5 October 2007

The Space Race's Softer Side

By Rusty Rockets

This month Vienna will play host to the first ever "comprehensive trans-disciplinary dialogue on humans in outer space" - or so the blurb goes. The rationale behind the "Humans in Outer Space - Interdisciplinary Odysseys" conference is to see what a meeting of minds between scientists - who have been hard at work for years shooting various species into outer space - and representatives from the humanities can produce (obligatory slippers, tweed jackets and pipes on all shuttle flights, perhaps).

As talk of building moon bases and harvesting resources from extraterrestrial locations grows, the Vienna conference, co-organized by the European Science Foundation (ESF), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), couldn't be timelier. Only recently did political scientist Rasmus Karlsson, from the University of Lund, Sweden, suggest that space could solve all of our planet's impending resource problems. Karlsson suggests we source minerals and unfiltered solar energy from the moon. As we gradually extend our reach into space, he contends, new industrial locations like the moon and beyond could also become the location for pollutant sinks and other types of waste matter.

So, it finally appears that a sustainable future is on the cards for Earth. But it involves plundering the resources of other planets, asteroids, and who knows what else, and filling them with our leftover crap. Don't worry about all that toxic waste; we'll just sweep it under the cosmological carpet. Yes, with an abundance of space junk already orbiting Earth, it really is about time that the humanities were allowed access to ground control - even if the philosophers can't be sure whether ground control actually exists or not.

The new industrial space age is just one of the many topics that humanities and social sciences representatives will be discussing with their space agency counterparts. Since the approaching galactic resources boom looks to be the best excuse for venturing into the galaxy and beyond - as has always been the case - it underpins many of the conference's presentations. There are many topics scheduled for debate during the conference, such as how we would coordinate international ambitions to mine space? How is space likely to be branded and marketed? How will space exploration compare with 16th century exploration of Earth; what can we learn from the past?

At a preliminary seminar in Genoa this year, Vienna conference organizer Professor Luca Codignola had 21 thinkers present papers of a humanist nature. G�sli Pálsson, an anthropologist from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, presented his paper entitled "Lucy in the Sky... Out of Africa, Out of Earth," which used the meeting of past civilizations to explore possible future ones with non-human cultures.

There is also the issue of how humans will fair during this great new extraterrestrial undertaking. Will whole families, like in the pioneering days of old, need to move off Earth to regions where work and a new life waits? What kinds of legal protections can be put in to place to prevent exploitation of workers (even though we all know that in space no one can hear you scream, and a union card will therefore be of little use)? What kinds of jobs will be available in space, and how dangerous will they be? What about hidden, unexpected dangers? How, for instance, would we cope after encountering an alien pathogen, as historical luminary Dr Alfred Crosby suggests in his paper "The Space-Roving Human Being and His and Her Inhabitants: Micro-Organisms and Extraterrestrial Travel"?

Such concerns do not seem to be foremost in scientist's minds, says Codignola. "The science community does not really seem to be aware of the fact that a number of issues and concerns that they are dealing with, such as the consequences of meeting with unknown pathogens, are known and have long been studied by historians and ethnologists," explains Codignola.

One of the more bizarre and controversial concepts regarding the future is how we may evolve as a species - and not just via natural selection. How real are the thoughts of futurist Ray Kurzweil, where he envisions a human-machine existence, where human and machine are indistinguishable? To survive long space voyages, or to work within certain celestial environments, workers may need to be physiologically modified in some way. Far fetched? Perhaps. But people are already open to body modification, it's just a matter of how far they'll go in order to secure that well-paid off-world job.

A conference such as this would not be complete without the big question of what we'd do if we ever encountered extraterrestrials during our travels. Just ponder for a moment, as conference speaker Alberto Musso, from the University of Insubria, has done, what the impact of meeting aliens will have on our planet's cultural traditions, such as organized religion. Infusing such a hypothetical meeting with a historical twist, conference organizer Professor Luca Codignola frames it a bit more bleakly.

"The so-called 'Columbian Exchange' that took place around 1492 was a typical case in point," says Codignola. "It changed the Western way of conceiving the globe; it forcefully challenged its theology; it allowed for a free flow of bacteria, germs and microbes that almost wiped out the American peoples."

Of course, many of us here on Earth already believe that we, or more precisely, they have made contact with aliens, been probed by aliens, or at least seen an alien spacecraft whiz by. Without even leaving Earth, let alone experiencing aliens, Debbora Battaglia, Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, will be presenting her take on what has, for some, become an obsession with aliens.

Battaglia's talk is to be centered on her book E.T Culture: Anthropology In Outerspaces, which is an academic study of those who share a belief in UFO sightings and alien contacts of many forms. Analyses of the case studies that comprise E.T Culture identify certain insecurities of alien communities, which encompass fears of racial differences, suspicion of the machinations of government, and both fear and fascination toward modern technologies. Despite this, the overall tone of Battaglia's E.T Culture, as will likely be her contribution at the conference, is upbeat and optimistic. The essays that make up her book address such diverse topics as the development of alien languages like Klingon, UFO seekers, the alien in Manga anime, and attempts to contact aliens via the Voyager probe - embrace issues of otherness and an ambiguous future. How, on the other hand, a room full of scientists, engineers, and technicians will ultimately react to such ruminations could well be the subject of Battaglia's next book.

While getting people efficiently and safely to and from Earth is slowly becoming a reality, we are really only launching into the initial stages of approaching space exploration in a humanistic manner. "Mankind's future in outer space will require a comprehensive view including the input in particular by the humanities and social sciences, as well as the reflection of the manifold trans-utilitarian aspects that make space exploration a province of all mankind," says Professor Kai-Uwe Schrogl, Secretary General of the ESPI and Chair of the conference.

Considering that we have to address ethical, health, legal, and philosophical issues just about everyday of our lives, it's rather surprising that the science community and the humanities haven't locked horns over space before. "We all felt it was rather strange that the two groups rarely, if ever, meet to discuss space-related issues," concluded Codignola.

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