What relevance does sociology have for humanity’s engagement with space?

Humanity’s engagement with space is often framed as an area dominated by the so-called STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Social sciences play a less obvious role. But social sciences can and indeed do affect how humanity goes about engaging with space. Sociology is one such field of study in the social sciences. To learn more about the relevance of sociology for space, we spoke to Paola Castaño, a postdoctoral fellow at Cardiff University who studies scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station. She explains her research, why its relevant, and opportunities for others interested in sociology and space.

What do you study about scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station?

I study two aspects of the experiments: the actual process of their execution, and the ways in which they are assessed by different participants and observers of the ISS.

More specifically, the book I am writing centers on NASA’s portion of the station and follows three experiments: the plant biology studies conducted in the Veggie growth facility; the Twins Study, an interdisciplinary comparative biomedical investigation between astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly; and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, the largest, most expensive single instrument and experiment on the station, which analyzes galactic cosmic rays to gain insight into antimatter and dark matter. In each case, I examine the process of justifying, designing, “flying”, and conducting the experiment. I also examine the many actors involved, the public dissemination of results, and the valuations to which the experiments and the overall program are subject in congressional program reviews, scientific advisory panels, and media reports. 

I basically propose a broad understanding of the experiments as social processes: as series of events of varying locations and temporalities that are assessed by the divergent criteria of several stakeholders. More broadly, I show how, in order to study scientific experiments on the ISS sociologically, one also needs a theoretical approach to institutions and values.

This book will be the product of a profoundly life-changing experience that has taken six years. It has been comprised of multi-sited ethnographic, documentary, and interview-based research in many countries, including the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan. I conducted extensive archival work at NASA Headquarters, the Smithsonian Institution, the European Space Agency, and the Japanese Space Agency. I analyzed documents produced by the space agencies, advisory bodies of the member states, media reports, and publications from the experiments. I conducted ethnographic observations at 32 scientific conferences, workshops, National Academy of Science meetings, and ground facilities associated with the experiments. I followed live streams of ISS operations, meetings, and congressional hearings. Finally, I interviewed over 150 officials, researchers, astronauts, educators, observers, and advisors involved with the ISS. 

What is the relevance of your research outside academia?

The entire ISS endeavor is one of the most complex social processes in history. Therefore, sociologists are uniquely equipped to offer a rigorous understanding of the institutions, values, and practices that shape the endeavor.

Having said that, I often ask myself: “Who needs to learn about this?” Well, first we have the scientists who send their experiments to the station. They are in some ways quite “sociological” already since they know that this is a complex social process; they have to justify their research, compete for funding, and articulate the logistical requirements and public impact of their science. However, they often see sociology as part of the science communication world that helps them inspire or “tell their story to the public” and not as something substantially relevant to their actual work. My intention is not to convince them of the opposite, but to engage in meaningful collaborations with some of them via commonly pertinent questions. For example, one of my collaborations is with a biomedical researcher who works with NASA. We are looking at the problem of curatorship of biomedical research findings and the infrastructures necessary to enable more cross-disciplinary studies on crew members. Here, thinking through the problem of knowledge production is far from just an academic luxury. It has real-world impacts on managing risks to human health in crewed space missions.

On a more general level, the question of whether the ISS has fulfilled its scientific ambitions is highly politicized and remains contentious. Enthusiasts and critics – with varying degrees of involvement – value existing evidence about ISS research outputs differently. Here you have decision makers who expect a single “big discovery” from the ISS, as well as people talking about “planting boots” beyond low Earth orbit for various political and economic reasons. In this context, a sociological study like mine can provide a map to understand the nature of the process, and then to navigate these divergences of assessment. This has been an area where NASA officials have found my work relevant. During my research, I have been an active participant in several non-academic spaces where different actors involved with the ISS have engaged with my work. They include the International Astronautical Congress, the ISS Research and Development Conference, the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research, Space Science Week at the National Academy of Sciences, and NASA’s Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop. I was also invited by NASA to give a talk at their DC headquarters in 2017 and by the UK Space Agency (where I expect to focus my next project) in 2020.

Finally, I want readers outside academia and the world of space to learn about the ISS. I want them to see it through the eyes of a dedicated observer who sees the extraordinariness of the station not in the flamboyant imagery of “exploration” and big promises of “discovery”, but in the daily achievement of its science operations. This year of pandemic has brought to many people’s attention the fact that our world relies on the labor of “key workers”. They are individuals who hardly ever see the spotlight but without whom things “out there” would not function. This is exactly what happens every day on the ISS: turning a human presence in space into something routine relies on the dedicated work of thousands of people in multiple locations coordinating their tasks.

What professional opportunities exist for individuals interested in both sociology and space?

Sociology is a very flexible discipline and the opportunities are as broad or as narrow as you want them to be. On the academic path, for instance, I am in the process of co-editing a Handbook of Social Studies of Outer Space. It has been inspiring to see how this has become a vibrant field where new research and collaboration opportunities are emerging. The field is also inspiring in its diversity and in the important critical interventions many scholars are making regarding visions about the future.

Then there are more practice-centered paths. In this area, as I mentioned above, there is a pressing need for more systematic approaches to the process of producing knowledge and the institutional infrastructures needed to curate research. This is not only a computer science kind of problem, but it is also an area where sociologists of science and organizations are well-suited to propose new models and frameworks. Another area of potential professional opportunities involves the puzzles of behavioral health and performance in astronauts. So far, this area of inquiry has centered in biology, psychology, cognitive science, and human factors, and there are huge gaps in our understanding of sociocultural dynamics in crewed missions. Finally, we need more sociologists to help shape policy and institutions for the future of space exploration as it pertains to crucial political, social, and economic challenges. As the most powerful interests of political and commercial actors come to predominate, we need more voices that address the meanings of human spaceflight. We need institutions that can foster a more deliberative and less “Muskbezoskian” process of space exploration.

Finally, of course, there are the possible intersections of the two paths I aim for with my work, and which I expect to combine with my life as a farmer in Wales.