Rocket Lab is a startup in New Zealand that is going to launch a project that will be a “reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe.” How beautiful! It’s called the Humanity Star, and it’s a 3-foot wide disco ball that they’re going to launch into low-Earth orbit. Wow. This has inspired me to start a project to remind everyone on Earth of our fragile ecosystem. I’m going to throw a small disco ball into a gutter that drains to the ocean, where a dolphin or other small whale can choke to death on it. I’ll call it the Humanity Trash. It’ll be amazing.
Let’s be clear: the “Humanity Star” is just a (very successful) public relations stunt. Rocket Lab is funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists and is just one of several corporations that wants to get in on commercial space travel. Specifically, they want corporations to pay for their 3D-printed rockets to take satellites into space. Satellites like the “Humanity Star.”
So sure, it’s a blatant PR stunt, but is it really so bad? I mean, kind of -- when a company does a PR stunt, generally they try to not do the exact opposite of the message they say they’re trying to spread. In this case, they want to remind us of our fragile place in the universe while literally contributing to the growing amount of useless garbage circling our little planet. Remember the movie Gravity? Shit goes wrong due to a chain reaction of satellites hitting each other and forming a minefield of space junk. That is based on a very real and growing problem we have, in which we’re launching all sorts of things into space without considering what is going to happen to them once they no longer are in use. And I’m talking about satellites that actually DO have an initial use (usually telecommunications but also scientific instruments). The “Humanity Star” doesn’t even have a purpose, other than as a PR stunt. Will it actually encourage people to look up into the sky and appreciate our place in the Universe? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be more inspirational if people could look up in the sky and see, oh, I don’t know, a god damned space station orbiting our planet that is currently full of humans from various cultural backgrounds doing science together? Because yeah, the International Space Station (ISS) passes over millions of people every day, all of whom are invited to look up and contemplate our place in the Universe. In fact, I just checked and I personally will have 11 opportunities to see it over the next two weeks.
The ISS is just as visible as (if not more than) the “Humanity Star” and as a bonus it’s actually doing something, not just taking up space.
Also, it’s a minor point really but many astronomers are annoyed at Rocket Lab because the Humanity Star does stand a (very small) chance of interrupting telescope viewings.
I like and support the private space industry, if only because it may encourage more governments to continue investing in space exploration. But I don’t support gaudy, ill-conceived PR stunts. If Rocket Lab really wants people to care about our place in the Universe, they’ll drop the Humanity Star and instead put that money into efforts to turn out lights. If urban areas can adopt better lighting policies in public places, we can reduce light pollution to the point that the average person can walk outside, look up into the sky, and see millions of awe-inspiring lights -- the lights of actual stars, trillions of miles away. That would do more for public interest in space than a thousand “Humanity Stars.”