In This Issue
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Space Exploration
September 1, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 3
Close collaboration between engineering and science has enabled marvels of space exploration over decades. Eight exemplary missions are described in this issue, conveying the excitement, challenges, and breakthroughs involved in efforts to better understand the wonders and mysteries of this solar system.

Social Issues in Space Exploration: A Call for Broader Dialogue

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Author: Kelly Smith

Active engagement of humanists in discussions of the social dimensions of space science will enrich understanding and produce more thoughtful decisions and policies.


“Inclusivity means not just ‘we’re allowed to be there’ but we are valued.”

– Claudia Brind-Woody


What policies should govern the exploration of other worlds? Should offworld human settlement be attempted? If so, how should those settlements be constituted and governed?

Progress in space science is raising many complex social issues, and researchers in the humanities and social sciences are increasingly seeking inclusion in these discussions. But space science remains dominated by scientists and engineers.

To address this problem, I begin with an overview of how “humanists” think and how their approach can be helpful to the sciences in addressing complex social and conceptual questions. Then I explain the exclusion of their voices and why it’s problematic. Finally, I offer some suggestions as to how the two communities can better work together.

I use the term scientist to refer to natural scientists and engineers and humanist to refer to humanities scholars and social scientists.[1] Neither term is perfect; in particular, “humanist” here should not be confused with ­secular humanism, and I recognize that social scientists may chafe at being lumped in with the humanities.

What Is the Humanist Perspective?

The humanist approach is different from science in its problem set, approach, and concept of success. In particular, humanists often seek to complicate existing answers, especially if they appear to be, as H.L. ­Mencken put it, “clear, simple, and wrong.” To scientists, who are self-selected to prefer clean answers, this approach can seem like a waste of time.

But there are two critical points to keep in mind here. First, the fact that some humanist concerns have resisted solution for a very long time does not mean that debating them is useless, just that they are very difficult to resolve—an observation that applies equally to unified field theory.

Humanists often seek to complicate existing answers, especially
if they appear to be “clear, simple, and wrong.”

Second, for many humanistic questions, refusing to attempt a thoughtful answer is simply not a viable option. Ethical discussion can certainly be frustrating, but ethical opinions shape everyone’s perceptions and actions in important ways. Choosing not to engage with ethics ultimately means that important influences on personal and professional behavior are not subjected to critical scrutiny.

Humanists thus often see their primary job, especially in interdisciplinary contexts, as arguing for the inclusion of diverse perspectives, especially unpopular ones. Unlike their science colleagues, they consider vigorous debate between an array of viewpoints a success even when it fails to produce an “answer” (Smith and Abney 2019), because such exchanges can enrich understanding. For example, an anthropologist has argued for considering the possibility that attempts to message alien worlds might be dangerous to the aliens (Traphagan 2017). The fact that this had not previously occurred to anyone (including the author) shows how easily important perspectives can be overlooked.

The Case for Inclusion

It’s important to keep in mind that the two camps are ultimately on the same team. Both are dedicated to the goal of discovering truths through systematic, rational investigation. And both are committed to the idea of rational convergence, believing that when diverse experts share and debate their perspectives, they move closer to those truths. For these reasons, scientists and humanists alike should strive for more inclusive discussion, especially when it comes to questions that are extremely difficult to resolve.

Readers would do well to reflect on the many missed opportunities to include a humanist voice. How many collections discussing the social dimensions of science and engineering contain a contribution from a humanist?[2] How many grants include humanists as co-PIs (or in any capacity)? How many guiding documents of federal, professional, and other organizations (e.g., NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap; Des Marais et al. 2008) call for inclusive interdisciplinary collaboration beyond the sciences?

Robust collaboration requires more than expressions of personal support for inclusion. As a colleague observed, “Everyone will say this stuff is important, but if you want to know whether they mean it, look at their budget.”

Of course, most scientists don’t intend to be exclusive. But establishing interdisciplinary connections requires effort, since humanists are often something of a mystery to scientists who lack easy opportunities to interact with them—humanists are creatures of academia and, even there, they inhabit different departments and colleges. Benign neglect is nonetheless still neglect and, once established, it creates a feedback loop (‘Why should I go out of my way to include those people if nobody else is doing it?’).

Benefits of Including a Humanist Perspective

While both sides can be guilty of overconfidence, scientists rarely experience the off-hand dismissal of their expertise that every humanist has encountered when attempting interdisciplinary work. This lack of appreciation is frustrating and ultimately counterproductive to the goal of inclusion. Consider this interaction between faculty in a humanities college and a vice president for research with a background in engineering. Asked about their research, the humanists explained the projects they were working on. Puzzled, the VPR followed up with, “OK, that’s nice, but what about your research?” While he deserved credit for asking the question, he clearly lacked the frame of reference to understand the answer.

The bottom line is that humanists do bring important expertise to the table. For example, though anyone can think about ethics, and ethicists have no corner on ethical truth, most scientists know little about ethics as a field of study. The danger is that, not knowing what they don’t know, they may overestimate their ability to resolve these issues on their own, or apply an answer that is appropriate in one context to another, importantly different, context. Such overconfidence helps explain the long history of scientists with (putatively) good intentions doing really bad things (Jones 1993; Kopp 1999; MacDonald 2014).

Public perception of science should be a major consideration for all scientists, since science is a publicly funded enterprise. This poses a real challenge, as the scientifically illiterate public often embraces unrealistic concerns and unscientific beliefs. (As someone who has spent years in the trenches fighting creationism, I share scientists’ frustration.) But refusal to engage with the public on decisions with social import is not a viable long-term strategy (Smith 2017). And, since humanists study people, they are well positioned to address potential social impacts of scientific developments in ways that better relate to the public.

There are also structural advantages to involving humanists in interdisciplinary contexts. For one thing, humanists require relatively little support and are thus not pressured to promise outside agencies quick returns. This allows them to explore issues that are not a priority for scientists, especially questions about the long-term future.

As in Earth-based research and development, responsible planning for missions to other worlds (­especially crewed missions) must take account of social/­environmental/ethical issues. Their consideration requires the involvement of those with relevant expertise.  For example, the main goal of planetary protection is often taken to be “protecting the science” (NRC 2006, p. 6). This approach may be fine for now, but its implicit social and ethical commitments require careful attention as more invasive missions are pursued. The strategy assumes that scientific knowledge is the most important consideration and ignores inevitable trade-offs between scientific investigation and other values. Hard choices will have to be made when the time comes to explore the oceans of Europa (which may contain a scientific treasure trove of complex life) as this will require the use of probes contaminated with terrestrial microbes. Humanists can help identify the many complex trade-offs and their impacts ahead of time.

Public perception of science should be a major consideration for all scientists, as science is a publicly funded enterprise.

There is real risk in postponing discussions about long-term implications since decisions, once taken, tend to be reified. Such concerns motivated the establishment of the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) research program of the Human Genome ­Project, which encouraged humanists to think ahead to a future when genetic technology will be commonplace.

Finally, scholars who are not directly involved in the pragmatic details of an issue can be more objective and thus better positioned to identify and critique the systematic biases that every discipline engenders.

Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI)

Until recently, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was limited to passive listening. Messages have been sent to potentially inhabited alien worlds, but they have mostly been publicity stunts. However, planning is underway for more systematic, and thus potentially more problematic, attempts. These range from the work of serious scientists (e.g., METI International) to private initiatives (e.g., the Interstellar ­Beacon Project).

Great care should be taken in any attempt to message aliens, since it could pose a major (even existential) risk to humanity (Smith 2020). Yet there are no agreements of any kind in place to govern METI attempts, largely because the scientific community has sought, for political reasons, to distance itself from the UFO craze. That may have been defensible 50 years ago, but recent developments (e.g., advances in astrobiology, the debate over the ’Oumuamua object,[3] the Pentagon’s report on “unidentified aerial phenomena” [ODNI 2021]) make clear the need to distinguish between UFOlogy and legitimate scientific investigation of extraterrestrial life. The current stance of the scientific community is not even consistent, since there is a tacit agreement (albeit a vague one) that scientists should not unilaterally respond to any signals SETI might receive, but no restriction on more concerning attempts to initiate contact.

Since the scientists involved in METI are not trained in ethical analysis, public policy, law, or even basic principles of social science such as informed consent, experts in these (and other) areas are clearly needed.

Scientists typically are not trained in ethical analysis, public policy, law, or basic principles of social science such as informed consent.

The scientific community’s approach to METI has been strangely political, which challenges the model of science as the disinterested search for truth (Brin 2014; Smith 2020). Given the potentially high stakes of contacting alien intelligence, this needs to change. At the very least, there is no reason to put off developing commonsense safeguards, such as requiring registration of all METI attempts in a public database (nothing like this exists, though see Quast 2018) and imposing minimal restrictions on content and targeting (Gertz 2016). Scientists should certainly be involved in these decisions, but developing responsible policies will require a much more inclusive discussion.

Encouraging Developments

The good news is that there is strong interest in social issues in the space sciences and there have been encouraging developments.

NASA and the Library of Congress have established the Blumberg Chair at the library to support ­researchers investigating “the range and complexity of societal issues related to how life begins and evolves and to examine philosophical, religious, literary, ethical, legal, cultural, and other concerns.…”[4]

Similarly, NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap got off to a promising start with a guiding question inviting consideration of “the future of life in the Universe” (though recent iterations have focused on empirical questions).

In addition, a number of publications have effectively articulated the case for more robust inclusion: a white paper helped establish the new, explicitly inclusive European Astrobiology Initiative (Capova et al. 2018); the NASA (2015) Astrobiology Strategy includes a humanities and social science appendix; and a workshop and focus group drafted an (unofficial) societal impact roadmap for astrobiology (Race et al. 2012).  These calls should be heeded.

Fortunately, the community of humanists both interested in and knowledgeable about these issues is growing rapidly, with a veritable explosion in research over the last 15 years (e.g., Cockell 2014; Schwartz 2020; Smith and Mariscal 2020).  There is now a ready ­supply of humanists well positioned to serve in this role. For example, Steven Dick is the former NASA historian and perhaps the person most involved in the growth of this community. He has published numerous articles, anthologies, and monographs on these issues, including his most recent book, Astrobiology, ­Discovery, and ­Societal Impact (2018). He has also worked extensively with NASA, the SETI Institute, American ­Astronomical Society, US Naval Observatory, and International Astronomical Union, among others.

Another good example is Kathryn Denning, a social scientist who has worked with the International ­Academy of Astronautics, International Space University, NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Just Space Alliance. She was also a member of a Mars Desert Research ­Station crew. She has published extensively on humanistic issues including interstellar message composition, the evolution of intelligence and interspecies communication, potential public reactions to future detection of extraterrestrial life or intelligence, and the ethics of space exploration.

Finally, several scientists have done significant work on the humanistic side of things, including Chris McKay of NASA Ames, Margaret Race of the SETI Institute, and Carl Pilcher of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

Getting to Greater Inclusivity

Fortunately, lack of inclusion is a fixable problem if both scientists and humanists make a concerted effort.

What Scientists Should Do

  • Be aware: Many opportunities for inclusion are missed simply because it doesn’t occur to scientists to engage with humanists.
  • Avoid tokenism: The point of collaboration is not to involve humanists per se, but to involve them substantively. Choose collaboration partners carefully, as humanists are no more interchangeable than scientists (the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology can assist here; an important part of its mission is to connect scientific researchers and organizations with the right experts to address these complex issues).
  • Plan carefully: Do not simply throw a few dollars at a random humanist and ask them to “organize something on the social stuff.” As with anything else, substantive and effective collaboration requires time, effort, and communication.

What Humanists Should Do

  • Learn the science: Humanists must better understand the science of the issues they discuss to ensure that their contributions are rooted in their best ­understanding.
  • Be practical: Humanists need to adapt their arguments to the hard-nosed pragmatic concerns that space science cannot ignore, resisting the urge to indulge in the abstract theory their own disciplines often require.
  • Recognize the work: The humanist community must recognize the importance of this kind of collaborative work so the careers of early adopters don’t suffer.


The contributions of humanists are presently both undervalued and underrepresented. There are complex reasons for this, which means that change requires intentional, concerted action. Because scientists are far better resourced and positioned to advocate for change, I believe they need to lead the way. Scientists’ ­tendency to shy away from collaboration is understandable, as interdisciplinary interactions can be messy and frustrating. But humanists play an essential role in highlighting uncomfortable dilemmas that already exist (sometimes implicitly) and compelling attention to them to reduce unintended consequences.

Whatever the reasons for it, lack of inclusion sends a clear message: social issues are not that important. But time and again history has shown that they are, so inclusion is ultimately worth the effort.

An inclusive approach that actively and substantively involves humanists in discussions of the social dimensions of space science will enrich understanding, better reflect diverse opinion, and produce more thoughtful decisions and policies.


Brin D. 2014. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and whether to send “messages” (METI): A case for conversation, patience and due diligence. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 67(1):8–16.

Capova KA, Persson E, Milligan T, Dunér D, eds. 2018. Astrobiology and Society in Europe Today. New York: Springer.

Cockell C. 2014. The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth. New York. Springer.

Des Marais DJ, Nuth JA III, Allamandola LJ, Boss AP, Farmer JD, Hoehler TM, Jakosky BM, Meadows VS, Phorille A, Runnegar B, and 1 other. 2008. The NASA Astrobiology Roadmap. Astrobiology 8(4):715–30.

Dick S. 2018. Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gertz J. 2016. Post-detection SETI protocols & METI: The time has come to regulate them both. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 69(8).

Jones JH. 1993. Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Washington: Free Press.

Kopp VJ. 1999. Henry Knowles Beecher and the development of informed consent in anesthesia research. Anesthesiology 90(6):1756–65.

MacDonald NE. 2014. Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research. Paediatrics & Child Health 19(2):64.

Machery E. 2012. Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life…and why you should as well. Synthese 185:145–64.

NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. 2015. Astrobiology Strategy. Washington.

NRC [National Research Council]. 2006. Preventing the Forward Contamination of Mars. Washington: National Academies Press.

ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence]. 2021. Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. McLean VA.

Quast PE. 2018. A profile of humanity: The cultural signature of Earth’s inhabitants beyond the atmosphere. ­International Journal of Astrobiology 20(3):1–21.

Race M, Denning K, Bertka CM, Dick SJ, Harrison AA, Impey C, Mancinelli R. 2012. Astrobiology and society: Building an interdisciplinary research community. Astrobiology 12(10):958–65.

Ruiz-Mirazo K, Peretó J, Moreno A. 2004. A universal definition of life: Autonomy and open-ended evolution. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 34(3):323–46.

Schwartz JSJ. 2020. The Value of Science in Space Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith KC. 2017. Scientists know best? Scientific paternalism and METI. Proceedings, Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, Oct 3–6, Huntsville AL.

Smith KC. 2018. Life as adaptive capacity: Bringing new life to an old debate. Biological Theory 13(2):76–92.

Smith KC. 2020. METI or REGRETTI: Informed consent, scientific paternalism and alien intelligence. In: Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology, eds Smith KC, Mariscal C. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith KC, Abney K. 2019. The great colonization debate. Futures 108:4–14.

Smith KC, Mariscal C, eds. 2020. Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Traphagan JW. 2017. Do no harm? Cultural imperialism and the ethics of active SETI. Journal of the British Inter­planetary Society 70:219–24.


[1]  These groups include philosophers, historians, theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and political scientists, among others.

[2]The Bridge is to be applauded for regularly including humanist perspectives, but this is very unusual in scientific and technical publications.

[3] comets/oumuamua/in-depth/

[4] applications-blumberg-astrobiology-chair

About the Author:Kelly Smith is a professor in the Departments of Philosophy & Religion and Biological Sciences at Clemson University.