The Unexamined Assumptions of Science, Technology, and Space Travel: Rethinking the Ethics of Responsible Knowledge with Hannah Arendt
Between 1957 and 1959 five artificial satellites and three lunar spacecrafts departed terrestrial soil. The world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet’s on October 4th, 1957, just months before Hannah Arendt compiled her University of Chicago lectures that would later be published as The Human Condition. Less than one month after Sputnik 1was sent swirling into the cosmos, Sputnik 2 was launched. The day: November 3, 1957. This time the satellite carried aboard a dog affectionately named “Laika.” Laika became the first recorded biological data of an extra-terrestrial kind. The purpose of Sputnik 2’s investigation: To scientifically demonstrate whether Laika could adapt to the environment of outer space. Such information, scientists believed, would prove vital for the manned missions already planned by both sides of the Soviet-American “Space-Race”. What was curious, as Arendt’s prologue to The Human Condition suggests, is that most studies of how to put a human being into space started long before June 1956. That humanity had now succeeded in creating a man-made thing that was capable of swirling into the cosmos where it “dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies” made the zeitgeist of this period particularly distinct. But it was not that humans could now transmit knowledge into “know-how” that concerned Arendt; rather, it was the unexamined way this transmission occurred that cause her reason to pause.
My aim in this paper is to explore Arendt’s phenomenological analysis of space travel in The Human Condition. In part one I relate her remarks on space travel to her analysis of the Modern World to demonstrate how the phenomena of space exploration fulfills the long-standing aim to acquire absolute objectivity. In part two of this paper, I set out Arendt’s main critique of this conceptual framework. Here, I argue against the claims that Arendt advances some form of “anti-scientisim”. Instead, I suggest a more subtle interpretation that reads Arendt’s remarks as a challenge for us to think what we are doing – that is, to consider scientific knowledge and know-how in thoughtful and responsible ways.
Keywords: Science, Technology, Space Travel, Knowledge, Modernity, Ethical Responsibilites
PhD Candidate, Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph