Fear of Freedom: The Legacy of Arendt and Ballard's Space Skepticism

Tony Milligan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


Hannah Arendt’s critique of the early space program ‘The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man’ (1963), provides us with a classic statement of what I will call space skepticism: the plausible view that rather than offering a new arena and new kinds of freedom, what manned space exploration will in fact provide is more of the same or, given a greater-than-terrestrial dependence upon human technology, even less of the same. Yet Arendt also alluded to a further possibility, one which now looks increasingly realistic: the possibility of a dangerous and threatening liberation from an Earthly standpoint, and even perhaps from a sense of our humanity. (I will suggest that this is a possibility which we should take seriously. How, after all, could we sustain a sense of genuine community across distances of space so immense that direct communication would be ruled out?) Arendt’s thematic combination, expectation of the same and fear of something different, is familiar also from J.G. Ballard’s prescient skepticism about the potential of the space program of the 1960s. On the one hand, Ballard thought it would turn out to be business as usual because it was too soon for a genuine space age. On the other hand, he held that even a tentative movement into space would change our perspective in uncontrollable and threatening ways. Both Arendt and Ballard identified a genuinely escapist, or at least utopian, strand within enthusiasm for manned space exploration. (Reflection upon the works of Dandridge Cole, Gerard O’Neil and, more recently, Robert Zubrin may incline us to accept that they had a point.) Yet when it comes to space, there may be no standpoint which is immune to criticism, none which escapes the bounds of our ordinary human frailties. The plausibility of the Arendt/Ballard diagnosis, and the persistence of a utopian strand even in present-day space ambitions, need not blind us to the fear of freedom, and in particular the fear of new and difficult-to-comprehend forms of freedom, which has been, from the outset, present within familiar forms of space skepticism. And to say this is to accept something that we should perhaps always have known: in the context of space, freedom, danger and the acceptance of our human frailty must go hand in hand
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth
EditorsCharles Cockell
PublisherSpringer Nature
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-09567-7
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-09566-0
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2015
EventExtraterrestrial Liberty - HQ of the British Interplanetary Society, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 15 Jun 2012 → …

Publication series

NameSpace and Society


ConferenceExtraterrestrial Liberty
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period15/06/12 → …


  • space ethics


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