Before I scored a job as head nurse of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds — a sci-fi TV series about our potential utopian future amongst the stars,  I didn’t really feel a connection to space in the real world. The thought of it always felt exciting, but abstract and irrelevant to the urgent state of things here on Earth that held my attention. 

But that has very much changed. By occupying the unusual cultural intersection that I now do, I’ve noticed that the space industry has more impact on earthbound cultural evolution, politics, climate action and medicine than on anything out there in the infinite, treacherous dark. I’ve learned that the way we venture out into space could reshape humanity’s activities on Earth in a real way; and that that impact is happening now, today, under our feet. 

So, now I’m participating in panels on NASA bases. I’ve found myself hanging out in the middle of a Venn diagram of art, space and Earth, and I’ve come to feel that the middle of this Venn diagram is crucial right now. 

With space exploration, we’re at a monumental inflection point that could go one of two ways for humanity. Towards conflict, which is our dominant societal model, or towards cooperation, which is what we need to survive. How we think and act now in this delicate beginning will impact everyone’s future on Earth and beyond. 

Our expansion into space has the potential to catalyze a significant evolution in our collective awareness. It’s been described as the ultimate journey from part to whole. In times of social evolution like these, art and storytelling play a crucial role in identity formation. 

Artists create visual languages and spaces for people to imagine and participate in new collective identities. As Edward J. McCaughan wrote in “Art and Social Movements: Cultural politics in Mexico and Aztlán”, artists “don’t only reflect ideology, they have the power to create it.”

Now let’s bring that idea back to today, when artist Jeff Koons collaborated with 4Space and Intuitive Machines to put a piece of his art on the lunar surface after hitching a ride on the Odysseus, the first U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on the moon in 52 years. Koons’ project involved placing 125 small moon sculptures in a clear box and dropping them on the moon. Meanwhile, 125 larger corresponding replicas have been made available to wealthy collectors down here on Earth, each with an accompanying NFT. Jeff Koons has already sold several of these sculptures for $2 million a piece.

This stunt was made possible through NASA’s CLPS program, which contracts private companies like Intuitive Machines to develop and operate lunar lander missions. CLPS gives them access to public funds — taxpayer dollars — to deliver NASA’s science payloads to the moon. But, CLPS policy then allows those private companies to use excess real estate on the lunar lander however they want, or to sell it to whomever they want. Enter Jeff Koons. 

The execution of this project tells a cultural story. Cultural stories are extremely powerful. They can shape the way we act and our shared ideas of right and wrong. This one sets a complacent and concerning precedent.

An incredibly wealthy, infamously commercial, western artist partners with 4Space and a newly publicly traded space company. Koons then drops his foreign object in a largely untouched environment, claims his as the “first authorized” artwork on the moon, and uses it to immediately commodify his mark on the lunar surface as something only accessible to wealthy art collectors as a badge of status. All while making a ton of money for himself in the process. 

How does that art make you feel? 

What does it reflect to us about where we are going? 

How did we allow ourselves to get here? 

In 1958, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower established NASA as a civilian agency to ensure America’s scientific exploration of space be pursued in the spirit of cooperation. Then, in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was established by the United Nations. At the time, the treaty was a radical document, created to ensure that space would forever be free from war, that it would remain peaceful territory owned by the whole of humanity equally. The notion that any one nation could pursue ownership of any part of space was a dangerous concept that must be avoided. 

Now although this sentiment was coming from the President of a nation founded through brutal colonial conquest, the pioneers of space policy saw that in order for tomorrow to be better than today, our intentions in this new arena of space must not be clouded by the greed and competition that had so far led to marginalized and impoverished communities, genocide and the unrelenting destruction of Earth’s environment. Things that we are seeing today with increasing severity and frequency. 

A lot has happened between the signing of the treaty and now. Unfortunately, the Outer Space Treaty didn’t count for the growing power of corporations. The recent privatization of spaceflight has made it possible for us to break free from our inertia and once again leap closer to the reality of human expansion into space. It has also, however, allowed greed to re-enter the arena that has been protected from it for very good reason. 

We must not be complacent about this tradeoff. We must carefully consider where we are willing to make concessions about our collective future. Our expansion into space is happening, whether we like it or not. If we move carefully, it has the potential to help us shift gears, transforming the collective human consciousness towards international cooperation, greater stewardship of the Earth and a deeper understanding of our miraculous existence. If we don’t, it could become an amplifier for the problems we are already facing. 

Jeff Koons has been lauded by art world critics for his ability to frame and amplify the absurdity of capitalism with his hyper commercial works. But is his message the one we want to frame this historical moment?

We have an opportunity to evolve. The art, the imagery and the stories we consume and support with our dollars and our attention in this delicate beginning will shape both our journey out into the stars and the world that continues to run down here on Earth. Let’s not eat with our eyes closed.

Jess Bush is a visual artist and actress who plays Nurse Chapel on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

Jess Bush is a visual artist and actress who plays Nurse Chapel on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.