Workplace Accommodation for Autistic Employees Spurs Innovation

by Rebecca Schembri, Science Communicator, March 19, 2022

Autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin is very good at building things. She explains that humans would still be living in caves if autism spectrum condition didn’t exist. Grandin argues that people with the condition, or autists, made the first tools, the first buildings, and the first modes of transportation. She knows this because she, too, is autistic. Autists are creative and detailed, and they can visualize designs. Autists have hyperfocus, an intense ability that blocks out distractions. And autists have excellent memories that exceed non-autistic minds. This is why autists are well-equipped to build and support civilization. The autistic gene is a benefit to humanity, and it must be utilized and protected in the workplace. Companies need autistic talent because autists drive innovation. This can be seen with autistic inventions throughout history. Autistic employees, however, need special environments to thrive in, and must be allowed reasonable workplace accommodations. With one in every forty-four human births classified as autistic, the talent pool of autists is growing. The opportunity to use autistic thinking will enhance the growth of civilization and will benefit all of humankind.

Autists are good for companies because autists think differently than non-autistic people. Dr. Grandin jokes, in a serious way, that autists need to “go work in Silicon Valley,” which is the center of the technology industry. She says the autistic brain is well-suited to connect with computers. Autists are useful and needed in the sector, and can find success there, she says. According to Grandin, the autistic brain is a “specialized brain” and solves problems others cannot: the autist sees tiny details, notices patterns, and envisions macro results easily. In Grandin’s case, her autistic brain allowed her to make unique observations in animal science. She studied the sounds of cows and was able to determine what was bothering them. She perceived what the cattle needed, and she built designs based on her observations. These designs revolutionized over fifty percent of the North American livestock industry and have expanded into the global market. Grandin’s innovations created a standard for the humane treatment of animals in a slaughterhouse. Because of her contributions, Grandin was named one of Time magazine’s top one hundred most influential people in 2010.

Dr. Grandin says that some autists are visual thinkers, like her. These are good candidates for careers in computers, photography, and graphic or industrial design. Visual autists see life as a movie and can use the skill in the workplace. They have a natural ability to understand lines and texture. These are valuable design employees because they can imagine an invention with accuracy. They can also remember the feel of an object—exactly. Inventor Nikola Tesla was this way, and he could see his designs in vivid detail before they were built. An employee with a mind like this can save company costs in research and development, and in prototyping. Other autists, according to Grandin, are pattern thinkers. Pattern autists see life in systems and are ideal computer software programmers and engineers. These are people who think and talk in numbers. They can magically declare ratios, percentages, and math answers without using a calculator. Visionary Elon Musk thinks this way. He sees the result—which is outside of anything anyone has ever done—then hires engineers to build his designs. Pattern autists may look at sheet music and perceive the sound of a song before it is played. Musicians who are pattern autistics hear music in patterns, or blocks. Instead of playing the given notes, the player plays systems of number groupings like threes or sevens. An example of this is pianist and master composer Amadeus Mozart, who could memorize musical works by age four. Two hundred and fifty years later, his contributions in classical music continue to dominate the genre.  

In the workplace, a pattern autistic employee can bypass learning sequences because the autist absorbs information through large-scale pattern recognition. Such talent usually excels at any genre of engineering. In astroscience, for example, pattern thinkers are faster at calculations because the thinker understands how the math fits together, like pieces to a puzzle. This is valuable for aerospace companies like SpaceX, for example, who seek to meet intense deadlines before a U.S. legislative moratorium on launch liability expires in 2025. If the company has workers who can bypass regular learning, the company can achieve more—faster—and meet its goals to dominate the launch market. Therefore, autistic pattern thinkers give companies high speed calculations, and big-picture scenarios.

Dr. Grandin says there is a third kind of autistic mind: the “verbal logic” thinker. Verbal autists, those who naturally memorize dates and facts, make talented journalists and actors, such as iconic Hollywood actor Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the intelligent monster in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins’ deadpan face and intelligent demeanor allowed him to bring Dr. Hannibal Lecter to life. These autists have excellent memories—they know dates, names, and events in detail. An autistic journalist, for example, might recall that President Kennedy spoke at the U.N. General Assembly on September 25, 1961. Verbal autists are excellent observers and fact holders, and a valuable source of information for companies. They excel as think tank support to executives who need historians—or for space companies who need detailed and accurate science fiction summaries.

In general, autists are hyper-focused, and they are resistant to change. According to the diagnostic criteria for autism, autists usually have “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus,” and they engage in repetitive actions. Autists are like a machine or a computer that stays on task indefinitely. They prefer to finish the fixation that has them in hyperfocus, and changing course causes “great stress and difficulty.” Autists naturally work in the self-actualization level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a system developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow to explain human progression. The tip of the hierarchy pyramid is peak state. This is where nothing else matters and an individual works for higher purpose innovation, or on dream fulfillment. Autists usually have poor function in the lower parts of the pyramid—in areas of self-care, social interaction, and goal setting, but they exceed at peak performance. This strength is a resource for companies because it generates higher output of creative productivity and because the autist is unlikely to stray from the directive, or to resign from the company. Therefore, autists offer low employee turnover and high employee focus.

Autists are also happy to mind their own business and keep working. The criteria explains that this is because autists have: “Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging…from abnormal social approach and failure of (neurotypical) back-and-forth-conversation…to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect,…to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.” This means that autists find it hard to make friends, and they have little interest in doing so. Although society may disapprove of the autist’s lack of friendship, companies benefit from autistic employees’ reluctance to socialize—it increases production time and saves money on time-sensitive overhead. Autists are also loyal. Temple Grandin, when asked if an autistic child can love his parent, replied, skirting the question: “You better believe that if that parent is in a house that’s on fire, the child will pull the parent out.” Autists stand by those they belong to, such as the company they are employed by. Autists will fight for their employer and will invent ways to overcome adversity. Autistic employees are intelligent, driven, compliant, loyal, and hard-working. They are a valuable part of the workplace because they push innovation and increase profits.

Successful autists have made pivotal contributions to human civilization. Mathematician and autist Isaac Newton, for example, gave humanity calculus and the laws of gravity. His discoveries are used today to predict trajectories of moving objects. Because of Newton’s laws, humans can calculate when something will land, such as an apple falling from a tree or an asteroid entering earth’s atmosphere. Newton’s laws guide engineering in building and transportation, and they explain gravitational life on Earth, including why Earth is suspended in space, and why the moon is locked into gravity with it. Without Newton’s laws, astrophysics—rocket science—and NASA, along with all the other space agencies in the world, would wane. This is because, hypothetically, it is not possible to launch ships to space without first understanding the laws of gravity.

Inventor Nikola Tesla, another autist, also made significant contributions to humanity. He gave the world modern electricity, radios, and the foresight of wireless communications. His inventions transformed civilization in the twentieth century and are still used today, a century later. Because of Tesla’s inventions, humans can turn on lights, plug appliances in, and use a mobile phone. Albert Einstein, another autist, gave humanity nuclear power and the theory of relativity. He expanded on Newton’s laws, explaining that gravity changes when the space-time fabric stretches due to mass. Therefore, gravitational trajectories are skewed near a massive object such as a black hole. His contributions to space science form the foundation for future space travel. Because of Einstein, humans have accurate calculations for cosmic navigation, and they know how to make renewable nuclear energy.

Another autist, engineer and economist Elon Musk, revolutionized access to outer space by inventing reusable launch rockets. Today, Musk works to construct a city on the planet Mars, and to establish interplanetary internet services. Musk built online payment company PayPal, electric vehicle company Tesla, aerospace company SpaceX, and brain interface company Neuralink. His electric cars have revolutionized the clean energy transportation sector and influenced traditional car companies to switch to electric propulsion. Musk’s Neuralink brain chip will begin human trials in 2022. The invention is expected to cure paralysis by joining the human brain with AI technology. Musk’s innovations will change the course of humanity. He is spearheading a civilization that is secure, functioning, and connected. 

Innovators Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, also autists, brought computers into the world—the very computer that the reader is using today. This has globalized modern civilization. Humans in developed countries now use computerized systems for security, water, food, energy, communications, transportation, commerce, entertainment, and education. These inventions have propelled humanity into the information and technological age—a time when humans can access any information they wish, and an era when the use of technology is growing exponentially. In centuries past, this would have been considered something supernatural: it would have been called magic. The advanced contributions of these innovators have brought humanity to a new era. Therefore, autists are pillars in human civilization.

To thrive, however, autists need acceptance in the workplace. The autistic brain is not keen on understanding consequences or life skills such as daily self-care tasks like personal hygiene, time management, planning, and social etiquette. Companies can support autistic employees by hiring mentors to mediate and coach workplace culture. These advocates make sure autists are functioning and have what is needed for success. The mentors are a buffer between the employer and the autistic employees, and they clarify expectations for both sides. They coach employers on the importance of a calm workspace and encourage bosses to ease the requirements for normal social responses, such as handshakes, eye contact, and smiling. They also coach supervisors on how to speak to autistic employees in direct language, and how to ease the introduction of abrupt changes in workflow.

For the employees, a mentor might define the signs of sexual misconduct, and the rules for physical interaction in the workplace. An autist may not realize, for example, that staring or getting very close to a person is considered intimate behavior. Because autistic employees need coaching on workplace interactions, the mentor can explain the importance of making eye contact with bosses and peers, and how to read other people’s facial expressions, such as smiling, or frowning. The autist may need a system of looking at someone for a count of three, then looking away for a count of five, then looking back at the person for a count of three to make eye contact. With company mentors, autists can stay productive, and their employers can celebrate having a talented workforce.

Autists also need calm, isolated environments to function in. Autistic employees may need an empty, private office with low lighting, or they may need to use virtual reality goggles at work, or headphones and sunglasses. This is because autists have environmental sensitivity. When placed in loud, colorful, and social environments, autists experience sensory overload, and they must continually escape and recharge, taking time away from creativity and production. This is because autists are affected by smells, noises, textures, and lighting. It is hard for them to process overstimulation. Therefore, companies must limit social interactions with autists in the workplace, and companies must provide quiet, safe places for the autist to work in. If autistic employees are forced to experience an undesirable environment, the employees will fail to function; and fail to innovate. By eliminating mental noise, employers allow autistic employees to focus on company directives, and on production.

Some critics object to special treatment for autists. They say that people with the capacity to rule the world in economics and technology should not be given “VIP” considerations. Special accommodations are a show of favoritism, and a workplace distraction. Autists, they say, are not disabled—but gifted. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk became three of the richest people ever and will be remembered throughout history for their abilities. Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Mozart were also successful people. Temple Grandin is a successful person. She is a university professor and a public speaker who is well known for her inventions. People of this ability should not be allowed to skip company meetings and to wear headphones and sunglasses at work when others are not. If an autist goes to a meeting, everyone must be under low lighting and keep their voices down and clear the table for that one autistic person. It’s an unbalanced approach because there are, on average, forty-three regular people for every one autistic. Also, the autist receives small repercussions for having an outburst when the environment is undesirable, but if normal people had such an outburst, they would be disciplined. This is disruptive and unfair, they say.

Although it is true that autists are gifted and talented, and that famous autists have found success, these individuals would not have succeeded without safe environments. Autists are like foreigners who speak a different language and who observe a different culture. The neurotypical culture is shocking to autists, who value living in protective bubbles. To live outside of the autistic bubble is traumatizing for the autist, who struggles to adapt to the explosion of the senses found in the neurotypical world. This is why eighty-five percent of adult autists are unemployed and most live dependent on their parents: autists do not make good impressions in job interviews because they are socially anxious, and they find it painful to participate in activities outside of the home.

Critics may say it is favoritism to give autists special workplace accommodations, but for the autist, it is a matter of self-preservation. Because autists live in a world where ninety-eight percent of people are not autistic, autists suffer from trying to survive in an environment that is set up for neurotypicals. Workplaces are bright, loud, and social. Distracting items are everywhere. People must work on teams and have consistent interaction with supervisors and peers. This causes disability in autists because of sensory overload. The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protections for autists in the workplace, and states that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities. It is true that accommodations are a disruption and a distraction, but these disruptions are minor. It takes little effort to allow autistic employees to stay in their office, working. This drives innovation and is an easy tradeoff for the benefit of having skilled and loyal talent.

Instead of telling autists how to behave properly, people should ask autists what they are working on. If autists made the first tools, they will also be the inventors who protect humanity from extinction. Autists are valuable minds that innovate and propel civilization. “What would happen,” asks Dr. Grandin, “if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.” The autistic gene is part of human evolution. It has given humanity computers, electricity, nuclear power, space travel, transportation, entertainment, mass agriculture, running water, communications, and access to education. Autism is what drives humanity forward. It must be welcome and accommodated in the workplace.

Rebecca Schembri is a Social Science graduate student at Harvard University. She is from Reno, Nevada, USA.

The Billionaire Space Race Is About Democracy, Not Tourism

Need not apply to NASA. Space is open to the public.

I’m not very old.

Born in 1974, I don’t remember the Apollo era. But everyone who does has a twinkle in their eye when they say they were “there during Apollo.” It was that special. The Apollo space program unified humans. It was us going farther than we had ever gone, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It was humans leaving Earth to photograph our marble planet from outer space. And it was us landing on the moon. What a dream.

But Houston, we had a problem. Even though Apollo brought us together in the 1960s and beyond, until recently you couldn’t go to space unless NASA vetted you. Apollo had a long history of elite white guys and no one else was allowed in. Today women and people of color are eligible for NASA programs. But even with fair practices, thousands apply to be astronauts, and few get accepted.

That just changed. This year, private companies built spaceports in the desert and launched to space without NASA. They sent women, seniors, businesspeople, educators, artists, moviemakers, tourists, Captain Kirk, and a teenager. There was no law to prevent this.

SpaceX, a company run by billionaire Elon Musk, announced that now anyone can go to space. It is Musk’s dream to start a settlement on Mars. In September, SpaceX rented its rocketship to a private customer to raise money for charity. The event made history.

The paying billionaire invited three ordinary people to join him in space: a young woman with a leg prosthesis; a stocky, nerdy, middle-aged dad and husband; and a 51-year-old African American. Inspiration 4 went around Earth for three days and was filmed by Netflix, showing that cookie cutter NASA heroes are a thing of the past.

In July, spaceflight company Virgin Galactic made history too. Virgin’s plane left from private property in New Mexico and, once the plane reached the top of Earth’s sky, it launched a ship that flew to space. Passengers, who included billionaire Richard Branson, floated around for four minutes before feathering down to return home. It was as easy as riding in an airplane, but more expensive. A lot more expensive.

Billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also making spaceships in the desert. He, too, is contributing to space democracy. He uses publicity stunts to advertise seats going for a quarter of a million dollars. After the Virgin launch, Bezos shot off in a weird Blue Origin rocket. He played with candy during his four minutes in space and said it was the “best day ever!”

Bezos took with him astronaut Wally Funk, who in the 1960s was canceled by NASA for being female. William Shatner followed. The 90-year old Star trek celebrity felt the Overview Effect, a psychological change that happens when humans see their home planet. Shatner said he never wants to forget the experience.

This tourism is the beginning of public access to space. Another company, Space Perspective, sells 6-hour trips for $125,000. During the ride, passengers view Earth from a space balloon capsule before splashing into Earth’s ocean. The price is high, but the space trip does not depend on NASA qualifications. For the first time ever, people can go to space without government say-so.

Much of the public does not approve of the billionaire space race, however. Critics think it is a waste of money. They argue that dollars spent on space could help people who suffer from hunger and poverty on Earth.

This is true, but it is a short-term view. Billionaires are using their money to widen access to space, which will help solve our biggest problems on Earth. Because space is open to startups, businesses are motivated to invest in solutions for extreme environments.

These inventions will be used for humans to survive climate change, and to feed and house Earth’s people. For example, Moon and Mars 3D habitat printing is used for homes in Latin America. Space tech grows food in the desert. Space water recycling serves drought populations. Mars oxygen generators will treat wildfire air pollution. Because billionaires spend their money on space, human life is made better.   

Like Apollo, this space race has the potential to unify humanity. But the era of exclusivity is over. Beginning this decade, people of all kinds will be allowed to explore space.

When I was a little girl, I thought only boys who lived in nice houses could be NASA astronauts. Now I believe I’ll go to space. It may not be today, but it will happen.

“When we look back in sixty years,” said private astronaut Glen de Vries before he launched with Shatner, “we will say 2021 was the year that space opened up.” Space business is booming. Save your money: as technology advances, off-Earth travel will be affordable soon.

Rebecca From Reno
Rebecca Schembri is a Social Science graduate student at Harvard University. Her concentration is in Space Diplomacy.
She is from Reno, Nevada, USA

Satellites and Light Pollution: The Fight for Ground-Based Astronomy

by Rebecca Schembri, Harvard University, August 26, 2021

Humans have looked to the skies since the first night they could see stars. As civilization progressed, astronomy became an important field of study—a way for humans to calculate information about life on Earth, and to better understand their origins by studying the Universe. After thousands of years, humans now know where life comes from, how it flourished on Earth, and what is required to maintain it. By using telescopes to look deep into the cosmos, the study of the night sky has become more than an intrigue—it is life-saving science. Now however, such science is threatened by technological advancement: light pollution from cities and human-made space objects are interfering with telescope and radio observations. If the problem grows, it will mean the end for ground-based astronomy. Although talks to mitigate the dilemma have opened, current laws do not offer a clear advantage, and much must be done to save the dark and quiet skies from falling victim to prosperous and ambitious commerce.


Light pollution is “causing a lot of headaches for astronomers,” says Jonathan McDowell, an expert from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The problem is twofold. First: tens of thousands of objects are being launched into Earth’s orbit, causing hindrances in studying the night sky. To provide global internet services to 3 billion humans, companies such as Starlink and OneWeb have plans to place a myriad of satellites in outer space, with China adding an additional 13,000 by next year. These devices “will be at a problematic high altitude for astronomers,” McDowell says, “and others will be at a low altitude which will be problematic just for looking at the night sky.” Obstructions will be present both in telescope images, and to the naked eye. As astronomers strive to avoid trails of light streaking through their images caused by reflections from satellites, the problem, if it continues, will become much worse: avoiding trails every 20 minutes is manageable, says McDowell, but if the obstructions occur every moment from every angle, it is not something scientists can deal with: “If there isn’t some kind of management of the night sky,” he worries, “we are going to lose ground-based astronomy this century.” The profession will become a casualty of technical and commercial growth.

In a recent plea for a moratorium on satellite launches, European astronomers express their disapproval, saying “the deployment of large fleets of small satellites planned or ongoing for the next generation of global telecommunication networks can severely harm ground-based [astronomy].” In their article “Concerns About Ground Based Astronomical Observations,” led by S. Gallozzi (Rome), the astronomers request legal recourse for damages caused by Starlink, saying the investments made to fund their research are being exploited. These damages, they claim, are potentially permanent for observatories if regulations are not set in place. Soon every area of the night sky will have a satellite in it, and the Earth will lose its cosmic perspective.

Dr. Alissa Haddaji is a Harvard Professor and member of the United Nations Planetary Defense Working Group. She sees this issue going beyond harmful interference and damages for liability—it is a global sustainability threat. She believes there is more to worry about with the satellites being placed in higher orbits since they are dependent on fuel to reenter Earth’s atmosphere: “The Low Earth Orbit satellites are not as worrisome,” she says, “since they will eventually deorbit, but the ones going into Medium and High Earth Orbit could have complications coming back down, and they have much potential of adding to Earth’s space debris, creating an environmental issue.” With Earth’s current orbital space debris comparable to 23,000 metal baseballs, 500,000 metal marbles and golf balls, and 100,000,000 metal snowflakes swirling in orbit at 17,000 miles per hour, adding more gadgets to space is non-intuitive and could trigger Kessler Syndrome—an event like a high-speed racecar crash, when one piece of debris creates a chain-reaction of multiple crashes. The event would surround the planet with uncontrollable objects, making it impossible to access space for generations.

Because of this, ground-based astronomy is in a dangerous place: “It would be technically reasonably straightforward to launch enough bright satellites to permanently ruin our work,” says McDowell. Eventually, astronomers will not be able to compete with orbital satellites and space debris. An example of this threat is happening today at the ALMA observatory in Chile. Because of its location, satellites are continuously in its view, and the observatory may become obsolete in making breakthrough discoveries such as in 2019, when the telescope played a fundamental role in capturing the world’s first image of a black hole.

Space Debris | ESA
Satellites and Space Debris / Credit: ESA

Not only do satellites pollute astronomy images, they also impede detection of approaching asteroids and comets, creating a security risk for humans. “All satellites,” writes Gallozzi, “will be particularly negative for scientific large area images used to search for Near Earth Objects, predicting and, eventually, avoiding possible impact events.” If telescopes cannot see incoming asteroids, the whole world is at risk by Potentially Hazardous Objects entering Earth’s atmosphere, and time-sensitive mitigation will not be an option. In general, at least four months of reaction time are needed to avert an incoming PHO and depending on the method used to either push or pull the object, years of global deliberation and preparation may be necessary.  Incoming PHOs are as their name denotes: potentially hazardous to life on Earth. An asteroid just 100 meters wide could cause a perpetual winter, as its impact dust would shade the sun’s light, killing plants on a global level and leaving the survivors to die of suffocation and starvation.

After satellites, the second problem for astronomy is local light pollution, which is growing faster than Earth’s human birth rate. Due to economic and technological development, cities everywhere are employing more and more lighting, which is why astronomer Richard Green of the University of Arizona Steward Observatory is alarmed. At this year’s Dark and Quiet Skies conference, he explained that “rapidly growing artificial skyglow is putting the world’s observatories under threat.” As looking into a flashlight makes it impossible to see what is beyond, ground-based observational astronomy is affected by bright lights from sports arenas, billboards, casinos, and security lighting—all products which symbolize modern-day advancement. This is a hit on more than just science: advocates to keep the skies quiet and dark say growing skyglow will affect star and astro tourism as complete industries fashioned around looking at the night sky are threatened.

Legally, there is not much that can be enforced until regulations emerge. A review of international law shows this is an issue between the launching countries and the countries whose astronomy is being obstructed. The current treaties include the Outer Space Treaty—which states that space is for all humankind; the Liability Convention—which holds accountable those who cause damages; and the Registration Convention—which makes the launching country responsible for the launchers. Although international law provides legal protection for countries to sue each other over scientific damages, it is not a practical course of action. Not only do cases at the International Court of Justice take over a decade to resolve, bickering between nations is a primordial answer, says Simonetta Di Pippo of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. She cautions that “it is not the time for unilateral actions when we are all affected by the challenges we face.” Before pursuing legal disputes, astronomers rallying to have a voice at the United Nations must focus on international awareness and on global support.

Part of this is the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s campaign to preserve the night sky and astronomical heritage of humanity. Supporting the endeavor is the Dark and Quiet Skies annual event sponsored by the International Astronomical Union and UNOOSA. The conference’s mission is to secure international space sustainability guidelines for the world to follow. Organizers are lobbying for the U.N. Committee On the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to start talking about ground-based astronomy as something that is in its jurisdiction. Oddly, astronomers are now forced to get involved in U.N. deliberations—a process which is not usually in their job description. But “without international regulation,” McDowell says, “there’s nothing stopping someone else from putting something worse up there.” The astronomy community must make a presence at the law-making table.

Nationally, the American government has the power to protect astronomy, as it does within the National Radio Quiet Zone in Green Bank, Virginia—a town where wi-fi, cell phones, and microwave ovens are illegal because they interfere with the radio frequency science being conducted there. However, the observatory is overseen by laws that are a “special case” and do not blanket all of U.S. astronomy. With Starlink, the question is whether expensive business attorneys are persuasively keeping lawmakers from preserving the night sky, or if the government values internet access more than pictures of outer space. This is highlighted in the 2015 Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, a law the U.S. Congress passed allowing companies to bypass bureaucratic “red tape,” encouraging them to emerge as space commerce leaders in remote sensing—satellites—and in space mining.

Whether big money or big government is winning has yet to be proven. But the conversation for saving the night sky is promising on other levels: many groups are supportive of regulation, and common interests have united the front. For example, not only is Light At Night bad for astronomy, according to doctors it is unhealthy for humans. The American Medical Association has announced that LAN is linked to mood disorders, obesity, diabetes, diminished performance, and to prostate and breast cancer. Also, improper lighting causes “nightglare” which creates nighttime driving disability in seniors due to changes in their eyes after age fifty. This can be remedied with better engineering of streetlights. Advocate groups are educating local authorities on the monetary savings from using lighting that does not illuminate the night sky—but instead lights downward the areas needed at night—and in lighting curfews and motion-sensor devices. Therefore, grassroots regulatory frameworks to reduce growth of light pollution are helping astronomy, and they are good for citizens; for skyglow and LAN, local and state municipalities are learning that it is healthier, more appealing, and less expensive to use efficient lighting.

Dark and Quiet Skies
Traditional Lighting vs Environment-Friendly Lighting / Credit: Dark and Quiet Skies

Another argument against LAN is that it damages the bio-environment. Sea turtle babies hatching on the Florida coastline, for example, instinctively crawl to the reflective nighttime ocean to find food and habitat, yet with bright oceanfront lighting they seek out the structures along the beach instead—residences and businesses—and die. Many species are suffering confusion, accidents, and illness as LAN grows. Not only is damage to biodiversity a human threat, as ecosystems are intertwined with human survival rates—but with satellite and light pollution, it is a question of space and environmentalism: to what extent is near-Earth space a part of the environment and already covered by environmental legislation? As a human rights issue, there is no international law making the night sky a heritage to humans. UNESCO, however, argues there should be as they declare natural resources, environmental sustainability, and freedom from pollution the birthright of future generations. The counterargument is that global internet could be viewed as a human right since it contains access to education, employment, and healthcare: items denoted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The question here becomes: which is a greater right to humanity? Stars or internet? The argument has legal earmarks on both sides.

Technologically, sharing the night sky with obstructions is not an easy solution. Funding and innovation are needed for software improvements, which can eliminate light trails in pictures, but the accuracy of the information will still be diminished—such as in determining the precise brightness of a star when a light streak has imposed itself on the take. “It can’t solve the problem, but it can make images look ‘less bad’,” says McDowell, who is an expert in dark sky light pollution. Advancements in hardware, on the other hand, can be fitted to large observatory telescopes to adapt a triggering shutter which closes for 5 seconds when a satellite goes by, but will be much more expensive than changes in software. McDowell does not believe technology will solve this issue—not only would it be grossly expensive—in the billions—to retrofit every telescope in the world, but it is also not the true answer. Technology will not help if there are satellites always coming at all sides. On this issue, talks between interested parties have opened and they have helped: “there are technical regulations that could limit the number of satellites of certain brightness, which is the compromise coming out in the long run,” says McDowell, “but it’s got to be something that the whole world decides, not just one company or one regulatory agency in the US.” For lasting change, balance on all sides will be key.

The constant study of the night sky is bound by the awe that comes from seeing things greater than one—to consider how miraculous life is, and to calculate for its continuance. “If humanity loses its cosmic perspective, we are lost,” wrote Derek McNally, a man who spent his life studying the night sky. Twenty-five years ago, he foresaw the dangers that would threaten his field and warned that something needed to be done before it was too late. Although moves are being made to help earth-bound astronomy survive, it will take a team of advocates across multiple disciplines to convince lawmakers that serious consequences are at hand and must be mitigated. Light pollution and satellite placement are more than a threat to ground-based astronomy, they are a security issue, a health issue, an environmental issue, and a humanitarian issue. “The real thing for us, says McDowell, as he Zooms in from a networking conference with satellite companies, “is to not have the night sky grossly changed based on the decisions of any one country.” He speaks like a true academic, and one who loves the stars enough to fight for access to them. The conversation to save ground-based astronomy has begun, and although it may find opposition before it finds a consensus, there are enough good arguments to reach a fair agreement.

Rebecca From Reno
Rebecca Schembri is a Social Science graduate student at Harvard University. Her concentration is in Space Diplomacy.
She is from Reno, Nevada, USA

Special thanks to Drs. Alissa J. Haddaji and Jonathan McDowell for interviews.

Sources available upon request: