturalist William Bartram makes his way down the St. John’s River amid “the continual noise and restlessness of the seafowl, thousands of loons of various species, herons, pelicans, Spanish curlews—all promiscuously lodging together and in such incredible numbers that the trees were entirely covered.” The skies, he notes, “ring with the noise for hundreds of miles in a universal shout.”

By the time of my childhood, the empty sky had swallowed up all these birdcalls but one: the lonely coo of the mourning doves that lived in the backyards and along the edges of our subdivision.

Sometimes when I heard this awful sound, the telltale heartbeat of our homeland, I looked around and I saw that all the people depicted living in the space colonies in the illustrations of those magazines looked exactly like the people driving by in the planned communities that were emerging from the freshly drained swamps all over South Florida.

And all of us were white.

Did you know that many historians now believe Ponce de León actually first landed in Florida in 1513 not at St. Augustine—which bills itself as the “Oldest City in North America”—but here at Cape Canaveral? Now the point of entry for European colonization of the New World has become the point of departure for the human colonization of Mars!

I OFTEN WATCH the footage of my first SpaceX launch, which I shot in slow motion on my phone on the beach that day several years ago. I imagine the clip as a single-channel video, looped in a gallery, its three minutes of action slowed down even more so as to unfold agonizingly, frame by frame, over twenty-four hours. The approach of the ever-rising seas is inexorable but almost imperceptible. The long-foretold end of the world eternally threatens but never fully arrives.

When I hear Musk speak today of human extinction, I find it exhausting to consider how long the end of the world has been a part of my life. I remember watching the entire Midwest reduced to black, smoldering ruin when I was ten years old—a scene in the network-television movie, The Day After (1983). For years afterward, when I walked along the canal at the border of my subdivision, I imagined myself the last survivor of a nuclear war, the coo of the mourning dove my private theme song.

Some part of me has always been there, waiting for time to stop, the waves no longer running toward the beach but frozen, glazing the fine, toxic Martian sand.

I never left the ruins. When I was kicked out of my mom’s house for good at age seventeen, I went to live in abandoned buildings. As I entered my dysphoric adulthood, I loved to explore abandoned factories and disused port buildings and train yards. In these places, capitalism had worn through, leaving behind a place out of time where I was free to dream. The blank white space on the maps seemed a hole in the net one could walk through, right into another world.

Time used to move differently in cities before gentrification, before the internet. When gentrification came to the Lower East Side in the early ’90s, I remember experiencing it as a sense that a long-unwound clock had suddenly started ticking again, softly but insistently.

Time was different from city to city then, too. Just a teaspoon of time in Manhattan, for instance, might weigh over a ton in Richmond, Virginia. A Sunday afternoon in Little Rock might only rotate on its axis once every six hundred and thirty-three Earth days.

A day on Mars is about forty minutes longer than a day on Earth. Will they standardize time in the Martian colony to the twenty-four-hour clock back on Cape Canaveral?

There is something sepulchral about this Martian colony, something dark about making “a backup” of civilization that feels not at all like an adventure but instead reminds me of the vast data centers our civilization will leave behind, scattered across the plains like pharaohs’ tombs. Like that melancholic project to digitally embalm every aspect of our lives, the colony carries with it our society’s pervasive fear of death.

Nicholas Meyer, The Day After, 1983, 35 mm, color, sound, 127 minutes.

I think of Stewart Brand’s famous question: Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole Earth? When, in 1968, astronaut Bill Anders finally took his iconic snapshot from lunar orbit, Earthrise, it was widely believed this novel perspective of Earth would somehow cause a mass shift in human consciousness, ushering in an era in which all of the photograph’s three and a half billion subjects came together in shared stewardship of the planet and its natural resources.

Fifty years after man landed on the moon, we await the return of Earthrise as nostalgic promotional imagery for an eponymous Martian suburban housing development, like those subdivisions in Florida named after whatever local indigenous life has been made extinct by their construction. Names like Indian Lake Estates, Manatee Bay Village, or Seminole Grove, their utter banality hiding a sociopathic serial killer in plain sight.

SpaceX takes very seriously the growing problem of abandoned space debris floating in the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why our Starlink satellites have been specially designed so that 95 percent of them will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere once they reach the end of their life cycle!

We live in a time of crossing over. From the physical to the digital. From terrestrial to Martian. Carbon-based life to silicon.

Animals are on the move too. I read recently that the American bald eagle now almost exclusively makes its home further north in Canada, where the weather reminds it of its ancestral nesting grounds on the Atlantic coastal plain. I also feel like a creature that has begun to migrate, to move with an intuitive urgency, seeking the necessary conditions for survival in previously unexplored lands.

Would you go to Mars? I remember the night I came home with my first hormones from the clinic. I pushed the pills around on the bedspread. I took pictures of them with my phone. I zoomed in on the photographs, enlarging them until they filled my screen. The pills looked like the National Geographic photographs of the solar system I’d seen as a child, something like hot and steamy Venus with a newly discovered blue oval moon.

AS THE LAUNCH APPROACHES, a weathered middle-aged man, speaking in French into his cell phone and gesticulating animatedly as if to make a point, paces up and down the shoreline next to my van. His license plate says QUEBEC, and I understand not a word of French, but frankly, I’m bored enough by the pregame that to amuse myself I decide that this man is the late philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

BAUDRILLARD: We are confronted with a virtual apocalypse, a hegemony ultimately much more dangerous than real apocalypse!

The end of the world is now mostly understood to be not the swift and fiery Mutually Assured Destruction of my childhood but a series of momentary localized ruptures in civilization. Somewhere on Earth, something unimaginably awful is always happening right at this moment, but it is not yet exactly happening to you. You are just watching it on your phone.

BAUDRILLARD: They will have allowed the war to endure as long as it takes, not to win but to persuade the whole world of the infallibility of their machine!

That week, for instance, it was only the continent of Australia that had been almost entirely incinerated.

SPACEX TV ANNOUNCER: After the Falcon 9 releases the 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, it will return safely to Earth, to a landing pad on the SpaceX drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, floating in the Atlantic Ocean, 339 miles due east of Florida!

Lana might be singing about Los Angeles in flames, but it’s Los Angeles in flames as seen through a smudgy thumbprint on a steamed-up sauna window high in the Hollywood Hills.

BAUDRILLARD: What is tested here in this foreclosure of the enemy, this experimental reclusion of war, is the future validity for the entire planet of this type of suffocating and machinic performance, virtual and relentless in its unfolding! 

SPACEX TV ANNOUNCER: The Falcon Heavy rocket’s ion boosters are powered by krypton!

A Cape Canaveral launchgoer. Photo: Erica Dawn Lyle.

Something about the thought of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites blanketing the night sky forever makes me think of one of the most terrifying scenes in The Day After. As you see on-screen the blackened postnuclear wasteland that remains of the war, the voice of the president of the United States comes on the radio. He announces that the war is over. The United States has not surrendered and has successfully negotiated a ceasefire with Russia.

SPACEX TV ANNOUNCER: You might remember, of course, that the robotic ships that serve as landing platforms for SpaceX rockets, Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, are named after the sentient starships that appear in works by legendary sci-fi author Iain M. Banks.

Excited that, at last, among this crowd there is someone watching the same launch I am, I check my lipstick and jump out of my van to greet Baudrillard as he finishes his phone call.

ME: Like all good science fiction, Musk’s vision of a human future on Mars is really a story about how we live right now, when all aspects of our existence are mediated through capitalism and where all that was once considered an inalienable part of the commons has been privatized. Because humans on Mars would literally not be able to survive outside of the technological protection of the infrastructure built by SpaceX, they would be indebted to the company for every aspect of their continued survival. There could literally be no life outside of capitalism!

BAUDRILLARD: C’est magnifique, non? Il fait moins zéro centigrades de retour à Longueil!

ME: Capitalism reproduces itself into the future endlessly by convincing us that tomorrow will always be pretty much like today, though always steadily improving. This progress, however, like the end of the world, never really arrives. This mediation of collapse by the ever-expanding infosphere of Western capitalism ensures that each new unthinkable environmental cataclysm is made to appear not as part of global systemic failure, but as an isolated incident happening outside our technological bubble of safety. Musk’s satellites help ensure capitalism remains forever in place everywhere inside this bubble—whether on Earth or on Mars!

BAUDRILLARD: Hier, ma femme et moi sommes allés à Marineland. As-tu été? Ils vous permettent de nager avec les dauphins!

And then, at last, the countdown to launch had begun. Baudrillard and I raced to the shore to get a better look.

As the rocket filled my screen—tall, straight, and white upon its pedestal, as enduring an American monument as Mt. Rushmore—I thought again of my daydream of a trans utopia on Mars. No, I thought. It wouldn’t work to change the colony slowly from within. The trans mission captain would have to somehow reject the protection of the colony and go outside into space.

Exposed to deadly cosmic radiation, in the anaerobic void, the one-to-five seconds she would be able to survive would expand and stretch endlessly before her, each second longer and longer—the first long moments of the universe’s first transgender utopia. Longer than the night that Chelsea Manning, on leave from the Army for Christmas, wore women’s clothes and walked around in public for the first time; longer than the twenty months she spent in a military prison waiting for hormones; longer than the five years she waited for gender reassignment surgery; longer than the eight years she spent in prison; longer even then the fifty years that Marsha P. Johnson’s shot glass has been flying through the air toward that police officer’s face; longer than the five hundred years since Calusa warriors in southwest Florida mortally wounded Ponce de León; longer than the thousands of years he will lie dying.

And when the rocket lifted off, I saw it all spread out before me, the hundreds of small towns that merged together, a suburban universe in which these identical liquor stores, parking lots, and malls formed the building blocks of a strand of DNA generated by the nucleus of the Space Center. The unraveling strand covered the entire surface of the globe and swept out into space to pave the walls of the universe before it curved back on itself to land here again at its departure point, Cape Canaveral.

I want to get into my car, roll down the windows, and drive. Down A1A, past the base and the rows of faded 1950s tract houses, smelling the salty sea air and wistful for the scent of orange blossoms that once filled the air everywhere down here, back when you could wake up and really feel good about the future. I want to feel that way tonight. I can almost feel my heels sliding over the pedals, my red nails scratching the leather interior. I think this, perhaps, is really it, the essence of Florida—a wind, a feeling. Over hundreds of years, the state may shrink to a long thin spine only a couple of miles across, and yet this breeze, this essence, will still be here, and maybe people will still travel from all over the world to possess it.

WHEN I WAS A KID, they made a TV show out of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. When the American astronauts landed on Mars, they were awestruck to find themselves wandering streets that nostalgically recalled the suburbs they had grown up in back on Earth. Many of them were even greeted by long-lost relatives who had apparently been living in peace all this time, as if in heaven on Mars.

It turned out the Martians were using a kind of telepathy to read the colonizers’ minds. They created the illusion of Main Street USA to lull the Earthlings into a sense of security in their new, mentally projected homes.

Then, late at night, the Martians killed them in their sleep.

Erica Dawn Lyle is one half of the art collective SOBBETH and the guitar player for Bikini Kill.