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Planning for Outer-Space Humanitarianism

Off-Earth humanitarian relief and disaster aid pose significant challenges.

The United Nations International Day of Human Space Flight is on April 12. As we look towards settlements on the Moon and Mars, and farther afield, we must plan and prepare for disasters in off-world locations. What do humanitarianism and post-disaster actions mean for outer space?

Ilan Kelman
Planning for humanitarian relief on the Moon and beyond.
Source: Ilan Kelman

Thinking of off-Earth disasters conjures up the terrible memories of space flight catastrophes. Three U.S. astronauts perished on Earth in the January 27, 1967 fire during the Apollo 1 launch test. Three were saved from space in 1970 after an oxygen tank exploded during Apollo 13’s trip to the moon, disabling much of the craft’s facilities. At least five Soviets died in incidents between 1961 and 1971.

Two U.S. space shuttle crews have been lost. Challenger broke apart during launch in 1986 and Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry in 2003. In total, at least 30 people have been killed in the history of spaceflight.

This year on April 12, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin. The milestones of human space flight continue.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously occupied for over two decades. New landings of people on the Moon are being planned as a stepping stone to sending humans to Mars.

Are these preliminary stages in long-term inhabitation beyond the ISS, far from the Earth? If so, even with prevention being better than cure, disasters could happen. Disaster planning must include preparing for post-disaster aid and humanitarian relief operations.

Outer space humanitarian relief, response, and aid is a developing field. It combines what we know about disaster-related successes and failures on Earth, explorations of humanitarianism in less-traveled locations such as the polar regions, and our vast knowledge of aerospace- and space-related emergency response.

The key is moving beyond dealing with immediate emergencies toward wider aspects of humanitarian operations and disaster relief. Then, bridging the prevention-response divide would link outer space humanitarianism with the adage that "prevention is better than cure" to support outer space disaster risk reduction. Doing so means starting with the fundamentals.

Principles of humanitarian relief have remained largely unchanged since they were formalized four-to-five decades ago through research and practice in tandem. These established principles have rarely been explored for locations that have previously been uninhabited, such as Antarctica, the deep sea, and outer space including off-world settlements in order to look beyond short-term space flight operations.

Off-world settlements of different categories exist. Space stations such as the ISS are clearly bounded craft in the vacuum of outer space.

Meanwhile, settlements could be constructed on bodies such as planets, moons, asteroids, and comets--although the latter would be challenging as the comet approaches the Sun or another star and starts off-gassing. Do established Earthly humanitarian relief approaches apply to these locations?

Four key principles of humanitarian relief emerge from Earth-bound disasters over past decades and, in some analyses, centuries. They need to be considered for off-world settlements.

First, needs for health and living must be supported, covering physical health such as protection from the environment and psychological health such as feelings of home and place. This component means surviving in outer space. Without any form of sheltering, survival is impossible while the psychological separation from Earth and environmental safety adds to the toll--although anyone in outer space is already somewhat prepared. Humanitarian aid must nevertheless plan in advance to meet these needs.

The second key principle for disaster aid on our planet is privacy and dignity. This can be hard to achieve in confined spaces on space stations or off-Earth settlements and, in fact, are not often expected by those traveling beyond our planet. While the situation might then be easier regarding connections to psychological health, it does limit options if parts of inhabited space are knocked out in a disaster.

Links to the third principle, security, and feelings thereof, are straightforward. In post-disaster situations currently, security differs somewhat from privacy and dignity. The former is about reducing threats while the latter is about having one’s own time and area. In outer space, the second principle is hard to achieve, while it is not possible to be physically and psychologically healthy (the first principle) in outer space without nearly complete security.

Finally, support for livelihoods, income generation, and education is a principle of post-disaster assistance. This one is possibly the least relevant for outer space at the moment, because few outer space settlements could be self-sufficient, as seen with the ISS. Once humans live permanently away from the Earth, this principle would need to be considered.

Within these principles, Earth-bound and off-Earth humanitarianism entails continuing essential services, such as food, water, energy, and waste management. A balance is needed between:

(a) Self-help: Requires advance planning and preparedness, as well as training and maintenance. Necessary and standard for space flight anyway, as well as being good disaster risk reduction practice.

(b) Timely external support: Can be less relevant due to the time required to reach outer space settlements. Also depends on the definition of "external." Once Mars or the Moon has multiple settlements, then humanitarian relief from other settlements could potentially arrive quickly. If aid must come from another body, then timeliness is difficult.

Understanding humanitarianism's meanings and operations for comparatively near off-world settlements—around the Earth, the Moon, and Mars—sets the stage for work farther afield. Rescue from floating settlements in the gas bands of Jupiter is different than rescue from the ethane and methane lakes of Titan as well as from human settlements roaming the stars.

As we expand humanity's physical reach, we must expand our preparedness and response capabilities. Humanitarianism and humanitarian response are about humans, no matter where we are: On, close to, or far from our home planet.


Baum, S.D., D.C. Denkenberger, and J. Haqq-Misra. 2016. "Isolated refuges for surviving global catastrophes." Futures, vol. 72, pp. 45-56.

Kelman, I and M. Harris. 2021. "Linking disaster risk reduction and healthcare in locations with limited accessibility: Challenges and opportunities of participatory research." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 1, article 248.

Longo, F., A.G. Bruzzone, A. Padovano, and M. Vetrano. 2016. "Drones based relief on moon disaster simulation." Proceedings of the Modeling and Simulation of Complexity in Intelligent, Adaptive and Autonomous Systems 2016 (MSCIAAS 2016) and Space Simulation for Planetary Space Exploration (SPACE 2016), April 2016, Article No. 13, pp. 1-7.