The question of whether or not humans could reach space without various resources has been exhaustively researched on this site, but one question has not been touched- what about the social and political aspects?

The Enlightenment caused a massive shift throughout the world touched by Europe (which was most of the world at that point). Philosophies of human rights would promote all sorts of revolutions, from the Haitian, to the American, to the French. New economic theories from Adam Smith's capitalism to Karl Marx's communism would rock the economic world, replacing mercantilism. But... what if there was no Marx? No Smith? No Locke, or Rousseau, or Voltaire, even Montesquieu? There would be no capitalism or communism, so no cold war, so no space race. Just more mercantilism and imperialism.

What if there was no Enlightenment? Could we still reach space?

  • $\begingroup$ I think you are overestimating the impact of capitalism vs communism on the international politics of the second half of the 1900s. If that hadn't been the dividing line, some other dividing line likely would have emerged. And of course, you don't really need the space race in order to reach space -- the space race of the 1960s in particular certainly was a huge driving factor behind what happened and how quickly it happened, but that isn't the only conceivable way to reach the same end state. Remember that much early work was done in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 15, 2017 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ The Nazis were the first ones in space. So I would say that Enlightenment has nothing to do with it. Also while the period has been given a nice name, it doesn't mean that it completely deserves it. I feel like you did a poor job of defining Enlightenment. Would there have been people in Space if it wasn't for those specific people you mentioned? Certainly. Would there be someone in Space if the sciences didn't develop in that time? No. One could even read your question as: If the date on 1.1.1500 jumped forward to 1.1.1960, would they land on the moon within the decade? NO $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Jun 15, 2017 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35, while it's true the Nazis were the first in space, it could be argued the Nazis came about due to the great depression, which itself was due to laissez-faire polotics, which were themselves spurred by Adam Smith. Again, only a possibility, but a distinct one at that. $\endgroup$
    – Imperator
    Jun 15, 2017 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Imperator The argument here is the same as in my new edits to my initial comment: The nazis came after the period you described, so they are a result of it which is indisputable . But you can also see that many of the people you mentioned had little influence. Would it be possible without the American Revolution? 100%. The cold war? 100%. As I said, you should specify more and be less specific at the same time. Kant or Voltaire, really, who cares? Do you mean Philosophy specifically? Or just anything that happened between the middle ages and now? $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Jun 15, 2017 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 True, I was just providing a framework for what I consider the Enlightenment, Kant is being removed, but Voltaire affected the development of revolutions, so I consider him more central than others. Remember, the question is also about the effect of imperialism, not just economic factors. $\endgroup$
    – Imperator
    Jun 15, 2017 at 15:03

4 Answers 4


Good question! Maybe humanity could, if a merciless ruling class had enough expendable slaves to throw at the task – with wise advisors trained in a dark art of chemistry and biomimetics, approximating science. Look at ancient achievements like the pyramids, for example. That kind of society would be running a very different kind of ship, manned by disgruntled slaves and a powerful elite.

Slave-powered space travel could be the result of a particularly unhinged emperor; singularly arrogant and determined to claim dominion over the stars. Possibly in the belief that they could defeat the gods themselves, if the lack of Enlightenment meant an advantageous perpetuation of all-powerful gods to keep the slaves subdued.

On the other hand, though, bear in mind that the working class were found to be far more productive and profitable when they were free to choose their own trades and specialise, with the incentive of a free market. It's thought that the slaves who built the pyramids may have been more like casual contractors than whipped chattel, because day-to-day it's generally just easier and less murdery for people to form relationships and get along.

The optimist in me would like to think that the Enlightenment would always be there regardless, from the pyramids to spaceships, because it may have always been there in recorded civilisation. It's easier, safer, nicer and more mutually beneficial for people to get along on the same task, given enough time. So maybe the Enlightenment was always there, after a fashion, and always will be.

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    $\begingroup$ Slave-powered space travel... And here is where I imagined a space ship propulsed by throwing slaves out the back... $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2017 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ Haha! Yes. If there's a better way to do it, I'm sure the Emperor would love to hear it. $\endgroup$
    – Andrew
    Jun 15, 2017 at 16:47

Yes, and possibly even only a short time later after the world with Enlightenment.

One very strong incitement which has not changed through the ages is hostility and war. The crossbow is a despicable weapon, their firepower and ease of use allows it even farmers to take down a knight with small training. So the Second Council of the Lateran 1139 forbade the use of this horrible weapon, with the exception against infidels.

Whatever the conviction of leaders were, they could not ignore inventions at their own peril. If they do, they lose power and finally succumb into insignificance. This is also a reason that leading cultures circled through different cultures: Egypt, China, Persia, Greece, Phoenicia, Roman Empire, Mongolia, Spain, Great Britain, USA. So as long as conflicts arise, you will see technological advances (In fact the main idea for building ships with extreme reach was to find more slave routes in Africa and a way to access the spices of India without Arab involvement. Without that Columbus would have died).


The real issue isn't so much that the technology would not exist, rather the social and economic conditions which would allow for space travel might never exist outside of the Enlightenment.

Consider that Hero of Alexandria published a book in the first century AD which described simple steam and atmospheric engines, and the Romans certainly knew about things like cranks and what we would describe as clockwork. Despite all this, no "industrial revolution" took place in ancient Rome. It didn't happen in the Hanse, Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England either, despite having many or even most of what we consider critical factors for creating an industrial revolution. Ancient or Medieval China had many of the same factors (and as a bonus actually invented black powder and rockets), yet they never got there either.

So we have a combination of a multitude of factors, including the philosophical recognition of Space as a different environment as far back as the Ancient Greeks, but no one ever puts all of these things together. There are a multitude of theories as to why, but most seem to be based on the various social and cultural factors in play at the time. The Ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, looked on what we call science and invention as the playthings of philosophers rather than a serious business with immediate and long term payoffs to the adopters and inventors of devices and machines. (Most of Hero's devices were described as toys or "special effects" used to make temples impressive or deliver a satisfying ending to a play).

Things get even worse in other parts of the world. When Cortez was driven out of Tenochtitlan, he went around gathering up charcoal, volcanic sulphur and saltpetre, elements which had existed in abundance in the region for centuries, and made gunpowder and built cannon to retake the city. The Aztecs had no idea of what happened to them, despite having all these materials at hand.

So the various pieces have been sitting there in plain sight, but the "mental" tools for putting them together simply did not exist. Should our own civilization end, it is difficult to imagine the set of circumstances which might lead to a new spacefaring civilization arising from the ruins.

  • $\begingroup$ "The Aztecs had no idea of what happened to them," $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 17, 2017 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ True. They thought they had been beaten by the superior powers of the Spanish gods - the blue lady and the bird with no feet (They had seen Spanish pictures of the virgin Mary accompanied by angels with long robes). $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 17, 2017 at 7:41

Imperium of warhammer 40000.

Any known empires of history have a urge to expand. the eastern bloc. the romans. the spanish empire before the Enlightenment, the british, the portugese colonial empire. every Known large empire in history.

if given stability, and properly placed in history, these empire is perfectly capable for technology development and space exploration, if space travel exists.

so a warhammer 40000 Imperium is perfectly possible given right history and possibility of space travel.


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