Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Humanity Star and Critical Conversations in Space Exploration

On January 21st of this year, Rocket Lab (on their debut launch) orbited several satellites, including a secret payload.  This (no longer secret) object is named the Humanity Star - and it has the potential to be one of the brightest objects in the night sky (as noted here).

My usual reaction whenever I see science and art brought together is glee.  I am a scientist and an artist, and I love both.  But I don't feel gleeful about this particular piece.

As both an astronomer and an education/communications specialist, I have some strong feelings about this object now orbiting our planet - especially because of the way it was launched.  A secret launch means no important conversations take place about the object, how it will be perceived, and its eventual consequences.  I'm going to repeat that, because this is the whole point of my post: critical conversations with all stakeholders must take place as space exploration moves forward.  And if what you are doing can affect the whole planet, then the world becomes your stakeholder.

In the Quartz article on the Humanity Star, Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab is quoted as saying, "For us to thrive and survive, we need to make big decisions in the context of humanity as a whole, not in the context of individuals, organizations or even nations. …We must come together as a species to solve the really big issues like climate change and resource shortages.”

These sentiments are certainly fine things, and I completely agree.  But the Humanity Star may not inspire this kind of thinking.  Will a person in another space-faring country, say India or China, look up, and upon seeing a new, bright satellite, think about our communal responsibilities for climate change?  Will they imagine themselves as part of a global community?  Will they be angry for an overbearing demonstration of technology?  Will they be afraid at what we might do next?  Will they be appalled at our lack of respect for the sacred night sky?  Well, we don't know.  We don't know because those conversations did not happen in advance of launch.

What about other kinds of stakeholders, say like space scientists?  Well, that conversation didn't take place before launch either, since astronomers are expressing displeasure.  Some people are describing it as "litter" or even "vandalism."  This article in gives some details about the feeling of astronomers, and how Rocket Lab appears to be scrambling to put minds at ease.  This reaction might have been completely avoidable had the conversation with this group of people happened as it should have.

I am astonished at the last few sentences of the Quartz article on the Humanity Star, which unintentionally serve to underscore my point.   The article states: "The first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was a mission with a similar effect: Its radio broadcast was designed to say “I’m here!” to the world, as well as provide data to scientists on the ground. It turned out to be a harbinger of a space race that created most of the space infrastructure we have now. Is the Humanity Star a herald a new age of commercial space flight and ambition?"

This is an eye-popping interpretation of the intention and result of the orbit of Sputnik.  The satellite was launched at the height of the cold war, and it engendered anxiety, fear, and apprehension in half of the world.  It indeed began the space race - but this was not a time of good-natured exploration.  It was a time of governments flexing their muscles and each attempting to demonstrate ideological superiority through technological advancement and achievement.  Our space infrastructure came at this high cost.  Will the Humanity Star have this kind of legacy?  We don't know, because again, no one was asked how they might feel to have this object over their heads.

Successful programs in space science education, communications, and outreach all have formal evaluation as part of their structure.  Such evaluation allows a program, especially in the crucial beginning phases, to react and respond to input from stakeholders.  The eventual program may look very, very different from the initial concepts because you found out things from your stakeholders that never occurred to you.  (For example, when Gene Shoemaker's ashes were sent to the Moon, the Navajo expressed displeasure, and NASA formally apologized.  Such a disconnect is avoidable if channels of communication are open.)  Why didn't the Humanity Star have an engaged, international evaluation program that allowed it to learn what would indeed inspire global unity?  Why didn't it build a positive audience ahead of time?  With the goals as stated by the CEO, such evaluation was essential to success.  Evaluation didn't happen.  Why?

A few more things of note.  The Humanity Star will burn up in our atmosphere within the year, so this situation is temporary.  Yet the artist is planning to launch yet another, larger piece of space art.  There is no indication that critical conversations have happened around this piece.

As we move forward with space exploration, we need to be as inclusive as possible, or the voices of most of the planet will not go forward with us into space.  We need to have the tough conversations before each endeavor.  If we do this right, we will indeed engender unity.  As we have these conversations, we will discover our global vision for space exploration.  It will be something amazing, a vision we cannot even conceive without the input of all kinds of people.  So let's take the responsibility to seek out and have the conversations now.

J.A. Grier


Anonymous said...

Re: "Will they be angry at the US for once again overbearingly demonstrating its technology?" - It is a New Zealand company, not a US company.

J.A. Grier said...

Thanks for the point of fact - I've updated the post.