AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

Space Education: The Great Potential and Possible Perils

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal StudiesSchool of Security and Global Studies

Over the past year, space has become a topic of media attention. In July 2021, billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson made headlines with their successful space flights, hinting at a budding space tourism business.

At the same time, Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite Wi-Fi system reported that it signed up thousands of new consumers for a system that hopes to provide internet service to millions of consumers worldwide. The creation of the Space Force during the last years of former President Trump’s administration and current President Joseph Biden’s decision to retain this new military service in the face of opposition from within the Democratic Party reflects a bipartisan recognition of the space threats posed to the United States by foreign adversaries.

In a similar vein, investment banks have predicted that by 2030, the worldwide space industry can become a trillion-dollar industry. Most recently, William Shatner, Captain Kirk on the original “Star Trek” television series and an icon for space enthusiasts, became the oldest person to enter space when he was a passenger on a Blue Origin rocket on October 13, 2021. 

All of these recent developments have sparked increased interest in space education and discussions by academics regarding how to teach the subject.

Space Law Is Becoming a Much-Discussed Topic

Our University already offers several excellent space studies degrees and certificates. My school’s existing programs and the developments over the past decade have motivated me to learn about the growing field of space law. As part of the multi-year brainstorming process to teach and develop future space law classes, I have attended conferences and engaged in a great deal of independent reading on space law.

For instance, I recently attended a terrific weeklong Summer Workshop on Teaching Space, which was held in Montgomery, Alabama, in July 2021. My conference attendance, along with the brainstorming as part of the course revision process in my department, challenged my thinking, especially about the scope of any future space law class and the nature of the study of space in general.

The Perils of Space Education

As an academic field, space education, like space exploration itself, has a tremendous amount of potential. However, space education also presents academics with certain perils.

For instance, the space field may exacerbate societal and educational inequalities, or it may become viewed as a tool by competing nation-states or billionaire “space barons.” Space barons is a term coined by Christian Davenport in his 2018 work “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.”

The Possible Future of Space and What We Should Do about It as Space Educators

At space conferences, there is a great debate over the future of space. Some feel that our future in space will resemble the environment depicted on “Star Trek,” where space exploration serves a scientific purpose. Others feel that it could be more like “Star Wars,” a battle between warring powers. However, such a focus on science fiction portrayals of the future of space ignores the billions of ordinary people that live on Earth.

Space exploration and the future exploitation of space resources must benefit as many people on Earth as possible, and the study of space should be crafted to maximize the benefits of space exploration and minimize both societal inequalities and conflict between nation-states. The study of space may play a valuable role to accomplish all of these goals.

Specifically, space education should embrace an interdisciplinary approach. This approach should incorporate experiential learning inside and outside of the classroom, link educational institutions from across the world, and embrace diversity and inclusiveness at all educational levels. Most importantly, space education should serve as an engine for educational and societal change here on Earth.

Space Education Must Embrace an Interdisciplinary, Problem-Solving Perspective

Space education is an interdisciplinary subject that incorporates science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as other areas such as:

  • Business
  • Politics
  • Public Policy
  • Law
  • History
  • International relations
  • Ethics

The exploration and potential exploitation of space resources raise a host of both foreseeable and unforeseeable issues that people in the future will have to address. Rather than focusing on specialization, space classes must focus on using an interdisciplinary approach that prioritizes the development of critical thinking skills and creative thinking. 

In recent years, several schools including the recently established London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), have embraced a teaching method that eschews many aspects of the predominant educational model. LIS has adopted a model that seeks to teach students lifelong skills by dismantling the silos that traditionally divide academic subjects.

For example, problems like climate change require an understanding of science, economics, politics, history, public policy and other subjects. Any solutions to climate change would also require an understanding of these issues.

LIS and other schools like it have embraced an interdisciplinary approach to the construction of classes and programs. They may serve as a model for the creation of not only space law programs, but also for the study of space more broadly.

Given that future space professionals will confront challenges that the current generation cannot foresee, it makes sense to create space programs that will not only provide students with a solid understanding of space but also the skills to deal with any future problems. Beyond the basics of STEM, academics teaching space-related courses must also provide future professionals with an understanding of how decisions made in space have broad implications for billions of ordinary humans on Earth.

Space education programs should draw clear links between space exploration and exploitation and solving the Earth’s problems. Prince William of the United Kingdom recently made this point, noting that solving the Earth’s problems should take priority over space tourism and that the insights obtained from space exploration should help people on Earth.

By focusing on how space exploration and future exploitation of space resources can play a role in solving Earth problems, space education can avoid trends that point to escapism, adventurism, and elitism.

Experiential Learning Provides Space Students with Valuable Learning Opportunities

Space education programs must also embrace experiential learning. Experiential learning involves learning by doing. Research indicates that students learn best “by doing,” and future space courses should be designed to use a broad range of experiential learning opportunities, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Experiential learning includes simulations, case study analysis, and in-class debates, as well as out-of-classroom activities like Model UN competitions and astronomy observations. Fortunately, at our University, students can experience a wide range of experiential learning opportunities.

Embracing a Partnership Approach to Space Education

A 2004 article in the Journal of the International Association of Medical Science Educators noted that the partnership model incorporates cross-institutional programming and provides opportunities for sharing information between institutions and organizations. This strategy improves student outcomes and enriches students’ educational experience.

In crafting a space program, using differing perspectives and different institutions are essential to creating space programs that meet the current needs of the industry. To achieve this end, educational institutions must recognize that any successful space program must utilize a collaborative approach that links institutions, businesses, government, and interested stakeholders from the United States and around the world. This outcome is only possible if the academic field of space emphasizes a partnership – not an adversarial – education model.

Space Educators Must Become Change Agents

Space education, a relatively new field, should challenge and not build upon the flawed foundations of the predominant education model that has its origins in the 19th century. Our current educational model uses a hierarchical structure of education, with a small handful of elite universities forming the top of the hierarchy. These elite universities at the top of the educational pyramid tend to monopolize research opportunities and dominate the academic landscape.

The current academic model has also created barriers that exclude millions of people from higher education and careers in STEM fields. The space industry and the space studies field with its strong focus on STEM can, if not properly reoriented, further widen the existing inequalities of the current education system and exclude millions of people from careers in the future multi-trillion space industry.

While today’s billionaires have portrayed themselves as democratizing space by opening up space to the masses via space tourism and global internet access, there remains a tremendous amount of work left to be done on Earth to address social and educational inequalities. Space educators need to become strong advocates for changes to the current education model.

To address existing inequalities in our educational system, institutions, businesses, and governmental entities, and forward-looking academics must work together. They need to invest resources to remedy current educational inequalities, which has resulted in an underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM careers in the United States and abroad and the domination of a handful of schools that monopolize research money.  

Rectifying these inequalities will require an investment in time, money, and effort over a generation and a complete reimagination of the current educational system. But this investment in teaching and learning STEM subjects in the United States and abroad and the creation of robust partnerships between educational institutions at all educational levels will be beneficial. It will help to prepare students in currently underrepresented groups for higher education and future employment in the potential trillion-dollar space industry in the coming decades. 

The Study of Space Is at the Crossroads

As an academic field, teaching space presents academics and educational institutions with a tremendous amount of opportunity, and it is an exciting time to study and teach about all things having to do with space. The budding space industry has the potential to create an enormous amount of wealth and thousands of associated jobs. At the same time, the space industry may worsen existing inequalities and create deeper divisions in the world between nations and within societies.

While some people may dismiss space education as quixotical and not wedded to everyday life, space exploration and the future exploitation of space resources have the potential to play a transformative societal role over the next generation. Space educators have an important role to play to ensure that the wealth created from a potentially multi-trillion-dollar space industry improves the lives of people on Earth and solves the Earth’s many problems, including climate change, income inequality, and gender and race imbalances in STEM fields.

The positive outcomes derived from space exploration and the eventual exploitation of space resources are only possible if those with the power to do so, including space educators, use their influence to shape a field of study that challenges many of the traditional mindsets in the current educational system and embrace their roles as change agents. Only then, to paraphrase the famous “Star Trek” quote repeatedly cited at space conferences, will humanity “go where it has never gone before.”

James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and is the University’s pre-law advisor.

Comments are closed.