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Rice Space Institute

Scientia Workshop: Description

Space Exploration and Human Imagination: Space Futures

Scientia is an Institute for the History of Science and Culture.  Its purpose is to promote scholarship and research in the general area of history of science and culture for the benefit of the university and Houston community.
Scientia sponsors an annual series of colloquia (past years’ programs are listed in our Archive page) devoted to the exploration of a broad topic from a variety of points of view. These colloquia are open to the general public.


Rice Space Institute [rsi.rice.edu]
The mission of RSI is to establish the  Institute as a world leader in promoting and participating in the robotic and human exploration of space by fostering interdisciplinary research and education in collaboration with academic, business, industry and government partners.

Our goals are to

  • generate stronger research and education ties between Rice, NASA JSC and industry
  • develop multidisciplinary research programs in science and engineering
  • facilitate space-related activities across campus
  • foster stronger collaboration with the humanities and social sciences
  • engage the broader Houston community in promoting and engaging in space-related research and education
  • work towards an integrated educational program (undergraduate and graduate) with NASA as a partner

Space Futures Conference
Arguably, one of the most culturally impactful scientific endeavors of the last century has been humanity’s conquest of space.   Space exploration has led to the rapid rise of interest in science AND science fiction and their associated stimulation of the imagination, including, and especially, the social and cultural aspects of life on Earth. Because of the future prospect of extending humanity to other worlds, combined with the scientific discovery of planets around other stars, and the possibility that life may exist elsewhere in the universe, space exploration has had a profound impact on how humanity perceives its place in the cosmos and how society has adapted to a human presence in space.  This conference focuses on the influence that space exploration has had on humans and human imagination, how it has changed our worldview, how it affects modern society, and what it holds for humanity’s view of itself in the future.

Since the first flight of a human in space (Yuri Gagarin on April 12 1961), we ceased to be bound to the Earth and ventured into what was once the sole realm of the gods.  In the intervening 50 years, men have walked on the moon, robotic spacecraft have explored all of the planets of the solar system, with the completion of the International Space Station a human habitat is now in permanent orbit around the planet, there has been a continuous human presence in space since October 31, 2000, and the space industry has developed into a global business driving innovation in space and other technologies.   The end of the space shuttle and the cancellation of the Constellation program, that had a target of returning humans to the moon and thence to Mars in the next decade or so, have led to a significant current debate about the relevance of NASA and, in particular, the human space program in the United States.  At the same time, a number of nations, most notably China and India, have embraced space exploration and are contemplating a human lunar mission.  This has significant impact not only on the US space program but also on the cultures and aspirations of the Chinese and Indian people who represent a rich array of religious and intellectual heritage quite different from that of the west.

At time of writing, almost 800 planets have been discovered around distant stars with over 2000 other candidates waiting to be confirmed.  Planets are not uncommon and Earth-like planets are expected to be abundant with some also likely to harbor life.  Whether we will ultimately discover evidence for intelligent life on any of these worlds is unclear but the possibility is high that sometime within the next century we will be able to answer that question.  The implications for secular and religious thought are widespread and influential.

In an age when space tourism is regarded as a viable business plan, a wide range of countries with historically different cultural and religious philosophies are developing their own space programs, and Earth’s problems are increasing the pressure to consider off-world solutions, it is clear that space is an integrated part of modern existence across a significant part of the world.

Rice has a rich history of scholarly enterprise with space as a focus.  This extends across campus and includes works from all schools and institutes.  The Rice Space Institute has been working over the last year to increase awareness of the variety of ways in which space has influenced research and creativity around campus, e.g. through the Space Frontiers Lecture Series (http://spacefrontiers.rice.edu).  This conference will further enhance this goal as Rice celebrates 100 years as an educational institution and 50 years of working with NASA.

We expect the proposed conference to:

  • Generate a broader awareness of the influence of space exploration on human creative thought
  • Demonstrate the inter-relatedness between the fields of science, humanities, social science, business, and policy
  • Stimulate discussion about what the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe means for life on Earth
  • Bring together diverse points of view and expertise to consider the human ramifications of exploring the universe

Rice University and the Greater Houston area have been involved in the adventure of human exploration of space since the inception of the United States manned space program.  “Houston” was the first word spoken by the first human to walk on another body in the solar system.  There is a wealth of knowledge about the history, the experience, and the technology of space exploration on our doorstep and provides a rich resource to help us understand the influences of space on human thought, culture and society.  Rice University boasts world-renowned scholars in religious thought, history of science, space policy, space technology and space science. The conference will broaden and enhance, what is currently disparate and distinct, research across campus, foster collaborations between several disciplines and lead to a greater understanding of the impact and influence of the human drive to explore new horizons.