Until recently there has been relatively little public concern about the social transformations that space colonization could bring. Shouldn't we have been concerned long ago?
Yes, but the powerful interaction of space with the development of human civilization is just coming into high relief, though space has affected human society for thousands of years. But now it is urgent to think about it so that space colonization and its technology don't run away with human values.
What do you mean by its "running away with human values?"
Space colonization and its technology could have radical implications for human civilizations and the values on which they are based. I asked my students recently: "Does a society like ours, that values freedom, have a vested interest in seeing that space travel never surpasses the speed of light?"
What were you driving at?
Imagine, unless an earth-based political authority could travel or communicate faster than the speed of light, space colonists could just keep moving farther away and never be reached by the central authority on Earth, even by communication. But if technology produces faster speeds, the central authority could exert more control -- a restriction of freedom. It's a far-out example, but it illustrates how space colonization and its technology raise crucial issues not only about space colonization itself, but also about the future of our own values.
Let's back up a bit. You say space has already interacted dramatically with human civilization for thousands of years. How?
Space has played a dramatic role in the development of our imagination and intellect. In mathematics, for example. Algebra was developed by the Mesopotamians to sharpen their astrological calculations. Pythagorean geometry was intimately linked to search for harmony in the heavens. Such connections recur again and again. Einstein's mathematics were deeply involved in space. Space has also played a role in power. The Egyptian priests knew that the rising of the star Sirius above the horizon generally preceded flooding of the Nile by three days. So at that time of the year, Pharoah would pass the word to farmers, and thus was believed to be in touch with divine forces. Space was being linked with power then just as the drive to put a man on the moon in this country was rooted in Kennedy's drive to enhance America's world prestige.
In contrast to past centuries, how is our actual movement into space now affecting what you call the social interaction with space?
The 20th-century is a vortex century. Obviously, it turned the tables on the assumption that space itself was inaccessible. We take the moon landing for granted and so it's hard to recall just how radical a turning point in history it's been, because for thousands of years people speculated about going there. Now in these new colonies, we may witness evolution of alternative social systems and they may influence out earth thinking into a wider distribution of revenues and resources generated from industry in space -- a closer interaction between the military and civilian sectors -- in fact, among nations. Some even say that we will eventually be challenged by the evolution of a whole new species in that environment.
I often detect a kind of escapism behind some of the rationales for moving into space, a certain fear of facing the knotty problems of humanity here on earth.
To be sure, many of us interested in space were deeply affected by the 1973 Club of Rome Report on the devastating effects of population explosion and the slow development of poor countries. In one sense, space colonization is a 19 th-century solution to our contemporary problems. It says there's a huge continent and resources out there; let's apply our creativity to move in that direction to build a better society.
After the moon landing Archibald MacLeish wrote of the effect of looking back to see the whole earth from afar: "Formed as it was in the eyes of heroic voyagers who are also men, it may remake a lost conception of ourselves. Man may discover what he really is." What could mankind discover about himself? Could it be some aspect of what Einstein defined as a more cosmic religious feeling?
I don't think colonization will, of itself, answer any ultimate existential or religious questions. But it will give perspective to the meaning of the human in the universe. It could well relate us as a whole to this part of the solar system, for example, and tend to dim or reduce the sharpness of the tribal differences here. Many of the astronauts commented about the effect of seeing Earth from such a distance -- seeing that the boundaries men have put between themselves are in fact invisible.
Why do you expect colonization would have such an integrating effect?
I'm still impressed by historian Frederick Turner's old frontier thesis about the settling of America. He says the frontier experience promoted a new egalitarianism that tended to merge earlier cultural differences. Without being naively optimistic, I can see that sort of thing being stimulated by colonization in space.
Could it be further enhanced by the sheer fact of having people of different backgrounds sharing common experiences together in a foreign environment?
The demands of working in space are bound to produce new approaches to human interaction and government, even for culturally diverse colonies. Societies, developing in space will have to have high social cohesion for reasons of immediate survival. To maintain levels of good morale, you may have to work out new procedures. This may in turn have an impact on planet Earth. There are all kinds of historical precedents for this kind of thing.
The town meeting of colonial New England. This democratic concept crystalized into national form, and ended by radically influencing Europe. The French Revolution took a lot of its impulse from the American experience. The British, seeing what happened when the monarchy did not adjust to such sentiments, very smartly started adjusting. They continued their monarchial tradition but moved in the direction of more and more democratic control.
On Earth one of our saddest lapses has been a basic failure to identify and understand cultures that diverge from our own. In space we may even be faced with an environment that does not support human culture as we know it, or even humanoids as such. Should we be preparing ourselves to expand our definition of cultural ambience?
We'll need more adequate education to help us integrate that environment with our own understanding of culture. There'll be challenges to start dealing with ourselves as residents of the solar system rather than as residents of a single planet or species. Among humans, new variations in cultural ambience will have to be identified. Lines of unanticipated interaction may emerge, as in the sciences and the arts. I'm speaking of the development of the so-called invisible universities in which a Hungarian physicist will write his colleague in the United States about the latest results in Japan; or the arts, where allegiance to artistic expression can create much more spontaneous ties between people of different cultural backgrounds. In a similar way we may see the emergence of supranational cultural identities.
But what's to insure that the human venture into space will not be a repetition of our historic exploitive patterns?
Having lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America, I still get upset when I think of what Spanish colonizers did in the age of colonization. But I don't believe that things hadm to be exploitive. This is not an inevitable historical necessity.
But what about the pressures to use space for military reasons? How do military motives relate to the values that may inform the colonization process?
There's no question about the tremendous amount of power linked to colonization -- political, economic and military. The more nasty aspects of the military design, of course, involve research into such high-powered weapons as particle beam weapons, which could heighten the domination-competition in the colonization process -- if you can call that a value. A real possibility in the near future is that if one nation were to become dominant in near space, it could by sheer intimidation call a number of the shots back here on earth. That nation might also try to persuade us that it is the society of the future -- that if you want to participate in that future you work with them. Its value system would tend to carry great influence.
What would the implications be for the values guiding space ventures if the Americans and the Russians become the main colonizers, at least in the near future?
I would think once American ingenuity has moved out into the new physical environment with all its challenges, it will probably restimulate something of the earlier American spirit -- buoyant, optimistic, confident in their enlightened intelligence, with new faith in technology as a solution. As for the Soviets, their approach is far more integrated to the development of their society than is ours. They have a broader conception of the role. They have linked it to the ideals of their society. They see space as the arena for the development of the new man, to fulfill Marxist ideals, with the cosmonauts as the prototypes of the men of the future, more self-disciplined, more cooperative although heavily militaristic in their goals. This concept has intrinsic psychological power that I do not, at this point, find in the American conception of space colonization where things are currently seen more in terms of a space race and of immediate scientific benefits but with nothing to link it to the overall conceptual growth of our society.
Are the Americans and Soviets indeed building stronger military hardware into their space efforts?
Yes. NASA's budget this year is about $5.5 billion, with an equal amount going to the Pentagon. I would say 50 percent of the action in the Shuttle will be military, quite an increase from the original planning. I would think that 1985 will be a decision date for the Pentagon with regard to the laser technologies.
What would have to happen to move the space colonization venture out in a way that showed more respect for the values of our human cultures and their needs, than for the domination-military approach?
For one thing, cooperative planning about space at the United Nations has probably been some of the most successful in the UN. It's resulted in four treaties to date which address use of space and return of astronauts and vehicles. To be sure, the agenda was established in the late 60s when there was more cooperation, but even so the last years have marked a tremendous amount of collaborative effort among various countries.
When the United Nations itself was founded back in the '40s there was a conscious determination to yield some sovereignty to make the organization practical. Isn't this a prerequisite for cooperation in space colonization?
One of my uncles was a signer of the founding charter of the United Nations and said that it would take 100 years for that organization's concept of diminished state sovereignty to really come into its own. This could be beneficial for space. There's a strong argument against any monolithic force out there even if established for idealistic reasons. It could become oppressive. Many advocate independence of institutions and entities up there, which could also tend to hasten economic development because you'd get less bureaucracy. However, there should definitely be some regulatory functions, rules of the game, noninterference, and so forth.
Do the four present UN space treaties give any hard evidence of achieving this now or in the future?
In 1967, a program was proposed for orbiting a satellite racked with missiles. It was killed off by both the Soviets and ourselves. We could both be up there by now, with all sorts of very nasty terror devices, but we're not.
And you're satisfied that the treaty made this difference?
Signatures are on a de facto document. We have a de facto situation reflecting this. There have also been bilateral negotiations between us and the Soviets -- before Afghanistan. The last meeting I got wind of was a bit of a standoff. The Soviets said: you delay your shuttle for a year and a half, and we'll delay our anti-satellite program. But as a staging area for dialogue, the dialogue and treaties play a very useful role and keep people thinking internationally.
Though State Department lawyers would disagree, some scientists think the Moon Treaty's definition of space as the "common heritage of mankind" and its plan for a central regulatory body would restrict private space ventures and give Third World countries an unwarranted cut of the benefits. In the effort to move into space cooperatively, is the Moon Treaty at all successful?
The draft as it stands now establishes a unified superbody. But some -- especially private enterprise in the developed countries -- see it as suppressing technological development. Others object to it because they're wary of a single monolithic agency. Yet at the same time it's raising the level of cooperation. Even though the current document may not survive, it will lead to drafts of another document that may provide some good fresh approaches to mutual benefits and all sorts of cross-fertilizations. It hasn't come up yet, but I see this as a failure of social and institutional imagination that can easily change.
But developing countries worry that without some sort of centralized regulation of space exploitation, they will have little chance of reaping the same benefits as the rich nations.
That will depend on their approach. If they want to regularize its exploration, be hostile toward it, I think their chances will be more limited. It could be quite different, however, if they set up mechanisms that were jointly funded, like Intelsat, where everyone kicks in a portion and gets the benefits from it. You could have internationally financed, joint government- private enterprise efforts -- there are whole sets of models for this thing. If Brazil, Mexico, India decided they wanted to kick in some resources, they could gain a key position on the board of directors. I would like to see everybody out there getting what they see as an equitable share so as to minimize the need for defense and international conflict. It would all be a basis for international cooperation. I think everyone can move ahead more constructively if they refresh their own thinking on this.
Are you convinced, then, that the moral and ethical gains of space colonization could outweigh the dicisive, conflict-ridden possibilities, if humanity exerts itself?
I wouldn't be involved in this if I didn't have faith in the moral improvement of mankind. There are many historic precedents for this.
Some Americans involved in preparations for the Moon landing point out its unsung leaps in both technology and cooperation. People tended to subordinate their own ambitions, work longer weeks, to get the thing off the ground.
I think space colonization would stimulate this kind of thing. The tasks would be such that the levels of cooperation would simply have to be at a higher level. Things could remain difficult if you had societies feeling a moral imperative to form all members into particular categories, be it Marxist, Islamic, or what have you. I don't have a clearcut answer to that. As to the urge for political power, we may just have the age-old drama played out on a grander scale, with more gee-whiz technology that ever. Whether having more space will mute the human urge to dominate is another question. But the economic gains could remove some of the economic reasons for dominance and ease tensions on the Earth. And the cultural levelling effects of joint ventures may open up avenues for deeper ethical values.
Does that mean that moral and ethical values could remain the primary launch pad in the whole space colonization issue?
Yes, but it's up to us to decide that they arem going to be primary, and do it consciously -- understand our motives for being out there before we get there. The task of the future is to decide what space and its technology represents in the best human terms, and what will be our accommodation with each other and with the world.