Space is Not Just for Scientists and Engineers Anymore!

Written by David Beaver.

Both NASA and new private space companies argue that they will inspire a new generation of science and engineering students. Since the stated goal of space leaders is the establishment of space settlements, many other skills and disciplines will be needed, requiring new specialties and training for the unique working and living conditions of any space settlement. While both NASA and recent private space companies are encouraging science and engineering students, neither is widening the public or educational call for this entire range of settlement needs. Since shifting educational systems and reviving lost cultural space awareness will take time, bringing the Overview Effect to the public space debate will provide inspiration and imagination for a New Space age to the entire culture.

A Curious Oversight in Space Settlement Plans

One of the most frequent arguments for greater effort, focus and funding for space exploration and development is that it will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.  This is certainly a worthy goal, and as a former student of nuclear and later theoretical physics, before moving to cognitive science, one I support. 

However, there is something curiously myopic about this widely accepted link between building a robust space capability and economy and inspiring primarily science and technology students.

Both NASA, and what is often referred to as the New Space industry, typified by companies such as Space X, Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace, envision civilization itself spreading out into space, establishing bases and settlements on the Moon, Mars, space stations and beyond. 

The idea that the vision of a trans-Earth civilization will primarily have the effect of inspiring a new generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students is curiously missing something critical -- like the rest of civilization!

Building any civilization (or even an outpost) requires a full complement of skills and abilities.  Even the most meager outpost requires doctors.   And while certainly science based, medicine is seldom mentioned in the litany of space related sciences that space leaders hope to inspire -- this despite the fact that Space Medicine is already a recognized specialty.

But what about the space nutritionist/cooks, architects and interiors designers support the psychological and physical well-being of any community?  That brings up psychologists and councilors.  Or what about farmers?  Who’s going to provide the food that the nutritionists and cooks will prepare?  OK, so they may be hydroponic farmers, but farmers nevertheless - food growers!  Not the sort of scientists typically mentioned by space leaders.

And then there are the artist/communicators suggested by astronauts from at least Apollo forward. Indeed, this lack is a large part of the reason for our currently low space awareness. 

This apparent lack of concern for attracting students to space-related "settlement support fields", rather than just STEM curricula is, at the very least, curious.  It would seem that these enabling disciplines are to be afterthoughts, easy to acquire once the rocket science technologies are in place.  But that’s not the way new fields and their education systems work.

Educational curricula change slowly, and in response to need.  Career directions of the highly dedicated student are often set well before college.  This seems to be especially true of the space field.  When was the last time you heard an undergraduate ponder, "I can’t decide between clinical psychology and becoming an astronaut".  And the idea that there might be such a hybrid field, involving unique study and training, is currently unheard of. 

The Overview Effect is the Missing Piece

I suggest that such an educational blind spot is just another example of a pervasive lack of what could be called "Space Awareness" in our culture as a whole.  And I’m not talking simply of the sort of awareness of space science and technology common to many space enthusiasts.  I’m talking about the visceral sense of reality of the Earth and Space that strikes the astronauts so powerfully and profoundly that there is even a unique term for it – the Overview Effect.

What is widely known in the Space community as the Overview Effect is the missing piece in the entire national debate over space programs and space businesses.  It is a principle driver and principle product of space travel, the experience of space itself and all the implications it entails.

Without going over all the source material on the Overview Effect; drawn principally from the astronauts’ own comments and reflections, and compiled for the first time in space philosopher Frank White’s seminal book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution;  here’s a much distilled summary.

The Overview Effect radically changes the space traveler’s "World View".  Specifically -- again according to the astronauts -- it makes viscerally real something one thinks is already known, the fact that they live on a PLANET.

They live on a round ball of rock covered in a thin smear of life and shielded from that infinite, airless Universe in which it hangs by an atmosphere that, proportionally, is a thin as the skin of an onion.  That insight, in and of itself, begins to reframe (or in some cases, reinforce) many previously held ideas about life on Earth; ideas about the environment, geo-political relationships, resources, energy, a host of "humanitarian" issues, and much more.

Then they look outward and see nothing around them but infinite empty space; and the stars.  The stars!  Outside the atmosphere, you see in every direction a density of stars many times greater than you would see on the clearest night in the desolate Southwest. They are sharp, crisp, bright points of light that fill the entire hemisphere around you like a dense peppering of "diamond dust", as one astronaut described them.

And then, again if you let it percolate enough, you sense just how immense the Universe is.  That is the Overview Effect, the fragile ball of life hanging in the immensity of the Universe. 

Space awareness was just beginning to percolate through our culture before the abrupt end of the Apollo Program.  Historically, it jump-started the modern environmental movement, shifted geo-political understandings and began making us aware of the intensely interactive nature of the ecosphere, civilization and all aspects of life on Earth.

It Takes Time and Effort to Shift World Views

Cognitive and media analysis of similar shifts in the public's "world view" suggest that it will take years of steady accomplishments by these New Space companies, and a newly energized NASA, to rebuild that sort of awareness -- an effort that space leaders seem largely unaware of.

NASA and cultural histories clearly show that the 60’s Moon Race was preceded by decades of increasingly sophisticated, realistic and culturally accepted Space Science Fiction and even space media created by Werner Von Braun and Walt Disney.  Later of course, there were widely covered NASA accomplishments.  We lived in a culture that literally called itself The Space Age.

In short, growing cultural "space awareness" preceded and followed President Kennedy’s call to go to the Moon and prepared the public imagination to accept such a technological leap.  With the imagination already in gear and the reality of space beginning to percolate through the school age population, the dreams of life and careers in space came easily to the young.

Today there is no similar fiction, movies or TV series based on the emerging New Space Age.  Nor is there yet sustained coverage of the accomplishments of the New Space Industry.  And NASA, without the Shuttle, is widely perceived as underfunded and without clear goals.

Even with our currently low level of cultural space awareness, you may still hear 12 year olds saying that they want to be an "astronaut".  But when was the last time you heard one say that he wanted to "grow food in space", or "council people on their problems with adjusting to a space environment", or "design living spaces that will help people adjust to living in space"!

Such thinking would be an indication that the reality of space and its relationship to Earth-based life had moved out beyond the science, technology and (now) the business focus of the space community.  Today there is little evidence that this is either occurring or encouraged.  On the cusp of a New Space Age that will likely be ten to a hundred times larger and more culturally pervasive, we have yet to return to the space awareness even of the 60's!

Elon Musk, whose company, Space X, just gained headlines by making the first demonstration cargo delivery to the International Space Station with their own rocket and space capsule, has boldly predicted that he will land the first man on Mars roughly within little more than a decade.  He has also said that he wants to live out the last part of his life on Mars!

If Musk succeeds in a first Mars landing within, let’s say fifteen years; a decade out he could have a small but self sufficient settlement.  Twenty-five years out, Musk will be in his mid-60’s (you know he has already calculated this) and if he wants to have a reasonably robust and productive later life on Mars, he will have to leave somewhere around that time.

So the initial colony, with the various needed support skills and services will need to be in place in little more than two decades.  And the initial focus is going to be on stimulating science and technology education and careers?!  When do we begin inspiring the space agriculture specialists, space nutritionists, interior designers, and all the rest of the skills needed to fully enable even a small self sufficient community on another planet? 

Many space enthusiasts and New Space Leaders say that they were inspired to aim for a space-related career in their formative school years, often their elementary and junior high years.  With that timeline in mind, these "community enablers" should soon be in the pipeline! 

And if you think I’m speculating too far in the future, Bigelow Aerospace is less than five years from opening their first orbiting private space station.  Bigelow has said that he is planning to build as many as TWO stations a year!  These orbiting stations will likely be the true beginnings of a space-based civilization, with similar outpost on the Moon not far behind.

So our earliest "space habitat enabling career" students should ideally be graduating with appropriate degrees and beginning to gain professional experience about…Now!

Of course I’m speculating heavily here.  And I’m making a lot of shoot-from-the-hip assumptions.  But the roots of the assumptions hold.  While a New Space Age is about to begin, one that portends a speed and extent of development orders of magnitude larger than the Moon Race of the 60's, there is little or no cultural awareness of this remarkable coming era.

The Overview Effect is the "Third Case" for Human Space Travel

I have repeatedly suggested that the experience of space itself, and the shifted World View it instills is a "Third Case" for manned space travel that is obscured in the current debate between space enthusiasts and critics, or between science and commerce.

The space enthusiasts and leaders, argue for science and exploration goals on one hand and the potential economic and business goals on the other.  The critics largely argue that in the current economic climate, we cannot afford a robust Space Program or an untried private commercial space industry.  Space must wait till Earth-based global-scale problems are dealt with.

All of these arguments ignore the World View shifting as a result of the Overview Effect.  This shift supports a "global perspective" that empowers dealing with problems on a global level and also makes the potentially enormous economic and resource benefits of space access real to those who gain the Overview Effect of the space experience.

I constantly monitor online coverage of New Space accomplishments like Space X's recent ISS delivery or Virgin Galactic's steady incremental advancement toward the beginning of space tourism.  I also check the reader comments.  They consistently run about 60 percent negative!  Check them yourself. 

Despite the reality of the milestones, the negative comments don't just cast doubt on the visionary projections of the industry or cite the push back of the critics, but worse yet, they see little real reason to take citizens (much less a fully enabled civilization) into space. 

Immersed as the world is today in a multitude of global challenges and economic uncertainty, (and with our current low "space awareness") the arguments for robust space programs, either NASA or New Space, based either on science and exploration or resources and commercial development, seem to most of the public, Congress and Wall Street to be distant, difficult, expensive and doubtful.

If we are to quickly begin to inspire, empower and educate a new generation of space pioneers and settlers, we will have to soon bring about a new era of space awareness, and bring it to the entire culture, not just the existing space enthusiast or STEM student.  The most powerful draw to such a collective mindset is to bring the World View shifting impact of the Overview Effect to the public.