The coming transition in space



“Nothing in the natural world…has any intrinsic value to men. All is worthless, utterly dispensable unless we discover some benefit to ourselves in it…. Men behave as overlords. They decide what will flourish and what will die. I believe that humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry that I am one of them.”

These are the words of Charley Duke Breitsprecher, a character in Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins, (Scribner’s, 2016). The book is a fictionalized account of the deforestation of North America from the 17th through the 20th century. Breitsprecher, a 20th century descendant of a long line of deforesters, mused on his family history.

As we all know, environmental (including human) destruction continues today, driven by the same force that drove it 300 years ago – an appetite for profit.

Now advocates for the human exploration and exploitation of space want to export this mode of operation to other planetary bodies – colonize Mars, mine the asteroids, take tourists into space, etc.

Include the Obama administration in this crowd of advocates. Recall the President’s April 2010 speech at NASA Kennedy Space Center, in which he said: “Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. (Applause.) And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. (Applause.) So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. (Applause.) By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” Just last month, the President published a commentary on reiterating his support for “humans to Mars.”

I sent a letter to the President today, wondering how we can accomplish human missions to Mars when the space-faring nations of the world can’t even afford to mount a Mars sample return mission. I also wrote, “Humankind is not ready to extend its presence into space – ethical, legal, moral and other issues relating taking this step remain unresolved, including the issue of whether the astronomical expense of such a move is justifiable.”

I wrote on this blog last August:

“As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the ‘space libertarian’ crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the ‘triumph of neoliberalism’ – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice. “

I stand by my words today, as I think about the upcoming presidential transition and wonder who is, or will be, advising the next president on space policy. I expect it will be the usual suspects, and I don’t foresee any major changes in space policy no matter who’s in the White House.

Let’s look at some of the Washington, D.C., think tanks that have paid attention to space policy. I should note that, as far as I can tell, all of these outfits – from progressive to right-wing – are advocates for the human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of space.

First, consider the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), which conducts “technical assessments of scientific issues with an impact on public policy. Here’s what this outfit says about itself: “In every area of public policy, from national defense, to the environment, to the economy, decisions are shaped by developments in and arguments about science and technology. The need for accurate and impartial technical assessments has never been greater. However, even purely scientific appraisals are often politicized and misused by interest groups. The Marshall Institute seeks to counter this trend by providing policymakers with rigorous, clearly written and unbiased technical analyses on a range of public policy issues.”

So the GMI says its work is “unbiased” and “impartial.” As to its work on space policy, I call it politically conservative, embracing the neoliberal/libertarian way of thinking about the human exploration and development of space. (But then again, I lean hard left….) It is definitely pro-space development – which is not unusual for a think tank of any stripe, as I’ve already noted. Even the so-called ”progressive” think tanks follow the libertarian line of thinking (see below).

According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Source Watch” service, the GMI “is a ‘non-profit’ organization funded by the profits from oil and gas interests and right-wing funders (listed later).” Source Watch characterizes the GMI as an “industry and right-wing front group.”

In 2014, the Marshall Institute hosted a series of programs on “human settlement in space.” As Institute President Jeff Kueter described the purpose of this series as an attempt to answer the question, “How do we make…a robust space exploration program?” So the question posed was not “Should we do it? But “How should we do it?”

At a program entitled “Human settlement in space: the major challenges and opportunities,” Kueter said the focus would be on “human exploitation of celestial bodies.” Speakers included Mike Gold, Paul Spudis – both long-time space-development boosters – and Haym Benaroya, a professor of aerospace engineering at Rutgers University (I don’t know him or his work). At another program on “Bases in near space,” speakers were Martin Elvis – a vocal advocate of asteroid mining, Cheryl Reed (I only know of Cheryl’s work in the field of planetary defense), and Rosanna Statler, an attorney, self-described commercial space advocate and founder of the Space Enterprise Council (see below).

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – which impresses me as politically middle-of-the-road – periodically does studies and holds programs on the civilian space program. In May 2015, CSIS held a program on “U.S. strategy for civil and military space,” featuring ex-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe (appointed by George W. Bush) and Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In August 2015, CSIS held a program on “enhancing EU-U.S. cooperation in space,” featuring 11 panelists. In 2009, CSIS held a program on “challenges for space policy,” cohosted with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise Council (which now appears to be defunct). I’m not aware of any recent CSIS reports on space policy.

At the Brookings Institution, which conducts “research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national, and global level” (and which I’d describe as politically middle-of-the-road), the most recent space-policy activity appears to be a 2014 event on “the future of the U.S. space program.” The question addressed there was not “Should we have a human space flight program?” but “How will the addition of commercial space travel and privately funded space exploration affect the future of the U.S. space program?” Speakers included two planetary scientists, one member of Congress, and vice presidents from SpaceX, Orbital, and Sierra Nevada.

On the progressive (not left-leaning) side of the political spectrum, the Center for American Progress – co-founded by John Podesta, head of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, once President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and a UFO conspiracy theorist – has paid some slight attention to space policy issues. In 2015, the Center held two programs on “how” (but not “whether” or “why”) to proceed with the human exploration and development of space: “Human space exploration: looking back 50 years, getting ready for the next 50,” and “Human space exploration “Human space exploration: the next steps,” featuring NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

Also on the progressive side is the New America Foundation, which has this to say about itself: “For the twenty-first century think tank, simply thinking is no longer enough. Our mission is instead to play a leading role in the renewal of the American promise of social, economic, and political opportunity. New America is developing a new model of civic enterprise: “civic” because it engages and empowers citizen efficacy, and “enterprise” because of the energy and innovation involved in actually making change on the ground…. Civic enterprise…seeks to connect citizens to government by building broad conversations, convening a wide variety of perspectives, and publishing ideas and stories that spark debate and encourage readers to keep reading, clicking, and ultimately responding.” New America is big on “innovation,” as the Obama administration has been.

New America has addressed space policy issues through its Future Tense program, a partnership with Arizona State University and Slate magazine “to explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy. Future Tense seeks to understand the latest technological and scientific breakthroughs, and what they mean for our environment, how we relate to one another, and what it means to be human.”

Here are a few details on an April 2015 Future Tense program, “Giant Leap: The Race to Mars and Back”: “Humans have long been fixated on Mars, first as a metaphor of what lies beyond our reach, and now, increasingly, as a destination – for our probes, and ourselves, and perhaps even for our first base in deep space.” All of the panelists in this program (I watched the webcast) were advocates of the human exploration and settlement of space. All were in the space business. The program was “underwritten” by Lockheed Martin. Topics covered included, “A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition”; “How will we tax in space?”; and “Will Entrepreneurs Face Red Tape in Deep Space?”

This May, New America’s Open Technology Institute hosted a conversation with science fiction author Charles Stross, “What can DC learn from sci-fi?” At this event, New America’s Kevin Bankston described White House Office of Science and Technology Policy staffer Tom Kalil – a big booster of the human exploration and development of space – as an “advocate for sci-fi as a policy tool.” Stross was skeptical about the future of human space flight, including the future of SpaceX: “There are persistent cultural issues” relating to expanding human presence in space that “blind us to the realities.” He wondered whether the human exploration and development of space serves as a “lightning rod” for cultural expectations of having a “frontier.” “There’s almost a religious impetus” behind human space flight, he said, noting that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. embrace “mythical” thinking about sending humans into space. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably Christian eschatology,” he said. (I agree….)

Then there are the politically right-wing Atlas Society, Cato Institute, and Heritage Foundation. Ed Hudgins, currently director of advocacy at Atlas – which promotes the political ideology of Objectivist Ayn Rand (think “greed is good”) – has worked on space policy issues at all three organizations. His work is strongly libertarian. In a 2013 “State of the Culture Update,” Hudgins and Atlas Society colleague William R. Thomas discussed whether the new crop of companies developing human space flight technology are different from older, established aerospace companies or just another crop of “crony capitalists in space.” As the “liberty-loving” Thomas noted, Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX are doing most of their business with the government. Hudgins declared that space will be developed by the private sector, not the government – “just like the American frontier was.” Hudgins also noted that the reason why objectivists are excited about the human exploration and development of space is that it proves “the efficacy of human reason.” (Also see the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.)

In a 2007 commentary, “Individualism in orbit: morality for the high frontier,” Hudgins wrote: “the reasons why we’re not a space-faring civilization are many of the same reasons for the problems here on Earth. The main reason is one of values. We do not yet have values that are up to the task of guiding and motivating the development of space. We have a mixed and confused morality—and a culture that is based on and that reinforces that morality. For those who long to reach for the stars and establish a viable culture, a new philosophy is essential. Even for those satisfied with the challenges and joys of this planet, the success of future societies off this Earth could provide a paradigm for resolving the problems that space pioneers will leave behind…. To fuel their launch to the stars, what they will need is a philosophy of rational individualism…. Strictly on the basis of sound economics, space exploration must be privatized. Only entrepreneurs acting freely and under the discipline of profit-and-loss incentives can properly exploit opportunities in ways that will create dynamic, off-Earth civilizations.” (Also see Hudgins’s 2010 post, “Private space triumph.”)

Hudgins is the editor of a book published by the Cato Institute in 2003, Space: The Free-Market Frontier. It appears that Cato has stopped paying attention to space policy since Hudgins left Cato for Atlas.

These days, when it comes to space policy, it looks like the Heritage Foundation is mostly concerned with national-security space issues. Heritage space policy analyst Dean Cheng is an expert on the Chinese space program and testified to Congress about it in 2014.

Of course associations representing the aerospace industry – along with their member corporations – are advocating for the human exploration and development of space and undoubtedly have already provided their views to transition teams: the Aerospace Industries Association, American Astronautical Society, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration (nee the Coalition for Space Exploration, formed to advocate for President George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration”), Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Space Foundation. Then there are the dedicated advocacy groups –Explore Mars, the Mars Society, the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation…. (I know that some of these groups receive industry funding; I suspect that all of them do, one way or another).

A dear friend of mine has responded to my critiques of space policy here by suggesting that if I don’t like the space program as it is, I should write a blog post outlining my “vision” of the kind of space program I wish we could have. Stay tuned, I’ll be posting about it within the next few days.

Humans to Mars? The dialogue is on!


In response to yesterday’s blog post about grandiose visions for the human colonization of Mars, I received compliments from friends and a barrage of critiques and, well, some hate mail, from people (all male, as far as I can tell) who think the conquest and exploitation of space is a great idea. The Twitter stream is all over the place (good!). Rather than approving comments for posting here, I thought I’d do a blog post about them. (I’ve trashed some comments coming from people who seem to think females are born stupid. Really, gentlemen.)

My friend Keith Cowing, keeper of NASA Watch, posted about my blog today (he told me, “I thought that the issue needed airing given the Musk event”):

You Cannot Explore The Universe When Your Head Is Stuck In The Sand

“I have known Linda for 30 years and have a lot of respect for her work. But I thought this whole “but people are starving in [fill in the blank]” or “why spend money in space when we should spend it on Earth” mindset was a thing of the 1960 and 1970s. If you want to go after budgets to fix social inequalities then NASA is not the place to start – there is much more low hanging fruit elsewhere.

Decades of public opinion polls, popular media, and other cultural phenomena strongly point to a public viewpoint on space that is exactly opposite of what Linda claims. Moreover her viewpoint flies in the face of human history. People explore. Then they colonize. Then they move on to explore some more because that is what people do. In particular I am not certain why this tiny group of 30 space people (no doubt the usual suspects at meetings like this) meeting in their little echo chamber is in any way representative of what America’s 300+ million – or the billions who live elsewhere think about exploring space.”

I’ve told Keith, “We will always have to agree to disagree….”

This group of 30 people with whom I was in conference over the weekend (check them out) were not “space people” – definitely not “the usual suspects” in the space community. They were mostly college professors of philosophy, environmental science, ethics – people I’d never met before in my 35 years of working in the space community. They came from a diversity of campuses. The group included less than a handful who might qualify as “space people” (i.e. funded by NASA or otherwise employed in the space community), including me. We came together to discuss “broader issues in astrobiology and space exploration.” (By the way, NASA did not organize or sponsor this conference – it was an initiative of Kelly Smith, professor of philosophy at Clemson University.)

I surmise that these college professors (and the few grad students and undergrads who were there), who deal with new crops of students every year, might have a broader view of “public opinion” than the average hard-core space fan does.

As to public opinion, I disagree with Keith. I’ve studied historical misconceptions about public opinion regarding the space program – you can read about my findings here (this paper was published in the proceedings of NASA’s 50th anniversary history conference, held in 2008 – see section on “NASA and public opinion”). My colleague Roger Launius, historian at the National Air and Space Museum, has written more extensively about public opinion of the space program.*

Now for the comments from people I don’t know. I’ve included them verbatim and am not responsible for typos and misspellings.

From Thomas Lee Elifritz:

“If anything I want to go to Mars to get away from you, personally, and people who think, act and talk just like you. I wouldn’t want to be like you. That being said, you have a 0.7 Watt per square meter top of the atmosphere energy imbalance and none of your social theories seen to be able to conceptualize, let alone solve, that problem. So … see ya!”


From James Garry:

“Exactly when is a species mature enough to;

  1. a) sharpen a stick
  2. b) smelt iron
  3. c) discover nuclear fission
  4. d) establish a significant off-world presence?


Dr Garry”


From Wayne:

First I support all endeavors beyond our planet second I hate to be the one to say all those people in other countries should not be my problem our government had made them my problem


From Helder Cordoso:

Do you why Elon charges 200 000$ a ticket, making it an elitist enterprise? Because is not counting NASA funding. Obviously if NASA pays the bill, the US can send to Mars who they want, rich, poor, homeless, what ever, i agree with Mike interbartolo!


From Randy Campbell:

I’ve not any problems with the article as an opinion piece per-se other than your original assertion seems baseless, (libertarian space crowd support by government and media) and that your “deep moral qualms” are unsupported by either your examples or the fact on the ground. What I do have an issue with really is your use of straw man and fear-mongering in place of logical or fact supported support for what is obviously just an opinion.

[Billings: My “opinion” on this issue has evolved over 35 years of work in the space community, including plenty of research on the subject. I’m used to being dismissed by men who disagree with me. I don’t like it, it’s not fair, but I’m used to it.]

I can respect that this IS your opinion but in attempting to justify your opinion on supposed “ethical” and “moral” grounds and the obviously perceptive ‘case’ of human “maturity” as valid reasons to prevent anyone wanting to go to Mars from doing so is frankly more than a little disquieting from a professional. [Billings: Really? More dismissal.]

The latter “argument” specifically falls flat as “immaturity” is in fact a defining characteristic of youth and youth only become mature with time and experience. Which leaves your argument as one that youth should in fact be prevented and discouraged from ever becoming mature, because it should wait until it IS mature…

You are aware I’m sure that it is not the “mature” that move away from home and produce their own lives and experiences but the immature, the young. These lives and experiences then turn the immature into the mature, the young into the adult and on a species level we clearly do not have the experience yet to be “adults” but we will also never get that experience unless we expand our horizons and stretch ourselves to our fullest potential. [Billings: It may fall flat to you, but it does not fall flat for me or for many others with whom I’ve discussed this issue. I don’t do my work in a vacuum.]

We have the capability and technology to go out into space to explore, exploit and colonize if we so desire. Nothing short of the total collapse of our current civilization will take away that capability. The choice is not “if” but when, and who. Sooner is preferred and those that shall will not be some pampered elite but those willing to sacrifice, work, and possibly die attempting to make more of their lives and situations. It will not be easy, it will not be cheap, and it will not come without hardship and cost but that is also a part of how one grows up and becomes an adult.”

From Charles Houston:

“Very interesting article and discussion. Pardon me for descending into a bit of whimsey, let’s compare the Mars discussion to the early explorers who came to the Americas.

For similar reasons the English, Spanish, etc should NOT have permitted exploration of the Americas!!! Why allow the rich (people who could afford it) to go to Plymouth Colony to luxuriate in the resort that was America? Why were the poor left behind in Europe to deal with the leftovers??

Ok, as we all know, Jamestown and Plymouth Colony and Spanish Florida and all of the early settlements were places of great hardship and loss of life (for the settlers and eventually the Native Americans as well). Any settlers on Mars hopefully will not be so poorly prepared – but they will be ready for a life of sacrifice, hard work, no chance for vacation, etc. They would presumably be willing to risk everything to possibly provide a better future for their families. Fortunately there are no Martians to displace!! The people who stayed behind benefitted by the discoveries made in the New World (well, except for tobacco of course).

doctorlinda appears to be upset by more than the prospect of settlers going to Mars. She is apparently upset by our lack of concern for displaced people. Possibly governments are wasting money on “research” when it could be used to feed the poor. Let’s talk about what shared personal/government funding has accomplished for those displaced people. Bell Laboratories for instance got millions in government research money – they developed much of the electronics that allow us to now see what is happening to displaced people. Research – funded by the government and academia and corporations – has developed new industries, new capabilities, new careers.

Certainly humanity has a ways to go but I see a far, far, far better humanity than doctorlinda does. Humanity has written The Bill of Rights, has given minorities the right to vote, has created art and mathematics. We will never be perfect but the need to many of us to explore will open new opportunities for us all. We can “eat our seed corn” and be full today or we can plant some of that seed corn and harvest tomorrow.

There have always been people like doctorlinda – we see the Amish and the Mennonites and other wonderful communities today, communities that reject this bit of advance or that bit of advance. If they are not comfortable with buttons or electricity or whatever they are welcome to live in whatever era they are comfortable with.

But they must recognize that we will not all be willing to accept their limitations. We will explore the stars while they stay home and rage over the situation of the latest wave of refugees from the latest conflict zone. Charlie Bolden’s ancestors came from a conflict zone, Elison Onizuka’s ancestors came from a conflict zone. As refugees from the previous conflict in the previous conflict zone, we have places to go.”

It cracks me up that Mr. Houston compares me to the Amish and the Mennonites. People who know me will laugh about this too. I am deeply engaged in the modern world (or, as I call it, the post-postmodern world) and all of its problems and challenges. This is what a public scholar does, and that is what I am.

From Jason AW3:

“Doctorlinda, with respect, I must disagree with your position.

When observed from a limited perspective, much of what you say, does, on its surface, appear to be true. [Billings: We all have limited perspectives. No one has a god’s-eye view on any issue.]

However; when looked at from a larger perspective [Billings: I think you mean your perspective? I am very intentionally taking a broader view of the issue at hand.] , much of what you’ve stated tends to fall flat. Yes, there are many social inequities that we have yet to address, and there are issues that still need resolving. But, on the whole, we ARE becoming better people, we are reaching out and helping both those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and we are correcting the wrongs and oppression that have been wrongly foisted upon so many different peoples.

And we are becoming better shepherds of our world. Turning away from a disposable society, using nonrenewable sources of power, and turning to more environmentally aware uses of industry and the land.

Yes, it IS taking an enormous amount of time to do this, but changing the minds and attitudes of seven and a half billion people takes an enormous amount of time and effort. This is, however, inextricably tied to our need to explore and go to other lands. We know that, not all the answers we need to make life better for all, can be found within our limited scope of experience. We need to stop gazing at our navels and see the broader universe.

It’s been said in the past, that the beginning of wisdom, is knowing how much you don’t know. While I know much, I know that there is a vast amount that I have yet to learn. Wisdom and maturity are gained from our efforts and our failures.

Yes, we fail at MANY things that we ought to do better. But we now know how much we don’t know, and while it will be the elite who, at first, go into space and start taming new worlds, they will also bring others with them, the poor and oppressed, for opportunities that can advance them as well.

It is better to give a man a hand up than a hand out. In other words, let us make the mistakes, lets us stumble through the dark, and yes, let us even die from those mistakes, so that those who follow can learn from these mistakes and make wiser choices than we did.

Indeed, it is our very lack of maturity that gives us the need to go to places that we do not know, to learn what we have yet to learn, to step out and BE better than we are today.

To deny this of those who would blaze the trails for all, is to deny what it is to be Human and humane.”

From ZachF:

“Crab-bucket mentality at it’s finest.”

I have no idea what this means.

From “Mikey”:

“Same story, Same crying, Same questions. Biology cannot be discovered without Biology. back in 2009 How will extending human presence into the solar system affect society and culture on Earth? What legal, ethical, and other value systems should govern human settlements and other activities in space? Do humans have rights to exploit extraterrestrial resources and alter extraterrestrial environments? Does space exploration need reinvention to meet social needs? This article describes the current environment for space policy making and a framework of space law, ethics, and culture within which these questions can be considered.”

Your Dear Friend;

Michael D. Griffin

Immediate Past President

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics”

I know Mike Griffin, and this doesn’t sound like him at all. I clicked on “Mikey” in the message I received and was directed to the web site of the Federal Corrections Institute in Morgantown, West Virginia.

From Mike Shupp:

“This sparked a post from Keith Cowling at Nasawatch ( and a rather good comment stream. I’d not say there’s a lot of agreement with Dr. Billing’s views, but the discussion pushed some of us space buff types into a more philosophical vein than normal.”

I would not expect to see much agreement with me among the readers of NASA Watch. But I’m happy to hear from Mr. Shupp. My aim, as always, is not to change minds but to get people thinking about things they may not have thought about before.

And finally, from lastof7:

“I don’t agree with Linda on this issue, but this is not an engineering discussion. In fact, that’s something I fear: that we have become so STEM focused that we’ve moving toward the assumption that all technology is good without taking the time to figure out the impact of the technology. This argument is worth having and it doesn’t require an engineering degree to have it.”

Thank you, lastof7.

To borrow a quote from Linda Richman (“Coffee Talk,” SNL), “Talk amongst yourselves.”

* See, for example, R. Launius, Public opinion polls and perceptions of human spaceflight, Space Policy 19(3), August 2003; R. Launius, Evolving public perceptions of spaceflight in American culture, Acta Astronautica 53(4-10), August-November 2003.

Humans to Mars: a deeply disturbing idea


Credit: “Mining Mars,”

One of many cultural phenomena that worry me as much as the U.S. presidential campaign (I voted for Bernie in the primary, and I am voting for Hillary on election day) is the persistent public cheerleading for the human colonization of Mars. The media repeat every bit of the libertarian narrative of progress and freedom that they’re feed with virtually no critical analysis.

I will not repeat much of what Elon Musk said yesterday about his “vision” for colonizing Mars, as it’s plastered all over the mass media. If you want to read a level-headed account of yesterday’s announcement, see Marcia Smith’s report on Space Policy Online.

As Marcia notes, “Elon Musk has made no secret of his passion to make humanity a multiplanetary species by creating a self-sustaining society on Mars as a backup plan in case Earth is destroyed in a cataclysmic event.” NASA’s embraced Musk and his wacky ideas as a way to promote its own “journey to Mars.” Musk said yesterday he wants to accomplish his goal by public-private partnership.

Really? I don’t want a penny of my tax dollars going into such a project. (Musk has already benefited from millions of dollars in direct subsidies, not to mention contracts, from the federal government.)

Musk said he will take people to Mars for $200,000 apiece, transporting 100 to 200 people at a time, starting in a few decades.

First, I don’t believe for a minute that he will accomplish that goal in the foreseeable future.

Second, I have deep moral qualms about this idea, as it appeals to a small fraction of humankind and proposes what would inevitably be an elitist enterprise. Would it be ethical to enable people with enough money to buy a ticket to leave our troubled Earth behind? Would it be ethical for government(s) to subsidize such an enterprise? In Musk’s disturbing “vision” – a nightmare in my mind – how many poverty-stricken Bangladeshis or Congolese, how many permanently displaced Syrian refugees, will come up with $200,000 – or $2,000, for that matter – to “start anew,” as the colonization zealots say they want to do?

I participated in a conference this past weekend about “social and conceptual issues in astrobiology.” Among the questions we 30 attendees were asked to consider in our discussions were:

“Should humans seek to exploit and/or colonize space? If so, how should this be done? Are there truly universal principals of biology, psychology, morality, etc. that would apply to extraterrestrial life?”

My views on these questions are: No. We should not do it. No.

Right now, at this point in time, humanity is too immature to leave home. We can’t even figure out how to take of ourselves – that is, all humanity – on our home planet. It’s crazy talk to claim that simply by moving to another planetary body we’ll reinvent society.

Human social behavior, intellectual capability, and psychology, will not “evolve” in any noticeable way over the next 10 or 40 or 50 years – probably not even in 100 years. We have not changed noticeably in these respects over the past 100 years, after all. What we have accomplished over the past 100 years is more technology. Hence, crazy talk about colonizing other planets and mining the asteroids.

Last year I blogged about these issues in a post about last year’s Mars Society conference. I’ll repeat what I wrote then: “As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the ‘space libertarian’ crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the ‘triumph of neoliberalism’ – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice.”

More views on exoplanet terminology



In cleaning off my desk this morning, I unearthed the August 12 issue of Science, which contained yet another paper about a new exoplanet discovery (K. Wagner et al, “Direct imaging of a Jovian exoplanet within a triple-star system”).

Also in this issue was a lovely Perspective on the Wagner et al paper, “Making sense of the exoplanet zoo,” by astrophysicist Rebecca Oppenheimer at the American Museum of Natural History. Following up on my post of September 7, I though I’d share some of her thoughts.

“The single most certain statement about” exoplanets is “expect the unexpected,” she says. I certainly agree. As to the newly discovered Jovian exoplanet in a tripl0-star system, Oppenheimer observes, “Many such solitary objects…are being discovered routinely. All are different from each other, straining current classification schemes.”

She mentions another star, HD 41004, “that exhibits the ‘unexpected’ and draws into question what constitutes a solar system.” HD 41004 is “somewhat smaller than the Sun, with an object 2.5 times as massive as Jupiter on an orbit slightly more than Earth’s about the Sun. In addition, another star orbiting HD 41004, at the equivalent of Uranus’s orbit, has a substellar object orbiting it with about 20 times the mass of Jupiter.” “So,” she asks, “is our labeling of HD 41004 as a ‘solar system’ accurate?”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, Oppenheimer notes, “categorizing is an age-old practice in scientific thought.” However, she comments, “after 22 years of working on substellar objects, I suspect that” the labels now used to sort them may have lost their utility in advancing knowledge. Labels can become obfuscating terms.”

Hear hear.

“With fascinating discoveries, such as Wagner et al’s…and the thousands of objects intermediate between it and stars, what we know is that they consistently fail to conform to the stellar classification system intrinsic to the history of astrophysics. In such a confusing situation, the best we can do is rethink the basic assumptions,” Oppenheimer says. (Pardon me for such extensive quoting, but her piece is so well written….) She cites a paper by Chen and Kipping ( that proposes a new nomenclature: “Jovian, Neptunian, and Terran worlds. Whether this scheme will certainly be debated, but it is a fresh alternative to the confusing terms in use today.”

Finally, she notes – wisely, I think – “Perhaps it is too early to define classes of objects” in the universe. To do so may obscure their commonalities and differences, urging overspecialization in the study of objects assumed to be unrelated because of thought-constraining labels.”

Thank you, Dr. Oppenheimer!

The University of Surrey put out a press release today about newly published research that “has shone light on a globular cluster of stars that could host several hundred black holes, a phenomenon that until recently was thought impossible.” A September 7 press release from the Carnegie Institution for Science reports, “Dwarf galaxies are enigmas wrapped in riddles. Although they are the smallest galaxies, they represent some of the biggest mysteries about our universe. While many dwarf galaxies surround our own Milky Way, there seem to be far too few of them compared with standard cosmological models, which raises a lot of questions about the nature of dark matter and its role in galaxy formation.” Every day I read of new research findings about things we didn’t know existed or didn’t believe could exist. It’s what gets me up in the morning….

Earth-like, Earth-sized, Earth-mass: habitable?




Maybe. Maybe not.

Dear readers, by now you must have heard or read news reports about the discovery of an “Earth-like” planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star that is closest to our solar system (4.5 light years away).

I put “Earth-like” in quotes because the term appears in many stories (especially in headlines) reporting the discovery. But what exactly does “Earth-like” mean? (See my blog post of July 23, 2015, about another announcement of a “near-twin” of Earth.) In this post I do not intend to criticize the research under discussion here or the media reporting on it. I am interested in exploring the optimistic and somewhat confusing framing of the discovery, the fuzzy terms used to describe it, the minimizing of considerable uncertainties.

The discovery of this “Earth-like” planet, Proxima b, apparently was first reported August 12 by the German magazine Der Spiegel. In the following week or so, a few science news outlets reported on Der Spiegel’s story. Some of the headlines: “Proxima Centauri may host Earth-like planet” (Spaceflight Insider), “Does an Earth-Like Alien Planet Orbit the Sun’s Closest Neighbor?” (, “Newly Discovered Earth-Like Planet Is Orbiting Proxima Centauri” (Nature World News), “Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri discovered” (

The research paper reporting on this discovery – “A terrestrial planet in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri” – was published by Nature August 24 (Anglada-Escude et al, doi: 10.1038/nature19106): “we report…the presence of a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses… Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface.” In the last paragraph of their paper, the researchers note: “The habitability of planets like Proxima b – in the sense of sustaining an atmosphere and liquid water on its surface – is a matter of intense debate. The most common arguments against habitability are tidal locking, strong stellar magnetic fields, strong [stellar] flares and high ultraviolet and x-ray fluxes; but none of these have been proved definitive…. Proxima b suffers from X-ray fluxes that are approximately 400 times that experienced by Earth.”

A commentary in Nature on this paper (“Earth-like planet around Sun’s neighbor”) describes Proxima b as “Earth-like,” “Earth-mass,” “in the temperate zone” that “could theoretically support liquid water. ” Author Artie Hazes suggests that, “Until we understand what makes a planet habitable, it is better to say that Proxima…b lies in a temperate (the right temperature) rather than a habitable zone.” An accompanying news report in Nature (“Nearby star hosts planet”) describes Proxima b as “Earth-sized” and “potentially habitable,” though possibly “unlivable.”

Also on August 24, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) issued a public announcement (what we used to call a video news release) about this discovery: “the planet, Proxima b, falls within the habitable zone of its host star. The newly discovered Proxima b is by far the closest potential abode for alien life.” ESO defines “habitable zone” as a location in a planetary system where liquid water could (might?) exist. Toward the end of this announcement, uncertainties about habitability are mentioned.*

Media reports on the paper followed suit, emphasizing Proxima b’s alleged similarity to Earth and closing with a mention of uncertainties. Here are some headlines from August 24: “Potentially Habitable Planet Found Orbiting Star Closest to Sun “ (National Geographic), “Proxima b By the Numbers: Possibly Earth-Like World at the Next Star Over” (, “Proxima b: Alien life could exist on ‘second Earth’ found orbiting our nearest star in Alpha Centauri system” (The Telegraph).

You get the idea.

On August 26, Wired reported, “Y’all Need to Chill About Proxima Centauri b…. Astronomers have found other quote-unquote Earth-like planets in the habitable zone in recent years. According the Planetary Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico, there are 15 “Earth-size” (in terms of mass or radius) potentially habitable exoplanets. And while, yes, Proxima Centauri b has the mass closest to Earth’s so far, its other characteristics may not be very earthy….” Also on August 26, my friend and colleague Sten Odenwald (who is an astronomer) blogged for the Huffington Post, “Proxima Centauri b: Earth-sized? Earth-like? Or Habitable?... The terms Earth-sized, Earth-like and habitable might sound very similar, but in fact they are not, and they are also not astronomically precise terms….”

Thank you, Sten.

On August 29, Popular Mechanics (predictably) asked about Proxima b, “How will we travel to that promising new planet?” On August 31, the Voice of America went way over the top with “Colonizing Proxima b, It’s Complicated.”

On September 4, Cosmos magazine addressed “The many potential lives of ‘Earth-twin’ planet Proxima b.” on September 6, Nature World News reported, “Co-Discoverer Says Proxima B is a Life-Friendly Planet; Life Outside Earth Possible?” And also on September 4 (I’m throwing this in just for fun), an alleged news website called Clapway claimed that the lead author of the Proxima b paper in Nature is “meeting with aliens from Proxima b.” (Sigh.)

So, Proxima b is described as habitable, Earth-like, Earth-mass, Earth-sized, terrestrial…have I forgotten anything?

I know that exoplanet scientists have thought about the imprecision of these terms – I’ve witnessed many a conversation among them on the subject (and thanks again, Sten, for your blog post). We all use fuzzy terms from time to time, knowing exactly what we mean in our own heads but not knowing what they might mean to others. In the case of the search for another Earth, I’m doubtful that we’ll find one. Over the 25-year course of the discovery of now 3,000-plus exoplanets, what amazes me most is not how many planets have been discovered but how different they all are. It appears to me that what scientists have discovered (so far) is that there’s no such thing as a typical planet or a typical planetary system.

We humans – and especially scientists – love to label and sort things into groups, in a never-ending effort to create order. In the case of exoplanets, we have “hot Jupiters” and “mini-Neptunes” “Earth twins” and “super-Earths” and so on and so on. I do hope that exoplanet scientists continue to work on more precise terms for characterizing their discoveries – especially when it comes to discussions of potential habitability.


* Habitability is complicated. As I noted in my blog post of July 1, 2015, among the many Big Questions yet to be answered by space science are: What is “habitable”? What is a “habitable zone”? How do we define the habitable zone of a planetary system?

Wise guidelines for space policy making



As we approach a presidential transition, I’ve been thinking, a lot, about whom the next president will listen to about issues in space policy. (I’d still like to know exactly how, and why, President Obama and his science advisor John Holdren embraced the idea of sending humans to an asteroid and paving the way for asteroid mining.) Today I offer some wise guidelines for space policy, presented by my mentor and friend Eilene Galloway (b. 1906-d. 2009) at a 2003 space policy symposium.* They all sound good to me today. See what you think.

  1. There should be a complete statement of this total problem for which solutions are proposed. Clarify the general policy framework into which specific applications must fit. Clarify the understanding of such words as “peaceful” and “military” so all participants agree on a common meaning.
  1. Do not discard 46-year old [now 59-year-old] concepts that have built up international confidence in outer space as a safe orderly place for the conduct of beneficial activities—humanitarian and commercial.
  1. Avoid chopping up space activities into parts that are not coordinated with the overall goal of maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes.
  1. Avoid embedding political, economic and philosophical concepts which tend to divide nations conducting activities in the naturally international environment of outer space.
  1. Make sure that those in government who are responsible for legislation on organization, programs and budgets understand the unique characteristics of the outer space environment which determines what can be effective in achieving the goal of maintaining outer space as a safe orderly environment.
  1. Include planners with imagination to estimate the probable consequences of proposals for action.


#1 is a no-brainer.

As to #2, Eilene was referring to the work of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), established in 1957, including the production of a collection of treaties that effectively function as foundational international space law (the 1967 U.N. Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space). Many advocates of so-called “private” space development claim this body of international law establishes no barriers to “free-market” activity in space (read: whoever gets there first gets to take it all). Others disagree. I endorse Eilene’s recommendation.

As to #3, I don’t think we’re there….

As to #4, the United States certainly hasn’t followed this recommendation – see my many previous posts on the neoliberal/libertarian/Western-Christian ideology that propels the human exploration and development of space (July 25-27, 2016; December 28, 2015; August 12, 2015; July 27, 2015; March 27, 2015; etc.)

As to #5, the fact that Congress passed and the President signed the SPACE (Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship) Act of 2015 is an indication, to me, that responsible parties in government may not fully grasp the physical, technological, and political complexities of operating in the space environment – especially with humans in the mix.

As to #6, NASA and the aerospace industry have many intelligent, well-educated, and starry-eyed “planners with imagination” – but IMHO too many of them don’t bother with estimating the probable consequences of acting on those plans. My question is, as always, how will the colonization of other planets and the exploitation of space resources benefit all people of Earth? How will such activities narrow the gap between the rich and the poor?

Deep in my brain and in my heart I think and feel that colonizing other planets and exploiting extraterrestrial resources would be immoral at this stage of human development. I’m not at all sure that Eilene Galloway would agree with me. I wish I could talk with her about it.

Do we govern algorithms, or do they govern us?



Earlier this year, one of my professional journals, Science, Technology, & Human Values, published a special issue on “governing algorithms.” What are those, you might wonder? So did I. Now I know. And in some ways I wish I didn’t. They’re just one more thing to fret about….

According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, an algorithm is “a finite set of unambiguous instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal, especially a mathematical rule or procedure used to compute a desired result. Algorithms are the basis for most computer programming.”

The term “governing algorithms” refers to the ways in which algorithms affect our lives  and also to whether algorithms warrant some sort of governance. Guest editor Malte Ziewitz of Cornell University observes, algorithms are a sort of “modern myth…. They have been depicted as powerful entities that rule, sort, govern, shape, or otherwise control our lives,” and “their alleged obscurity and inscrutability make it difficult to understand what exactly is at stake.”

We’re all familiar with this situation: we want to download a new application, but before we can do that we must agree to a set of terms and conditions and privacy policies. “Providers claim they are acting legally because they have the user’s consent…. When asked why they do not read [these documents], users often reply that they make no sense,” writes Lucas Introna of Lancaster University. “If consent is given, does it cover handing over data to governments?”

Algorithms, deployed as software, are “inscrutable” – at least to the vast majority of us who cannot either write or read code. “They become black boxes.” Decisions made by human coders become “encapsulated in complex inscrutable algorithms that enact (in millions of lines of source code) our supposed choices based on complex relational conditions, which after many iterations of ‘bug fixing’ and ‘tweaking’ even the programmers often no longer understand,” Introna says.

(Are you fretting yet? Just a little bit uneasy? I am.)

Introna examines the “algorithmic actor” Turnitin, which offers a computerized method for checking academic writing for sourcing and plagiarism. Turnitin claims its system “fosters critical thinking.” (I’ll have to think about that claim….)

Turnitin’s sister company iThenticate offers a similar system for academic publishers. “This is the algorithmic governance of academic writing on an unprecedented scale,” says Introna. “When did academic writing come to be seen as a ‘problem’ in need of such governance?

Think about a search engine’s indexing and ranking algorithms – or a news feed’s, or, say,’s….

To wrap up, let me mention some other papers and articles about algorithms, published elsewhere – their titles alone will give you something to think about:

“’Why do white people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms” (Baker and Potts, Critical Discourse Studies, 2013)

“Automating the news: how personalized news recommender system design choices impact news reception” (Beam, Communication Research, 2014)

“Want to be on top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook” (Brucher, New Media and Society, 2012)

“Financial news and market panics in the age of high-frequency sentiment trading algorithms,” (Kleinnijenhuis et al, Journalism, 2013)

“NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking” (Soltani and Gellman, The Washington Post, 2013)

Talk amongst yourselves….