K12 Education for Space Settlement: An Ideas Unlimited Study -Part One-

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Mark Wagner, Ph.D.

Brendan Brennan, Athena Brensberger, Joshua Dahn, Andrew Dobbie, 

Rosalyn Freeman, Janet Ivey, Bob Krone, Ph.D., Holly Melear, Rod Pyle, Steve Sherman, Rhonda Stevenson, Scott Thomas, Barbara Hopkinson Wagner, Artemis Westenberg, 

and Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Department of Space Philosophy, Kepler Space Institute

PHI-500: Philosophical Foundations

Gordon Arthur, Ph.D.

December 4, 2020


The purpose of this study was to explore how best to prepare current K12 students for humanity’s multi-planet future. It began with a review of literature in the field of space philosophy that demonstrated the benefits of space exploration, and thus the importance of educating students to be contributing participants in the coming settlement of the solar system and beyond. The study then included the results of an original qualitative investigation of expert opinion using the Ideas Unlimited method and a grounded theory approach to generate actionable policy recommendations for educators and education leaders.

Literature Review

As Arthur (in press) pointed out, the philosophy of space is a new and still developing discipline. However, the space age is a historically significant period in human history that must be confronted by philosophers (Hetzler, 1982). Of primary importance to the practice of space philosophy is the question of why human beings should explore space, or whether or not we should. The purpose of this literature review was to answer that question based on a body of previous space philosophy, and to also consider the question through the lens of education; asking whether or not children should be educated for space exploration. In addition some results of the review suggested how best to educate students for full participation in – and contribution to – the new space age of the next two decades, a time it seems will be characterized by an increase in activity from space agencies around the globe, expanding commercialization of space, and the return of crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit… to the moon, mars, and beyond (Pyle, 2019). 

Benefits of Space Exploration

For a generation children have been taught that the benefits of the space program include tang, freeze dried ice cream, and velcro. While these obviously fall far short of capturing the most important benefits, this sort of pragmatic justification is often the first response of space philosophers when asked why investment in space exploration is worthwhile. Spin off technologies now found in daily life are often cited as clear benefits, including: medical advances (Hetzler, 1982; Pyle, 2019); improved agricultural practices (Pyle, 2019); the ability to monitor the environment, weather, and pollution from space (Hetzler, 1982; Pyle 2019); the Global Positioning System used for navigation (Pyle, 2019); and the increasingly space-based infrastructure of many government agencies and the public internet (White, 2006; Pyle 2019).  It is becoming difficult to imagine industries that are not likely to be affected by space technologies (particularly satellites) in the next two decades. In addition, government – and now commercial –  spending on space exploration has another practical benefit: it drives both economic growth and scientific training in the workforce (Pyle, 2019). 

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of the space program so far is less tangible, but rather a change in the way the general population perceives the planet Earth and their own place in its biosphere. From Russia’s first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who wrote of the transformational beauty of the Earth and his desire to see it preserved, to modern residents of the International Space Station, like the Saudi Arabian astronaut Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, those who have been to space have often reported a change in perspective that transcends national borders and ethnic divisions  (Peeters 2012; Pyle, 2019). Dubbed the Overview Effect by White (2014), this cognitive shift in awareness became available to a whole generation when the general populace first saw photographs of the Earth from the moon, leading to an ongoing change in public opinion evident in the international environmental movements of today.

This shift in consciousness is just one of the ways space exploration has already benefited efforts to protect humanity’s threatened environment on Earth. Satellite data is already critical to monitoring and addressing climate change. In fact, it is a false dichotomy between investing in space exploration and investing in protection of the environment on Earth (Arthur, 2020). Munévar (1998) saw space exploration as a means to a cleaner future on Earth, later arguing that resources from around the solar system can be used to resupply the environment of “spaceship Earth” (Munévar, 2016, p. 34). Munévar (2014) also considered development of such systems an obligation to the future (p. 199). Not surprisingly, k12 students have agreed, expressing both a desire to protect the Earth and a concern about the future of the planet (Schorer, 2006). Protecting and even extending Earth’s biosphere into space is likely to be a priority among space explorers. Kirby and Kiker (2006) recognized the importance of plants in any long term space-based human habitat (p. 251), and Sobodowski (2013) predicted that space faring humans will create entirely new habitats that may be even more important than the Earth for the ultimate development of life in the solar system. 

If the environment is an urgent concern of our time, so is the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion on Earth – and here again space exploration may be beneficial. Among his reasons why the United States should return to the moon, Rogers (2006) listed “the benefit of all mankind” (p. 57)  and called for representation of all the Earth’s 200 countries. In part due to the Overview Effect, involvement with space exploration encourages acceptance and inclusion of people from a diversity of backgrounds (Thangavelu, 2014). And as Krone (2013a) pointed out, space is something of a cultural blank slate, defined by six decades of international collaboration, and no open war or conflict as of yet. We still have an opportunity to expand into the solar system in an historically peaceful and inclusive way. 

Munévar (1998) made a unique argument for the exploration of space on account of the unintended benefits of scientific serendipity. For instance, nobody working on the Sputnik satellite could have predicted the daily use of Google Maps to navigate with a smartphone, which relies on GPS satellites; instead, our modern society has serendipitously benefitted from the development of satellites. Arthur (in press) reasonably pointed out that there is no necessity involved in this argument; although serendipitous benefits may arise, and often do, there is no guarantee that they will… and sometimes science is instead quite dangerous or destructive. However, unintended benefits of scientific inquiry have been a significant driver in human history, and there is no reason to believe that this trend would not continue into the future (Krone, 2013a; Ord 2020) . Presently, we are experiencing an acceleration in the development of new space technologies and the commercialization of the benefits – often at a rate even faster than anticipated (Pyle 2019). Consider the rapid implementation of StarLink Satellites for instance, or the timeline for landing on the Moon and Mars set by Space X, which is far more aggressive even than the NASA missions they have been hired to deliver. It is reasonable to expect that serendipitous benefits may also come more quickly to the general populace.

Perhaps the most meaningful of the reasons traditionally given in support of space exploration might be the inspiration it offers to people around the world. Investment in the Apollo program drove not just the development of the modern space program, but also the rise of Silicon Valley and innovations in many other fields (Pyle, 2019). There is even an element of spiritual inspiration, as can be evidenced in the religious testimonies of astronauts and others affected by the Overview Effect who have never even been to space (Peeters, 2012; White, 2014). 

Critiques and Counter Arguments

Despite these many benefits of investing in space exploration, there are of course common critiques and counter arguments.  As Arthur (in press) pointed out, social critics argue that resources would be better spent addressing more important problems here on Earth, and ideological critics argue that continued space exploration may be dangerous or even immoral. Both critiques are now easily answered by space philosophers. 

If a critic of the space program is concerned about care for the environment of the Earth, it has already been demonstrated above that an investment in space has clear benefits for climate science and increasingly efficient agriculture. In addition, Munévar (2016) showed that humans are not alone as a species that transforms the environment, and that the ethical requirement is now for us to do so with wisdom… which information from space can aid us with. Furthermore, he argued that many disruptions to the balanced ecosystems of the past then led to greater opportunities for new life forms. He suggested that humanity (and all land animals) are the beneficiaries of environmental changes that led to life venturing from the sea onto land – and he suggested that humanity taking life into space may have similarly long term benefits for a variety of life forms. White (2014) would agree that we are the beneficiaries of the “explorer fish” and that we may play a similar role for future life forms. 

Similarly, Munévar (2016) recognized that we need to address problems on Earth by developing a better attitude toward equity and maturing beyond our historically colonial ethic of resource exploitation. But these changes can not only be undertaken in conjunction with space exploration (there is nothing mutual exclusive about the two endeavors), they may actually be enhanced by the opportunity to actually put into practice something different as we expand into space. Humanity can explore space through collaborating internationally, selecting more diverse crews, and focusing on making sure the benefits are realized by a more inclusive population… and the clean slate in space may be our best opportunity to do this. 

The cost of space exploration is also a frequent concern of critics, particularly given the perception that investment in space takes away from investment in solving other problems. While it is clear that the space shuttle program was far too expensive, this concern is mitigated by the significantly reduced cost of newer spacecraft (Arthur, 2020). The rapid development cycles of Space X, for instance, are focused on minimizing costs, and they are able to deliver payloads and passengers to space for a fraction of the cost of past efforts or current competitors. Also, Pyle (2019) pointed out that most Americans actually have no idea what NASA’s cost are, that its federal budget is currently about 90% lower than it was in the Apollo era, or that NASA is doing far more with comparatively fewer resources today. 

Whatever the costs, the dangers of space exploration are also commonly cited as reasons for avoiding investing in it, especially for crewed missions or human settlements. Even space philosophers agree that the integrity of a space station is fragile and that a space habitation would be considerably more dangerous than inhabiting an aircraft carrier (Kirby and Kiker, 2006). Pyle (2019) captured this humorously in his anthropomorphized phrase, “space hates people” (p. 15). Even k12 students understand the dangers, expressing a variety of fears about space, especially in the wake of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies; however, many students still recognize that space settlement is risky but necessary (Schorer, 2006). Ord (2020) also acknowledged that humanity must not let the impossibility of knowing future dangers stand in the way of space exploration and the potential benefits, and White (2014) went so far as to question whether humanity could continue to evolve and improve if it remains supposedly safe on Earth alone. This brings us to the most important reasons for pursuing the exploration of space.

Critical Reasons for Space Exploration

Even recognizing the validity of these critiques, the most important reasons for space exploration are considerably more compelling. Nothing less than the survival of the human race, our greatest aspirations, and future stages of our evolution are at stake. 

According to Krone (2006), space exploration is critical to the survival of humanity as a species, and he is far from alone in this belief. Munévar (2008) also advocated for colonization of other planets (and the galaxy) to ensure human survival in the long run. This is articulated most completely in Ord’s (2020) The Precipice in which he demonstrates that a human expansion to other planets would protect the species against many natural catastrophes (including asteroid strikes for instance) and against many man-made existential threats as well. Even politicians and diplomats recognized the threat in 1997 with the UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations, which recognized that human survival may be at risk, and that acting on this knowledge falls within the mission of the United Nations (Ord, 2020). More recently, Downing (2019) noted that strong global leadership is needed to avoid the probability of extinction. Arthur (in press) brought home the importance of this reason when he stated that “survival is of value to us because without it, our other aspirations are moot” (p. 8). 

It is our greatest aspirations that may be our most compelling reason for committing to space exploration.  As explorers, we tap into our higher human nature to push boundaries and overcome obstacles (Pyle, 2019). And the coming decades will mean not just explorers in space,  but the pioneers that will follow and create civilization there (White, 2014). There may even be a positive feedback loop as we expand; ideally, we should be able to use space exploration (such as settlement of the Moon) to improve our culture (Rogers, 2006), our quality of life (Cox et al., 2006), and the models available for those left on Earth to emulate (Connor et al., 2006), thus ensuring benefits for future generations both on and off the Earth (Pyle, 2019).  White (2014) considered planning for space exploration and settlement to be synonymous with planning the evolution of human civilization (and perhaps the evolution of the universe itself). In this way, expanding human civilization beyond Earth helps us preserve our potential, avoiding biological or cultural lock-in that might limit it forever (Ord, 2020). If Earth is alone in supporting life, humanity might be its best or only chance to not only avoid eventual extinction but to expand and flourish (Ord, 2020). After all, “the Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever” (Tsiolkovsky, as quoted in Peeters, 2012, p. 29). 

It is the future of life beyond the human that perhaps should be our highest concern. Many space philosophers are already considering a post-human (or posthumanist) future where the biological or inorganic descendents of humanity, such as designer life forms or Artificial Intelligences, are better suited to flourishing beyond the cradle of Earth. This is why White (2006) suggested not just a Human Space Program, but a Post-Human Space Program broad enough to include humans, non-humans, post-humans, extraterrestrials, and any non-organic intelligence; and he imagined post-humans swimming through space like dolphins, a hypothetical race he dubbed Homo-Spaciens. Similarly, Todd (2019) wondered what type of posthuman we will decide to become, and Ord (2020) argued for a future where people explore a diverse variety of post-human forms. White (2014) also noted that humans may not need to understand their role in the evolution of intelligence in the universe in order to fulfill it, and he postulated that the purpose of human evolution may be to make a contribution to the universe rather than exploit it. Realization of such a future will require new global systems of governance (Dror, 2006), greater participation of the general populace, and ultimately the transition of space exploration efforts from a government project to a civilization-wide undertaking (Cox et al., 2006). Preparing a new generation of students for this impending transition is very much the mandate of existing school systems, though they may not be well prepared for the challenge. 

Should Children be Educated for Space Exploration?

Given these compelling reasons for humanity to invest in space exploration, it follows that it may be wise to prepare children to participate in and contribute to the coming new space age.  It may even be something of a moral imperative to provide them this preparation for the world they will likely live in… and help to shape.  As White (2014) suggested, we can now make preparations such as this with clear intention. If we must explore space to promote peace, as Cox (2006) suggested, then perhaps schools should be a part of that learning process as early as possible. And if  Dror (2006) advocated for a Global Leadership Academy, then perhaps that learning should start as early as possible too – and for a much wider set of students – so that they can then be well prepared for the sorts of careers and leadership roles Dror advocates in his steps for redesigning global society. These can include Dror’s (2006) new space settlement profession, Peeter’s (2012) space ronin – the independent rogues who serve as change agents, and Arthur’s (2020)  wide range of disciplines involved in space settlement. Here again, K12 students would agree… they expect our species to advance through study and exploration (Schorer, 2006). 

So, if schools should be redesigned to better prepare students for humanity’s multi-planet future, what should be the foundational principles of those schools? Though an additional answer to this question is offered in the study results below, the literature of space philosophy does provide some initial guidance. It is clear that the school should be hands-on (Cross, 2006), following constructivist learning principles and focusing on empowering the learner (Simpson and Gibbons, 2019). Students should also be trained in the practice of philosophy themselves, from classic philosophy including stoicism (Dror, 2018), to the philosophy of science (Peeters, 2012). 

In a sense, Science Fiction is philosophy of the future, and should be explicitly included in the learning experiences of the new schools; Hetlzler (1982) called for philosophers (and by extension educators) to be open to thinking about possible worlds, and Krone (2006) considered science fiction a staple of literature. Perhaps more importantly, Levinson and Jandrić (2019) recognized the role science fiction has played in driving scientific innovation forward, and it follows that if inspiring more scientists is an important goal, then science fiction should be a focus in schools. Similarly, if educating more creative problem solvers is important, then exposing students to science fiction may be helpful, as  the genre encourages imagination, speculation, and… delight (Gershon and Mitchell, 2019). Kupferman and Gibbons (2019) also pointed out that “science fiction reveals to the child the nature of the system in which s/he is being educated” and introduces them to “different forms of educational future” (p. 10). 

Engaging students in this sort of reflection will also be critical in a school designed to prepare students for altruistic space exploration – and to avoid the potentially dystopian alternative futures (Todd, 2019). Ultimately reflection is also a necessary ingredient of the sort of wisdom that will be required of future leaders and citizens as humanity expands into space; the need for wisdom is a common thread through much of space philosophy, particularly with respect to global leadership, policy, and governance (Dror, 2006; Krone, 2013b; Munévar, 2014; Ord, 2020). 

Summary of Literature Review

It is clear that the benefits of space exploration are many, and that humanity cannot take advantage of them without proper planning and collaboration on a global scale. Spinoff technologies and serendipitous scientific discoveries that benefit the general populace are only the beginning. More significant benefits include: the perspective shifting Overview Effect; the technology to monitor and deal with climate change; the opportunity to practice diversity, equity, and inclusion on a global (and interplanetary) scale; and the inspiration of new generations of scientists, explorers, and pioneers. As the costs of space exploration come down and the understanding of the dangers improves, some critical benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Space exploration may help humanity avoid existential threats, making it possible to achieve our highest aspirations as a species – and to move ethically into a post-human future of essentially unlimited potential. 

Therefore, it is clear that it would be best to prepare the world’s youth for this future in space, and that schools should be redesigned for this function. Such schools should provide opportunities for active learning while building students’ foundations in philosophy, science fiction, and effective reflection so that they might one day serve as wise leaders and citizens. 



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Appendix A: Participant Names, Titles, and Affiliations

Brendan Brennan / Co-Founder / ARES Learning
Joshua Dahn / Executive Director / Astra Nova School
Athena Brensberger / Science Communicator / Astroathens
Andrew Dobbie* / Grade 6 Teacher / SDG Global Ambassador
Rosalyn Freeman* / Student / MPH
Janet Ivey* / CEO / Janet’s Planet, Inc.
Bob Krone, Ph.D. / President / Kepler Space Institute
Holly Melear* / CEO & Founder / STEAMSPACE Education Outreach
Rod Pyle* / Writer and Editor / National Space Society
Steve Sherman / Chief Imagination Officer / Living Maths
Rhonda Stevenson / President & CEO / Tau Zero Foundation
Scott Thomas* / Assistant Principal / Stuyvesant High School
Barbara Hopkinson Wagner / Social Awareness Educator / Kids Are the Solution Project
Artemis Westenberg / CEO / Explore Mars Europe
Heather Wolpert-Gawron / 21st Century Learning / San Gabriel Unified School District

  • All participants in the study are credited as co-authors on this publication. Participants indicated with an asterix requested credit in the body of the text for their specific contributions.
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