Why you should care
Because humanity's problems won't disappear on another planet.
In the sci-fi novel 2312, set on Mercury, citizens called sunwalkers risk being blinded or killed by the scorching sun, yet they follow it anyway, trudging west. They stay slightly ahead of the dawn, carefully glimpsing the sun they worship when they can, for seeing it is like “seeing the face of God.”
Outer space anthropologist Savannah Mandel found resonance between author Kim Stanley Robinson’s sunwalkers and the scientists, civilians and military who work at Spaceport America, the United States’ new “airport” for commercial spacecraft, located in the New Mexico desert. She spent 10 weeks there doing fieldwork for her dissertation and found its workers “willing to risk everything” to participate in outer space ventures.
The reason? “They believe space travel ensures the future of humanity,” says Mandel. But humanity’s problems won’t disappear on another planet, and could even get worse when it comes to things like inequality. That’s where people like Mandel come in.
At 23, Mandel is one of the youngest members of a tiny group of anthropologists around the globe focusing on how humans relate to space. Their roots can be traced in part to a 1974 symposium on issues that could arise in outer space communities, held at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting. Valerie Olson, a pioneer in the field and now a professor at the University of California at Irvine, estimates there are fewer than 100 outer space anthropologists on Earth. However, the field is growing, and she’s encouraged to see more young women like Mandel entering it. In the beginning, it was lonely work for Olson and colleague Lisa Messeri (now a professor at Yale). They were two of the only women, and many people thought their work had no legs because going to space for fieldwork was impossible.
I love space, but I really want us to not leave Earth in the dust.
That’s what Mandel was told in 2016 as an undergrad at the University of Florida, so she gave up the idea of becoming a space anthropologist. But earning a master’s at University College London, she stumbled upon three social anthropologists studying space, including one who became her dissertation adviser, David Jeevendrampillai. Now a postdoc at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Jeevendrampillai says Mandel’s study of Spaceport America is groundbreaking. By burrowing into the lives of Spaceport workers, he says, Mandel revealed “how people imagine their sense of morality, their sense of duty and how they craft and carve the future.” To gain access to a fieldwork site, Mandel searched for months, contacting at least 75 space organizations until she got permission to study Spaceport America. “She doesn’t give up,” Jeevendrampillai says.
Mandel is tall and slender, with wide-set blue eyes and two-toned hair: black and azure. Her quiet presence is both grounded and airy; she reminds me of a blue iris. She grew up in South Florida on the right side of the tracks but identified with the stoners, skateboarders and outliers from the wrong one. As a kid, she fell in love with science fiction and the magazines her mom had lying around: Discover, Smithsonian and Scientific American. Her family traveled widely, visiting archeological sites around the globe. On their first date, she beat her now-husband at chess in six moves and proposed to him a few months later (with a silver engagement ring engraved with “Checkmate”).
Mandel currently works as a science writer for the American Institute of Physics, and she is also a devoted sci-fi writer completing a novel about a robot named MAL’s suicide note. This year, The Geek Anthropologist blog published a sexy novella of Mandel’s about the first anthropologist on the moon. (In the story, lunar reproduction must be approved, and there’s only one spot on the entire starship, dubbed “The Shire,” where a couple can get alone time to conceive.)
A recent Space and Humanity conference held in Lexington, Kentucky, included everyone from top NASA people to artists, academics and a space-law expert to examine how humans will be affected by moving into what Messeri calls “the galactic neighborhood.” One of the most discussed topics was how to recognize and try to prevent bias and privilege when it comes to settling space. Mandel spoke about an article she wrote last year for The Geek Anthropologist describing the dangers of an “Elysium Effect,” where the commercialization of space — such as mining asteroids for minerals and metals — deepens global wealth disparities, for existing law is murky on international rights. In an article this year for Anthropology News, Mandel echoed this theme by warning about “lunar imperialism,” where Western countries with the most financial resources settle space with the colonial mentality forged by their history. Banking giant Morgan Stanley estimates revenue from the global space industry could reach more than $1 trillion by 2040, in industries ranging from commercial space travel and package delivery via rocket to resource extraction.
Brendan Curry, chief of Washington, D.C., operations for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit dedicated to space research and education, calls Mandel a “space communicator” who conveys “the majesty and excitement of space activity and why we need to keep doing it.”
Outer space anthropology receives far less academic and government funding than other disciplines in the STEM fields. Mandel wants to keep going, but she’s not sure about a career in academia because of her passion for writing science fiction. Olson says it’s tough to work as an outer space anthropologist without the support of an academic institution, but that may change as the space industry diversifies.
Messeri believes space startups and NASA would benefit by bringing outer space anthropologists on board because she says they have different narratives and perspectives, such as a focus on conservation as a way of protecting a new world from the get-go.
Mandel says she wants all her work to educate and inspire people about what lies ahead off — and on — our pale blue dot. “I love space, but I really want us to not leave Earth in the dust because we’re moving so fast into an interstellar future,” she says. “In Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, the main character often ends up back on Earth wondering, ‘Why did we abandon Earth, this incredible planet we were born into and designed for?’ ”
OZY’s Five Questions With Savannah Mandel
- What’s the last book you finished? Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
- What do you worry about? That the human race won’t learn from its past mistakes.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My husband and my family. I could live without them, but I wouldn’t want to, because I wouldn’t be whole anymore.
- Who’s your hero? Definitely Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. I’m not sure if one’s “hero” is supposed to be a fictional character, but I’ve always admired Mal’s spirit.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to publish a novel that people actually read. I want to write something that’s taken seriously and remembered for years to come, something that makes people talk and laugh and cry and think and smile.