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The question is fairly simple. Could a civilization progress so far as to have spaceships while still using swords, spears, and bows as their most advanced weaponry? (what those weapons are made of could, of course, have improved with better material science)

The question is one of interdependent technology and culture, I suppose. Is it even possible to find a way into space without hitting the obvious alternative applications of rocket technology? Could you even get to rockets without first developing something like gunpowder?

Are there ways of achieving orbit that do not have obvious weapon applications? Something like scramjet engines might allow you to get to orbit with sufficiently low gravity, for instance.

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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken_%28short_story%29 is a story of a race that had developed gravity manipulation, but not electricity. $\endgroup$ – Jacob Krall Oct 3 '14 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ If they could travel through space using astral projection, that is not obviously weaponizable. $\endgroup$ – yters Oct 3 '14 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ As much as I love The Road Not Taken, an important thing to note about it is that the mechanism of spaceflight in that story is presented as something of a deus ex machina. No explanation is given of how it works, not even a "soft" sci fi explanation. All the story says is that it's really obvious once you see it, but humans just happened to never think of it. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Krumwiede Oct 4 '14 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ If they have magical/psychic powers that can be used as weapons, they might not care about also producing physical weapons. But I guess that's not what you were looking for. $\endgroup$ – o0'. Oct 4 '14 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ I still don't get how any space ship drive can not be considered a weapon -- no matter whether it is anti-matter, anti-gravity, or simple rocket science. The space ship itself is already a weapon -- no additional invention necessary. Just use it by dropping it from orbit on a village. Or point its propulsion system to the ground (projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/spacegunexotic.php). Arguably, it is not a very efficient weapon (if you compare the cost of its production to the assumed yield), but it could certainly be used that way. $\endgroup$ – subrunner Jul 29 '16 at 19:36

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I would say, no, but let me elaborate on why and see if there's a possible way around the issues:

Assuming you still have environmental dangers, accidents and people wanting/having to kill each other:

  • Projectile weapons of other sorts have technology that you can use for other purposes.

    • For example, the idea of a crossbow is pretty much a bow with the string pre-drawn. The application isn't that simple, but as long as you have strings and understand the idea of switches and materials, if you need weapons, why not make one?
    • Muskets use the same principle but with explosives instead of a string - again, you will discover explosives by accident and need to understand them. Finding out that they're very effective when placed in confined spaces and tubes is a short step.
  • If you figure out how to control explosions and place them in tubes (cannons, mortars, rockets) and you need weapons, you're going to use them that way because, if you don't, your enemies will.

  • Weapons and weapon-like tools aren't just for killing people; they're for hunting as well. More importantly, they're used to protect yourself from animals. If this isn't easier, exploration is harder, so is guarding flocks of animals and crops.

    • Also, there's a lot of tools that can be used as weapons: ice-picks, axes, climbing hooks, boot-spikes, dynamite, nets, fences, rope etc. If you can think of weapons, you've already thought of using these as weapons.

So, the way I see it, as long as weapons for either attack or defense can occur to you, every technology is a potential weapon. There will be strong environmental pressure to develop better ones and most of them are relatively simple applications of engineering principles.

However, you might be able to have a civilization with starships but no advanced weaponry iff:

  • There is an incredibly powerful cultural drive towards pacifism after rudimentary weapons are developed.

    • This assumes that for some reason, everyone in the world, the bad, the good and the ugly, decide to be pacifistic. Either there is no warfare or inter-special dangers, or it is conducted through other, more effective (for that species) means.
  • Said species encounters no other species that doesn't share its own perspective. If they met a regular species, they'd be forced to develop weaponry or be enslaved or wiped out. So such a species would either have:

    1. met no one else and is ultra pacifistic
    2. met only ultra pacifist species and civilizations
    3. has come up with means of attack and defense that are far superior
    4. met a non-ultra-pacifistic species and has been wiped out or enslaved already

I don't see any way around these limitations.

NPSF3000 argues that a civilization could achieve spaceflight before high-tech weaponry if they faced another constant and very powerful threat, such as intense volcanic activity that motivates them to achieve space flight and other technologies, while reducing the motivation for warfare since cooperation would be more important against the larger common threat. He further argues that it would be unlikely for them to resort to weaponry even if faced with a military threat after achieving spaceflight and would be more likely to pursue other strategies such as trade, negotiation, stealth and alliances.

I agree with this perspective though I consider my prior assumptions more likely.

There is a transcript of our chat conversation here for those interested in the thinking process by which we arrived at the above conclusion.

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    $\begingroup$ Accepted for bringing up the point that any technology that would get something up to escape velocity (at earth standards or near) can be used as a weapon very easily. $\endgroup$ – Danny Reagan Oct 4 '14 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Why do you assume that a pacifist civilisation is somehow inferior to an aggressive civilisation and therefor will be subjugated? $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Oct 8 '14 at 4:57
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    $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 I'm not assuming they're inferior - I'm assuming they don't develop war technology, warfare tactics and spend as much energy on these. To put it plainly, at the same technological level, an aggressive civilization will be capable of overpowering them. I don't know how you interpret the term "pacifist" but in my mind, if pacifism is an inherent and non-acquired trait (as incredibly unlikely as that would be), I'd expect such a civilization to have little understanding of defensive and aggressive preparation priorities, simply because they don't have to deal with them as much. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 8 '14 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx, 1/2 this is where I disagree. Sure, a pacifist can, in some scenario's be easily defeated by an aggressive race. However I argue there may be other scenario's. If pacifism means the race dedicated more time to productive technology they might appear as gods than an equivalent race (imagine moores law being 3x instead of 2x, compounded over centuries). A passive race might also have defensive strategies, for example, what country would attack the USA if the USA had the ability to render all its' technology useless (e.g. all US designed/built computers)? $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Oct 8 '14 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 Your speculation is reasonable, but shallow - progress isn't linear and from our own history, war and the threat of it have contributed to the overall motivation for faster technological development. When our economical structures lagged, it forced new technologies and approaches to be tested immediately. I'm not arguing war is a good way to get progress, but it's a motivator - certainly not the only nor the best, but one that spreads easily. Why would a peaceful race know how to render weapons useless and how would it know how to defend itself without ever having the need to? $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 8 '14 at 21:39
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I would argue no.

Technologies are just means of directing energy. The difference between a tool and weapon is where the energy is directed. If you use a hammer to direct energy into a nail, it's a tool. If you use it to direct energy into a person, it's a weapon.

Any high energy technology is automatically a high energy weapon.

Getting into orbit requires a lot of energy and thus any technology that could put you into orbit could also direct energy against people and serve as a weapon.

Consider the Olympus Mons scenario advanced by @Nerrolken. Merely climbing up a mountain or other means to space would in effect store positional energy. If you use that energy to step off into space fine, but you could also use that energy to propel things against the ground below, producing a weapon. It would be like carrying an anvil up on a roof and dropping it on someone.

A space elevator, for example would seem just a structure, but you can run something up the elevator and fling it off the top like a stone from a sling. It could hit objects in space or even the surface at tens of thousands of miles per hour.

Moreover, once you are in orbit, regardless of how you got there. You have vast amounts of stored potential energy. So, anything in orbit with mass is potential weapon.

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The simple answer is no, for rocket flight you need explosives since a rocket is essentially a very long controlled explosion. You could have a peaceful race that did not weaponize them, but that same peaceful race would have no use for swords.

You would need something that prevents the use of rockets in that way such as strong social conditioning, for example maybe only priests are allowed to use rockets and the priests are neutral. You'd still expect corruption to eventually lead them to being used for warfare though and the immediate tactical advantage would mean everyone needed to follow suit or submit.

I can think of three options that might work:

Atmospheric Flight

One possibility that would work was explored in The Land and Overland series by Bob Shaw. In that case there were two planets orbiting so close to each other that they shared an atmosphere. It was actually possible to fly from one to the other using hot air balloons through the shared atmosphere. While technically interplanetary flight I don't know if you would qualify it as space flight though.

External Forces

A third party with knowledge of suitable science is acting as a police force and preventing their use as weapons. This intervention could either be subtle and working behind the scenes or be overt and forceful.

Gravity Drives

They somehow crack control of gravity without ever developing explosives. They make some fundamental scientific breakthrough that we've missed and from that are able to develop both atmospheric and space flight without needing rockets at all.

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  • $\begingroup$ Rocket fuel uses combustion. Explosion is something different. Combustion by itself is actually kind of hard to weaponize (aside from flamethrowers, or just setting your enemy's house on fire). $\endgroup$ – octern Oct 4 '14 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ @octern That's not quite correct. An Explosion (unless you start looking at Nuclear and possible high explosives) is a highly energetic form of Combustion. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 5 '14 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ Upon examination it looks like you're correct and I was misinformed about what "explosion" means. $\endgroup$ – octern Oct 5 '14 at 16:58
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Yes.

Example 1 - Olympus Mons, a massive mountain/volcano on Mars, is tall enough that it rises above the atmosphere of the planet. It is not at all difficult to imagine that a planet (or moon or something) could have an irregular enough surface that some peak might rise high enough that escape velocity could be significantly easier to achieve through mechanical means, such as a trebuchet-style launcher. The natives would need to master pressurized suits so they could breathe at the launch site, but perhaps the process begins with a "pilgrimage" from lower altitudes, like during an ascent of Everest, where they are able to make and don airtight suits.

Example 2 - Alternatively, you could imagine a planet with an atmosphere that doesn't contain enough oxygen for combustion to occur naturally. The species could become incredibly advanced, but they would consider fire and explosives to be only possible in a lab. Their rockets would have O2 injectors to allow them to ignite, but personal firearms would be impractical, even if theoretically possible.

A physicist could probably poke holes in both of those notions, from a purely scientific standpoint, but as a foundation for science-fiction stories they're both perfectly plausible.

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  • $\begingroup$ Example 1 doesn't really help, it gets them out of the atmosphere but orbital velocity is 15,430 mph - that won't be achieved by a trebuchet! $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 3 '14 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB That's the speed needed for a circular trajectory in low-orbit around Earth, it's not a universal number. Orbital speed around the moon is 2,170 mph, around an alien planet could be even less, and the question asked about getting into space, not establishing a stable orbit. A crossbow can fire bolts up to 100 meters per second, which is 10x the escape velocity of Mars's moon Phobos. It all just depends on the specific conditions on the alien world, and that can obviously be adjusted to fit the author's needs. $\endgroup$ – Nerrolken Oct 3 '14 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ That's a fair point, although any planet or moon with gravity that weak would not have an atmosphere to speak of in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 3 '14 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Generally true, but I'm visualizing an irregular planetoid, vaguely shaped like a teardrop. Not sure if it would actually work out this way scientifically, but one might imagine that the gravity and atmosphere would be thicker around the main body, but gradually weaker along the pointed tip. Theoretically, you might be able to have a distant point or "peak" on the planetoid with no atmosphere and lower gravity, while elsewhere you could have a more livable landscape. Definitely an out-there, sci-fi concept, but plausible enough. $\endgroup$ – Nerrolken Oct 3 '14 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ Personal firearms don't need O2 even in our world. $\endgroup$ – PlasmaHH Oct 3 '14 at 20:36
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One way I can think of addressing the inherent issues elaborated in TechZen’s answer and Saidoro’s answer is an underwater civilisation.

Our species lives on a planet mostly covered with water. There are tiny pieces of land that can support a rocket-launching site but they are deserts to our species (cf. the Kung in Pratchett’s Strata). Thus, there is nothing of value to destroy without going underwater.

Now, you can still cause explosions underwater, but since this is much harder, it is plausible that your species detects the way to make easy explosions on land first.

To go one step further, you can make the ocean not consist of water, but of some non-Newtonian fluid, whose resistance to movement strongly depends on the speed of that movement. This would slow down any fast motions within a short range and strongly prefer melee weapons (something vaguely similar is done in Frank Herbert’s Dune, where shields with a similar property lead to a renaissance of melee).

Alternatively or addionally, to avoid people dropping something from space, there could be large underwater cave structures, in which our species lives and which protects it from threats from above.

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No, but not quite for the reasons already cited. Getting to orbit requires you to move very, very fast and anything that is moving very, very fast is, fundamentally, usable as a weapon. It is technically conceivable (though vastly unlikely) that a civilization has no hand-held weapons more advanced than sword or bow while also having space flight, but their most advanced weapon would unavoidably be orbital bombardment or some other variety of high velocity projectile or rocket.

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The question is one of interdependent technology and culture, I suppose. Is it even possible to find a way into space without hitting the obvious alternative applications of rocket technology? Could you even get to rockets without first developing something like gunpowder?

So, as all the other answers are singlemindedly arguing that this is not possible so I just felt motivated to argue the opposite. As far as I can tell it should be possible actually, though the path there would be a bit different.

Requirements for rocket technology

So, what do you need to get a rocket into space?

  • First and foremost you need a lot of energy in a contained form for the propulsion.
  • Second you need the computing power to stabalize the entire thing
  • And lastly the manufacturing skill to build something that can withstand these forces

Contained energy

In our world we use fuel/explosives to power rockets. On one hand in an alternative world where there is no desire for war whatsoever it could very well be that explosives are still used a lot especially for mining and similar tasks. The question however seems to be implying that the race is quite similar to humans regarding their thoughts on war, so what other economically desirable form of energy could be present? What about an electricity based rocket? How could you generate that much energy? Nuclear energy. (And yes, we indeed do not have the technology yet to power rockets by electricity/nuclear energy) Now, thinking back to our discovery of nuclear energy it's simple to say it's not possible to discover nuclear energy without discovering the atomic bomb as well, however if you imagine a society where the development of an atomic reactor is driven by the wish for more energy the thought of "hey, let's build a mini reactor and let it go out of control dropping it in an enemy nation" is quite far fetched. To make this crazy need for energy more realistic one could say that we have a world that has discovered electricity, however doesn't have nearly any fuels to burn (so alternative energy sources were discovered earlier on than in our world).

Computing power

Well, the obvious answer to this one can be found in computers/electricity. The only alternative being humans specialized for computational tasks such as in Dune (if I remember correctly). Both I believe can be developed quite reasonably without war, so that's another yes.

Manufacturing skill

This might be the hardest requirement to fulfill as looking back at our own history developments in this area have been massively fueled by war. Still though, in any world that values innovation over time this skill could be developed... it just would take long.

In the end the central question comes whether you can find a sufficient drive for innovation apart from war. If you include things like magic (in the sense of technology) and religion (in the sense of an absolute basis for norms and morals) it might be quite possible to think up a world where space travel is reached without war, though it has to be noted that a sufficiently evil individual could still let the rocket crash land in an area of his choice, so the moral qualms about killing people do need to be seriously higher.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the additional perspective although I don't really agree - for one on the "contained energy" section, your example is nuclear powered propulsion; so far, that only works outside an atmosphere well enough to be useful - within an atmosphere nuclear propulsion has too low of an efficiency to be economical and those engines have low thrust anyway. They were developed for fuel economy in a vacuum, not getting a rocket into space, so I don't think there's really a good example of early spaceflight-capable propulsion outside explosives. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 4 '14 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ ...To add to my previous comment, it might be possible to develop the modern rocket hydrogen/oxygen mixture for propulsion without using it for weapons (since it is quite expensive for that). But propulsion mechanics for rockets would have to be tested on cheaper materials, so I doubt you can directly skip to liquid H/O fuels directly. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 4 '14 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx: You're assuming the level of technological advancement present in our world to judge a different world by. Nuclear energy definitely provides the required energy levels to get a rocket into space, figuring out a fitting propulsion mechanism has been given up on in our world in the 70s, because it simply was not necessary. If you don't have access to fossil fuels that might be an entirely different story. $\endgroup$ – David Mulder Oct 5 '14 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidMulder I'm assuming based on our world because that's the most logical thing to do - yes, it may be possible to have nuclear propulsion to take us from sea level to space, but if we're going to assume that a civilization develops that in lieu of other forms of propulsion (fossil fuels and hydrogen/oxygen), you need to explain why those are overlooked. From an engineering standpoint, despite their difficulties, they're easier to work with. We could be discussing ion propulsion and the arguments would be the same. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ A world with no fossil fuels might work as a starter. With no fossil fuels a lot of the techniques we have for controller combustion would never develop and rockets powered that way would be a much less obvious concept. If instead they discovered uranium and everything was nuclear then using a nuclear reactor to super-heat water and jet it out the bottom of your rocket may actually seem like the obvious way... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 5 '14 at 19:37
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Yes, absolutely. It becomes trivial once you start thinking outside the planet.

Consider a cluster of space habitats that waves hand had a technological collapse among the human inhabitants - the first move from planets to habitats might have been done with rockets and coilguns and nukes, etc., which aren't a big distance from various advanced weapons, but that was a long time ago and none of that is done anymore.

Maintenance of habitats is fairly easy and could plausibly be done with primitive inhabitants (either low tech tradition is good enough, or high tech automated systems that the humans don't even realize exist), so the lack of rockets, etc., don't need to imply inevitable hab failure either.

Once you're in this setting, space travel becomes easy: just walk out the airlock and kick off the wall. For longer distances, you head out to the surface of the habitat and let go, allowing its rotation to launch you at whatever that tangential velocity is.

This won't be enough delta-v to get you far.... but you might already be somewhere quite interesting. A cluster of habitats that can be traveled between with precise timing of your launch, perhaps. Maybe it is in a moon or ring system with little gravity gradient, meaning you can move around slowly, and it takes a long time to get somewhere, but you don't need high tech rockets.

BTW rockets ARE possible. Pressurized or heated air or water shot out a nozzle produces thrust. That'd foil typical habitat recycling, so you'd need to replenish it, but that's certainly possible to do. Not great rocket performance, but again, might be good enough for a friendly setting.

Can that make a weapon? Sure, but a pretty poor one. You won't bring a Super Soaker to war, and a steam rocket is probably unreasonable anyway.

Oh yeah, and while the fragility of orbital habitats is mostly mythical (they don't instantly fail if there's even a large hole punched in them, though that would need to be repaired), the requirement of maintaining your shared home might just create a disincentive of weaponizing certain technologies anyway.


Bottom line though is I think a lot of people neglect the possibility of changing the physical setting when wanting to engineer a situation. You can always do that, even if wanting to stick within the realms of hard sci-fi - don't feel limited to just natural bodies in the solar system!

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good suggestion but it's a bit unclear. I don't really understand what you mean by habitats - are they space stations? Colonized rocks? Do the low-tech inhabitants use old spacecraft or make their own? You kinda lost me at "walk out the airlock and kick off the wall" - what airlock and what wall? I'm lost :x There's a good answer underneath but you need to elaborate on some details and put them in order. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_habitat There's a lot of options, but in general, they are gigantic (well, they can also be small, but I tend to think of the 20+ mile long ones) artificial structures that spin for simulated gravity. The spacecraft can be made by the people - an airtight box with a hook is good enough to get started, since they need so little thrust and travel pretty small distances. $\endgroup$ – Adam D. Ruppe Oct 5 '14 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Um, any airtight box? It would have to be made from material strong enough to withstand the pressure difference in space (or explode) and it would have to be put together pretty well. How would you work the hook? Perhaps a preinstalled line would work, but that's hardly travelling. Anything else would require installing external attachments - which requires space suits or some way of working in space remotely. It seems like if they had the tools lying around and the tech was fool-proof enough, maybe. You should edit your answer to include the info in your comment, for clarity. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ The pressure isn't really a problem; a soda can is a greater feat of engineering! (The internal pressure of a typical can of carbonated soda is about 2x that of the surrounding atmosphere - a similar difference between the atmosphere and the space environment.) The hook idea would work on precise timing: consider two cylinders rotating at the same angular velocity. If you released from one at just the right time so your tangential velocity causes you to arrive at the other one in the same alignment, relative to its hull, you won't be moving and can trivially grab right on! $\endgroup$ – Adam D. Ruppe Oct 5 '14 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe we should take this to the chat $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 18:25
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Yes.

I'm imagining a society on a planet, that has extremely harsh conditions. The society would constantly struggle to reproduce and protect against this environmental hazards. In my opinion, conflict comes from limited resources, which is mostly caused by overpopulation. Therefore I could imagine a world, where resources are abundant, but environmental hazards limit population, leaving no reason or room for conflict. Simple weapons may still be required for hunting.

Rocket technology would need to be created for some other reason. Let's assume explosive materials are very abundant, like there are gasoline lakes (which would also explain the environmental hazards). And there are natural examples of propulsion engines, like octopuses and geysers. Instead of steam-engines powered by coal, they developed gas turbines very early and rocket engine based transportation. Another factor could be, that there is a very friendlier Planet very close, like in a twin planet constellation. Once astronomy is advanced enough, scientists could show that conditions there are much better, creating a strong urge to get there. And their long peaceful tradition may prevent the from waging war once they arrive there (Although probably not ^^). Or thing there aren't that peachy after all, therefore they keep improving their space travel capacities. Space may also be a better place to live than their home planet, especially if they don't suffer from long exposure to zero gravity, like humans do. So they may actually choose to live in space, excelling in automated planetary harvesting. If the start raging war once they established their live in space is another question though, but that is out of scope here :)

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Is it possible? Yes, Many of our weapons were other discoveries that we weaponized, if you have a very inquisitive race but isn't particularly violent they would likely get to space faster by not wasting time on offense/defense technology. We are very competitive and fairly violent. When nuclear fission was conceived, energy might have been the goal but it was immediately put to work as a devastating weapon.

As far as gunpowder, it was invented by the Chinese and they had fireworks long before they started really using it in any way for war.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nuclear technology was designed first as a weapon and only converted latter to power. That's why the reactors up to the 70s where all based on uranium, they were converted weapons material reactors. Fireworks were used first as weapons to terrify and distract before they were used for art. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 4 '14 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it was actually DEVELOPED as a weapon first, but it was imagined as a source of power. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 4 '14 at 11:29
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Anything is possible. That said, I doubt that any plausible human society would ever get to the point of building spaceships without also having built some more advanced weapons, since humans are a pretty belligerent species.

However, if we had a species that was competitive without being combative amongst themselves, any weapons they may use could be only that required to discourage opportunistic predators that might like to eat them. Their competitiveness could lead them to develop new forms of technology, to go further, higher, faster, yet despite all this competitiveness, it would have to be friendly. Such a species could well be much more herd-oriented, perhaps with an individual's status within the herd based on personal achievments and/or corporate achievements and the individual's contribution to them.

It can be argued that by the time you have a spaceship, you must have some very powerful weapons, but a weapon is defined as such by the purpose for which it is intended by its makers, and if they never intended their technology to maim or kill - despite its potential to actually do so, then it is not a weapon. It is one thing for a species to say "This effect is dangerous, how can we weaponize it?" (the human approach), another for a species to say "This effect is dangerous, we must be careful that when we use it, no-one gets hurt". Even the fact that an effect can be harmful and may even have caused fatalities is not the same as saying that it is a weapon.

Take the laser as an example. When sufficiently powerful, they can blind or burn humans. Dangerous? Certainly. How many humans have been directly killed by exposure to a laser beam since they were invented? I am not aware of any. Are they weapons? No. However, lasers can potentially enable better weapons, even though they are not weapons themselves. However, someone must make the choice to do that, and our hypothetical alien species may simply just not think of any weapon more advanced than that needed to survive their own environment.

Just because this species does not maintain weapons more advanced than it needs, does not mean that they could not repurpose items of their technology into weapons should the need arise - such as an encounter with a belligerent alien species.

To use an example from literature, in one of Larry Niven's known space books, humans have become pacifistic explorers, and their ships do not carry weapons. A human photon-drive ship encounters a kzin ship (kzin are warlike carnivores) that can outmaneuver the humans, and the kzin decide to kill the humans after a kzin telepath determines that the humans are not carrying weapons (According to the kzin, anyone who goes about unarmed deserves to die). The kzin weapon is somewhat like a microwave gun and begins heating the human spaceship, intending to roast the humans in their ship. The humans, realizing that they have no weapons to defend themselves with, realize that they must improvise something, and turn their photon drive - which is essentially a giant laser - onto the kzin ship, destroying it.

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In a rigidly controlled society, like the Empire in Fables, the only weaponry that would be necessary would be what was needed to maintain control. This would especially be the case if there was some way of controlling the elites, such as a deeply entrenched system of honor and duels, maintenance of control through ritual marriages, or simple mind control. In this kind of system, advanced weaponry in general would be something that would be controlled because it might destabilize things, so if it existed, it would be directly under the control of the Emperor/God-King/Grand Panjandrum. It would probably take them a long time to reach orbit, but they might manage it eventually if they had some sort of strong motivation.

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How about this plot:

"Civilized mankind" leaves the planet after a more suitable planet was found, which does not undergo a climate change; and they take all their movable goods and inventions with them, just leaving back the carcasses of the houses and their space elevators.

Some isolated indigenes of the amazon will be forced by said climate change to move north, towards the equator, and will find one or more of these elevators there.

And voilà, they will be able to travel to space without rockets, if they can power, repair and maintain that thing, without the requirement of rocket technology. And then, there is no imminent necessity for advanced weaponry, since a globe that once fitted 7 bn people armed to their teeth, can easily hold a few thousand indigenes.

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I would argue that it is [highly] unlikely. Take a look at how we as a civilization have developed spaceflight:

The first rockets were created in China hundreds of years ago. They were little more than rods with gunpowder, but they were pretty powerful - although nothing like what we have today. What did humanity proceed to do with gunpowder? Use it for weapons. Once people realized how effective it was at launching projectiles, they realized how effective it was at launching projectiles at other people. Since then, gunpowder hasn't been used for spaceflight - at least, not outside novels by Jules Verne!

Flash forward quite a few centuries. The first "modern" rocket was designed by Robert Goddard in the 1920s. While his designs never had a huge influence on the course of rocketry, it certainly was a starting point for the future. A future where the development of rockets was - you guessed it - used for war.

Werner von Braun has gone down in history as a controversial figure, politically and scientifically. He was the primary developer of the V2 rocket, which was used by Nazi Germany in the Blitz. Later in the war, however, he and his collaborators defected, and the United States took them (with Russia taking many technicians). This was the start of the space race.

ICBM development was one of the defining factors of the space race and the Cold War. It was behind the idea of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and was a huge deterrent to nuclear war. Large rockets could also be used to get people (and things) to outer space, though. Bigger missiles meant bigger (peaceful) rockets, and better ways to get to space.

So my guess is that the easiest first way for a civilization to get off their home planet would be via rockets, and that they would soon figure out that rockets have some other (more devious) purposes.

I know this answer rests on the principle that rockets are the first way a civilization could get to outer space. I made this assumption because rockets are certainly the simplest way to get there. While there's certainly more the building and launching a rocket than lighting a fuse and hoping for the best, it is still simpler than developing alternative methods - although there are some creative ones out there.

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Not really.

  1. Having spears and bows must progress into better weapons. You always want to shoot your enemy or prey from larger distance.

  2. Having the Earth as an example, the human population over years has developed so many different languages and a few races so the distrust is natural. From the early ages on when the food is scarce, agriculture in development and people so dependent on the weather, sickness and other natural dangers there must be a competition for the same resources and wars as a result.

  3. Morality is not carved into our brains and violence is all around.

  4. Even if there's only one nation in the world, you still have to use and develop weapons for security forces because there's always some internal struggle in the state - pro democracy, religious, regional bosses away from capital that want their share of power, new ideas and progressive/conservatives struggle...

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This primarily depends on how human your civilization is.

You might be able to customize an alien race or planet to the point where they don't really develop advanced weaponry. You could have a hive mind that doesn't fight among itself, a race with such poor eyesight that they can't use ranged weaponry, a race that uses ecolocation like a bat so any weaponry that makes noise is totally unworkable, or even just make them alergic to gunpowder. You planet could have low gravity, some exotic anti gravity material. Baring any really specific tweaks like this, I don't see a way that a human civilization would avoid inventing such weaponry.

Spaceships require so much power to hurl them into orbit that any civilization that ever goes into war is pretty much guarenteed to use that energy in some aggresive way. Not only that, but space flight also requires advanced metalurgy to stand up to the strain of liftoff. Those same advances in metal would be used in armor and even armored vehicles, meaing bows and spears traveling at such low power would do nothing. Some advances in offensive weaponry would be required to offset the defensive advantage of advanced metals.

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I can only think of the following ways:

  • Their space flight is dependant on very specific magic.
  • Their space flight is dependant on some sentient alien race (think Farscape).
  • They for some strange reason are incapable of imagining violence to certain scale (some sapient entity programmed them to forget any ideas related to it?).
  • Their space flight depends on some material/mechanism that is very easy to extract in their world but does not exist on ours (think H.G. Wells's "First Men in the Moon" - covarite is a gravity-opaque metal but natural)
  • They are on a planet that does not have much gravity so cataputs or something can more easily reach escape velocity.

Even if they are a non-violent species, if they have any use for a weapon they can easily turn any means of propulsion which can reach space into an advanced weapon. This means if they bother having bows and arrows and can make a rocket, they would easily be able to make a basic cannon. Whether they would is a little different discussion and would depend on the psycology of the species.

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    $\begingroup$ Here's another option: they could be naturally immune to being harmed by explosions or impacts. Coming up with such a race would be a tricky problem in itself, but they wouldn't weaponize the technology if they found it too easy to defend against. $\endgroup$ – Brilliand Oct 3 '14 at 22:28
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Your question doesn't specify, but all the answers so far seem to assume Earth-normal gravity. Perhaps it's possible to envision intelligent life evolving and something we would recognize as civilization arising on a planet with very little gravity and very little atmosphere, perhaps even intermittent or seasonal atmosphere. Such creatures might evolve the ability to escape their planet without rockets and travel in space for increasing lengths of time, perhaps to move to more favorable regions of their planet, until eventually they are able to travel into deep space.

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Sure, this is possible. Why not?

Consider a civilization composed of a species which could suffer only negligible damage by impact. Perhaps each individual is multiple separate organisms where the loss of one of them means nothing. Perhaps they're completely resilient to being struck. Perhaps, even, they're composed of energy "linked" to some indestructible focal point with a range of movement that barely encompasses their planet, and thus cannot be damaged by the physical world, but need to interact with it in order to travel through space.

In this case, they could easily develop projectiles without ever conceiving of them as weapons. They could use those projectiles to get into space.

Of course, once they met a society that could be damaged by impact, well, they would have all the technology they needed to make weapons. Whether they could conceptualize that is another question.

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Yes. Everyone has been looking at rockets and concluding that since a rocket can be used as a kinetic energy weapon that advanced weapons must exist.

Instead, lets consider a world where you can have spaceflight (albeit at great complexity) without rockets.

The world has an extremely dense atmosphere--approaching liquid type density. (Say, Uranus ate Mars.) Flight exists but you simply can't throw anything any great distance no matter how great the motive force. (Think of what happens to bullets underwater--they stop in a few feet.) The first possible long range weapon is the laser.

Now, about spaceflight in such a world? No rocket can operate (while in theory Orion could it's unlikely they will develop explosives in a world where they're pretty much useless.) but that doesn't preclude climbing your way to space. An elevator can't be built because you have to start from space to do so but towers start at the ground. Yes, there's nothing strong enough--all that means is that something else must support the tower.

Build a ring around the equator as high up as practical. It must be perfectly round (yes, this means parts may be underground if there are mountains in the way.) The ring is encased in an airtight tube and free to spin--the whole thing is basically a huge maglev train except with no cargo besides mass. Spin the ring to well above orbital velocity--you get an outward force, this counteracts the weight of the towers holding it up. Now be extend the towers (they're strong enough as it is) and build another ring. And again and again and again. Eventually you'll be above the atmosphere and can use rockets or you can launch from a track on the outer ring.

While nothing about such a world fundamentally precludes weapons it avoids the inevitable development of weapons as a side effect of technology.

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Absolutely not.

To achieve spaceflight you will need tools. Any tool can be used as for good as for bad :hammer and surgical knife as obvious examples.

At the end pure weapon is just such a specialized tool. Any civilization will maintain set of weapons adequate to current set of tools/capabilities.

To achieve safe atmospheric flights (past 9/11) we must have fighter jets together with airliners.

In the same way when civilization will have spaceships it will have spaceship destroyers. Just in case if something will go wrong with some [civil] spaceship on a hit course. Not even because of someone's bad will but just due to catastrophe, etc. ...

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    $\begingroup$ The answer overall is fine but the argument about 9/11 is circular - we need weapons to defend planes because we have weapons to threaten them. The same might apply to the starship argument. The question isn't about using weapons if there already are weapons around - it's about whether weapons can remaind undeveloped in the face of space-grade technology. The first half addresses this but the second is kind of off-topic. You should edit to focus your answer more. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx "argument about 9/11 is circular"... This is the case when civil transporting tool is [mis/ill]used as a weapon. $\endgroup$ – c-smile Oct 5 '14 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ You didn't understand my point - it's circular because the question doesn't presuppose using tools as weapons. As unlikely as that is, an argument about the use of weapons to protect from weapon use (in whatever way you define "weapon") cannot stand on its own here. Also, there is no question that, should weapons exist they would be used in such a way. That's why I'm saying the second half of your answer answers a different question, hence "off-topic". If you can rephrase it so that it maintains relevance or supports the rest of the answer, please do so. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @ivy_lynx. Weapon is a tool. Tool is a weapon. As much sophisticated tools you have as much sophisticated weapons you need to equalize possible negative effects of your tools misuse. So answer on this "Could a civilization progress so far as to have spaceships while still using swords, spears, and bows as their most advanced weaponry?" is definitely "no". $\endgroup$ – c-smile Oct 5 '14 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ And where did I argue against that? I'm either terrible at writing English or you're not reading my comments. I'm saying that on this question your last 2 paragraphs are off-topic, they answer a different question. Your replies change nothing on that - you're arguing your point as if I'm disagreeing with your answer, which I am not. There's only so many times I can repeat myself without using the exact same wording. Please re-read my comments. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 5 '14 at 19:47
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I'd argue that strictly theoretically speaking, yes it's possible.

The problem is not in the capabilities of the materials used in advanced weaponry (such as gunpowder or, gods help us, nuclear weapons)

Recall that weapons are (ironically) primarily for safety. Anything can become a weapon: when someone raids your home, you might pick an ancient, decorative Chinese ceramics and throw them at the enemy, thereby making it a makeshift weapon, even if it's not made as one in the first place. The same can be said for kitchen knife and empty beer bottle

.The Chinese invented gunpowder which subsequently created fireworks, largely for entertainment purposes. Its application as short range missiles were driven by the need to one-up the enemies in the name of safety.

Thus, if a civilization lives in a world where violence is low enough (and primitive enough, for example only petty melees) that everyone does not fret over safety, it is entirely possible that people will invent technology without trying to figure out how best to use it to hurt something else.

Such a civilization would be extremely peaceful, bordering utopia

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Sure, weapons and spaceflight are two different uses for technology, there is no direct necessity that a people apply technology in a particular use.

As a simplistic example, how many weapons has NASA made? How many moon landings has the US Military made? Both have great technical abilities, both have huge budgets, both have strong political will behind them. Both are human. Yet they have very different results.

Weaponry is not advanced because we have better technology, weaponry is advanced because we desire better weaponry.

As such I can easily conceive of two scenario's of advanced technology but primitive or non-existent weaponry:

1) Lack of desire for weaponry. Either biological or ideological a people might desire to not advance weaponry - e.g. Vulcans in Star Trek have decided as a race to control their violent aspects and live pacifist lives. Other examples include odd codes on Honor (even Klingons, who are very warlike in Star Trek, relish hand to hand combat. Even today, many weapons are banned from warfare - e.g. cluster bombs, biological, chemical, nuclear and even the dumdum bullet).

2) Taking it further, what if technology itself prevents weaponization? Sure explosives can be easily configured to be weapon or tool but not every technology is dumb. Asimov's three laws of robotics, if taken to extreme, could demonstrate a world with incredible technology - literally all matter is intelligent and able to change shape, form and function at human will (think nanobots) - but is intelligent and fundamentally pacifist - "A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.".

In this scenario, plenty of technology could exist that would, if applied correctly, have devastating weaponry capabilities. However without the ability to use it as such the point is irrelevant.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'll point out that NASA's rockets were so successful because of the US military's ongoing ICBM development, and that NASA had a huge budget because beating the Soviet Union in the space race could mean beating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 7 '14 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE 226868, I don't claim that war hasn't been a historically strong driver of human endeavour, simply that weaponry development isn't inherent in every humans actions even within the same culture/time/country/circumstance - let alone alternate races! $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Oct 7 '14 at 1:27
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I'm going to take a completely different approach on this one, arguing for Yes.

First off, it's probably going to take a long time, and it will require your civilization to start out pacifist.

Imagine a world populated only by plants, and one species of plant has sentience as described here:

How could a sentient plant evolve and what conditions would be required for this evolution?

That answer mentions weapons, but I see no reason why that would necessarily be the case. If this plant civilization had no predators and their internal competition was strictly peaceful because of their strong psychological connection with one another, then they could likely maintain no need for weapons per se for a long time (they might have tools to destroy other plants, but we don't really see those as weapons). Their science would develop to solve other problems besides military ones, for example disease and longevity, greater access to resources for the species as a whole, and so on.

It would likely, as I said, take quite some time, but eventually this civilization will look to the cosmos for resources. They might have already noticed by this point that rockets are useful for intercontinental transportation. Eventually their space program will develop.

Now, why would they develop swords, spears, and bows? Here's the fun part:

After they start exploring other worlds, they notice that some have animals, a rather unusual creature. They frequently capture small specimens for study in their own environment. Eventually, one of these specimens is actually able to take advantage of the plants for its diet. This creature reproduces quickly and becomes a pest--kind of like how rats are a pest that stowaway on ships on Earth. Having never needed weapons before, and given that the creature is a small, dumb rat, the plant civilization may well be able to develop bombs or pesticide, or engineer a contagion, but that's overkill for a small pest problem. Instead, it is easy to turn cutting edges into swords, or mount them on poles to make spears and arrows.

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I've seen conceptual designs for mag-lev mechanisms for launching trains into orbit at high speed. Using "peaceful" energy sources, e.g. wind or geothermal or hydroelectric, you could charge batteries to power such a mechanism. It's similar to the concept of a rail gun, but on a very large scale without the mobility requirements characteristic of most weapon systems.

This is just one way to leave the atmosphere without the use of technology that's historically been weaponized.

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    $\begingroup$ Wind powered war ships ruled the seas for thousands of years. The great hydroelectric damns of the Tennessee River Project were originally designed to fix nitrogen for explosives. Trains are major military logistics systems and weapons carriers. There are no "peaceful" energy sources. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 4 '14 at 4:33
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Yes, however it is unlikely.

In general space-flight does not require any weaponry to invent first, but the tools used to propel a space-ship into orbit are so obviously usable for advanced or intermediate weapons, that it takes a very special civilization to not come up with those ideas beforehand.

Weapons are invented for hunting, defense or attacks.

  • Hunting is only required, if food is sparse and the civilization needs meat as nourishment. A species of vegetarians would have no use for hunting weapons.

  • Defense is only required, if there is a threat to defend against. If an environment has nothing to be afraid off, weapons for defense would be pointless to invent.

  • Attacking is usually done as a result of greed, either because survival is difficult or a species is aggressive enough.

So theoretically a species of vegetarians living in some form of paradise without external threats or any lack of food, that still has a certain population control factor to not run out of resources, would have no need for weapons and therefore might never come up with the idea to built them.

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Okay, the question is how would a civilization get into space without the use of gunpowder and the development of rocketry. Seems simple enough.

Several answers concerned themselves with other weapons like the bow and arrow, trebuchet, and the question of violence equals weapons potential. Let's go different way.

Here's an idea. Suppose that you have two tribes that hate each-other living on separate islands. As the year pass they've developed all the melee combat weapons to fight each-other over the open seas. Nobody develops gunpowder but they do create some good sailing ships. Eventually someone gets the bright idea of a trebuchet to use to safeguard their shores from attack by the other tribe's ships. Years pass and the trebuchet gets bigger and everyone has one now. Eventually they get so big they can attack each-other's islands without going to sea in ships.Just a case of MAKE BIGGER.

Then another guy gets a bright idea. Using the heat from their active volcano and slaves they manufacture a steam-powered blowgun big enough to shoot a telephone-sized arrow all the way to the other island. Eventually this thingamajig gets bigger, and in the process develop hot and cold running water and plumbing. the other island doesn't have a volcano so their steam-powered machinery is inferior and they loose.

If a group of people spend a few hundred years developing volcano technology this way it is conceivable that they could develop a gun that could shoot a person into space. Volcanoes have been recorded to launching large objects into the upper atmosphere during an eruption. I call this idea the Jules Vern Volcano Gun.

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While it's hard to imagine a species achieving space flight without encountering the possibility of advanced weaponry (if nothing else, you can crash the spaceships into things) it isn't hard to imagine a species with less interest in killing than humans have, and therefore have never really thought much about developing advanced weapons.

As a collective, humans are a fairly violent species. This is a survival tactic: we have learned long ago that one of the best defenses against a potential enemy, whether interspecific or intraspecific, is to kill them first, before they show signs of aggression. As a result, our relationships with strangers have always been strained with distrust, extending one hand in friendship while keeping the other on the holster of a loaded gun.

There are other animals that do this (ants, for instance) but there are also a great many that do not. An intelligent species that evolved from creatures that dealt with threats by fleeing, or digging, or retreating behind barriers, would likely live according to a different paradigm and not be driven by the same factors that has guided human technology.

Imagine, for example, a species of intelligent "deer people" who have historically avoided threats by fleeing. Such a species might develop space flight not out of curiosity for the unknown (or to control "high ground" in order to attack enemies first, which was a prime motivator for human space flight), but out of fear that their planet may at one point be threatened. While humans would respond to such a threat by developing stronger weapons to fight off the threat, leaving flight as a last resort, deer people would prefer to make faster vehicles first and leave weapon technology for last. They might even develop space flight faster than humans, because they are instinctively motivated to avoid being 'trapped', which they would feel once they realized they were stuck on a single planet.

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Why do you need weapons?

The last time humans needed better weapons to fight anything other than other humans was back over 4000 years ago.

If you cultures had rules or traditions that stopped physical fighting or limited it to ancient weapons no one would bother putting the effort to make weapons from rockets.

There also might have been an invention that rendered projectile weapons useless. In Dune shields block all attacks moving faster then a small speed, blocking ranged attacks and forcing everyone to use swords. Then the old tech might have been abandoned

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To expand on the answer by Vulcronos:

Yes, it is possible. One example might be a theoretical hive mind: if the entire sentient species were "one", and they didn't need to develop weaponry for survival reasons (including hunting) against "animals", then it is entirely possible they could develop space travel without advanced weapons. (Regarding hunting, perhaps they domesticate animals - much as some ants do - or are purely vegetarian.)

Note, however, that they'd have the science - so if they encountered a more violent species (ahem humans ahem), they could probably adapt relatively quickly. The science hasn't changed - just the use to which it's put.

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