by Peter Timko

“Space is coming—it’s coming. This stuff is all happening, and it’s not going to stop!”

A few weeks ago, I spoke with the founder of a social networking platform dedicated to connecting people across the space industry. Over video conferencing software, we had a long, freewheeling conversation touching on the current state of the private space field, which new dynamics are emerging, and the challenges certain sectors might face going forward. Toward the end, he wrapped things up with the above quotation, punctuating the entire exchange with a cliffhanger, something akin to a big bold title card reading to be continued…! His enthusiasm about the future of space expansion, and the role private industry would play in it, was palpable, even through the screen.

For the past two months, I’ve entered what I call the “heavy mingling” stage of my fieldwork. From the ARIES base here in Krakow, I’ve arranged dozens of informal conversations with a wide range of people scattered across to the world of space—I’ve spoken with financial analysts doing deep dives into space investment, astrobotanists researching crop growth in Martian regolith, and planetary scientists distributing data from globe spanning satellite constellations, among many others. While each person has a distinct professional role and approaches their work with their own unique flare, there has nonetheless been a common thread uniting every conversation: anticipation. That is, each person, in diverse ways and in various capacities, was orienting their present in relation to an undetermined but looming future.

Of course, this disposition isn’t unique to those working in the field of space. Numerous social scientists have identified future orientation as a pervasive mood throughout society and in everyday life. As Adams et al. put it plainly: “one defining quality of our current moment is its characteristic state of anticipation, of thinking and living toward the future,” (2009, p. 246). Yet, this bearing is especially salient in spheres of life entangled with economic forecasting and technoscience. It just so happens that the private space industry, with its emphasis on cutting-edge technologies, high costs, and potentially higher returns, sits smack at the confluence of these two realms.

Pinning down exactly what anticipation means and does is a tricky endeavor. The concept has been broached and batted around by thinkers in different disciplines ranging from psychology and sociology to anthropology and economics (Poli, 2010). Though, even among these fields, there is consensus: Anticipation isn’t just thinking, predicting, or even speculating about events yet to come. Rather, anticipation involves a nuanced interplay between the present and the future, where the latter impinges and presses upon the former. Returning to Adams et al., anticipation can be construed as “a regime of being in time, in which one inhabits time out of place as the future,” (p. 247). Or, as anthropologists Bryant and Knight put it, “anticipation is more than simply expecting something to happen; it is the act of looking forward that also pulls […] in the direction of the future and prepares the groundwork for that future to occur,” (2019, p. 22). Essentially, through anticipation, present affect and action emerge in tune with a world beyond the horizon, and that world can be rooted in anything from an inchoate vibe to a precisely calibrated model.

Taking this broad approach to anticipation as a starting point, it’s possible to tease out various ways anticipation surfaces within and animates the space industry. Here, I’d like to point out three different anticipatory registers I’ve noticed over the past few months. This first, is anticipation as a lived experience; the second, is anticipation as a form of work; and the third is anticipation as a tool and collaborative process.

The lived experience of anticipation, or what Stephan and Flaherty would call “the first-person perspective of anticipation,” is one most are probably familiar with (2019). This is anticipation at its most intimate, the one that is perceived by individuals as they navigate the world in the long or short term. It could be the visceral thrill and elevated pulse onlookers experience as mission control counts down the seconds to a launchpad liftoff, or it could be the cool confidence felt by a student planning for a future career in the private space sector. This eager orientation toward the future of space recurred throughout my conversations.

For many, visions of robust space futures invigorated their lives and work—ideas of what’s to come provided both targets to structure life trajectories toward and inspiration to fuel long hours of labor. I spoke to a young electrical engineer in Brazil who’s anticipation of a possible future working in the space industry emerged as autodidactic discipline. He’d spend weeks learning advanced greenhouse agronomy by reading old NASA publications and Roscosmos reports he translated himself. Similarly, the prospect of attainable human habitation on Mars moved another interlocutor to quit her well-paying job to self-fund a series of analog research sites. Yet, this type of anticipation doesn’t only unfold as passion. Another I spoke with, an analyst for a space-focused venture capital fund, arranged aspects of their work through a more calculating mode of anticipation. He explained how the process of making investment decisions today involved carefully projecting how the industry would operate going forward. One crucial data point was the anticipated success of the SpaceX Starship program—with its cheap capacity (estimated at $20 per kg), this rocket has the potential to sway the dynamics of the whole industry.

Another way to grapple with anticipation is by tracking practices which frame and focus trajectories toward the future. This is what Steinhardt and Jackson call “anticipation work,” which they elaborate as the “pragmatic and attainable ways actors move toward some imagined future (ex. designing protocols for handling specimens, formalizing data standards, establishing support groups),” (2015, p.443). This form of anticipation is evident throughout the world of space expansion—a favorite example of mine is the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” a set of protocols drafted by the IAA detailing exactly what steps to take in the event SETI detects alien life.

In my conversations with space industry actors, instances of this type of work cropped up again and again. A case in point comes from the burgeoning field of astrobotany. Imaginaries of human life in space often include some form of agriculture as a cornerstone of extraterrestrial habitation (Scharmen, 2017). Yet, the ability to cultivate crops on the Moon or Mars in the future requires extensive research today. The company Exolith Labs exists to bridge this gap by producing realistic imitations of unearthly soils known as simulant. Its products, such as LHS-1 Lunar Highlands Simulant and JEZ-1 Jezero Delta Simulant, allow researchers to experiment with growing crops (or piloting robots) under realistic conditions. As one astrobotanist from Winston-Salem State University explained to me, the creation of standardized soils and other strict protocols for research is crucial for scientists to generate and share useful data. Without this work today, future space ambitions will invariably wilt.

Finally, the last form of anticipation I want to touch on is anticipation as a tool. This occurs when senses of anticipation are intentionally generated and shared to be instrumentalised toward specific ends. In many tech-forward industries such as IoT, big data, and fintech, building anticipation or “hype” is an established strategy for securing financial investments and other types of buy-ins (Hockenhull and Cohn, 2021). In many ways, the private space industry is no different—as Tutton points out, companies like SpaceX are already apt at staging technological spectacles to garner support and acclaim (2021). However, this also happens throughout the entire sector. Investment funds must hype their portfolios to investors; space founders must hype their products to investment funds; and companies must hype their products to potential customers. This process is ongoing, collaborative, and in the eyes of economists like Beckert, a driving engine of contemporary capitalist dynamics (2017). Just hop on YouTube to find many commercials for space related ventures such as New Space Capital ( or StarLab (

In my discussions in the past months, the circulation of this anticipation came up several times. Several people I spoke with working at space-focused venture capital funds explained that cutting through hype to make accurate investment decisions was a key skill. It’s also a common practice to liaison with outside experts to evaluate the actual technical capabilities of companies, as many seeking seed money can overstate their abilities or gloss over unsolved problems when pitching their vision of the future. Alternatively, some companies struggle with generating interest even when their technological achievements are undeniable. Speaking with a scientist at a satellite imaging company, I learned that a major challenge lies in convincing potential users how their massive trove of earth observation data is valuable. For this organization, collaborating with communities to envision and share future uses of their services could be the way forward.

The types of anticipation I’ve described here have all had a positive shine to them—it’s visions of a better future which animate the present. However, it’s important to note anticipation operates through negative temperaments as well. As Bryant and Knight point out, “in anticipation, there’s a sense of being unable to wait for the future, instead needing to rush toward it … this may be either to greet it or to thwart it,” (2019, p. 29). And, to be sure, anxiety, dread, and even apocalyptic visions also run as an animating force throughout the space industry. Though, I think I’ll leave that discussion for another time … to be continued!


Works Cited

Adams, V., Murphy, M., & Clarke, A. E. (2009). Anticipation: Technoscience, life, affect, temporality. Subjectivity, 28(1), 246-265.

Beckert, J. (2017). Imagined futures. Harvard University Press.

Bryant, R., & Knight, D. M. (2019). The anthropology of the future. Cambridge University Press.

Hockenhull, M., & Cohn, M. L. (2021). Hot air and corporate sociotechnical imaginaries: Performing and translating digital futures in the Danish tech scene. New Media & Society, 23(2), 302-321.

Poli, R. (2010). The many aspects of anticipation. Foresight.

Scharmen, Fred. “Highest and Best Use: Subjectivity and Climates Off and After Earth.” Journal of Architectural Education 71.2 (2017): 184-196.

Steinhardt, S. B., & Jackson, S. J. (2015, February). Anticipation work: Cultivating vision in collective practice. In Proceedings of the 18th ACM conference on computer supported cooperative work & social computing (pp. 443-453).

Stephan, C., & Flaherty, D. (2019). Introduction: experiencing anticipation. Anthropological perspectives. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 37(1), 1-16.

Tutton, R. (2021). Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Techno-Optimism: Examining Outer Space Utopias of Silicon Valley. Science as Culture, 30(3), 416-439.

Share This Story!