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applied sociology - questions and answers

Jim Pass

Question: “What is astrosociology and why is it important to the future of space exploration?”
Answered by Jim Pass, PHD, Astrosociology and Space Exploration

Astrosociology is defined as the study of astrosocial phenomena, or the cultural and social patterns related to space.  Astrosociology may be regarded as the “sociology of outer space” because it covers all aspects of human behavior related to space exploration.  To fully appreciate the importance and relevance of astrosociology, it is helpful to consider sociology’s history as related to space.

The past absence of a sociological approach to the study of space and society is remarkable as we near the fiftieth anniversary of the dawn of the space age.  The sociological discipline has been remiss in this area for all these years.  Each of the several attempts to initiate a subfield dedicated to the sociology of space has failed.  Astrosociology represents the latest, and the most successful, attempt so far.  We know very little about the past effects of astrosocial phenomena on society, but we should conduct this research.

Present indifference and even some overt resistance exemplify current conditions. Astrosociology is not yet a mainstream subdiscipline within sociology largely because space is seen as inconsequential to everyday social life.  After all, very few humans leave the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere.  While it is true that most astrosocial phenomena today occur mostly on Earth, this will change over time as we increase our permanent presence in space.  Even now, however, the effects of astrosocial phenomena on earthbound societies remain interesting on their own merits and deserve understanding, including the cultural values favorable and unfavorable to space exploration.  Space missions and findings from the space sciences continue to stimulate our imaginations.  The possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence generates private support from the public for SETI.  Benefits from technology transfer and NASA spinoffs contribute to safer and more comfortable living conditions on Earth.  It seems incredible that so little input from the social sciences is utilized, or even solicited, by NASA officials and other space policy makers.  Astrosociologists can help to remedy this unfortunate situation by providing relevant research findings and informed counsel.  Present circumstances are not beneficial to anyone.

Thus, the future potential of astrosociology represents its greatest asset.  In the first decade of the twenty-first century, humanity is left with the depths of the oceans and the vastness of space as the only two remaining unexplored frontiers.  The “final frontier” of space must be studied by space scientists, of course, but also by social scientists.  Future astrosociological research results hold important and diverse ramifications for societies.  Sociology has a long and rich tradition of identifying, studying, and contributing to solutions to social problems.  We have seen in the past how solutions to problems related to space exploration result in solutions to earthbound social problems as well.  Astrosociology can detect and take advantage of trends to improve conditions in societies around the world.  Moreover, astrosocial phenomena contribute to social change which must be understood.  Applied astrosociology can aid in improving various elements of space exploration such as the proper construction of space communities and development of coherent space policy and space law.  Indeed, futures studies from a sociological perspective will undoubtedly develop into a major specialty within astrosociology.  Astrosocial phenomena will increasingly affect societies, so the development of astrosociology is important to (1) contribute to the success of space exploration and (2) study its myriad complex social effects.  The development of an astrosociological perspective remains important for understanding our inevitable movement into space.  Go to page 2 of Dr. Pass’s work-->