Podcast S1 E7 | 33 min

Is Space a Human Place?

6 Nov 2018
For millennia, Homo sapiens have looked up at the stars—but only recently have we started to consider what it will be like to live among them.

From space junk and the International Space Station to space colonization and SpaceX, space is becoming a more human place. What will it mean when we finally settle among the stars? We might relate to one another, and to these new environments, in novel ways—or we might not. SAPIENS host Jen Shannon probes the nascent field of space archaeology and looks to human understandings of exoplanets for answers.

Alice Gorman is a senior lecturer in archaeology and space studies at Flinders University, and Justin St. P. Walsh is an associate professor and the chair of the art department at Chapman University. Together they lead the International Space Station Archaeology Project.

Lisa Messeri is an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University and the author of Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. She is currently researching the field of virtual reality technology.

Learn more about the anthropology of space from Michael P. Oman-Reagan at SAPIENS.org:

This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Jen Shannon, with support from SAPIENS co-hosts Esteban Gómez and Chip Colwell.

SAPIENS producer Arielle Milkman, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support.

Fact-checking is by Christine Weeber, illustration is by David Williams, and all music is composed and produced by Matthew Simonson.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod.

Read a transcript of this episode

Jen Shannon: [00:00:00] I don’t remember most of my elementary school teachers, but I do remember Ms. Christie. When I landed in her class in 1985, she told us that she had applied to President Ronald Reagan’s Teacher in Space program. He wanted to send teachers like her on space missions so they could inspire students to pursue careers in science, math, and technology. Ms. Christie wasn’t chosen to go to space, but she inspired us all the same. We drew pictures of space shuttles, and we imagined with her what spaceflight would have been like. The extreme low gravity, the cramped quarters, the freeze-dried food. [00:00:36][36.3] 

Radio Announcer: [00:00:39] T minus 15 seconds. [00:00:39][0.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:00:40] I remember vividly the morning of January 28, 1986. Ms. Christie rolled a television out in front of our class, and we all watched the launch that she once dreamed she’d be a part of. [00:00:51][10.5] 

Radio Announcer: [00:00:51] Nine, eight, seven, six … [00:00:54][3.3] 

Jen Shannon: [00:00:55] As the shuttle was counting down, our eyes were glued to the television. [00:00:58][3.2] 

Radio Announcer: [00:00:59] Four, three, two, one. And lift off! Lift off of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower. [00:01:07][8.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:01:09] It was a cold day in Cape Canaveral, and we watched as the shuttle climbed high into the clear blue sky. Until, 73 seconds later, there was an explosion. I don’t think, when we were that young, that we really understood what was happening, but we understood through Ms. Christie’s reaction. She just broke down crying in front of our class. Even then, even after the Challenger, I didn’t stop dreaming about space exploration and the excitement of what it might bring. It just seemed so amazing to me and so possible. As an adult, I look back on those years and remember a sense of pure wonder. I still feel it, but I also have a deeper understanding of the history and what’s at stake. Over the past 60 years, we’ve been pushing so hard to get to space, to study space, and to live in space. We’ve made terrible sacrifices and achieved great things. But, still, I don’t think we have an answer to the big question: Is space a human place? [00:02:28][79.6] 

All hosts: [00:02:30] INTRO [00:02:30][0.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:02:54] Our story starts on Earth, Australia to be exact. About 18 years ago, an archaeologist named Alice Gorman was working as a consultant. She was helping private companies weed through complicated issues related to Aboriginal heritage. [00:03:09][15.3] 

Alice Gorman: [00:03:10] I was working in a town in central Queensland and living in a beautiful old Queenslander house, and because, because I was working in heritage management. I came home one evening from work and went out onto my veranda with a beer and was just looking up at the night sky and, just like a bolt from the blue, I had a revelation. There weren’t just stars up there. There was also space junk floating around in the sky, and some of it was probably reasonably old, and that it might have heritage value. [00:03:46][36.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:03:47] She thought about the principles she was using to assess sites in Queensland. Do they have historic significance? Social significance? Scientific, spiritual, and aesthetic significance? And she made a decision that would shape the rest of her life. [00:04:01][13.7] 

Alice Gorman: [00:04:01] And so, from that moment, I decided I was going to become a space archaeologist, and I set out to do that. [00:04:07][5.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:04:08] At the time, Alice thought she was the only person in the world who had made this connection. There was no guidebook or Introduction to Space Archaeology textbook or anything like that. And it wasn’t like she could just hop on the next shuttle to space. [00:04:21][12.9] 

Alice Gorman: [00:04:22] But, I have to say at the beginning, this didn’t really, I didn’t really think about this at all. I just thought, well, I have to, I have to find out what’s up there to begin with. [00:04:32][9.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:04:32] She learned the histories of the Soviet and American space programs, and she studied orbital mechanics and engineering. She even found databases that document all the satellites that have ever been launched. And she started to find deeply human stories behind this so-called space junk. [00:04:47][15.0] 

Alice Gorman: [00:04:48] And one of my favorite examples here is Indonesia’s Palapa A1 satellite. It was a cookie-cutter satellite. It was almost identical to a million others, but for Indonesia, the launch of this satellite was a symbol of trying to unite an archipelago of, of hundreds of islands with different languages and different cultural traditions. So it’s, it’s not just a piece of junk; it’s actually a powerful symbol of Indonesian nationhood, if you like. And I guess part of what I see myself doing is putting that human element back into these bits of junk and helping people to reconnect with them. To stop thinking of them as just bits of random metal floating around up there but actually as much part of their heritage as, as the terrestrial ground structure is. [00:05:42][53.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:05:43] Alice developed strong convictions about the necessity of this work and how important it could be for people everywhere. [00:05:48][5.6] 

Alice Gorman: [00:05:50] Ultimately, what I want them to get out of this is the sense of connection to space that makes them feel like they have the right to have a say in future directions in space technology. It’s already heading in the direction where it’s the preserve of the wealthy elites, but we’re not quite there yet, and if we want to prevent this from happening, and I would venture to say that many people, if you put it to them like this, would say: Well, yes, we don’t want to be the poor people left on Earth while the rich people go to space and make massive amounts of money, then, we have to do something about this. We cannot sit back idly. [00:06:28][37.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:06:29] So she got to work researching, writing, and publishing papers on the heritage value of satellites and other human artifacts up there. And over time, Alice learned that there were others. She was not alone in the universe of space archaeology. There were a couple of other Australians working on similar things, and in the U.S., there was Dr. Beth O’Leary of New Mexico State University. [00:06:51][22.1] 

Alice Gorman: [00:06:52] She had, in 1999, applied to NASA for some funds to catalogue everything that had been left at the Apollo 11 landing site. [00:07:02][9.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:07:02] This small group of budding space archaeologists started to work together, and in 2003, they got the World Archaeological Congress to recognize that “The material culture in places associated with space exploration … [00:07:15][12.4] 

Background Voice: [00:07:15] … are significant at individual, local, organizational, national, and international levels. As space industries and eventual space colonization develop in the 21st century, it is necessary to consider … ” [00:07:28][13.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:07:29] This was a major milestone for Alice and her colleagues. And it rang out across the broader archaeological community as a call to action. Over the next 15 or so years, they did their best to study landing sites, satellites, and other space junk. But hidden in that very same statement was a warning of the immense challenges ahead. [00:07:49][20.1] 

Background Voice: [00:07:50] The cooperation of international space agencies, national space agencies, the aerospace industry, and the principal astronomical and astronautical associations is an essential part in ensuring the appropriate management of the cultural heritage of space exploration. The task force will identify relevant international … [00:08:09][19.0] 

Justin Walsh: [00:08:09] I happened to see in November 2015, NASA put out a call for applications for its next cohort of astronaut candidates. [00:08:19][9.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:08:19] Justin Walsh is an associate professor of art history and archaeology at Chapman University. In 2015, he was among the still small-but-growing group of space archaeologists. [00:08:29][9.8] 

Justin Walsh: [00:08:31] As it turned out, they ended up getting 18,000 applications for 12 spots. It was by far the most they had ever received. But that’s interesting because if you look at their requirements, they state certain necessities, certain qualifications, and so one of the qualifications that’s required is a STEM degree. [00:08:53][22.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:08:54] That’s science, technology, engineering, and math. [00:08:57][3.0] 

Justin Walsh: [00:08:58] That could be at any level; it could be a bachelor’s degree, master’s, Ph.D. But, but it has to be in a STEM field. At the exact same time, they tell you what kinds of degrees are not qualifying and included in that was social sciences and even more specifically, more explicitly, we can say there is a parenthesis, an open parenthesis: (geography, anthropology, archaeology)—close parenthesis. [00:09:28][30.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:09:29] It wasn’t just a closed parenthesis; it was a closed door on Justin’s hope for an archaeologist in space. [00:09:35][6.3] 

Justin Walsh: [00:09:36] So I saw that, and frankly, I got mad. [00:09:39][2.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:09:41] Justin knew that NASA was thinking about long-duration space flights, and he thought they’d never really considered the cultural implications of stuffing a small group of people into a tiny living space for months or even years at a time. [00:09:54][13.5] 

Justin Walsh: [00:09:55] So then I started thinking: How could I demonstrate the utility of a social sciences approach? [00:10:04][9.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:10:05] He thought for a while and then he called his colleague, Alice Gorman. [00:10:08][3.3] 

Alice Gorman: [00:10:10] And he kind of said, he said, I’ll do something I want to talk to you about. OK, sounds intriguing. And he pitched the International Space Station idea to me. [00:10:22][12.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:10:23] The idea was simple. The International Space Station has been continuously occupied since November of 2000. That makes it the most significant human experiment in living in space. Or, as Walsh and Gorman later described it, a microsociety in a miniworld. And Justin wanted to study it. [00:10:43][20.0] 

Alice Gorman: [00:10:43] And I thought, well, this makes so much sense, so much sense that, you know, it’s quite amazing that, that no one has actually thought of doing this before. But that’s, that’s always the way these things are, aren’t they? They’re not obvious until somebody does them. [00:11:00][16.3] 

Jen Shannon: [00:11:00] So they made a plan, found some money, and the International Space Station archaeological project was born. But again, there was the whole not-being-able-to-visit-space thing. So they had to get creative. NASA has collected more than a million photos of the interior of the ISS, and they’ve made some of them freely available online. These are digital photos, so they have all kinds of data attached: dates, times, exact locations, lots of stuff. That metadata allowed Justin and Alice to map the relationships between the people and objects in these photos over time. Once they did that, they started to see patterns that no astronaut ever thought to document, let alone analyze. [00:11:48][47.9] 

Alice Gorman: [00:11:49] Everywhere throughout the space station, there’s like little elastic bands attached to the wall or VELCRO tabs because you can’t let go of anything or it will just drift away, and astronauts say, you know, they have done that. They’ve sort of let go of something here, turned their head away, and when they turn it back, they cannot see the thing. The thing might not have drifted far, but it’s impossible to actually pick out. So things get lost all the time. [00:12:18][29.3] 

Jen Shannon: [00:12:19] There’s little VELCRO tabs everywhere; there’s plastic baggies and little plastic baggies inside big plastic baggies. Alice saw all these as more than just clever ways to keep things from getting lost. She saw gravity surrogates. [00:12:32][13.6] 

Alice Gorman: [00:12:34] A whole lot of the materials they use and the behaviors that they enact are attempting to replace gravity with material things, and that’s something I find incredibly interesting and would like to do a lot more work on. [00:12:46][12.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:12:48] Billions and billions of dollars have been spent to build these rockets and space stations that allow us to escape gravity. But it turns out we replaced it with plastic baggies, and that’s not all they’ve learned so far. Justin was looking at some photos of one of the Russian areas of the space station when he spotted something out of the ordinary. [00:13:05][17.8] 

Justin Walsh: [00:13:06] And this is the Russian service module that is where there are two crew berths. There is a galley, there is exercise equipment. This is also a place where cosmonauts perform research, do experiments, that kind of thing. And so all kinds of different aspects of life go on here. [00:13:26][19.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:13:27] So Justin was looking at a bunch of pictures of this particular module and he saw, Oh, OK, this is where this person slept for a while. And this is where that person ate. [00:13:36][8.7] 

Justin Walsh: [00:13:36] What I noticed in this Russian module is that there were a number of pictures and other kinds of odd toys and maybe like small paintings of a national flag or a mission patch stuck on the wall. And as I was looking at these, I thought, Wow, there’s a lot of different things up there. Some of them are religious. In fact, they were Orthodox, Russian Orthodox icons. There was a gold cross, but then some things were secular. Like I said, the flags or the mission patches, but also, I noticed pictures of historic, kind of historic personages relating to space. [00:14:15][38.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:14:15] Specifically, Russian personages like Yuri Gagarin, who was the first human in space. [00:14:20][5.0] 

Justin Walsh: [00:14:21] So I started to look at other pictures because, like Oh, is that stuff always up there? And I realized that if you look from the very beginning, from the very first, as they call it, expedition to the space station in November 2000, there’s always been something up there, but it’s not always the same thing. It’s not always the same number of things. It’s not always the same kinds of things. So what I did was, I took about 50 photos from 2000 to 2014 and I catalogued all the things I saw on that wall in each of those photos. [00:14:51][30.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:14:52] And surprisingly or not, he saw patterns. [00:14:55][2.6] 

Justin Walsh: [00:14:56] What it showed was that astronauts were making different choices about what kinds of things they wanted to put on display. And when I say, put on display, it’s not just for other crew members. This is actually also one of the main areas where video conferences happen back to Earth. It’s especially when every time there’s a new crew that goes up there, because they’ve just entered there. If you’re watching on NASA TV or online or what have you, you can see it. That’s where they do the video conference, where they’re talking with the families like, Hey, what a great ride up here. Hope you’re doing well, etc., and you can see what’s up there. [00:15:33][37.3] 

Jen Shannon: [00:15:34] Identity, politics, religion: These are essential elements of what makes us human, and what Justin and Alice were observing was the first time humans were figuring them out in space. How do you pray in space? How do you participate in politics when you’re so far outside the borders of your homeland? Who are we? Who are you? In space? We can think about it this way: These cosmonauts, in a way, represent Russia, but they also have their own communities, families, and relationships back home. What they choose to display or not display reflects the dynamics of those relationships. But it’s always been about more than just stuff. As Alice understood from the beginning, there are important things at stake here. [00:16:24][49.9] 

Alice Gorman: [00:16:24] People tend to think of space technology as, you know, it’s all shiny metal and glass and nothing is alive. You know, it’s all very technical and removed from, from human existence. But the International Space Station shows that it, it isn’t and shouldn’t have to be like that. It can be full of maps. Can be full of little things that people find comfort in or use to provoke memories or use to support their individual or group identities while they’re up there. [00:16:58][33.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:16:59] How will spacefaring humans create a sense of identity? How would they maintain connections with people and groups on Earth when they ventured deeper and deeper into the universe? And who will we be when we’re being born, growing up, and living our lives so far from Earth? [00:17:14][15.3] 

Alice Gorman: [00:17:16] Understanding how this works and how it might be sustained is going to be critical, I think, for moon and Mars settlements where people are going to be even further away and on Mars, for a long time, at least, with no chance of returning. So how material and visual culture is used to maintain relationships, is used to support individual well-being, isn’t a trivial side question. This is at the heart of everything, and we’re just starting to see how this might work by investigating the International Space Station. [00:17:51][35.5] 

Chip Colwell: [00:18:01] So, Jen, can we come back down to earth just for a second? So, I mean, I am an archaeologist. I totally get that space archaeology is important, but I’m just, I’m not sure if Justin and Alice have really accomplished their goals yet. I think if I were NASA, I’d listen to all this and say, Yeah, well, maybe we’ll just make sure to find a place for a corkboard on our next space station. [00:18:23][22.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:18:24] Yeah. But the research is just beginning. They’re making the point that people carry earthbound concepts with them even into space. This could lead to some really big questions. [00:18:33][8.5] 

Chip Colwell: [00:18:34] Like what? [00:18:34][0.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:18:35] Well, I don’t know, maybe our ideas of space aren’t out there. Maybe they’re right here. I mean, don’t all our ideas about space really just begin right here on Earth? [00:18:45][9.8] 

Chip Colwell: [00:18:46] So you mean, like will we still be connected to the Earth, no matter how far we go from it? [00:18:50][4.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:18:52] Yeah, and I’m really curious about which of our ideas will determine how we’ll see and experience the cosmos. Frankly, I can’t help but wonder what kind of baggage we’ll be carrying with us. [00:19:03][11.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:19:04] You probably don’t mean suitcases. [00:19:04][0.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:19:05] No. [00:19:05][0.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:19:05] Not that kind of baggage. ‘Cause there’s a lot of stuff to carry into space, but we have our politics, ideology, history, and we carry all of that with us no matter where we go. [00:19:16][11.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:19:17] Even into space? [00:19:17][0.6] 

Chip Colwell: [00:19:18] Especially into space. [00:19:19][0.7] 

John F. Kennedy: [00:19:34] We choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. [00:19:40][6.1] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:19:44] All of the, all of the space race, though it was geopolitical at its core, was wrapped up in a mythology of conquest and humanism, and, you know humanity and man needs to drive further and go further. [00:20:02][18.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:20:03] Lisa Messeri is an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University, and her book, Placing Outer Space, is all about the big space questions facing us today. [00:20:12][9.0] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:20:13] So today, the, though much of the geopolitics are suddenly the same again, it has now moved away from government funding of human spaceflight and being shared with commercial spaceflight. And, in this sense, what a lot of proponents of commercial spaceflight have embraced was the mythology of spaceflight, that we must go to space because it is human destiny and all those kind of bubbly, bubbly language. [00:20:42][29.5] 

Jen Shannon: [00:20:43] Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, you’ve probably heard how these billionaires talk about colonizing Mars, mining asteroids, and whatever else they’re up to these days. It’s all about galaxy-spanning civilizations, the probability of extraterrestrial contact, and pushing this “final frontier” ever outward. [00:21:04][21.1] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:21:05] So a lot of us in anthropology of outer space have been urging people to be thoughtful of the language we use to talk about the human exploration of space because, right now, it’s most often wrapped up in the language of colonialism and frontier and especially at a time when U.S. and American exceptionalism is at a bit of a peak and on the rise, there is a lot to be nervous about the assumptions of empty space lying in front of humanity. That was the dominant mode of thinking about something like the United States itself when Europeans first came here. [00:21:50][44.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:21:50] So, yeah, let’s challenge those assumptions. Let’s think about how nationalism, militarism, and patriotism affect our view of the cosmos. And at the same time, let’s also acknowledge that there’s something deeper pulling us into space. Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin probably felt that something. I know I feel it, and I think Lisa did too. Back when she was just a kid who loved space … [00:22:13][23.4] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:22:14] I was very much focused on the math and science of it. I thought the math was beautiful, like the equations that could predict where objects would be in the sky was actually, scientifically, when I was in high school and college what brought me into space and astronomy, and, in fact, as an undergrad, I studied aerospace engineering. [00:22:33][19.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:22:34] It was there that Lisa found anthropology and started thinking about those beautiful equations in a different way. [00:22:40][5.4] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:22:41] I began asking, Why was it so compelling? Why as a kid was, I so drawn to looking up and thinking about the cosmos that were so far and so distant? And that’s when I began thinking about place as this thing that could connect where I was on Earth to this much wider imagination. [00:22:59][18.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:23:01] Many of us have ideas about places out there, places with alien civilizations or other life forms. We read about them in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Isaac Asimov, and we see them in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars and Star Trek. But this isn’t just fodder for science fiction. There are real planets outside our solar system. They’re called exoplanets. [00:23:24][23.3] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:23:25] So these are just impossibly far-away creations and conglomerations of rock and gas and dust and yet an enormous amount of passion and money and expertise is pushed into trying to know what these exoplanets, these planets orbiting distant stars, are like. And that, to me, was such a curious puzzle. [00:23:52][26.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:23:53] In graduate school, Lisa made this curious puzzle the central focus of her research. [00:23:57][4.8] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:23:58] And I conducted this by spending time with a bunch of different communities of planetary scientists at NASA, at MIT; I went down to an observatory in Chile and out to the Utah desert for a mock Mars exploration camp, let’s say. [00:24:14][16.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:24:15] She embedded herself in these places as a participant observer. That means she got to use her training in math and astronomy to work alongside all these researchers. [00:24:25][9.8] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:24:26] So, because I was a graduate student at MIT, I was able to pretty easily become part of astronomer Sara Seager’s research team. Part of what they did was every week or so, they would gather in a conference room in the Green Building at MIT to talk about a scientific paper. So one time, I was at one of these meetings; we were, there’s maybe a dozen of us sitting in a circle, and we were passing around a journal article which had a bunch of figures describing a particular planet. And I was still kind of new to the language of exoplanet astronomy. So these were hieroglyphs. I couldn’t quite make sense of what was being looked at, examined, or why it was significant. [00:25:15][49.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:25:16] Typically, these planetary scientists look for little gaps or inconsistencies in massive amounts of data, and they make inferences about what types of objects might be hidden in those gaps. This time, what they were looking at was a series of pictures of spheres. No land or water or topographical features or anything like that, just spheres showing a visiting researcher’s theories about a particular exoplanet’s rotation. [00:25:42][26.3] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:25:43] So, in this particular case, they were talking about a hypothetical planet that rotated in such a way that it had a hot spot on one side of it. So it was always facing the sun, so one part of the planet would be always really hot. And the scientists began collectively thinking about the implication of this. And they started talking about how, Oh, this must be a really windy planet. And then they started talking about the different seasons: What would this be like in spring or in fall? And that was the language they were using, and all this culminated in them imagining this incredibly tumultuous, in terms of weather, planet. And then one scientist joked, as she was thinking about what it might be to stand on the surface of this planet, Whoa, that would be a really windy experience. She joked: Who do you think would be the Al Gore of this planet? And they all kind of laughed because they had all collectively begun imagining this planet that was having some particular climate problem and thinking about the politics of that planet—that there might be someone who is advocating for an awareness of how the environment was changing. [00:26:57][73.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:26:58] As she watched those scientists conjure a new world before her eyes, Lisa slowly started to understand something deeper about that otherworldly pull we feel when we look up at the stars. [00:27:09][11.0] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:27:10] And I think that, even though it’s not the question of, Is there life?, it still is the question of, Is there connection? Is there something that we can understand and we can relate to? And that’s what kind of compels the search for anything in the universe and the continued pull to keep trying to understand what is out there. [00:27:35][25.3] 

Jen Shannon: [00:27:39] When Galileo built his telescope and spied three moons orbiting Jupiter, when Elon Musk launched that car into orbit, when my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Christie, first signed up for the Teacher in Space program, they were searching for connection. Each had his or her own reasons, too, sure, but in their own way, they were hoping to answer that impossible question: What is our place in the universe? But at what cost? As Lisa and Alice and Justin have learned and as Chip and I discussed earlier, we humans can’t help but bring our baggage with us as we move to live among the stars. It may not look like how Europeans colonized the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, and many other parts of the world. But what might be the consequences if we allow our search for connection to go unchecked? [00:28:32][52.7] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:28:33] If we go into space thinking that we are a bunch of people settling the frontier, then might we just be recreating the social, economic, cultural hierarchies that we already have on Earth? And why would we do that? Why wouldn’t we try to find an entirely new set of language and a new set of being when we go off into, into the wild unknown, so to speak. I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I don’t think we have that many models or ideas, especially within like thinking about space to challenge this. But that’s, that’s the project, I think, that as much effort should be put into understanding what different cultural and social ways of being ought to be as the amount of energy and commitment put into building the rocket ship. [00:29:30][56.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:29:30] We may not be there yet, but Lisa says there’s another language forming out there that might be able to address this problem. It’s not being written inside NASA or a Mars simulation in some desert. Instead it comes from biology, from chemistry, from environmentalism and humanism, and from the social sciences. [00:29:47][16.5] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:29:48] So I think about Lovelock and Margulis’ idea of the Gaia hypothesis: This idea that Earth is this interlocked gang, an interdependent ecosystem in which, it’s, you can’t really take it apart. You have to think of it as a whole. And to me that is a circular and a holistic way of thinking that is a really beautiful contrast to the linear and kind of dominating way of the frontier. [00:30:19][31.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:30:22] Space has always been a human place because it’s always been a part of the human imagination and how we think about who we are. [00:30:31][8.1] 

Lisa Messeri: [00:30:33] Some of the original questions and queries about space were theological. Space was a thing to think with that could allow older civilizations to reckon with what divinity was. We’ve lost that quite a bit, and when we think about space now, it’s often much more pragmatic. There is a lot to be learned in terms of reconnecting with space as this spiritual other. And I wonder if that, too, could be a way of imagining a Mars settlement. Of going to Mars with respect and with awe and with wonder and with appreciating what it means to be in this spiritual place and what it would mean to create a home there. [00:31:25][52.7][1749.4]

Chip Colwell: [00:31:29] This far-out episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Jen Shannon with support from Esteban Gómez and me, Chip Colwell. SAPIENS producer Arielle Milkman, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Christine Weeber is our fact-checker. David Williams created our cover art, and Matthew Simonson composed our theme and all the other music heard in this episode. Thanks this time to our guests Alice Gorman, Justin Walsh, and Lisa Messeri. Thanks also to Danilyn Rutherford; Maugha Kenny; the entire staff, board, and advisory council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research; and Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Aaron Brooks, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod. One small step for a podcaster, one giant leap for a podcast. See you around, fellow sapiens.


You may republish this article, either online and/or in print, under the Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 license. We ask that you follow these simple guidelines to comply with the requirements of the license.

In short, you may not make edits beyond minor stylistic changes, and you must credit the author and note that the article was originally published on SAPIENS.

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.


We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?

This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•sapiens.org.

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.