Expert Voices

Was it a good idea for humanity to go to space?

an astronaut floats near a shadowed spacecraft hatch against the black of space. Part of Earth is seen below.
(Image credit: NASA)

In 1963, six years after the first satellite was launched, editors from the Encyclopaedia Britannica posed a question to five eminent thinkers of the day: “Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?” The respondents were philosopher Hannah Arendt, writer Aldous Huxley, theologian Paul Tillich, nuclear scientist Harrison Brown and historian Herbert J. Muller.

Sixty years later, as the rush to space accelerates, what can we learn from these 20th-century luminaries writing at the dawn of the space age?

The state of space 60 years on

Much has happened since. Spacecraft have landed on planets, moons, comets and asteroids across the Solar System. The two Voyager deep space probes, launched in 1977, are in interstellar space.

Related: How long could you survive in space without a spacesuit?

A handful of people are living in two Earth-orbiting space stations. Humans are getting ready to return to the Moon after more than 50 years, this time to establish a permanent base and mine the deep ice lakes at the south pole.

Water ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar south pole. (Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio. Data from JAXA/Selene)

There were only 57 satellites in Earth orbit in 1963. Now there are around 10,000, with tens of thousands more planned.

Satellite services are part of everyday life. Weather prediction, farming, transport, banking, disaster management, and much more, all rely on satellite data.

Despite these tremendous changes, Arendt, Huxley and Tillich, in particular, have some illuminating insights.

A brave new world

Huxley is famous for his 1932 dystopian science fiction novel Brave New World, and his experimental use of psychedelic drugs.

In his essay, he questioned who this “man” who had conquered space was, noting it was not humans as a species but Western urban-industrial society that had sent emissaries into space.

This has not changed. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty says space is the province of all humanity, but in reality it’s dominated by a few wealthy nations and individuals.

Huxley said the notion of “stature” assumed humans had a special and different status to other living beings. Given the immensity of space, talking of conquest was, in his opinion, “a trifle silly”.

Tillich was a theologian who fled Nazi Germany before the second world war. In his essay he wrote about how seeing Earth from outside allowed us to “demythologise” our planet.

In contrast to the much-discussed “overview effect” which inspires astronauts with a feeling of almost mystical awe, Tillich argued that the view from space made Earth a “large material body to be looked at and considered as totally calculable”.

An image of the lunar surface taken by the US Ranger 7 spacecraft in 1964. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

When spacecraft began imaging the lunar surface in the 1960s, the process of calculation started for the Moon. Now, its minerals are being evaluated as commodities for human use.

Have humans changed, or is it how we view Earth?

Like Tillich, Arendt left Germany under the shadow of Nazism in 1933. She’s best remembered for her studies of totalitarian states and for coining the term “the banality of evil”.

Her essay explored the relationship between science and the human senses. It’s a dense and complex piece; almost every time I read it, I come away with something different.

In the early 20th century, Einstein’s theory of special relativity and quantum mechanics showed us a reality far beyond the ability of our senses to comprehend. Arendt said it was absurd to think such a cosmos could be “conquered”. Instead, “we have come to our present capacity to ‘conquer space’ through our new ability to handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth”.

The new geocentrism

The short human lifespan and the impossibility of moving faster than the speed of light mean humans are unlikely to travel beyond the Solar System. There is a limit to our current expansion into space.

When that limit is reached, said Arendt, “the new world view that may conceivably grow out of it is likely to be once more geocentric and anthropomorphic, although not in the old sense of the earth being the center of the universe and of man being the highest being there is”. Humans would turn back to Earth to make meaning of their existence, and cease to dream of the stars.

This new geocentrism may be exacerbated by an environmental problem already emerging from the rapid growth of satellite megaconstellations. The light they reflect is obscuring the view of the night sky, cutting our senses off from the larger cosmos.

The far future

But what if it were technologically possible for humans to expand into the galaxy?

Arendt said assessing humanity from a position outside Earth would reduce the scale of human culture to the point at which humans would become like laboratory rats, studied as statistical patterns. From far enough away, all human culture would appear as nothing more than a “large scale biological process”.

Arendt did not see this as an increase in stature:

The conquest of space and the science that made it possible have come perilously close to this point [of seeing human culture as a biological process]. If they ever should reach it in earnest, the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but have been destroyed.

Sixty years on, nations are competing to exploit lunar and asteroid mineral resources. Private corporations and space billionaires are increasingly being touted as the way forward. After the Moon, Mars is the next world in line for “conquest”. The contemporary movement known as longtermism promotes living on other planets as insurance against existential risk, in a far future where humans (or some form of them) spread to fill the galaxies.

But the question remains. Is space travel enhancing what we value about humanity? Arendt and her fellow essayists were not convinced. For me, the answer will depend on what values we choose to prioritise in this new era of interplanetary expansion.

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Alice Gorman
Associate Professor in Archaeology and Space Studies, Flinders University

Dr. Alice Gorman is an internationally recognized leader in the field of space archaeology. She is an Associate Professor in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, where she teaches the Archaeology of Modern Society.

Her research focuses on the archaeology and heritage of space exploration, including space junk, planetary landing sites, off-earth mining, rocket launch pads and antennas.

She is a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Advisory Council of the Space Industry Association of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Her book "Dr. Space Junk vs the Universe: Archaeology and the Future" (2019) won the Mark and Evette Moran NIB People's Choice Award for Non-Fiction and the John Mulvaney Book Prize, awarded by the Australian Archaeological Association. It was also shortlisted for the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, and the Adelaide Festival Literary Awards.

Alice tweets as @drspacejunk and blogs at Space Age Archaeology.

  • Atlan0001
    Mars is not the next world in line for conquest, the limitlessly vast surface and other resources of SPACE itself is the next frontier world in line for conquest! It always has been for life.
  • Unclear Engineer
    The survey done by the Encyclopedia Britannica, asking about the effects of space technology on the "stature" of humans, seems like an off-base beginning, from which those 6 "philosophers" launched into their own pre-existing agendas.

    The only species we know of that thinks in terms of "stature" of our species is us. so, the question was really about our self image. Let's not pretend that is anything like scientifically objective. We don't even have a collective agreement on what our self image is.

    My personal position is that going into space is simply an extension of our species' innate urge to explore new places and new ideas, with the hope that the new knowledge gained will show us a less crowded place where life is easier, or show us new things that will make life easier where we are.

    So far, it is the second goal that has materialized for us with advancing space technology. We are learning a lot about the Earth and the universe beyond the Earth. It is showing us opportunities and hazards that we previously were oblivious to. We may be able to use other solar locations for studies and resources, but we may need to use our knowledge and capabilities to protect ourselves from something like an asteroid or comet that may otherwise collide with Earth in the future. We definitely have better day-to-day benefits from space technology, including GPS location for just about everything, better weather forecasting, better identification of pollution sources, etc., etc,

    But, regarding the first goal I mentioned, we still don't seem to have gained much in the sense of finding nice places into which we can spread our species' habitat. And, maybe that is what will really end up changing us. So far, we still seem to be thinking that we will just keep expanding our species across space like we have expanded completely across Earth's surface. But, at least to this point in our knowledge development, it looks hopeless to think that we will ever find and reach an "Earth 2". And, accepting that as fact should have some beneficial effects on how we perceive Earth and our place within its ecosystem. Accepting that we are not outside of our ecosystem and have a need to control ourselves, not just modify our environment to suit ourselves in the short term, should push us to adopt a more sustainable approach to maintaining and enhancing life experiences for people on Earth.

    Blindly betting that we will discover "new physics" that will allow us to spread our species to other planets in other star systems is not a logical way to proceed with our current treatment of the only ecosystem that we actually know can support us.

    To those of us actually paying attention to scientific findings, post like the first reply to this thread are examples of head-in-the-sand thinking, betting that we can keep doing whatever we dream about doing, without limit, and without consequences. People posting such things are not paying attention to what we are learning about the limits that we need to learn to live with.

    Geology, paleontology, archeology, and history all tell us that civilizations and even species can crash catastrophically. The question is whether humans are smart enough to take what we have learned and change ourselves sufficiently to avoid causing our own demise? I am rooting for us, but I would not bet on us.
  • Questioner
    The 'stature' of baboons strutting for other baboons, no matter how one might 'dress up' the baboons.
    Humans compulsively do things and either have or fabricate a rationale for the 'reason'.
    'Society' is based on collective narcissism.
    As largely an existentialist i see it as a technical capacity.
    Living/surviving in brutal unforgiving space (environments) where we would need pressure and robust cyclic biochemical systems in hostile enviroments is daunting.
    I would imagine many 'learning' catastrophes if it is even feasible.
    We are the most resource demanding (defiling?) species (we know of) on this planet.
    Historically overcrowding in settled places drove desperate people to emigrate.
    Putrifying this biosphere may cause many to naively have the same notion about space habitation.
    Obviously I am not a 'fan' of 'humanity',
    but it is what it is. We're probably an event stream 'default'.

    When the horn blowing, banner waving, grandiose pompous aliens land my first statement will be, "I'm not with 'them'"
  • Unclear Engineer
    Questioner said:
    . . .
    'Society' is based on collective narcissism.
    . . .
    I am going to argue with that. "Society" in humans and other species has evolved as a mechanism for advancing the species. It is basically a recognition that, by acting together in a coordinated manner, individuals have better results than they would if they did not coordinate.

    When the species population density is well below the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, the cooperation is typically the species unified against the rest of the world. But, as the population density reaches a point where intraspecies competition for resources dominates the threats to individual's well being or even existences, the society fragments, and intraspecies conflicts develop. The cooperation effect is still there, but it becomes focused on beating the "other" groups of the fragmented species more than dealing with threats from outside of the species.

    Humans are very far along into intraspecies conflict. And it is getting worse as the population continues to grow.

    If we do not learn as a species that the best outcomes for all of us would be from voluntarily limiting our total numbers, we will continue to do so involuntarily by trying to reduce the populations of the fragments of human society other than the ones we identify with. Excuses have been developed on the basis of physical appearance, religious beliefs, previous conflicts, etc.

    Yes, there are individuals who seek leadership to satisfy their own personal desires at the expense of the others in their own parts of human society. But, those people only have power because they have learned now to manipulate the thinking of their followers, usually be saying that they will address the real issues that are concerning their followers. But, that doesn't make all of their followers "narcissists".

    The problem is that there are a lot of people who are not happy with their situations - and that is basically because we have exceeded the population density which our ecosystem can support on an indefinite basis.
  • Questioner
    Anthropologically socities were about coexistence, but some shared goals/ideas greatly assisted that.
    The 'power' of the 'law' is the idea of some singular 'perfect' binary 'right' (good) & 'wrong' (bad), usually associated with some magic deity.
    The imagined ethos is either the extant perfect interactions or the close pursuit thereof.
    Perfection/ideals is/are individually defined.
    It's pretty narcissistic to imagine i &/or we know what perfection is (should be) in contradiction to all others.
    We socially harmonize by not inquiring too deeply what things like a 'decent person' actually means specifically and in detail.
    Inconsistencies can be ignored.
    We are entranced with a kind of shared 'high' in the fuzzy, imprecsely defined proposed endeavor.
    Society's lofty perfect ideas are never sullied with actual interface with ad hoc, unpredictable actual reality.
    Magic ideology will carry us through...

    The odd thing is even people who's own self esteem has been trashed by a society's population may still be gaga about that society & its loftiness.

    We invariably look at past societies with horror &/or condescension from the heights of our finished & final & only 'real enlightenment'.

    Sadly this same sanctimonious narcissism infects and distorts what is imagined to be science.
    Wouldn't a logical mind consider that superior information often conveys advantage and to retain that advantage one must keep it contained?

    Science has both wonderful and horrible potential,
    but we should have blind faith in the ethics, ideals and competent scrutiny of the self anointed 'science community'?

    Sorry, no easy sale here. :D
  • Unclear Engineer
    I doubt humans have been about "coexistence" since well before homosapians "displaced" Neandethals and Denisovans, which somehow "did not survive". We have been our own worst enemies as far as the information exists to show how people interacted. Even that poor thousand-of-years-dead fellow whom they pulled out of the glacier in the Alps had an arrow head embedded in him.

    And all this stuff about "narcissism"you are posting does not describe the way I think, nor the way that most people I know think. Frankly, it looks like a vain attempt on your part to do "virtue signalling" by holding yourself up as disdainful of how others are not perfect in your eyes.

    Reality is that human nature is not perfect and we have to deal with it as it is. But, we can deal with it a lot better if we understand what it is and how it causes people to do what we do.

    As I posted already, we are going to have to change our ways, voluntarily or by the forces of nature acting beyond our control. If we can't do that voluntarily, the consequences will probably end up being horrific. There are many paths to "horrific" - but I am not sure that human nature allows for a path to elsewhere. Hoping it does - trying to do my small part.
  • Daniel Mcbrayer
    Admin said:
    Six years after the first satellite was launched, editors from the Encyclopaedia Britannica posed a question to five eminent thinkers of the day: “Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?”

    Was it a good idea for humanity to go to space? : Read more
  • Questioner
    Do you think people would be completely psychotically committed to mass murdering one another if they weren't psychologically captivated/fixated by sensations fed by some imagined perfect (or very nearly so) ideal?
    Even the other portions of their respective societies not directly embattled still cloyingly bask in their imagined superior standing.
    If you don't call it collective narcissism what would one call it?

    "We are God's chosen people and God granted us this real estate!"
    Even while their enemy says exactly the same thing.
    Presumed 'divine' support isn't a function of collective narcissism?
    'Special us'?

    No we, the acolytes of perfect academic 'science' are the chosen and we and only we should be believed!

    Utill someone has a better term i will stick with "collective narcissism".
  • Unclear Engineer
    Questioner, you are off in the weeds with your thinking about human nature. Calling it "collective narcissism" is basically circular logic that doesn't produce any real understanding.

    First, look at the definition of narcissism at , which says:
    "Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them. People with this disorder may lack the ability to understand or care about the feelings of others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence, they are not sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism."

    Saying that the whole human species has that "disorder" makes it normal, not a disorder. Hence, you are in a closed-loop claiming that everybody is wrong, except perhaps yourself for recognizing that everybody else is wrong. Not realistic, and not logically useful to understanding.

    You mentioned
    Questioner said:
    "We are God's chosen people and God granted us this real estate!"
    which I assume is making reference to the current war in Israel/Palestine. Please note that land was originally occupied by Neanderthals, and was taken from them by my ancestors and yours. Once history became recorded in a manner we can review today, we see that our collective cousins-many-times-removed have been fighting over that land almost continuously, even before the the current combatants were there, and well before either of the currently conflicting religions was established.

    So, it seems more productive to me to understand that the fight is over resources, particularly the land area, in that case. It isn't that people are being "narcissistic" about it. It is natural for humans to value themselves and their immediate family and their closest relatives and their more similar neighbors survival more highly than they value the survival of more dissimilar and usually historically hostile "others". That isn't "narcissism". It is the predictable effect of over populating a region so that there is competition for the resources needed for survival. We see the same effect in other social species - in particular, in wolves and chimps.

    The excuses that societies create for collective assembly and combat do get influenced by narcissistic "leaders" who may use "religion", "ethnic purity" or "populism" arguments to galvanize their "supporters" into collective warfare actions. But, that doesn't make their followers "narcissistic". The followers are basically just short circuiting a very complex decision process for themselves by accepting a prefabricated story that seems to justify them taking action to achieve what they think they need for their own well being. That need most often is food or safety from perceived threats. We are seeing tens of millions of people immigrating into the U.S., Canada, and western Europe from places in Africa, South America, China, etc, because they feel either unsafe where they are coming from or they do not see any way to support themselves in the regions they are leaving. Are you calling them "narcissists" too?

    Trying to pull this conversation back to the topic of the benefits of humans "entering space", I am hoping that the overviews and detailed data we get from space help us better understand the limits of our biosphere and how drastically we are changing it by our activities to "adapt" it to human benefit at the expense of other species with which we share it, as well as to ourselves. It is easier to change a person's mind by showing them something than by only telling them about it. As the saying goes, "seeing is believing". So, I am hoping that people seeing the deforestation, desertification, flooding, etc. on a global scale makes the proper impression. And, I am hoping that the enhanced communication capabilities for on-the-ground reporting help people understand the harsh realities that much of humanity faces every day - even where there are no active wars occurring.
  • Questioner
    I am not condemning it,
    i am recognizing it as an existential artifact of human populations (& their imaginations),
    and its (innate more than intended) social engineering aspect.

    How is being captivated by some collective image/'ideal' and its seductive 'beauty', that 'i am a party to', not collective narcissism?

    The idea that governments/societies take violent armed authority to impose some 'standards' can only happen because many are entranced with their notions & the rest tacitly agree or don't object enough to stand up against it.

    It's perhaps the major 'structural' element of the organizing large populations of people.
    It is when people & whole societies accept something as 'perfected' & not open for examination and critique.

    Many do this with their religions,
    ideologies, 'capitalism', and sadly 'science'.

    It is the same psychology that allows people in groups to lie (among other things) with greater propensity than do individuals.

    We do the same thing of taking some things as an unquestioned 'givens' internally & it makes mental operations workably efficient.
    We 'believe' in something as an unquestioned absolute, not as a current workable/working hypothesis open for examination.

    I understand the necessity of utilizing the irrational element to simply exist effectively,
    but believe this to be a root & why it should sometimes be reexamined.

    We talk about the future like an existential 'thing' and invariably project ourselves there as if we have some ownership of the future.

    We bask in the glow of our imagined self image,
    sometimes individually and sometimes collectively.

    It's not necessarily evil, it's just what we do.
    But it has the potential to become idiotic & potentially dangerous.