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The Meaning of Outer Space

William Sims Bainbridge
By William Sims Bainbridge
Ethical Technology

Posted: Dec 31, 2012

Forty years after the last flight to the Moon, human exploration of outer space seems to have stalled, although a number of options exist for new scientific and technological alternatives, both in goals and the means to achieve them. Public opinion polls fail to look deeply into popular conceptions, and they tend to reveal only weak enthusiasm.

 In 2010, 37.7 percent of American respondents to the General Social Survey called for space program funding to be reduced, and only 17.2 percent wanted support to be increased. A new research project seeks much deeper understanding of the potential human future in space, by surveying people who are unusually interested and knowledgeable, while possessing a range of viewpoints. This will be done through online questionnaires that will not poll random samples of the population, but will augment the public opinion polls that do use that traditional method.

At present, this project offers two ways in which people interested in space exploration can express their views:

1. People who have an Android device can download a pair of free apps that use an innovative interface that makes it very easy to respond and instantly transmits responses directly into the project's database:

Space Futures asks the respondent to judge 100 predictions about what might be achieved over the next 50 years - how likely it is each prediction will come true and how good or bad that would be - and it is available at:

Space Opinions consists of 100 statements about the current meaning of space exploration, asking how much the respondent agrees or disagrees with each one, and how important each one is:

2. A 300-item ordinary questionnaire in the form of a Word document allows people to contribute their thoughts if they do not have an android device. Information about it is available at:

The combined results of the surveys will be published online very quickly to help guide leaders of the world's space programs, governments, aerospace industries, and young people studying related areas of science and engineering. This is a time for serious reconsideration of humanity's goals in space, and diverse thinking should be part of the debate.

This research project is innovative but solidly based on past work. The items in Space Futures were derived from a major online survey and from recent NASA documents. The items in Space Opinions were updated from those developed in a study of Harvard University students, done in the wake of the Challenger disaster of 1986, and will permit a comparison of changing conceptions over the years. Results of the Harvard study were published as a book, Goals in Space, that currently is available free online at:

The principal investigator for this project, William Sims Bainbridge, has published extensively, including these books that are especially relevant:

Leadership in Science and Technology (Sage 2012), a 100-chapter, 725,000-word edited reference work with 123 authors.

The Virtual Future (Springer 2011), an ethnographic study of space-oriented online virtual worlds.

Social Research Methods and Statistics (Wadsworth 1992) a textbook including 11 software programs and datasets.

Survey Research: A Computer-Assisted Introduction (Wadsworth 1989) a textbook including 9 software programs and datasets.

The Android apps are prototypes of a new system for gathering ideas about future directions in science and technology more generally, which can be used with groups of professional experts, or as in this case with interested volunteers from the general public. In the summer of 2011, a pilot study was done using questions about the user's personality, and the results solidly replicated and extended the standard findings about the Big Five personality dimensions that psychologists have studied extensively. While the datasets often developed by psychologists tend to be small, the pilot study using the Android app quickly gathered data from over 3,200 respondents.

The Android app uses an innovative, two-dimensional interface, allowing the respondent to answer two questions simultaneously with a single tap on the screen. Figure 1 shows how the interface looks for one of the Space Opinions items. The statement at the top is a reasonable idea, but debatable as to practicality, and people have a range of opinions about it. Tapping near the top of the screen expresses agreement, and tapping near the bottom, disagreement with this statement. However, there are many things we might agree with that are unimportant, and the respondent judges importance by tapping to the left (unimportant) or right (important).

Figure 1: The Two-Dimensional Response Interface

It is hoped that most respondents will use the Android app method of participating, because it is very efficient and explores this new data collection approach. The data are instantly uploaded to a database, and once the data collection phase has been completed, analysis can begin in a matter of minutes. In future, this line of research could also offer apps for Apple computers, and the researcher already has 15 years of experience administering questionnaires via websites and downloadable software for desktop machines. Success in exploring The Meaning of Outer Space could provide the technical basis for general exploration of emerging issues in science, engineering, and the human future.

Anyone interested in space exploration is welcome to download the Android apps or Word document and participate in this research. Analysis is expected to begin in March 2013, so responses submitted after then may not be included.

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.
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