Why you should care

That’s one small step for astronauts, one giant leap for humanists.

Leaving planet Earth isn’t easy. This year, NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Program received a record 18,000-plus applications from highly qualified scientists bent on discovering space’s deep abyss. It will choose a handful, if that. Virgin Galactic is promoting space vacations at $250,000 per flight ticket. And when Elon Musk finally colonizes Mars…well, who knows when that will be?

So, here’s an idea, as we contemplate jetting up to the Red Planet: Make some room on board for poets, painters and philosophers, too. After all, the prospect of regular trips beyond Earth bears plenty of larger-than-life questions that go far past science. Who will ponder the ethics of the cosmos when we “conquer” Pluto Avatar-style? Who will paint the mighty auroras of distant planets? Who will write lyrically about the existential anxiety of cosmic isolation, or the magic of zero gravity? We need creative types like poets, musicians, philosophers and filmmakers to give shape to the amorphous void of outer space, says Mark Lupisella, an engineer and researcher at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: “It would be the way to speak to the world more broadly.”

To be an astronaut at NASA, you need a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics. All useful, but scientists just aren’t as adept at tackling thorny questions of existence as are humanists, argues University of North Carolina philosophy professor Douglas MacLean. Few people can convey “the fragility of the planet” better than a professional artist or an expert philosopher, he says. Nor can they illuminate the wonders of the universe as beautifully for all those back on Earth to experience. NASA’s specialists don’t have enough bandwidth to philosophize — rather, they’re “fixated on getting stuff done; implementing stuff instead of thinking about stuff,” says Lupisella. Just as the military embeds reporters, we too deserve to get a Shakespeare in space.

Granted, science nerds can be humanists too, and NASA has already had a fair share of creative types fly in space — there’s even a guitar on the International Space Station. But the vast majority at NASA must have technical expertise under their belt, because “that sort of background really is necessary to be able to do the job,” says Brandi Dean, a NASA spokesperson who was more than a bit confused when we proposed the idea of philosopher-astronauts. It costs $450 million to launch a space shuttle for each mission, so why risk the big bucks on a dancer who can’t even fix a kitchen sink, much less a sinking spaceship?

NASA may be unlikely to entertain the thought anytime soon. But in the future, let’s leave the moondust analysis to the scientists and the metaphysical analysis to the intellectuals. Both will surely take us to places we’ve never been before. Just spare them the “spacey” philosopher jokes, says MacLean.

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