By Frank White
As SpaceX, Virgin, and Blue Origin begin to offer spaceflights to people who are not trained astronauts, the question has arisen as to where space begins and who is really an astronaut?
NASA set the boundary of space at 50 miles (80 km) above the surface of the Earth. This definition allowed certain test pilots to be considered astronauts. However, most observers are more comfortable with what has been called a Karman Line, which is 62 miles (100 km) above the surface.
This debate is interesting, because of its impact on the definition of “astronaut.” Who wouldn’t want to have that title? To make matters more complex, the FAA decided that traveling to a certain height above the Earth was not enough. You had to do something that implied you were part of the crew and that your presence on the flight was somehow important. This new definition came out almost exactly at the moment that Jeff Bezos and his crew flew on the first Blue Origin flight. Quite a coincidence!
The debate is worthwhile, but it skewers a much larger topic, and it is one that needs discussion. Let’s just use the Karman Line as our standard for when a person is “in space.”
This means that what we call “Earth” or “Not Space” is really minuscule and what we call “space” is really vast beyond belief.
It means that if you are 65 miles (104 km) above the surface of the Earth, you are in space, if you are on the International Space Station, 220 miles (354km) from Earth, you are in space, and if you are on the Moon, 240,000 miles (386,242 km) away, you are in space. It also means that if you are on an exoplanet circling Alpha Centauri, several light-years away, you are in space, and if you are somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy, many light-years away, you are in space, and so on ad absurdum.
If we circle back to the beginning, we are forced to realize that our language is distorting the truth in a rather profound way.
We already know, as I say in almost every speech I give, that the Earth is in space, it has always been in space, and it will always be in space. Therefore, we are already in space and we can’t be anywhere else. We are talking about doing something we cannot do, which is called “going into space.” What we can do is leave the planet Earth and look back at it from space and in space.
This may sound like a trivial distinction, but it isn’t. This is pre-Copernican thinking that limits us in profound ways. It is similar to the language that talks about “conquering space” and “colonizing Mars.” These words recall an earlier period of exploration and exploitation that led to profound destruction and suffering on Earth. It is a travesty that we do not want to repeat.
If we continue to talk about “Earth and space,” we will continue to have irrelevant debates about “Why do you want to spend all that money in space, when we have so many problems on Earth?” Sometimes, advocates of space exploration respond by saying, “No money has ever been spent in space; it is always spent on Earth.” That is a clever riposte, but it would be more accurate to say, “All the money has actually been spent in space, because that’s where the Earth is!”
I have come to believe that the critical change in language is to distinguish between “Space” and “space.” I think that when we use terms like “Space is transformational” or “People don’t understand the importance of Space,” we should capitalize it (as I have done here) because while we are sort of talking about that physical place 62 miles (100km) above the surface of the Earth and stretching to the limits of the universe, we are really talking about a state of mind, a way of thinking, and all that goes into it.
“Leaving planet Earth,” or “Going into Space” is transformational because it offers the opportunity to experience the Overview Effect and gain a new perspective on ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Thus, people don’t understand the “importance of leaving planet Earth,” “or going into Space” because they don’t understand the whole space exploration/development/migration paradigm. “Space” with a “small s” does indeed extend from the Karman Line to the end of the universe. “Space” with a “capital S,” however, extends as far as our minds can take us. There is an overlap between “Space” and “space,” but they are also very different. If we can understand that difference, our attitude toward this topic will change dramatically.
About the Author
Frank White is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned an M.Phil. in Politics from Oxford University, where he was a member of New College. The fourth edition of Frank’s best-known book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, was published by Multiverse Publishing, a division of Multiverse Media LLC, in 2022. Frank is president of The Human Space Program, Inc., a nonprofit organization based on an idea initially proposed in The Overview Effect.
(c) Copyright Frank White, 2023, All Rights Reserved. Published with permission by Above Space