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In Defense of Space Tourism for Billionaires

photograph of astronaut sitting on surface of foreign planet at dawn

It is a powerful reminder of wealth inequality. It serves no direct scientific purpose. Yet, the billionaire class’s space tourism venture is cause for celebration.

Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and the richest man in the world, is heading to space today. Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, also multi-billionaires, have reservations for future spaceflights. This news has largely been met with a mix of amusement and negative moral judgment. Admittedly, it seems immoral for billionaires to spend large sums on the frivolity of space tourism while, here on Earth, there is such great need for their financial resources. A “fun trip to space,” our own A.G. Holdier writes, could “fully pay two years of tuition for thirty-three students at community college.”

This kind of consequentialist argument seems fairly convincing. Between the two options, it seems like community college would surely produce the better outcome. So, it seems like the moral choice. But a closer examination of this argument yields a more complicated picture.

Within consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is the best-known version), there are both “maximizing” and “non-maximizing” consequentialists. Each view suggests a different moral verdict on space tourism for billionaires.

Let’s start with non-maximizing consequentialism. According to this view, for our actions to be morally permissible, they must simply be good enough. Imagine all the good consequences of an action, and all the bad. The world is incredibly causally complex, and our actions have consequences that ripple out for days, months, and even years. Presumably, then, every action will have some good consequences and some bad ones. Non-maximizing consequentialists say that an action is permissible if it produces more good consequences than bad ones. Or, more precisely, it claims that an action is permissible if it produces a good enough ratio of good consequences to bad ones. In other words, there’s a threshold level that divides moral actions from immoral ones, and that the goodness of the action’s consequences determines which side of the threshold the action lands. On this view, the moral question is: does billionaire space tourism fall above or below this threshold?

Most of us seem to think that, with a few exceptions, ordinary tourism is generally above the threshold of moral permissibility. After all, every dollar spent is also a dollar earned. Tourism, besides being an enjoyable and enriching experience for the tourist, also creates jobs and income, and thereby reduces poverty and raises education and healthcare outcomes. Those all seem like good consequences that often compensate for the (e.g., environmental) costs.

In similar fashion, space tourism also generates jobs and income in the growing space industry. Like traditional tourism, it has certain environmental costs (a rocket launch releases about as much CO2 as flying a Boeing 777 across the Atlantic Ocean). The consequences of space tourism are largely comparable, in other words, to other forms of tourism.

Unlike other forms of tourism, however, space tourism has a morally significant added benefit: strengthening humanity’s capacity for space exploration. Given the choice between a billionaire funding the design, manufacture, and development of spacecraft and buying another luxury beachside holiday house, the former is surely preferable. Since space tourism produces a similar (or perhaps even superior) cost/benefit ratio to traditional tourism, that suggests that space tourism has a similar moral status. And most people seem to think that moral status is permissible.

A maximizing consequentialist has a different theory about the moral permissibility of actions. According to this view, any action that fails to produce the best possible outcome is morally impermissible. A maximizing consequentialist may accept that space tourism has largely the same consequences, or perhaps even somewhat better consequences, as compared with traditional tourism. All this shows, according to the maximizing consequentialist, is that they are both immoral; there’s much better ways to spend those sums of money — sixty-six years of community college for example!

But if producing the best consequences is what morality demands, then why should we stop at community college? Sure, that seems like a better way of spending money than sending a rich guy to space (and back). But we could instead spend that $250,000 a seat in the rocket capsule costs on the most effective international aid charities and save 50-83 lives. What’s more important? Reducing the student debt burden for thirty-three (disproportionately well-educated) people in the world, or saving 50-83 people’s lives? The argument against billionaires funding space tourism, it seems, works equally well against billionaires funding community college tuition.

The maximizing consequentialist position is now beginning to look extremely morally demanding. Indeed, even donating to moderately effective charities looks morally impermissible if we have the option of donating to the most effective ones. On this view, billionaire space tourism is indeed immoral because it fails to produce the best possible consequences. But that is a fairly uninteresting conclusion, given that this view also entails that just about everything we do is immoral. And this suggests there’s nothing particularly immoral about billionaire space tourism.

Of course, consequentialist moral arguments are not the only game in town. For example, A.G. Holdier provides a non-consequentialist argument against billionaire space tourism here. According to Holdier’s Aristotelian argument, we ought to focus more closely on the moral characters of those who would spend such large sums (of their enormous wealth) on something like space tourism instead of, for example, philanthropic causes. The sort who would do this, his argument suggests, are “simply not good people.” Someone who exhibited the Aristotelian virtues of “liberality” and “magnificence” would know how to use their money in the right kinds of way and at the right kind of scale. They would not spend it on “a fleeting, personal experience” while keeping it from “others who might need it for more important matters.”

While Holdier makes a strong case that Aristotle would condemn the space billionaires’ characters, I am less confident that he would condemn their spaceflights. On Aristotle’s account, our upbringing and life experiences contribute greatly to our character development and our acquisition of the virtues. Not everyone gets the right circumstances and experiences to fully develop the virtues, but the lucky few do.

The “Overview Effect” is an oft-reported and now well-studied effect of viewing the Earth from space. It is best summarized as a profound and enduring cognitive shift. Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, described the effect of seeing Earth from space as follows:

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Ronald Garan described a similar shift:

“I was really almost immediately struck with a sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet on one hand and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet, for a significant portion of its inhabitants on the other hand.”

Yuri Gargarin, Scott Kelly and Chris Hadfield are among numerous astronauts who reported the same profound and lasting shift in their worldview upon looking back on Earth from space. Central to the effect is the sense that the world and humanity are a valuable whole that must be cared for and protected. If we really want these incredibly powerful individuals to do more for our planet and for humanity, indeed if we want their characters to improve, for them to become more virtuous, we should be cheering them all the way to their capsules — for their sake as well as for ours.

Space: The Immoral Frontier?

photograph of starry night in the woods

Space exploration has been all over the news this year, mostly because of billionaires racing to send their rockets and egos into orbit. This cold war between geek superpowers – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson – is a bonfire of vanities. The obvious moral critiques have been made (here, here, here, et cetera, ad nauseam caelorum). Petitions have even been signed to deny them re-entry into our atmosphere.

Despite such criticisms, the public remains strongly supportive of our collective investment in space. According to a recent C-SPAN poll, 71% of Americans think that space exploration is “necessary.” A similar Pew poll found that 72% of Americans deemed it “essential” for the United States to continue to be a leader in space exploration. In our age of polarization, this is quite a consensus. But I suspect the view is wrong. I suspect that space is the immoral frontier.

I’m not suggesting that we should pull the plug on all extraterrestrial investment. Life as we presently know it would come to a standstill without satellites. I am, however, suggesting that it is no easy task to justify our spending another pretty penny in putting a human being on the moon or Mars or any other clump of space dirt. It seems to me that before we set out for other planets, we should first learn to live sustainably on the one we presently inhabit.

Most people would probably agree with me that humanity must learn to dwell on our present planet without destroying it. But they probably also think that we – or at least the Bezos crowd – should throw some money at space exploration. Four arguments have been frequently given in support of this view. Let’s consider each in turn:

The Capabilities Argument

When JFK pitched the Apollo program to the American people, he argued: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” This is surely not the full reason for the Apollo program, but it was part of it. The mission summoned all of our capabilities as human beings. It gave us the chance to see what we as a people and species could achieve.

This argument reflects a “capability approach” to ethical theory. According to that approach, our actions are morally right to the extent to which they help us realize our human capabilities, and especially our most valuable ones. Making friends is one such valuable capability, throwing frisbees less so. JFK’s argument reflects this capability approach insofar as it holds that space exploration is worth doing because it helps us realize our most valuable capabilities as human beings. It demands that we bring out “the best of our energies and skills.”

Realizing our capabilities may very well be an important part of the good human life. But must we realize our capabilities by sending a few astronauts to space? Are there not countless other ways for us to be our best selves?

The Eco Argument

Some will say that space exploration promotes precisely the kind of environmental awareness that we need to cultivate. Sending people to space and having them share their experiences in word and image reaffirms our reverence for the planet and our responsibility to protect it. When Richard Branson held his post-flight press conference, he made this very point: “The views are breathtaking…We are so lucky to have this planet that we all live on…We’ve got to all be doing everything we can do to help this incredible planet we live on.”

The Eco Argument has a bit of history on its side. The photograph “Earthrise” (below), taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, helped spark today’s environmental movement.

The photograph is undoubtedly beautiful, and its influence undoubtedly significant. But should we really keep shelling out billions for such pictures when a sunrise photo taken from Earth, at a fraction of the cost, might do comparably well? Moreover, a sense of reverence is not the only reaction that photographs like “Earthrise” provoke. As philosopher Hannah Arendt already observed in The Human Condition (1958), such photos can just as easily prompt a sense of relief that we have taken our first step “toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And that invites laxity. If the scientists will save us, why worry? In this way space exploration produces marketing collateral that is double-edged: it can deepen our appreciation for the planet just as much as promise an escape hatch.

The Innovation Argument

A second argument is that we should invest in space exploration because it promotes technological innovation. Without NASA, we wouldn’t have LEDs, dust busters, computer mice, or baby formula. Even if a space mission fails, those invented byproducts are worth the investment.

This Innovation Argument is also nearly as old as space exploration itself. We heard it from Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, who got together to inform other “city dudes and country cousins” that space research has given us medical imaging technology and other life-saving devices. This is no doubt true, and we should be grateful that it is. But Frank and Willie do not give us any reason to think that space research is especially well-suited to producing technological innovation. Most of the great inventions of the past century have had absolutely zilch to do with outer space.

The argument becomes even weaker when we recognize that the technological innovations generated by space exploration are often quite difficult for poorer communities to access – and particularly so for communities of color. I can do no better than quote Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” (1970):

“I can’t pay no doctor bills.

But Whitey’s on the moon.

Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.

While Whitey’s on the moon.”

Medical imaging is life-saving, but not so much for those who can’t afford it. Might we be better off providing affordable (dare I say free?) healthcare before investing in more space gizmos?

The Insurance Argument

Back in October 2018, Elon Musk tweeted:

“About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth & half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves”

This, in a nutshell, is the Insurance Argument: let’s invest in space exploration so that we can be sure to have an escape hatch, just in case of a meteor strike or nuclear fallout.

This is an argument that seasoned philosophers have also offered. Brian Patrick Green, an expert in space ethics (with a forthcoming book so titled), has been making a version of this argument since at least 2015 (even on CNN). It is quite plausible. Every building has an emergency exit. Shouldn’t we have an emergency exit for the planet we live on? Just in case?

It’s a compelling line of thought – until we consider a few facts. Mars is hands-down the most hospitable planet that astronauts can reach within a lifetime of space travel. But Mars is freezing. At its balmy best, during the summer, at the equator, Mars can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. But at night it drops to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s little surprise that when Kara Swisher asked Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, if she wanted to live in outer space, Diana immediately answered “No!!!” We humans were made to live on planet Earth, and there’s no place like home.

If an asteroid slams against our planet, we will likely go the way of the majestic dinosaurs. But are we sad that velociraptors aren’t prowling the streets? I certainly am not. Should we really be sad at the prospect of our ceasing to exist? Maybe. But we probably should get used to it. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius was on to something:

“Life is given to no one for ownership, to all for temporary use. Look back at how the past ages of eternity before our birth are nothing to us. In this way nature holds up a mirror for us of the time that will come after our death. Does anything then seem frightening? Does it seem sad to anyone? Does it not appear more serene than all of sleep?”

We cannot escape death or extinction. So perhaps we should stop allocating resources on moonshots for the few, at the expense of the poor. And perhaps we should instead invest in those who are in greatest need. They deserve a life befitting a human being — a life of dignity in a safe community with access to education, medicine, and a chance to marvel at the starry skies above.

Should We Return to the Moon?

photograph of the surface of the moon (half)

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, the first time humans ever set foot on the lunar surface. But December 11 will mark 48 years since the last time humans took a step on the astronomical body. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstone called it “sad” that we have not returned. Is it time to go back?

The Apollo program, which spanned from 1960 to 1973, landed six crews successfully on the surface of the Moon. It cost a total $28 billion at the time, or the equivalent of $288 billion today; undoubtedly a colossal investment. The concerns of how to finance a return has hampered any serious development of another program. But it does not appear that another crewed lunar program would cost as much now.

Currently, the United States plans to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024. In June of this year, Bridenstone, estimated that returning to the Moon would cost between $20 and $30 billion, on top of the amount already spent on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. Still, this amount constitutes a fraction of the cost of the Apollo program in today’s dollars and a fraction of one percent of the overall federal budget. For context, the U.S. spent $623 billion on defense and $639 billion on non-defense programs in 2018 alone.

Even so, some may argue that space programs and endeavors beyond our planet are impractical. The case could be made that those resources, however small relative to overall government spending, should be put to use on our home planet rather than its moon or neighboring planets. Why explore uninhabited territories in space when existing communities back home are in need of improvement and care?

The original motivation for sending humans to the Moon may have been political in nature, with the Soviet Union and the U.S. jockeying for position during the mid-twentieth century. Even John F. Kennedy expressed that he had little interest in going to the moon for the sake of space exploration. Regardless of his genuine feelings on the matter, President Kennedy sought to demonstrate the more intangible value of travelling to the Moon in a now-famous speech given at Rice University. He posited that space was an opportunity to start anew: 

“I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours,” he said. “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.” 

Indeed, the hostile conditions of space and the strenuous nature of voyages in space are not isolated to any particular country or creed. His sentiment suggests not only that it is the harshness of this endeavor that can unify a people in overcoming the obstacles space presents, but also that space is unvarnished by the ills of society and the sins of humans. Out there in space, a clean slate awaits humanity.

But President Kennedy anticipated the opposition to his proposal, saying: “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” 

We choose to go to the Moon because it is hard. This attitude rests on a motivation to display the will and capacity of humans. In voyaging to the Moon, Kennedy would argue, we are showing each other the heights of what we are capable of. What is the value of exploring beyond our home planet? To test our limits, some may argue.

But at the time of President Kennedy’s speech, humans leaving bootprints on the lunar surface was merely an aspirational dream; it would not become a reality for another seven years. Perhaps, the motivation was more understandable then than now. 

Now, in 2019, we know we are capable of travelling to and landing on the Moon. We have done it seven times. No longer does a curiosity about our capabilities with regard to lunar travel compel a return. As a writer in The Economist points out, the Moon landing served as ameans of signalling America’s extraordinary capabilities,” a point that, once made, “required no remaking.”

Additionally, the astronauts gained an abundance of important and helpful knowledge during their expeditions. The potential of knowledge to be gained from unexplored locations may remain, but does the Moon, specifically, have any more to offer? 

The Moon does have one thing to offer that we did not know of before: ice. Ice has been discovered deep within polar craters, which could provide drinking water and breathable air. This potential of water, air, and even rocket fuel would make developing a sustained presence on the Moon more realistic.

Yet the discovery of ice is not a reason to return but rather a reason to be hopeful of maintaining astronauts on the Moon. It does not answer the fundamental question of this debate: Should we go back to the Moon? Maybe the ethos has changed since President Kennedy’s speech. Maybe now the motivation has become: we can; therefore, we should.

Jupiter’s New Companion

Late on July 4th, NASA tweeted that their space probe, Juno, successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit after five years and 1.7 billion miles of travel. Juno is the first spacecraft to reach Jupiter since Galileo in 1995. The probe broke multiple records during its journey, including fastest man-made object at 165,000 miles per hour, and farthest solar-powered spacecraft from Earth. Juno more than broke the 492-million-mile record held by the Rosetta mission.

Continue reading “Jupiter’s New Companion”