Erika Nesvold, an astrophysicist, has worked as a researcher at NASA Goddard and the Carnegie Institution for Science. She is a developer for Universe Sandbox, a physics-based space simulator; cofounder of the nonprofit organization the JustSpace Alliance; and the creator and host of the podcast Making New Worlds.
Below, Erika shares 5 key insights from her new book, Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space. Listen to the audio version—read by Erika herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Space could bring out the worst in us.
A lot of people are excited about building new societies in space because they think of space as a “blank slate” where we can start over fresh and try better ways of living together. Private space companies hoping to lure investors to the space economy point to the infinite resources waiting beyond our home planet.
But space is only a blank slate until humans get there. We’ll bring all our baggage, including prejudices, narrow-mindedness, and greed. And the amount of valuable resources in reach—like water on the Moon, or rare-Earth metals in asteroids—is not only finite, but most of those resources are concentrated in small areas, increasing the likelihood of the same territorial conflicts we’ve seen on Earth.
In fact, the dangerous environment of space may make us more likely to hurt and exploit each other. For example, I talked to a labor rights activist who told me about worker exploitation happening today in the Thai fishing industry. Migrant workers from Myanmar are offered transport to Thailand to work on fishing boats. After the workers arrive in Thailand, their employers take their passports away and tell the workers they must work off the cost of their transportation before they’re allowed to leave. The workers are then sent off to sea for months or even years with no way back and no one watching to enforce safe working conditions.
Workers in space will also be living in dangerous, potentially deadly conditions, at the mercy of their employers for a ride back to Earth. If we’re not careful about labor rights protection for space workers, this could easily lead to the same exploitation and abuses we’ve seen on Earth throughout history.
2. We don’t have to start from scratch.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to creating healthy societies in space. We have human history to learn from— both cautionary tales and success stories.
Sociologists and anthropologists can show us how humans interact and coexist in small and large groups. Political scientists and economists can explain how different ways of structuring a government and economy can affect the most and least powerful people. And historians can share lessons from our past.
Colonial historians, in particular, can point out parallels between our history of colonization and plans to create human outposts in space. The worldviews and philosophies that motivated the European colonization of much of the world caused significant and lasting harm to Indigenous populations, the environment, and residents of the colonies themselves. By studying this, we can learn how to avoid the mistakes of our past as we expand civilization into space.
“Colonial historians, in particular, can point out parallels between our history of colonization and plans to create human outposts in space.”
For example, the English colony of Jamestown, founded in what is now Virginia, suffered multiple near-collapses. A number of factors contributed to these failures: natural disasters, conflict with the local Indigenous people, and bad luck. But the colony was also hampered by the lack of skill and planning among the colonists. Most of the original colonists were upper-class, with no expertise in farming or other vital trades. And the company financing the colony encouraged the colonists to focus on producing valuable goods, like gold and lumber, rather than farming or building houses.
It’s easy to imagine the same scenario playing out in space: a colony on Mars made up of upper-class Earthlings who could afford a ticket off-world, with no applicable skills, being pressured to mine valuable resources rather than build a sustainable habitat. To find success in space, we need to make an effort to consult experts in the social sciences—not just rocket scientists.
3. Stories can build better futures.
If I say, “Do we want our future in space to look more like Star Trek or Star Wars?” there’s a good chance you’d understand that I’m comparing a shiny, egalitarian, communal future with a grungy, oppressive, individualistic one. That’s the power of stories—especially science fiction—when it comes to imagining possible futures for our species. Science fiction writers are futurists, experimenting with different possible paths for humanity and examining the potential outcomes of those decisions.
But stories also help drill down past the technical and practical concerns to get to the emotional, empathetic core of these questions. Stories are how we learn from our past, interpret our present, and plan our future. They also work as great conversational shortcuts when discussing complex topics.
Even if science fiction is not your genre, stories can help you connect with challenges and come up with solutions. When thinking about how your decisions today will affect future generations—the way you vote, the work you do, the products you purchase—put yourself in their shoes. What will their day-to-day lives look like? What challenges will they face? What will they dream about? Will they be happy with the choices that their ancestors made?
4. Thinking about living in space can help us today.
How would a space settlement address interpersonal violence or crime? Perhaps they could build prisons, like many nations on Earth. But resources and labor are likely to be in short supply in the early days of space settlement. They’d need to find a space in the habitat to use as a prison or build a new one. The person being imprisoned would still need food, water, heat, and air, but would no longer provide their labor and skills to the community. This could be dangerously impractical, but what are the alternatives? Forcing prisoners to work could lead to horrible abuses and banishing them from the community would essentially be a death sentence.
“If we can picture a better world in space, why not on Earth?”
How could we manage crime and harmful behavior in a small community on another planet without wasting labor and resources on prisons or resorting to a more violent and oppressive system? Are there non-carceral justice strategies used in communities and cultures here on Earth we could adapt for use in space?
Thinking along those lines, we can ask whether any of the solutions we imagined for space would work on Earth, where prisons are often also expensive, impractical, and full of violence? Allowing ourselves to explore social problems in a hypothetical space settlement lets us consider more radical solutions than we would be able to come up with in the context of our own societies.
5. Space could bring out the best in us.
Space may not be a blank slate, but thinking about how we would design and build new communities from the ground up gives a chance to examine our values and biases and forces us to imagine what kind of future we want. Now is the time, in these early days of humanity’s space era, to have these crucial conversations. The decisions we make today as we move outwards towards the stars will echo down through the generations, potentially far beyond our planet.
This kind of deliberate effort could lead to radical new solutions to problems that have plagued humanity for generations. After all, while the challenges we’ll face in space will be extraterrestrial, they’ll mirror all of the fundamental problems we struggle with on Earth: How do we share resources? How do we live sustainably? How do we balance an individual’s rights with the needs of society?
If we can picture a better world in space, why not on Earth? No need to wait for the rockets to be built. By having these conversations about who we want to be as a society, we can create a civilization that deserves to spread itself to the stars.
To listen to the audio version read by author Erika Nesvold, download the Next Big Idea App today: