IT was in 1969 that Neil Armstrong took his famous “small step for Man” which ended America's race to the Moon.

Now almost half a century on, NASA has pledged to return its astronauts to the Lunar surface by the end of the 2020s, in preparation for a trip to distant Mars.

But to reach that next frontier, 34 million miles away, the world’s foremost space agency has enlisted the help of a philosophy student from the University of Glasgow to make it happen.


Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, pictured on the Moon by Neil Armstrong Pic: NASA

A new PhD programme will see a student develop the philosophical understanding of the risk necessary to send men and women back to the moon, and this time to stay there.

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The programme, which is currently in the last stages of receiving backing from the UK government’s research funding bodies, will partner with NASA to analyse the way that its safety reports are constructed and the philosophy of causation that underpins them.

Dr Neil McDonnell, who will oversee the new PhD in the Philosophy of Safety Engineering, was asked to visit the space agency last year to see what he could contribute to their latest projects.

He said: “Causation is something philosophers care a lot about, because there is no stuff in the world that you can see under a microscope that is called 'causation'.

"So the question we have to ask is, are we always right when we say that throwing the rock causes the window to break? There is a concept of causation in there that we need to analyse and understand properly.”

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“Until recently, NASA had made hardly a peep or an attempt to travel to the moon since 1972, and one of the reasons they hadn’t attempted it is because there was some resolution passed in the States which said you couldn’t send astronauts into space unless there was no risk." 
He added: “Well, of course there’s never no risk.”


Dr Neil McDonnell

Famous disasters like the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986 were cleared for safe take-off before components failed.

Safety cases are always put forward for new expeditions, and can be explored afterwards to understand what went wrong.

Dr McDonnell added: “We happen to know that they are using very old-fashioned theories of causation and logic, so what we need to do is understand what they’re using now, and know what current theories from philosophy are better than the old stuff."

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The University of Glasgow student will spend up to six months in NASA’s research centre in Langley, Virginia, analysing the safety reports of previous missions, as well as time in Scotland exploring the metaphysics and epistemology needed to combine complex aerospace engineering and the study of philosophy.

The student will then use philosophy to better understand why rockets sometimes go wrong, and will make what Dr McDonnell calls a “useful and serious” contribution to NASA’s risky venture to establish a permanent base on the moon. 


President Donald Trump authorised the new Exploration Campaign in December 2017, which he said was a chance “to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities”.

The first phase will involve putting humans in lunar orbit by 2023, and landing on the surface by the late 2020s.

The move comes amid fierce competition from Russia, China and India in space exploration, as well as from the private sector.