Our civilization stands at a crossroads with regards to space travel.
After years of speculation, we are poised to visit another planet in our solar system. With NASA sending additional probes and engineers hard at work on the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, the prospect of humans landing on Mars lies just ahead. There will come a time, sooner than later, when humans are effectively living on the surface of another planet. No doubt they will not be the last. Rather, from that point onward, our civilization will permanently change. Already, thanks to the International Space Station, we’ve had humans living off our planet nonstop since October 31, 2000. Once humans leave Earth for Mars, there will be no going back. We will at last have become a spacefaring species.
To say this will change everything would be trite, to say the least. Virtually everything about our species, even the very concept of what it means to be human, will change. When reading about the future of space travel, one quickly realizes there are so many considerations it’s all but impossible to list them all. Yet there’s one that likely escapes most everyone’s notice: terminology.
In a recent article from National Geographic, astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz spoke of the need to change the terminology we use when discussing space exploration, and the reality of humans living on other planets. During her interview, she spoke of the need to move away from words like “colonization” and “frontier”, suggesting that these words are too fraught for use, given the negative connotations assigned to them by our species’s sordid past. In fact she goes even further, suggesting that even the word “manned” is no longer appropriate, and should be replaced with more gender-neutral terms (to be fair, since 2006, NASA has agreed with her).
So, if we’re not to use such established terms due to the harm they may cause, what should we say? Well, Walkowicz suggests using more verbose terminology, like “human space habitation”, or “humans living in space”, or the NASA-endorsed term for “manned”, “human-piloted”.
I’ll not slog into the ongoing public debate on whether or not political correctness has “gone too far”. Politically-correct language, as we understand it today, likely will not last, as it’s intended less to completely change the way we discuss sensitive subjects than to begin the process of changing the way we address such issues. It may be that “colonization” will no longer be viewed as inherently negative once we, as a civilization, have put the practices it described into proper historical context, realizing that the colonialism that began in the 1500s did far more harm than good.
The question I’m more keen to ask is this: in the distant future, when human expansion into space becomes a reality, how much will such distinctions truly matter?
As I’m currently writing a novel on space colonization (I will continue to use the term. Bear with me, I will explain), I found this article to be of particular interest. Indeed, when I first read it, I greeted it with mild alarm. Would I need to change the terminology I used in my novel, one I’d even titled The Pioneer? The more I thought about it, however, I quickly dismissed such notions, due to another important term: “historical context”.
It is fair to say that the civilization we benefit from today was built, in large part, by humans we would now consider to be bad men. By our standards today, Christopher Columbus was a greedy racist. The emperors of Rome, even the good ones, were bloodthirsty warmongers. The pharaohs of Egypt were incestuous charlatans. Virtually every nation of modern Europe was founded, and for quite some time ruled, by hypocritical, murdering tyrants. My own country was built on the backs of African slaves, and laid atop a mound of Native American corpses.
Yet we persist. We grow, we learn, and in time, we make peace with our sordid past, and come to understand that decisions made in the distant past appear reprehensible to our modern sensibilities because we have the luxury of an evolved morality.
I am not, for so much as an instant, absolving the past for its crimes. I would never suggest that, in the historical sense, the ends justify the means, that we should believe that slavery was acceptable because many of our early leaders were slaveholders, that we should forget the atrocities committed against our native peoples simply because we now possess a nation “From sea to shining sea”. What I am suggesting is that we should all view the past in its proper context. Few have suggested that we remove every tribute to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson simply because they owned slaves.
The key to healing is to understand the sacrifices, willing or unwilling, made by past generations, and make the most of them. To understand the wrongs committed by our forebears, and strive to be better versions of ourselves. To be what they could not or refused to be: enlightened.
In my novel, The Pioneer, characters frequently make note of the mistakes our species has made. And repeatedly, they remind one another that we cannot allow ourselves to make those same mistakes again. It could be that, in the distant future, fraught terms like “settlement”, “colonization”, and “pioneer” can be rehabilitated by associating them with a more humane, more enlightened practice.
And perhaps, one day, future generations will have the benefit of looking back on our actions today, on racism, nationalism, bigotry, and avarice, and saying, “What they did was wrong, by our standards today. But they did the best they could…at the time.”