By Eric Ruble
Billionaires Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk recently made waves with their flights into outer space – but will the final frontier be reserved for the wealthy? Not if Britt Adkins, a USC Price School of Public Policy student, has anything to say. Adkins’ newly launched media company, Celestial Citizen, seeks to demonstrate that the future of human development beyond Earth isn’t just for the elite.
She has big plans for her company and how people like her can shape the narrative around what human life may be like in space.
“There’s a much more multifaceted world that exists if only we amplify the voices that have not been getting the same air time,” said Adkins, a second-year student in the Master of Urban Planning program.
While many people in the industry have been passionate about outer space since they were young, Adkins’ interests were very much terrestrial until recently. “For me, it was the opposite,” she said. “I’ve always been curious about cities and how people interact with the built environment.”
But after she graduated college, she realized that conversations about space lacked an urban planning angle. “People were using phrases like ‘space colonies’ and things like that, which is problematic, colonizing language,” Adkins said.
She enrolled in the Master of Science in Space Resources Program at the Colorado School of Mines, which focuses on the technical, political and economic aspects of utilizing resources in outer space. Wanting to expand her impact in the field, she then began looking at master’s of urban planning programs.
“I’m very interested in having more balanced conversations – conversations that are more focused on issues of social justice related to whatever activities we pursue in space – and so it felt appropriate to pursue a master’s of urban planning where I could focus on that.”
She reached out to Professor Marlon Boarnet at USC Price, who encouraged her to apply.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a supportive experience where I’ve been encouraged to not only take classes within the urban planning [program] that really suit my specific interests, but also encouraged to take some classes outside of Price to really round out the interdisciplinary concentration that I’ve been interested in,” Adkins said.
Relocating to Los Angeles also made sense. The area is the home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a large chunk of the private space sector: Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic all have headquarters or offices in L.A. County.
“It’s tailor-made for others like myself who have an interest in space urban planning and want to be close to the action,” Adkins said.
Changing the conversation around space
In January 2021, Adkins launched the Celestial Citizen podcast. In each episode, Adkins speaks with someone involved in the space industry who may not receive as much attention as those in the headlines.
Adkins and her guests have discussed topics including disability rights in space, how the space industry can be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community and Indigenous perspectives on space exploration.
She finished the podcast’s first season in the spring of 2021 and launched the second iteration in the fall. The third season airs in April.
“I was actually very pleasantly surprised with how quickly we really were able to build this very loyal following of listeners,” Adkins said. “There was clearly a demand for more content that was nuanced.”
Adkins says her time at Price has allowed her to reevaluate the way she thinks about space. She said Professor Lisa Schweitzer’s seminar on social justice has been especially useful in that regard.
“That has been instrumental in helping to shape some of the views that I have about what we’re doing in space and how it relates to social justice issues here on earth,” Adkins said. “I’ve felt a lot of love and support throughout my time at Price, so that has been great.”
Adkins is actively working on expanding Celestial Citizen’s content. She is producing a short film about the gender discrimination and sexual harassment women and non-binary individuals face in the space industry.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking. Doing all of those interviews was a very difficult experience in some ways, but I think it’s so important that we get these stories out there,” Adkins said, pointing to sexual harassment allegations at Blue Origin as one recent example of systemic problems.
The film, called “Take Up Space,” will premiere at the Overview Effect Film Festival on March 13. Adkins has plans to make more short films as well as docuseries and feature-length movies.
Setting the tone for the future
Adkins believes now is the time to change the conversation around space. In fact, she says failing to act would result in an outer space that caters to a hyper-exclusive group.
“The decisions, the actions and the precedent-setting that we take now will have a very big impact on the future,” she said.
Despite her concerns, Adkins says there is reason for optimism. “If we can come together and demand change and envision this really radical [idea] of what humanity’s future in space might look like, I think that is very exciting.”
She says when trying to imagine how space could only serve the privileged few, one only needs to look to the inequality that is ubiquitous on earth.
“We don’t want the status quo to be transplanted into space,” she said.
Adkins’ mission to showcase what the future could be starts in the present. She is working hard to maintain the momentum she has already gathered, and with an engaged and growing audience, her message will only continue to spread.