Space was once a frontier only for governments. At the beginning of the space age in the 1950s, the Soviets and Americans held the keys to this promising new environment, a place that would eventually give rise to Earth observation satellites, new insights into our neighbour the Moon and stunning panoramas and science returned from Mars, Jupiter’s moons and worlds further afield.

With an ever-expanding circle of actors now in space, including more governments and private companies, the opportunity to contribute to this future has also been enriched. One part of this future is human exploration.

It always occurred to me that in many ways prisons are not dissimilar to future planetary stations, where the incarcerated have experience of confinement and the social conditions of isolation. I began an initiative, Life Beyond, with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), to give prisoners the opportunity to contribute to plans for the human future beyond the Earth.

Following a successful pilot scheme in Scottish prisons in 2016, it was possible to design a 4-week course that would give prisoners the opportunity to imagine how people might explore and settle other planets. In the first week, the prisoners learn about the place where they will build their station, such as the Moon or Mars. In this week, we also provide a prison library with a set of books about space exploration and ideas for planetary stations, which they can keep after the course. In the second week, armed with this newfound knowledge, the participants then consider how to build a station. How will they get oxygen, food and water? The learning sessions are steered by us at the University of Edinburgh, but the participants very much take the lead in designing their own stations and involvement in the course is voluntary. We usually have between 15 and 20 people take part. One of the thrilling aspects of this stage of the course if that participants can explore the full reach of their interests. The scientists and engineers among them can get into the detail of the station. The artists can paint and draw the base and our initiative has led to many new tunes from the musically inclined, including Martian blues music and lunar songs.

In the middle of the course there is a break of a few weeks, allowing the participants to get to work designing their station and pulling together their plans. In the third week of the course, each participant has to produce an artefact of exploration. This could be a diary entry, a poster to entice tourists or an historic timeline of the station. We have run creative writing contests where the participants write their first email home, having been deployed to their stations.

In the final week of the course, we consider the management of the station. How will it be run? Will it be democratic? How must people order themselves in a confined environment to be successful? In this last segment, the participants can use their own experiences in prison to consider how distant groups of humans might be organised.

The unknown future of humans beyond the Earth means that the field is wide open to the creative mind, and this lends space exploration and settlement to the prison environment as a vehicle to encourage a whole range of learning. Science, technology, writing skills, poetry, music and civic responsibilities have all come into the purview of the course.

At the end of this activity, we are keen to ensure that there is a tangible product. Although the learning experience is hopefully, in itself engaging for the participants, it helps when the whole programme has a direction and purpose. One of the endpoints is to publish a book. With light-touch editorship from our team at the University of Edinburgh, Life Beyond has so far resulted in two published books that we have produced in conjunction with the British Interplanetary Society. Life Beyond – from Prison to Mars and its follow-up book From Prison to the Moon, contain the station designs, artwork and writing from their efforts, with any proceeds going to space education projects. We distribute these books to space organisations and agencies, providing the participants with a real sense of making a solid contribution. One copy of the book was signed off by astronauts at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) and sent back to the participants.

Those who find themselves incarcerated sometimes have negative views of education and we have found that this exercise – to go from no (or little) knowledge of a subject to producing a book has a profoundly positive effect on the participants’ views of education.

As the course has advanced, we have been able to expand on the depth of the educational experience. Those who took part in previous iterations have engaged in peer-to-peer teaching. Two participants developed a workbook that can be filled in by participants during the course to contribute to their Personal Development Awards, which include ‘Self in Community’ and ‘Self and Work’, thus integrating the activity into more formal education goals in prison. We are currently writing additional workbooks for teachers with resources, information on other planetary bodies, and slides, which will allow anyone teaching in prisons to set up such a course themselves without needing prior knowledge of space exploration. The existing books that we have published can also provide a resource to build upon.

We don’t know when humans will eventually build permanent stations on the Moon or Mars. However, regardless of when it happens, it offers a tremendously exciting vision of human society and its potential. In that sense, engaging people in imagining this future is an extraordinarily powerful way of involving anyone in shaping ideas about society. Nowhere is this truer than in prisons. The Life Beyond project demonstrates that from behind the confines of a prison you can direct humanity to the stars.