• Thomas Cheney

What does ‘Spacefaring Civilization’ mean to me?

The name Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization was chosen as a simple way to declare what we are for. We are an independent think tank and research centre focused on space law and policy, specifically those issues that need to be addressed in order for humanity to become a spacefaring civilization. However, what does ‘spacefaring civilization’ actually mean? I thought that this would be a good place to start our blog. It also seems like a good exercise for the team and indeed anyone who joins the team down the line. What does the phrase ‘spacefaring civilization’ mean to you? There’s a literal, dictionary definition that we can take, and I will indeed, explore that, but there’s a deeper or broader meaning or perhaps a more personal meaning, because we are, after all, talking about a vision.

To open the dictionary, spacefaring is defined as ‘the action or activity of travelling to space’[1] and civilization is defined as ‘the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area’[2] (there are alternative meanings which I will come to later). Although Wikipedia’s ‘complex society defined by living in urban developments’[3] (i.e. cities) is another definition worth remembering for now. So, to take a ‘literal’ dictionary definition, a spacefaring civilization is a complex society capable of travelling to space.

Although what does capable of travelling to space mean? Capable itself has multiple meanings, it can mean has the ability to do something or has the potential to do something. If Iran, under a harsh sanctions regime, and North Korea, under the conditions which that state exists, can develop space launch capabilities then most countries today could also do so if they were to choose to make that a priority (and they don’t for a variety of reasons). So, is it fair to say that most ‘industrial’ societies are ‘spacefaring’? or do they actually need to be able to launch stuff? Or does the moniker require more than that? regular, normal, space launch? I think it does, for me, being a ‘spacefaring’ nation/state/society/civilization is about regular, routine access to and use of outer space. But even that’s not a clear-cut matter, loads of countries make regular use of space ‘assets’ and even have plenty of their own ‘space assets’ but lack their own space launch capability, are they ‘spacefaring’? That, I have to say, I’m less sure about. Then, of course, there’s human spaceflight capabilities. And that highlights another definitional issue, the United States doesn’t have a human spaceflight capability at this very moment, US astronauts are in the same boat as the Europeans they have to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket (although at this precise moment that isn’t even an option.)[4] China’s human spaceflight programme is not scheduled to launch a human mission until 2020, so if we define a spacefaring nation/state/society/civilization as one that can actually launch people into space today then we might have to say that there are none on Earth at present. However, that patently would be absurd. It’s also tangential to my point…

Perhaps somewhat like with artificial intelligence[5], the definition of ‘spacefaring civilization’ keeps moving as our capabilities do. A ‘spacefaring civilization’ seems like something for the future, not quite there yet, only 561 people have been to space, and only 24 have travelled beyond low-Earth orbit.[6] Space is an important part of our daily lives, and increasingly so, and is undervalued, underrecognized and underappreciated by the majority of people, but I think it’s fair to say that it is premature to declare that we are a ‘spacefaring civilization’ just yet. Which segues into the next point, what exactly do I mean by ‘civilization’…

As I said that the start of this post, the ‘dictionary definition’ of ‘civilization’ and indeed the explanation I recall being given at school is a complex society living in cities and thus finds its origins in places like Babylon, Ur and Jericho. But, of course, it means more than that, hence the ‘society, culture, and way of life of a particular area’ from the Oxford dictionary[7], so we can talk about a Western Civilization or an ‘Orthodox’ civilization a Chinese civilization etc (although that has a number of issues that I’ll come to in a bit), but is that necessarily appropriate in this context (and not just for those ‘number of issues’ I will be shortly addressing), but while ‘Western Civilization’ (however we may actually define that) is a ‘spacefaring civilization’ in the sense that it regularly ‘uses’ and ‘accesses’ space it’s not ‘the West’ that enables this, it’s the United States, the European Space Agency, New Zealand… so we use nation/state/society instead.

Again, this is something where I’d say that the phrase ‘spacefaring civilization’ is forward looking rather than describing something that is actually a reality today. It is Elon Musk’s ‘multiplanetary species’, but I take two issues there, first multiplanetary seems too limited in scope, by being specific to planets does it exclude asteroids, moons and space stations? But also ‘species’ could suggest that just setting up human life on more than one planet is sufficient. And sure, spreading life is important, life is valuable, especially if Earth does turn out to be an oasis of life in a rather barren and desolate galaxy or universe (I’m betting we’re not alone but we could be), and if that is so we do perhaps have an obligation as ‘guardians of the light of consciousness’ (though we’ve been pretty crap at that to date) to spread life, but there’s more to life than being alive. What we bring of value is not the mere fact of our existence, but our culture, our ideas, our literature, our poetry, our art. It is not merely enough to spread and preserve our DNA, but we must send forth the essence of human civilization from Homer and Confucius to Shakespeare and K-Pop and Taylor Swift. And yes, I do look to and consider human civilization to be the goal. Sure the initial forays into the cosmos are likely to be ‘civilizational signalling’ probably between the ‘West’ and China as the voices calling for a ‘renewed’ ‘Cold War’ between the United States and China seem to be gaining ascendency, but I look to the long run and look forward to the day when we can truly talk about a human civilization in a way we can now talk about ‘Europe’ and mean more than ‘Christendom’ and/or a place on a map.

And on that note, a final word of warning, or perhaps, caution. Civilization has another potential meaning, ‘the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced.’[8] It was this meaning that was used to justify the horrors of European imperialism, we were ‘more advanced’ and therefore had to ‘teach’ the ‘primitives’ how to be ‘civilized’. And in the increasing ethno-nationalism that we are seeing today there is a danger that this meaning will make a return, especially if a ‘civilizational’ space colonization race does occur. But of course ‘different’ doesn’t mean better, or worse, and interaction, cooperation and melding are part of human history, ‘civilizations’ aren’t static things, after all I’m using ‘Latin’ script to type a ‘Germanic’ language and have used ‘Arabic’ numerals in several places throughout this post, and we are approaching the centenary of the end of a ‘civilizational clash’ between Britain and Germany which, Brexit notwithstanding, would be unthinkable today. Therefore, I can, and do, look forward to a human spacefaring civilization, perhaps not quite the United Federation of Planets, probably more like some EU/UN hybrid, but a human spacefaring civilization we can be proud to aspire to.

However, it is important to think about words when we use them, hence this post and those of my colleagues to follow.

So, to address the question at the heart of this piece, what does a spacefaring civilization mean to me? For me a spacefaring civilization, is a thriving vision for the future of humanity, one in which humans have spread our wings beyond the Earth, we have ‘left the cradle’, so to speak, but we’ve not abandoned ‘the cradle.’ My vision isn’t of a lucky few escaping an increasingly hellish Earth for a brighter future elsewhere but using the bounty and potential of space to improve the lives of all humans (and other living creatures) everywhere. It is building a better, more just, more equal society. It is about ensuring that space, and frankly the future, is for the benefit of all and not just an extravagant playground for the rich and famous. But it won’t happen automatically, a rising tide may lift all boats, but history demonstrates that it doesn’t do so equally or evenly and some boats get swamped in the process.

The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.





[5]Thomas Cheney (2017) ‘Written Evidence (AIC0098)’ House of Lords Artificial Intelligence Select Committee




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