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How Can Philosophy Help NASA Explore the Cosmos?

After the success of the Apollo missions in landing men on the moon more than 50 years ago, humans have not left low Earth orbit. Changing political directives, myriad technical options, and limited budgets have left NASA struggling to articulate and achieve a coherent strategy for human deep space missions. 

In a recent essay for Issues, G. Ryan Faith notes that many of the larger dilemmas that NASA grapples with are as philosophical as they are practical: “Why go to the expense and danger of sending humans into space at all, rather than working with robots? Is there an inherent value to human presence in space? And if so, what is it? Is the scientific benefit commensurate with the added cost and risk?” Faith calls on the space agency to engage more deeply with questions of values and purpose. “NASA needs to embrace philosophy,” he argues, “so that it can better explain what it is doing and why to the public and itself.”

On Thursday, June 6, at 2:30 PM ET, join G. Ryan Faith, Daniel E. Hastings, Tony Milligan, Erica Rodgers, and Marcia Smith to discuss how philosophy can help NASA consider humanity’s future in space and develop its vision for exploring the cosmos.


  • G. Ryan Faith, PhD Candidate, University of Southampton; Former House Space Subcommittee Staff and VICE News Defense Editor
  • Daniel E. Hastings, Interim Vice Chancellor and Cecil and Ida Green Education Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; President, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)
  • Tony Milligan, Research Fellow, King’s College London
  • Erica Rodgers, Director of Advanced Programs, NASA Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy
  • Marcia Smith (moderator), Founder and Editor,

Watch the Recording

Chat Transcript

(This transcript has been lightly edited for formatting and to remove irrelevant Zoom logistical information.) 

Kimberly Quach: Welcome everyone! We’ll get started in a few minutes. While we wait, check out G. Ryan Faith’s article, “Taking Aristotle to the Moon and Beyond,” which inspired this discussion.

Kimberly Quach: Visit for news, information and analysis about space (civil, military, commercial, and international) policy.

Kimberly Quach:  Read Tony’s recent article on space skepticism and check out Tony’s book, “Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space Exploitation

Kimberly Quach: Welcome all! Thanks for joining! We have a big crowd today! Where are you joining us from?

Polly Hansen:   POLLY HANSEN, producer

Dr Arvind Gopal Kulkarni: Dr Arvind Kulkarni from Texas

Rosangela Barcaro: Dr. Barcaro from Genoa, Italy

Torey Battelle:  Dr. Torey Battelle at Arizona State University, from Denver CO

Patrick Lin: Interesting article from yesterday about why some people are pessimistic about space exploration.

Rockwell Clancy: Dr Rockwell Clancy at Virginia Tech

Jonathan Coopersmith: Jonathan Coopersmith formerly of Texas and now in Washington, DC (and who had the stimulating pleasure of hearing Erica Rogers yesterday at the NASM-AIAA conference on space heritage).

Mike Stuart: Quick thought to share with everyone: It might be helpful for conversations like this to make some distinctions. One is to distinguish between the different things that philosophy can offer, for example, more sophisticated ethical frameworks, justification of general principals/motivations, and ethical/epistemic reflections on scientific/engineering methods. Another thing to distinguish between is the different branches of philosophy that should be involved. Ethics and value theory and political philosophy, sure; but we shouldn’t forget philosophy of science, as well as indigenous theory, queer theory, disability theory, feminism, etc. Finally, there are different methods philosophers might use to address important questions about space exploration/science, including so-called armchair methods, historical methods, and empirical methods (including qualitative and quantitative). Each of these should be pursued, and combined where possible. In sum, there are so many possibilities for future discussion!

Patrick Lin: Whether or not humans are ready for outer space, it’s happening, and it’s hard to imagine how that could be stopped or even slowed down, barring some disaster that kills astronauts…

Paul Grabowski: I whole heartedly agree that there must be a potential for financial return (aka profit), in order to expand space exploration. This is how and why “The New World” was established.   This is how the western US was developed. It’s the way things work.

Patrick Lin: Hi, I’m a philosopher who works for NASA, along with Prof. Dan Hastings on this panel on the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group. Search also for philosopher Zach Pirtle inside NASA, doing policy.

Brian Harvey: NASA has a new policy office which may give some new hope to government planning.

Patrick Lin: And here’s a recent ethics report re: Artemis missions from NASA’s policy office.

Lisa Margonelli: Erica Rodgers is the Director of Advanced Programs and NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy

Kimberly Quach: Thanks for sharing that Patrick! Zach Pirtle was interviewed on our podcast about these issues too.

Jonathan Coopersmith: What could comparing how we view the technologically challenging frontiers of the oceans and outer space tell us about our perspective on exploring and exploiting space?

Paul Grabowski: He is saying all the right things.   The question is how to implement and execute those ideas. What is the plan to do all that?

Linda Billings:  Philosophers of space include Jayme Johnson Schwartz, Kelly Smith, Carlos Marshal (and Tony!). See the books “Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology” and “Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration.’

Linda Billings:  Hi Tony! Great article on The Conversation today.

George Leaua: Thank you all, great discussion. Looking forward to the next one!

Ken Sullivan:  Thank you, all.

Daniel Saunders: 👏

Roger Weiss: Excellent discussion, thank you for the engaging and thought-provoking messages…

Jennifer Wiseman: 👏

Patricia Dunphey: Thank you.

Audience Questions & Comments

Terry Trevino: How can we place science at the table and remove political change? We see the budget radically change depending on the politics of the day. Political elites should advocate for science and not always just space. Could we elevate NASA, NOAA, NSF, and others to a cabinet-level in the US govt?

Anonymous Attendee: For those who are skeptical about the value of exploring space, do you know about what NASA calls “spinoff technologies”? These are technologies that are developed for space exploration and transferred to the private sector to be adapted for benefits on Earth. I am curious if when NASA communicates, if we should increase this discussion and if this has the potential to sway the skeptics.

John Diamond: How does Congress feel about it?

Patricia Dunphey: Does NASA feel it is having its nose pushed out by the likes of Musk and Bezos?

Eugene Vaynberg: One issue is who should get to decide how to spend the resources allocated to various space exploration initiatives. Inevitably, there are many more projects and directions for inquiry than the resources available. So it seems that figuring out the best mechanism for allocating resources is important in an era where people may be skeptical about turning over such decisions solely to billionaire entrepreneurs or government leaders/NASA. Do the panelists see room for rethinking how such resource allocation decisions are made? This question seems ripe for philosophical consideration.

Anonymous Attendee: What would it really look like for NASA to consult with (or hire?) philosophers? Are there existing models for or examples of this kind of engagement that have led to more robust strategy or direction?

Jon Phillips: The panelists seem to generally agree that a somewhat or heavily privitized future of space exploration and development is inevitable and perhaps even desirable. If space science and technology are to be developed with the public good in mind, how do we reconcile that with a private, for-profit sector operating with a fundamentally different ethical framework?

Charles Oman: Advocates of space exploration often argue that: (1) That humans are explorers by nature (2) That space exploration is uniquely inspiring, (3) That we should conquer the space frontier to avoid societal stagnation. Back in 2018 Jim Schwartz of Wichita State critiqued the supporting evidence. Wondered what all of you think of these rationales?

Anonymous Attendee: Would it be realistic to expect NASA to be transparent about its space mission objectives?

Casey Dreier: Is it reasonable to expect there exists a single compelling rationale for something as varied and dynamic as space activities? It strikes me as an near impossible expectation. Should we instead accept that the fundamental “value” of space activities is axiomatic, and instead focus on actions in space to demonstrate that value directly?

Leroy Simpson: With the thought of being on other planets, I’m wondering if you think that Earth will be eventually thought of being left behind as “home?”

Jon Phillips: This isn’t really a question, but speaking as a historian of science, including a historian in these conversations when the history becomes relevant might be useful for future events.

Patrick Lin: Does anyone have a sense that (1) it’s already too late to stop space exploration but (2) humans have a poor track record in being stewards of the environment as well as of each other? So, there’s no chance of avoiding harm and other bad things in venturing in space.

This isn’t necessarily an argument that it will be a net-negative–lots of positives can come from it. Compare to the colonization of the New World: lots of people and other things were harmed, but arguably lots of good stuff also came from it.

By ignoring the inevitable harms — which should be attended to proactively, not ignored — is there dishonesty in these conversations, which contributes to polarization or skepticism on this issue?

Anonymous Attendee: Altnernatively, perhaps our discussions of value in space are misapplied to the structures of value inherent in public policy. I feel that we make a domain error when discussing the concept of exploration — historically the purview of the individual — to the activity of the public sphere. Perhaps that’s why the language coming from the Musks and Bezoses of the world resonate more strongly: it is aligned with an individualistic standpoint rather than a democratic societal one.

Jennifer Wiseman: Thanks to the excellent panel. I find discussions like that seem to use the word “exploration” for space in an ill-defined and ambiguous way. For astronomers and other scientists like me, “exploration” means looking out to learn about the universe for curiosity and scientific advancement, and that can involve humans but even more so probes, robots, and telescopes. But others use “exploration” for any activity in space, including commercial, earth science, comms, military. Is this confusing?

Anonymous Attendee: At its core space exploration is about ensuring the continuity of humanity (the killer app as Ryan just said). Isn’t that reason enough? Why should nasa have to invent other reasons?

Zabelle Zakarian: To what extent do the current international agreements for exploring Antarctica provide a model for exploring space?

Guy-Christopher COPPEL: Considering the history of NASA, let’s remember what triggered it: Politics and strategy
Let’s also remember the second point of the 1958 Space Act: EDUCATION which is not an alibi
If we can blame the different “clocks” NASA is force to juggle with, on the political side a 4 years life span (even 2 years if you consider midterms) and on the other hand the time needed to design a program and make it happen (an average of 20 years!), we have the answer to the “shifting rationale” syndrome and we can endlessly lament the struggling NASA (part of the Executive Branch of Gov) explanations about why it exists and should continue to do so…
Now, we can (like I do) get tired of hearing we are compelled to space exploration because ewe are “explorers” at heart, and the call for the “final frontier” is a must…Do not wonder why less than 10 % of the American people is actively supporting and understanding the Space Program…
May I suggest that the question about philosophy in space exploration is not only the elephant in

David Shapiro: What does philosophy have to contribute to the issue of policing space debris?

George Leaua: One argument we hear for why the US should be first on the Moon/Mars etc. is that the first to come will be the one setting the rules and bringing its values. To what extent is this true in terms of human activities in space? Are there any concerns about actions that are deemed ethical by Americans but not by other nations and vice-versa? Will we experience a “race” to define space ethics?

Anonymous Attendee: Are there lessons from other domain (such as maritime)? Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel?

Patricia Dunphey: A philosophical question: Is Dark Matter two dimensional?

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