For the last twenty years, social science has partnered with the life sciences to understand the societal and ethical impact of innovation in biotech, genomics, and synthetic biology — but we have not seen this happen with the space sector. In this piece, we set out what social science can bring to the table.
The development of new commercial spaceports across the world has attracted headlines, especially in Europe where countries such as the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden are establishing their own launch infrastructure, and striving to secure a share of the small satellites launch market.
These spaceports raise all sorts of technical and regulatory issues connected with the use of airspace and public safety. However, they also come with a host of social and political considerations that are persistently overlooked but, if adequately addressed, could help drive successful spaceport development. These include recognizing how different groups of people respond to the establishment of space launch infrastructure in their communities, dealing with the environmental impacts of space launch, and how the economic benefits of spaceports are realized.
Spaceport developers have already been working to secure support by navigating local and national political systems (and the shifting priorities in government) to win the backing of local political leaders and communities, and to attract launch vehicle providers to use their facilities.
It’s during this process that social science insights can prove essential. Social scientists can identify and analyze the societal aspects of spaceports, and can investigate the relationships between operators, policymakers, concerned citizens, local communities, and investors.
Social scientists include sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and human geographers, and we study how societies work. By studying humans, society, technology, and social interaction, we can help evaluate policy and provide organizations with practice-based insights about what works and what doesn’t. Some social scientists have also become very interested in space.
To explore the benefits of social science in the space sector, a group of social scientists, a former space policy advisor, and a science fiction writer (who was also once an astronomer), held a workshop at the University of York in November 2023. This brought representatives from two U.K.-based spaceports together with anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists who have been undertaking research on social, cultural, and political issues relevant to spaceports. The event was co-funded by the Department of Sociology at University of York, the Societies and Cultures Institute (SCI) at the University of Exeter, and the School of Engineering at University of Edinburgh.
We facilitated a knowledge exchange session between researchers and spaceport developers, which provided an opportunity to share perspectives and concerns of those working in industry and academia. This exchange across academic, industry, and policy boundaries proved particularly fruitful: It served to identify key issues and challenges for the development of spaceports, and to identify potential future research.
Here are five ways social scientists can help the development of spaceports:
1. Social scientists help us understand societal impacts of technological change and it always involves competing interests.
Social scientists have always been interested in the social and political impacts of new technology. When the social sciences emerged as a field of study in the nineteenth century, they helped people understand the potential application and societal consequences of the new technologies of the time, such as electricity, factories, steam power, and railways. Spaceports may have a significant impact on the way we live, and the social sciences can help us imagine and understand this potential from different perspectives.
2. Social scientists highlight the importance of history.
While spaceports have existed since the 1960s (and even longer in science fiction), we can learn a lot about these infrastructures by turning to other infrastructures — like railways and seaports —- developed in the past. How do spaceports compare to other forms of infrastructure from the perspectives of different members of the public? Do they see them as being similar to airports or as something quite different? For policymakers, space infrastructure is important for society and the economy, but will members of various publics see them the same way, especially when the politics and economics of infrastructure projects can often be fraught with competing interests?
3. Social scientists do not only see space but also place.
Social scientists recognize that people make places from spaces. While the strategic placement of a spaceport is important for planners and developers, the location of these sites also matters for the people that live in their vicinity. The remoteness of certain locations may make them good candidates to build a spaceport, but may also heighten tensions between groups wishing to preserve the natural landscape and those seeking to develop the potential economic benefits of space launch infrastructure.
4. Social scientists understand messy complexity.
Social scientists can help understand and navigate the messy complexity of various groups’ conflicting needs that often cluster around the development of infrastructure projects. This is the case in a place such as Esrange in Sweden, where local Sami reindeer herders are worried about how the Esrange spaceport would impact their traditional way of life.
5. Social scientists have been thinking about non-humans for a while now.
We’re not talking about aliens here — but about the living things with whom us humans share our world. We are interested in how to build more ethical and just relationships between humans and non-humans. This means we are able to think carefully about the social, political, and environmental impact of spaceports on local flora and fauna, as well as on the space environment itself.
Boldly going where social science hasn’t gone before.
The development of spaceports presents us with a range of important ethical, legal, and political issues. But it isn’t enough to rely on developers, space scientists, planners, and politicians to deal with them all. We also need social scientists to analyze and critique those groups’ plans. That way, we will have the potential to make decisions informed by a range of perspectives when faced with choices that shape the future.
The event in York was an important step towards creating a dialogue between social scientists and industry, to realize that potential. There is a huge opportunity for research projects to involve social scientists working in partnership with local governments, citizens groups, and industry to explore the issues we have highlighted here and more. Utilizing the social sciences presents an immensely valuable opportunity to enable these different actors to work more effectively together — to build better spaceports for everyone.
Richard Tutton is co-Director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit (SATSU), Department of Sociology at the University of York, U.K.
Alexander R.E. Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Communications at University of Exeter, U.K.
Pippa Goldshmidt is a freelance writer in Edinburgh and Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh, U.K.
Eleanor Armstrong is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Science Education at the University of Stockholm, Sweden.
Mark Presley is a former U.K. space policy advisor and Honorary Fellow of the University of York, U.K.
Matjaz Vidmar is Lecturer in Engineering Management at University of Edinburgh, U.K.