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'The Journey' painting
The future of space exploration will require closer cooperation between the “soft sciences” and the space community; can “astrosociology” bridge that gap? (credit: Pat Rawlings/NASA)

Astrosociology and the space community

Forging collaboration for better understanding and planning

As the fiftieth anniversary of the dawning of the space age approaches, sociology continues to pay little attention to human behavior related to space and its exploration. While the other social and behavioral sciences, and the humanities, broach this subject more readily, the overall approach of a social-science-oriented perspective remains unorganized. (Henceforth, for the sake of brevity, the social sciences refer to all of the so-called “soft” sciences). My proposal of astrosociology possesses the potential to bring together all of these parties in a way that can produce research findings that will become easily identifiable and utilizable among these “soft” scientists as well as the “hard” scientists and engineers within the space community. When the future of the space program receives attention, many remind us of the projected shortfall of scientists and engineers. At the same time, scarcely anyone seriously considers the problem of the ongoing shortage of social scientists vis--vis the study of space exploration. This must end if we truly desire a full understanding of issues related to human behavior related to space.

From the beginning it was obvious that astrosociology would benefit from the formal collaboration between social scientists and space scientists, even while the latter (including many within NASA) view it as a secondary priority or, worse, as no priority at all. From the beginning, then, Astrosociology.com sought to encourage development of a collaborative relationship between the social science and space communities among its objectives. Bringing sociology into the space age also presents a formidable challenge as well, though measured progress continues. In this context (and that of the title above), space community refers to the collection of individuals functioning directly or indirectly in space-related matters, from space scientists and engineers, to space advocates and space policy experts. The space community will benefit from this relationship, in part, for the reasons laid out here. Another definition, in another context, receives attention below.

Defining astrosociology

It makes sense before proceeding to formally define astrosociology so that the reader can get a better sense of the character of this overall argument. Astrosociology, first proposed openly in July of 2003 at Astrosociology.com, is defined as the study of astrosocial phenomena, or cultural and social patterns related to outer space. Such patterns imply that human interaction occurs within social groups. Essentially, astrosociology is the sociology of outer space at its core. Nevertheless, it must fundamentally rely upon vital contributions from other types of social scientists and those within the space community, which serves as the theme of this essay.

Astrosociology is defined as the study of astrosocial phenomena, or cultural and social patterns related to outer space.

This definition becomes more understandable from to a member of the space community when contrasting the difference between astrosocial phenomena and space phenomena. An undiscovered asteroid, for example, involves no astrosocial phenomena because the actions of human beings, whom are necessary to establish social patterns, remain unrelated to this space phenomenon. However, as soon as even one human being discovers the asteroid, then one can say that astrosocial phenomena exist. The discovery itself would occur within an organization, and would thus be regarded as an astrosocial phenomenon, as would be all subsequent social/cultural patterns related to the asteroid; including devising the means of preventing it from striking the Earth should a collision course become an issue. It remains common during this early phase of the space age that most astrosocial phenomena occur on Earth. Astronomy and all the other space sciences involve behavioral patterns characteristic of astrosocial phenomena, and their efforts (including their implications to society) fall under the purview of astrosociology.

Emphasis of the concept of “outer space” is important as part of the definition of astrosociology because sociology has traditionally defined space as social or geographic space in one form or another. Astrosociology focuses on the relationship between space and society, including the interactions involved and their contributions to social change. Non-astrosocial phenomena interact with social phenomena and thereby produce social change affecting both efforts in space as well as all elements of society on Earth. With this in mind, a particular society can be broken down into two theoretical parts to gain better understanding of the dynamics involved: the astrosocial sector includes social groups that conduct astrosocial activities while the non-astrosocial sector includes all other groups unrelated to astrosocial phenomena. The two interact to produce a particular quantity of the social change within a particular society, increasing as space exploration becomes more essential to meeting social needs and solving social problems.

Increasing collaboration between the social sciences and the space community

Based on this discussion thus far and based on current practice, three related questions come to mind. Why does the space community need astrosociology at all? Why should an engineer or space scientist care about the social sciences when they have done fine without them (aside from psychology) since the beginning of the space age? Finally, why do members of the space community fail to see the value of all the social sciences in furthering their objectives?

The answers to such questions seems unapparent to many. After all, NASA has achieved a great many successes without a great reliance on the social sciences. Thus, many question why the social sciences deserve consideration now. Space scientists and engineers have worked within organizations, both directly in space and indirectly on Earth, to make the space program possible. Politics always influences their work, but social scientists seem irrelevant.

Why does the space community need astrosociology at all? Why should an engineer or space scientist care about the social sciences when they have done fine without them since the beginning of the space age?

From a historical perspective, we currently find ourselves nearly at the dawning of the space age. Most astrosocial phenomena still occur on Earth while human space travel currently operates at low Earth orbit. As we unfortunately learned again with the Columbia tragedy, even this technology is somewhat primitive and unreliable. Even so, astrosocial phenomena produce social forces leading to social change right here on Earth. Much of the aeronautics research that currently exists produces technologies directly applicable to commercial flight and other spin-offs applicable in a multitude of areas of social life including medicine, materials processing, weather forecasting, and ever more sophisticated communications applications. Moreover, these activities influence social change in less obvious ways, requiring dedicated astrosociological investigation. While largely ignored, they remain important to society.

Apparently, many continue to overlook the following fact from both a social science and space professional perspective: both communities need one another and they will increasingly rely on one another as we move further out beyond the relative safety of Earth’s low orbit. The unknown qualities of space exploration further away from the Earth demand maximum research and understanding. They demand collaboration, not continued isolation.

Furthermore, the answer lies in the nature of space exploration today as contrasted with our efforts in the future. In time, of course, the technology will improve as we venture slowly outward to the Moon and Mars. And beyond Mars, human spaceflight will require much more robust and reliable spacecraft. Still, we will move farther and farther outward because we are culturally dedicated to exploring space. It is important to understand these cultural values. Engineers can design reliable habitats but they cannot design livable communities without assistance. Engineers and others within the space community need social scientists to help plan for the establishment of space settlements in the future, from this point forward.

Highlighting four astrosociological considerations

Decisions associated with space operations consist of social components that many continue to overlook. Consider the four examples below that strengthen the case that the social sciences offer significant contributions to the professional space community.

Elites in space characterize the initial constituency of space travelers. The first people in space are the government elites and the wealthy. The average citizens of even developed nations are subject to denials of the privilege of space travel. Currently, of course, one can argue that space travel is just too dangerous. As technology develops, societies must decide how important it is to open space up to the average person. Considerations of risk exist, but so does the question of public support for something for which they cannot partake. Inclusion of non-elites as part of future space expeditions represents an ethical/justice matter, traditionally the realm of sociology. These sorts of ethical and justice matters require consideration before our technology allows for greater capabilities.

Space communities, whether they consist of elites or include average citizens, will require careful consideration as to how they are constructed. In this context, space community refers to space settlements rather than the social network of space professionals described earlier. While the space habitat’s architecture (i.e., physical environment) remains vitally important for the survival of inhabitants, construction of the social environment is no less important for their survival. And, in fact, the two types of environments must be considered together, especially when we contemplate space communities with characteristics including long duration, extreme isolation, and vast distances from Earth. Meanwhile, we must consider these realities as we construct the first space communities in closer proximity to our planet so we may learn more about what to expect subsequently in more extreme situations.

As technology develops, societies must decide how important it is to open space up to the average person. Considerations of risk exist, but so does the question of public support for something for which they cannot partake.

SETI and other astrobiological research remains an important consideration. The relationship between astrosociology and astrobiology is strong due to cultural values that favor determining if Earthlings represent the only species in the universe. Why do we pursue the search for extraterrestrial life with an uncertain likelihood of success? Values that support the search for microbial life possess consequences for actions. The question “Are we alone?” is probably nearly as old as human language itself. The answer to such a question belongs to all of humanity and not only governmental and scientific elites. Full disclosure represents an ethical concern: does anyone have the right to conceal such a discovery from the masses? Moreover, the discovery of life of any variety would produce social change among societies’ institutions and social groups. After all, social institutions, including religion, politics, and science, would need to adapt to such a development. Cultural adaptations reflect inevitable developments. We should be in position to study such potential scenarios should they unfold.

Applied astrosociology has direct application to the public space program as well as to private ventures due to its direct approach in adding sociological and social scientific insights to space missions. Applied astrosociology is defined as using sociological knowledge to solve social problems related to astrosocial phenomena; that is, direct application of astrosociological research to improve astrosocial conditions. Currently, this contribution remains largely absent even as it becomes more significant to the success of ever-more complex missions planned into the future. The time to integrate astrosociology into the organizational patterns of social groups within the space community is now in order to meet greater challenges that arise. In fact, sociologists and other social/behavioral scientists should be directly involved in planning for space missions involving human and robotic spaceflight, as both comprise complementary aspects of the same program. The current concept of human factors requires expansion to include well-established traditional sociological and social science conceptualizations and research findings. Isolated space communities will need to be self-sustaining in all of their dimensions. Social problems that will inevitably occur comprise a critical concern even while the physical environment continues to operate properly. As we move forward, we must maximize our understanding of practical astrosociological issues in order to help maximize success.

Benefiting from a multidisciplinary approach

Societies around the world continue to benefit from astrosocial phenomena even as we fail to study their effects in detail. Moreover, societies would benefit more significantly if they took advantage of the potential insights of social scientists. Knowledge regarding astrosocial phenomena, including awareness of supporting and opposing social values, makes it much easier to take advantage of existing social conditions.

When the space sciences and engineering (nearly exclusively favored by the space community) and social sciences (reflected by astrosociology) cooperate, we can move forward into the future in a way that makes us better informed, better prepared, and more capable. Astrosociology can serve to bridge these two currently isolated factions in a way that favors collaboration and greater success as we make our plans to move further outward to explore space. Independently, each community fails to attain a full understanding of the relationship between space and society. I encourage NASA, advocacy groups, and professional associations to adopt astrosociology as the formal social science arm of their organizational structures. Together, we will gain a greater understanding of issues related to space and society. With this enhanced knowledge, we can develop a more intelligent space program that benefits all Americans, and all of humanity.


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