A University on the Moon? Talk About Higher Education!

February 06, 2012 at 10:23 am by Frank White
Tags: Lunar settlement, the Overview Effect, university on the moon

I recently had a long talk with Lynn Harper, who works for NASA and is one of the most original thinkers about space exploration that I know. Lynn and her colleagues are working on a big-picture concept that is gaining a remarkable amount of traction, considering the level of ambition that it represents. 

The basic idea is for a permanent human settlement on the moon. The concept is not new; it was first seriously studied by NASA under Space Architect Gary Martin in the early 2000s, but the level of support it has garnered lately really is unique.   Recent advocates include Nobel Laureate Baruch Blumberg, who urged the development of a Lunar University in the last speech he gave before he died.  Henk Rogers, the self-made billionaire founder of Tetris, has adopted this endeavor as one of his special projects.  Endorsement for the enterprise includes the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, the former Governor of Hawaii, and the President of the Space Tourism Society. (Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has recently advocated a base on the moon, but his proposal is not connected with the idea that Lynn and I discussed.)

There are multiple components to the plan, but what interested me the most was the notion of a Lunar University, or Lu-U. I wrote a chapter on higher education in Low Earth Orbit for the recently published book, Living in Space, and I am convinced that colleges and universities ought to be making much more of the advantages that a space-based perspective would offer them.

My own interest is, of course, the Overview Effect, or the view of the Earth from space and in space, from orbit or the moon. Based on my interviews with 22 astronauts for my book on the subject (The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution), and many subsequent conversations with colleagues at the Overview Institute, I’m convinced that seeing the planet from a distance triggers a cognitive shift that we are only now beginning to understand.

If this is the case, let’s consider the applications that might be activated by a lunar university. First, we might imagine that this institution would offer students many of the courses that Earthbound universities do: philosophy, history, chemistry, physics, and sociology. Then, there would also be courses that could only be offered on the moon, such as studying the effect of low-gravity environments on the human body.

Of course, they might study the Overview Effect itself. What better place to review the history and reality of this phenomenon than the lunar surface, with the Earth rising over the horizon or hanging in the sky?

To me, though, the primary difference would be that students would take these courses with the Earth hanging in the lunar sky. They would have a dramatically different perspective on the subject matter than they would if they were on the Earth. How might this change their understanding of what they were being taught?

Since I am a social scientist by training and education, I will speak to that aspect of the possible changes in curriculum and learning process, rather than to physics, chemistry, and the other so-called “hard sciences.”

Let’s focus on one area in particular, international relations. How would students think differently about the struggles for power and prestige among nations if they were talking about this topic while looking at the planet from 240,000 miles away? They might well study the competitions for national prestige among the countries of the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries, but with a newfound realization that the borders and boundaries over which these nation-states fought existed only primarily the minds of the competitors.

Having realized that the nation-state is more a concept than a reality, they might begin to think of new ways of governing our planet. This is not to imply that nation-states need to be abolished in order to have an appropriate form of planetary governance, but they certainly need to function differently.

As I have continued to study the Overview Effect, it has seemed to me that this experience points to finding the optimum balance of unity and diversity. When we see the Earth from a distance, we see its unity as a whole system. At the same time, we know that this same planet harbors an enormous amount of diversity when viewed from its surface, and this is not an altogether negative thing. Total unity can be totalitarian, total diversity can be anarchy.

This is what I have always thought would be the most important outcome of the Overview Effect, i.e., that “overview thinking” would become our dominant paradigm, so obvious to us that we would no longer find it to be out of the ordinary. I believe that people living on the moon, and teaching and learning on the moon, would inevitably practice “overview thinking” without even being aware of it. Today, we don’t stop and think, “Oh, wow, my ideas are structured around the idea that the Earth is round, not flat.” We take it for granted that we are speaking from a context of living on a globe.

“Overview thinking” is the next logical step in this understanding of our place in the universe. Whatever discipline we are studying will be seen in the context of a planet that is a whole system of which humanity is a part. In fact, those who study in a lunar university are likely to take yet another step, experiencing what I call the Copernican Perspective, or realization that we are also a part of a solar system.

I was pleased to see that a “summit conference” on lunar settlement was recently held in Hawaii, and that a prototype would soon be built at the University of Hawaii. This means that the academic aspects of this great venture will be primary, which is a good thing.  And Hawaii is not the only state that is looking toward the moon.  A unique program at the University of Southern California asks students at the Graduate Space Concepts Studio of the Department of Astronautical Engineering  <http://leapfrog.usc.edu/> to dream up humanity’s next big space adventure.   One of the concepts to be explored:  building an industrial research park on the moon.

Since the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided in 1636 to establish a new college that eventually became Harvard University, institutions of higher learning have been critical to the opening up of new frontiers. A university on the moon—Lunar U—will follow in that tradition and will give “higher learning” an entirely new meaning. As one who has been teaching in a university setting for the past 15 years, I can say that the prospect of doing so with a view of the Earth from the classroom window is exciting, indeed!

(Note: My comments in this blog represent my own point of view, and not that of Harvard University, any of its Schools, or any other institution with which I am affiliated.)