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The Cosmic Horror of HP Lovecraft and Sgr A*

telescopic image of black hole

Astronomers at the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration recently released the first picture of Sagittarius A*, the monstrous black hole residing at our galaxy’s core. Given that the distance between the Earth and this cosmological object is roughly 26,000 light-years (or 152,844,259,702,773,792 miles), the image’s production is a remarkable scientific and technological achievement. While Sgr A*, as it is affectionately known, weighs 4 million times the mass of our sun, it is only 17 times its size. This combination of mass and size results in gravitational forces strong enough to shape the entire Milky Way galaxy and warp existence itself – bending space, altering the flow of time, and preventing even light from escaping.

This isn’t the first time the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration has produced such an awesome image.

In 2019, the array captured the very first image of a black hole. This one, named M87*, resides in the center of another galaxy roughly 500 million light-years away (or 2,939,312,686,591,800,000,000 miles). With a mass 6.5 billion times that of our sun and measuring over 23 billion miles across, M87* dwarfs Sgr A*. For a sense of scale, the distance from the Sun to Neptune, the most distant planet in our solar system, is 3 billion miles. Indeed, this M87* is thought to be one of the largest black holes in existence.

These objects’ sheer scale and weight, alongside their distance from us, defy comprehension. And while black holes are undoubtedly unique celestial objects, much of the universe plays out on an equally impressive scale. Planets, galaxies, stars, and quasars, amongst numerous other cosmological objects, exist on geographical and temporal scales far beyond anything on Earth. Asking someone to comprehend a single object vastly larger than our entire solar system is to ask them to conceive of the inconceivable.

We’re just not evolved to think about reality in such grand terms. As corporeal beings, limited to a single planet and a single lifetime, we think in human terms; we’re geared to understand the universe on our scale.

But regardless of this predisposition, the universe is beyond vast. The cosmic scale on which existence plays out makes everything that’s occurred here on Earth, from the first hints of life to you reading this sentence, seem infinitesimally small in comparison. Existence’s sheer unassailability can fill the heart with dread as it means that the universe is, by its nature, incomprehensible. That is, as limited, mortal beings, the overwhelming majority of existence will forever be home to the unknowable and the unknown, and nothing stokes fear like the unknown.

This fear, and specifically its emergence from the universe’s vast and uncaring nature, was a central theme in the fiction of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, AKA HP Lovecraft. Indeed, many of his most famous stories – The Shadow over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and Colour out of Space – concern a small group of persons wrestling with their insignificance in the face of a vastly uncaring universe. While his fiction features creatures literally beyond comprehension (just seeing some of them drives characters into insanity), these beings always function as embodiments of the irrefutable fact that our fleeting lives mean less than nothing in the grand terms of space and time.

As Lovecraft writes in the opening to arguably his most famous work, The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Many philosophies and religions focus on humanity. They ascribe to us some vital place in God’s design, use rationality to construct a coherent worldview, or provide frameworks according to which we can understand right and wrong. But Lovecraft sought to set the scope of his philosophy, known as Cosmicism, beyond our limited mortal perspective. For him, there is simply so much out there in the universe that has nothing to do with us. For humanity to try and come to grips with reality in its entirety is to attempt an impossible task, one that would shatter our minds if even partially achieved. Cosmicism highlights that while things may matter to us on a human scale, this scale is meaningless compared to reality’s vastness. In other words, while things matter to us, ultimately, we don’t matter.

This realization may strike readers, even atheistic ones, as inherently bleak.

While one can grapple with the idea that existence is godless and that meaning is self-created, that is a very different thing from saying the universe, by its very constitution, is geared against our continued existence due to its utter indifference; much like how a boot is geared against the existence of an ant.

But such an upsetting outcome need not be the only takeaway from Cosmicism. One can read Lovecraft’s works, contemplate existence’s vast and uncaring nature, and be even more thankful for the beauty in our lives. If contradictions and comparisons enhance qualities and characteristics – if good is only good when compared to bad, if hot is only hot when compared to cold – then the earthly things that bring meaning to people’s lives might be even more meaningful when we acknowledge how much of a miracle it is that they exist in the first place. When objects exist, like black holes, that could tear apart the planet in less than a moment, the fact that our meager mortal lives occur as they do seems even more miraculous.

The fact that there is a single, small, blue ball floating in the blackness of space and time, where beauty and meaning (even if that is only according to human standards) can be found amongst existence’s indifferent gaze, should temper our fear of the endless well of the universe… if only a little.

The Artemis Accords: A New Race to Dominate Space

image of American flag superimposed over the moon

We are on the verge of a new space age – the age of New Space. Unlike the space race of the Cold War era – starting with the 1957 launch, by the U.S.S.R, of Sputnik, the first human-made object in space, and culminating in the U.S. Apollo moon mission and the 1969 moon landing – in which the competitors were national space agencies, this new space age is being driven in a large part by billionaires, private space corporations and commercial business ventures. It will be characterized by the onset of space tourism, mining of the moon, asteroids and other planets and, in all likelihood, habitation of space and colonization of other planets and celestial bodies.

Alongside the well-rehearsed justifications for space exploration – of scientific discovery, furthering or fulfilling the destiny of humankind, perhaps extending the reach and viability of the human species in off-world or inter-planetary habitats – this new era will be sustained and driven by motivations of profit and resource extraction.

All these fast approaching space activities throw-up significant ethical challenges. How would space habitats be governed? Who should get to own and profit from space resources? What are the implications of the increasing use of satellite technology, and how can we prevent the militarization of space? What environmental issues do we need to be aware of – such as forwards and backwards contamination (causing changes to space environments by introducing terrestrial matter or to Earth environments from extra-terrestrial matter)? How do we understand concepts of ownership, sovereignty and heritage in relation to space?

The ethical implications of all kinds of activities in space are not just important for astronauts, space tourists, or future inhabitants of new colonies, but are important for the vast majority of humans who will never go into space; that is to say, for ‘all humankind’.

Legal scholars and space law experts recognize the current regime of international space law needs updating. The privatization and commercialization of space is one of the most significant issues the international community will face in coming years, and there is urgent need for regulation and policy to catch up.

The U.S. government is moving to shape the (United Nations sponsored) international space regime in a mold that is favorable to commercial activity – through domestic law as well as by spearheading a series of international agreements known as the Artemis Accords.

Artemis is the sister of Apollo – and the mission of NASA’s newest lunar program is sending humans back to the moon for exploration, and then (as it becomes possible) sending astronauts to Mars. It seems clear that the program increases the likelihood of resource extraction and eventual habitation.

The Artemis Accords are a series of bilateral agreements the U.S. signed in 2020 with a select few nations it wishes to partner with in space (including the U.K., U.A.E., Japan, Italy, Canada and Australia), and are designed to advance NASA’s Artemis Program. Though they are under the aegis of NASA, these accords clearly have implications for commercial space ventures. The accords enshrine the core principle that “space resource extraction and utilization can and will be conducted under the auspices of the Outer Space Treaty.”

Essentially, the Accords are an attempt to secure an interpretation of the 1969 Outer Space Treaty (OST) that will allow activities of “space resource extraction” which are not universally acknowledged or agreed to. To understand why some are concerned, how the Artemis Accords stand in relation to other important space treaties – in particular, the OST and the Moon Agreement – must be appreciated.

First of the five core space treaties, the OST was signed in 1969 by the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. at the height of Cold War tensions, amid fervid space technology competition, and was drawn up under the auspices of the UN as a way of preventing the militarization of space. (In this it has not entirely succeeded.) The OST is the foundation of the international space regime which sets out the most fundamental principles of space exploration and use, and its basic tenets are reflected in policies adopted by the international community to govern human activities in space.

Article One states:

“The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” (My italics.)

Article Two states:

“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” (My italics.)

So the basis for all international space law, from its inception, was an agreement which essentially ruled out ownership of space environments by nations or individuals, including the moon, planets, or other celestial bodies.

The Moon Agreement – fifth of the five core space treaties, opened for signatures in 1979 – was drawn up largely by non-spacefaring states. It was an attempt to strengthen the terms of these principles of the OST, and to protect against the possibility that dominant space actors could claim (and benefit exclusively from) space resources, without any accountability to, or input from, smaller and less capable states.

Neither the U.S., nor any other major space-faring nation, has signed the Moon Agreement, giving it very little power to influence New Space activity. The reason: the Moon Agreement goes a step further by designating space as “the common heritage” as well as “the province of all mankind.” This principle holds in place two important provisions of the Moon Agreement which made it unpalatable to powerful spacefaring nations.

Article Four states:

“The exploration and use of the moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.” (My italics.)

And Article Eleven, which states that the moon’s resources cannot be the property of any state or non-state entity or person, goes on to stipulate that parties to the agreement “establish an international regime… to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon…”

Essentially the Moon Agreement is a treaty in which less powerful countries sought to secure space resources as a kind of global commons that would benefit everyone. However, the implication that this joint claim might entail an equitable sharing of space resources and benefits more broadly, was enough to deter major space players from endorsing the spirit and the letter of the agreement.

Instead, via the Artemis Accords, the U.S. is now seeking bilateral consensus to advance an interpretation of “the province of all mankind” that rejects that which the Moon Agreement tried to secure. Specifically, the accords push an interpretation in which resource extraction does not violate the prohibition on national sovereignty or individual ownership in space. (Section 10 of the Artemis Accords says: “…the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty…”)

In contrast to the global commons approach, the U.S., and other spacefaring states, are taking a dominance approach. There has been some backgrounding on this in U.S. domestic law. In 2015 Congress passed the Space Launch Competitiveness Act – stating that any U.S. citizen or corporation shall be entitled to “possess, own, transport, use and sell any space resource obtained in accordance with applicable laws.”

And a U.S. Presidential executive order signed by Donald Trump in 2020 more or less kills off the spirit of the Moon Agreement. The Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, 2020 makes clear that the U.S., including private or corporate interests operating under its flag, does not consider outer space to be a ‘global commons’.

All this clearly reflects the huge political and monetary inequalities existent in the world. In international law, as in other areas of law, gestures to universality, objectivity, and neutrality are spurious, because, despite pretensions to be otherwise, the law reflects the power imbalances within a society, and international law reflects them across the globe.

Space law is a relatively new field, and at present it functions as a species of international law, through treaties and international agreements. Space Law specialist Cassandra Steer writes: “Treaties, though negotiated in a multilateral setting, are always a result of political give and take, and the states who can leverage their power the most take more than they give.” As Steer argues, “There is no equality between countries, despite the notion of formal equality as a value underpinning international law.” Similarly, there is no equal access to space, nor equal distribution of the benefits derived from space. Despite the promise of the OST, space is far from being “the province of all mankind.”

As we enter the New Space era an updated international legal regime is needed; a regime which is robust enough to bring domestic law into harmony with international obligations and treaties, and one which is geared towards managing the new, commercial uses of space as a frontier for private enterprise. This needs to happen before the horse bolts.

The size of this task can’t be underestimated. It requires a collaborative effort to revisit and carefully reflect upon fundamental ethical concepts of value and equity and justice.

This includes thinking about how to share resources by revisiting questions of claim, ownership, and sovereignty in space. It means thinking about what intrinsic value space environments might have, and what ways we think it is important to protect them. It involves considering questions of heritage and it involves thinking about rights in terms of resources that are finite, such as the use of near-Earth orbit which is already experiencing extremely high volumes of satellite traffic.

Given that the terrestrial environment is facing catastrophe from climate change and ecological destruction, which is itself an outcome of resource depletion from rapacious capitalist activity, I think we, as a global community, should work to prevent such impulses from dominating our ventures beyond this world as well.

And like many things that feel urgent in this time of rapid change, we must do it soon or it will be too late.

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.

The Aristotelian Vulgarity of Billionaires in Space

photograph of Blue Origin shuttle takeoff

On July 11th, billionaire Sir Richard Branson (net worth: ≈$5,400,000,000) made history by becoming the first human to partially self-fund his own trip into space. An investor and entrepreneur who rose to fame after founding Virgin Records, Branson eventually expanded that enterprise into an airline, a passenger rail company, and — possibly in the relatively near future — a space tourism business. With a current price point of about $250,000 (and predictions that the price might nearly double), a ticket to space with Branson’s Virgin Galactic will cost roughly the same amount as the total annual grocery bill for 53 average U.S. families. A host of celebrities, including Tom Hanks (net worth: ≈$400,000,000), Lady Gaga (net worth: ≈$320,000,000), and billionaire Elon Musk (net worth: ≈$168,700,000,000) have already reserved their seats.

Recently, Carlo DaVia argued here that space exploration is, in general, morally impermissible (given the host of terrestrial problems that remain below the stratosphere). In March, Senator Bernie Sanders (net worth: ≈$1,800,000) criticized Musk (whose company is developing a space program of its own and whose personal wealth exceeds the GDP of 159 countries) for prioritizing interstellar tourism at the expense of ignoring needy families, telling the tech mogul that we should instead “focus on Earth.” (Musk’s reply was a textbook example of what DaVia calls the “Insurance” argument.) To make the kind of moral judgment Sanders is invoking, we could weigh the expected utility for “a fun trip to space” against the number of unhoused or uninsured people that the same amount of money could help. Or we could consider the duties we might have to our fellows and prioritize paying two years of tuition for thirty-three students at a community college instead of choosing to experience four minutes of weightlessness.

But Aristotle would say something different: billionaires who spend their money to take themselves to space are simply not good people.

While such a conclusion might sound similar to the other kinds of judgments mentioned above, Aristotle’s concern for human virtue (as opposed to, say, utility-maximization or respect for creaturely dignity) grounds this moral assessment in a fundamentally different, and also more basic, place. Rather than concentrating on the morality of a choice, Aristotle is persistently focused on the character of the person making that choice; insofar as your choices offer a window into your character, Aristotle believes them useful as potential evidence for a more comprehensive assessment, but it is always and only the latter that really matters when making ethical judgments.

Virtues, then, are the kinds of positive character traits that allow a human to live the best kind of life that humans qua humans can live; vices are, more or less, the opposite. Notably, Aristotle identifies that most, if not all, virtues are opposed by two vices: a deficiency and an excess. Just as the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ demonstrates, it is not only bad to have too little of a good thing, but it can be equally bad to have too much — real virtue, to Aristotle, is a matter of threading the needle to find the “Golden Mean” (or average) between each extreme. Consider a virtue like “courage” — when someone lacks courage, then they demonstrate the vice of “cowardice,” but when they have too much courage, they may possess the vice of “rashness.” On Aristotle’s model, learning how to live an ethical life is a matter of cultivating your habits such that you aptly demonstrate the right amount of each virtuous character trait.

In Book Four of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies at least two virtuous character traits that are relevant for thinking about billionaires in space: what he calls “liberality” and “magnificence.” Both are related to how a good person spends their money, with the first relating “to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving.” As he explains in NE IV.1, a good/virtuous person is someone who “will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for he will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all the other qualifications that accompany right giving.” Importantly, a good person will not spend their money begrudgingly or reluctantly, but will do so “with pleasure or without pain.” To lack this virtue is to have what Aristotle calls the vice of “meanness” (or caring too much about one’s wealth such that you never spend it, even to pay for things on which it should be spent); to have this virtue in excess is to be what he calls a “prodigal” (or a person who persistently spends more money on things than they rightly deserve).

So, while it might seem like Branson, Musk and others could be exhibiting prodigality insofar as they are spending exorbitant amounts of money on a fleeting, personal experience (or, perhaps, displaying meanness by stubbornly refusing to give that money to others who might need it for more important matters), Aristotle would point out that this might not be the most relevant factor to consider. It is indeed possible for a billionaire to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an orbital trip while also donating large sums of money to charity (Branson, in particular, is well-known for his philanthropic work), thereby complicating a simple “yes/no” judgment about a person’s character on this single metric alone.

But this is precisely where the Aristotelian virtue of magnificence becomes important. While many of the virtues that Aristotle discusses (like courage, patience, and truthfulness) are familiar to contemporary thoughts on positive character traits, others (like wittiness or shame) might sound odd to present-day ears — Aristotelian magnificence is in this second category. According to Aristotle, the virtuous person will not only give their money away in the right manner (thereby demonstrating liberality), but will also specifically spend large sums of money in a way that is artistic and in good taste. This can happen in both public and private contexts (though Aristotle primarily gives examples pertaining to the financing of public festivals in NE IV.2) — what matters is that the virtuous person displays her genuine greatness (as a specimen of humanity) by appropriately displaying her wealth (neither falling prey to the deficiency of “cheapness” or the excess of “vulgarity”). Wealthy people who lack magnificence will spend large sums of money to attract attention to themselves as wealthy people, putting on gaudy displays that are ultimately wasteful and pretentious; virtuous people will spend large sums of money wisely to appropriately benefit others and display the already-true reality of their own virtuousness.

So, when Aristotle describes the “vulgar” person as someone who “where he ought to spend much he spends little and where little, much,” he might well look to Virgin Galactic’s founder and soon-to-be customers as people lacking the kind of good taste relevant to virtuous magnificence. Such outlandish displays of extravagant wealth (such as the would-be tourist who paid a different company the non-refundable sum of $28,000,000 to ride to space, but then canceled their plans, citing “scheduling conflicts”) fail to meet Aristotle’s expectation that the magnificent person “will spend such sums for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.2).

Ultimately, this means that Aristotle can side-step debates over the relative usefulness of space travel versus philanthropy or deductive analyses of the moral obligations relevant for the ultra-wealthy to instead speak simply about how such choices reflect back upon the character of the person making them. For a contrasting example, consider MacKenzie Scott; since divorcing billionaire Jeff Bezos (net worth: $212,400,000,000) in 2019, Scott has donated over $8,500,000,000 to a wide range of charities and non-profit organizations. Asking whether or not Scott was morally required or otherwise obligated to make such donations is, on Aristotle’s view, beside the point: her choice to spend her money in noble ways is instead indicative of a good character.

Meanwhile, Scott’s ex-husband is scheduled to make a space flight of his own tomorrow.

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.

Ethical Concerns About Space Mining

image of asteroid in deep space

It was a big news day in Canada last month as it was announced that, thanks to an agreement on the Artemis program, a Canadian astronaut will join the United States on the first crewed mission to the moon scheduled to take place in just a few years. While the Canadian government was happy to note that this will mean that Canada will be only the second country to have an astronaut in deep space, the efforts to return to the moon are not driven only in the interests of science and discovery. This may be only a first step towards mining in space and that prospect raises ethical concerns.

The Artemis program followed the signing of Space Policy Directive 1 which calls for the United States to return humans to the moon for “long-term exploration and utilization.” Since then, in collaboration with private companies and international partners, missions have been scheduled for crewed missions in just under three years. While much of the program is scientific in nature and is being led by NASA, part of the program includes the Artemis Accords which have been signed by several nations and which outline some guidelines for the mining of space resources. According to the accord, the signatories affirmed various guidelines for the “extraction and utilization of space resources.”

According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, no nation may claim ownership of the moon or other celestial body. Space shall be free for exploration and use by all signatories. The Moon Treaty of 1979, drafted by the United Nations states that the Moon is a common heritage of humans and harvesting its resources is forbidden except by an international regime. It also bans any ownership of extraterrestrial property by a private organization. However, the United States, Russia, and China have not ratified it. Instead, in 2015 the United States passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act which explicitly allows private corporations to engage in commercial exploitation of space resources even while avoiding asserting sovereignty over a celestial body. In April of this year, Trump signed an executive order encouraging space mining with it noting, “it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space.”

The moon, in addition to several other space objects, contains minerals which can be extremely valuable in space and on Earth. Some of these are difficult to get on Earth and are located mostly in places like China, Russia, and Congo. For example, the moon is estimated to have more helium-3 than Earth and has several uses, including a possible use as fuel for nuclear fusion. The moon also contains lithium, titanium, aluminum, cobalt, silicon, and other important minerals. Materials like these can be useful for building everything from medical equipment to electric cars which can help with environmental problems. In space, such materials can be used for making things like rocket fuel and solar panels.

There are several reasons why such mining can be beneficial. As mentioned, there are plenty of materials that could be enormously helpful for further space exploration. Bringing material like rocket fuel from Earth is expensive, and while the costs have dropped in price in recent years, it will be cheaper if materials can be sourced from space itself for projects like the planned Lunar Gateway and for missions to Mars. A big reason why the costs of space travel have come down is owing to the investment of private companies. Greater private investment into mining may make the costs even cheaper over time, and this may allow for more efforts at scientific exploration and experimentation. It can also be of benefit on Earth as many of these materials can be used in medical technology.

Another important reason for the Artemis Accords is that the laws and treaties governing space were outdated. The nations that have signed on believe that it is a necessary step to establish guidelines for lunar exploration and to avoid conflict between different parties from Earth. The accords stress that while no one owns the Moon, parties that send equipment do own it and are liable for any damage they may cause. Setting out clear expectations for commercial interests now may help facilitate standards regarding issues like waste and prevent the moon from being an industrial dump.

On the other hand, there are several concerns that could arise with mining either the lunar surface or other celestial bodies. For example, there are several legal and political concerns. Russia and China are not part of the Artemis Accords. Russia has been critical of the accords and the Artemis program for being too U.S.-centric and for being a step back from the Outer Space Treaty whose central provision is that all nations of the world should benefit from space exploration. Indeed, one main criticism is that this is not being governed by the United Nations. A recent article for the journal Science argues “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved.”

There are also the larger ethical concerns about who owns space, whether it should be mined, and what kinds of problems this could create. For example, in their article How much of the Solar System should we leave as wilderness? Martin Elvis and Tony Milligan suggest that we should already be concerned about “super-exploitation” where a growing space economy could lead to exhaustion of the finite resources of the solar system “surprisingly soon.” They note, “Approaching a point of super-exploitation is something that we ought to be concerned about if we assume that we ought to be concerned, at this point in time and in action-guiding ways, not only about ourselves but about future generations of humans.” They suggest that so long as economic growth is exponential, we should limit ourselves to 1/8th of the exploitable materials of the solar system with the rest being left “wild.”

The economic concerns may not stop there either. Efforts to mine material on the moon may negatively impact the national economies who may rely on selling those resources. There is also the potential worry about how much could be brought back. A single asteroid of platinum has been valued at possibly 50 billion dollars. One-eighth of the iron in the Asteroid Belt contains more than a million times all of Earth’s current reserves. Such dramatic changes in resource extraction and refinement has the potential to dramatically harm an economy as well.

There is also a concern about possible future militarization. While current treaties and laws regarding space prohibit many forms of military operations, if mining begins and not everyone agrees to the same rules, then future conflicts in space may then require militarization to support commercial interests. The United States Space Force Guardians may be called upon to secure U.S. interests in space. Lunar mining, and the mining of celestial objects in general, will carry with a large host of ethical problems and concerns and these will likely become better known to us sooner rather than later.

Yes Elon, There Is Space Law

image of deep space with nebulae and bright stars

Elon Musk has spoken at great length about the details of his envisioned human colony on Mars. Among other things, he has ideas about the legal and political contours of Martian life. In terms of the form of Martian government, Musk argues for a direct democracy in which the laws can easily be repealed. His company, SpaceX, is also making a gambit at escaping not only Earth’s gravitational effects, but its legal influence as well. In the various legal terms and conditions of the company’s Starlink app, SpaceX asserts that neither Mars, nor the space between it and Earth, are governed either by the law of any earthly nation or their international laws. (Activities on the Moon, however, will be governed by California law!) Instead Mars and the starships going there will freely govern themselves according to principles of self-government. However, the reach of Musk and SpaceX exceed their grasp.

The laws of the United States govern SpaceX, which is headquartered in California and incorporated in Delaware. In turn, the United States is signatory to a series of United Nations treaties that govern the activities of signatories with respect to outer space and celestial bodies — not limited to only the Moon. As such, SpaceX is subject to the existing laws that govern extra-planetary activity. The assertion by SpaceX that it will not be bound by existing law amounts to a strange choice of law clause, by which a corporation attempts (sometimes unsuccessfully) to prevent potential plaintiffs from forcing the corporation to litigate under less favorable law, or at least make the law that will govern corporate activity more predictable. SpaceX appears to be trying to create a choice of law clause that chooses no law at all.

Being more charitable, SpaceX’s terms can be interpreted as choosing a sort of natural law stemming from generic principles of reason. However, this likely won’t help SpaceX reach legal escape velocity either. Earthly international law is largely based on international treaties, but international treaties and other legal instruments are based on jus gentium, which is natural law stemming from generic principles of reason. SpaceX, trying to choose nothing, has instead chosen exactly what it wanted to avoid.

SpaceX’s status as a corporation is a significant source of its difficulty. A corporation is a legal entity, existing only under its charter, which is governed by the law of the country where it is incorporated. There is a sense in which SpaceX extinguishes itself by disavowing the laws of the United States under which it is incorporated. If SpaceX were a sovereign nation it would be able enter treaties with other nations as it wished. So an eventual Martian colony, if independent from any terrestrial nation, could declare itself unbound by any other nations laws. But as a corporation, SpaceX is much like the colonial enclaves of England in the Americas and elsewhere. These colonies were chartered corporations created by the British Monarch. Independence and self-rule are not automatically granted to colonies, as history amply demonstrates.

The comparison to colonies is apt, as SpaceX appears to adopt the Earthlight Foundation’s contention that it is the “inalienable right” of space pioneers to do as they like, including “use any resources they find” and “own any land or space” they inhabit. The use of “inalienable,” which means not able to be taken or given away, is not likely what the Foundation wanted to say. Presumably, they envision a sort of free market exchange allowing people to exchange — i.e., give away — rights of use for resources in exchange for other considerations. More important that this pedantic point is the air of colonialism and Manifest Destiny that wafts off of the language. Space and its contents are conceptualized as resources to be exploited, valued in economic terms. This is the mentality of sentient locusts, roving the stars to deplete them, like the alien invaders in Independence Day.

The laws of earthly nations often badly fail to reign in the bad behavior of corporations. However, a self-regulated, corporate space colony is not likely to be better. Neither SpaceX nor any of the other corporate space exploration programs are able to operate wholly without oversight. That is at least some small insurance against a Martian corporate hegemony.

Ongoing American Exceptionalism: To Infinity and Beyond

photograph of American flag planted on Moon with Astronaut staring off into space

On April 7th, the Trump administration released an executive order declaring that the USA doesn’t understand space or the moon to be under international jurisdiction, but rather a domain for particular countries to pursue their own interests. The order states, “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space.”

There are 108 signatories for the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” the main document outlining law in space. This document is now a precedent for treating space continuously with international law: no particular government has authority unless there is a particular interaction with data transmission between citizens, for example, that clearly falls under the jurisdiction of a particular nation. For instance, in 2019, Anne McClain, a US astronaut allegedly signed into Former Air Force intelligence officer Summer Worden’s bank account without Worden’s permission. Worden filed an identity theft charge against McClain. Because the data connection, bank, and citizens were all under the purview of the US, it was determined to fall under U.S. law.

Unless circumstances as particular as these arise, however, corporations, states, and entities in space are meant to operate under a set of regulations that broadly set out international regulations. This is for practical reasons as much as anything else:

“When there’s a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster, Harrington said that multiple countries with remote-sensing satellites — including the U.S., Japan, South Africa, Russia and the European Union — are part of a disaster charter. Whomever had a satellite passing over the disaster-ridden region before, after and during the event has agreed to share data to mitigate damage, saving lives and property.”

Trump’s executive order breaks with the international push for cooperation and neutrality in pursuing space exploration. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as NASA, have repeatedly emphasized that international cooperation is crucial for pursuing space exploration.

Trump has been enthusiastic about expanding American power into space, as his ambition for developing a Space Force has shown in the past year. His enthusiasm for expanding mining rights and removing mining regulation on Earth make this also a natural expansion of his previous zeal. However, similar to his propagation of the Space Force, it remains unclear what, if any, interest or action will follow from this declaration of Trumpian interest.

Having a leader that is out of touch with the reasoning behind the policies is dangerous and can have lasting impact on not only our nation’s progress but the necessary cooperative efforts of the international community. When one powerful nation withdraws efforts, the rest of a coalition suffers. This is one way to harm a community—not by sanctioning, attacking, or aiming malice directly towards other nations or actors, but by neglecting to take their interests into considerations in one’s own pursuits. Neglect in such circumstances is a form of disrespect. It also is not in the USA’s best interests, for, as experts agree, the successful pursuit of progress in space will necessarily be a joint effort, relying on the very nations Trump continues to ignore in the here and now.

The Ethics of Sending Life to the Moon and Beyond

image of space with stars and emission nebulas

It was recently reported that an Israeli organization SpaceIL sent thousands of dehydrated tardigrades to the moon. While the capsule crashed, and thus there is no way to know for sure if they survived, tardigrades are very resilient creatures who may be able to remain alive on the lunar surface in a dormant state. With this admission, a large host of ethical issues have been raised in the aftermath. These include the ethics of sending earth species to foreign environments and the ethics of private space organizations being able to act in space without regulation.

With regard to the issue of regulation, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek and NASA astrobiologist Monica Vidaurri have expressed concern. Viduarri is concerned about the fact that private organizations do not answer to any protections or ethics office. As reported by Vice, she and Panek have urged for more accountability when it comes to private organizations. Mika McKinnon of Vice notes, “while not illegal, the idea that a private company could accidentally scatter living creatures on the Moon within any oversight or even disclosure is unnerving.” To resolve this issue, many have urged for new regulations and laws to ensure that careful conversations are had before further life forms are sent into space.

The issue of sending earth life to foreign environments like the Moon or even Mars is even more complicated. For decades the idea of terraforming or changing a planet or other body to make it more habitable to human life has been considered. Ethically, there may be good reasons to do this, including allowing for more space for habitation, advancing our ability to study space, and because it may help preserve the human species in the long term.

The idea is also problematic. This is partially because we can’t be certain that there is no life in some of these locations. If we seed life to Mars and there is already life that we have not previously discovered, then it has the potential to drastically affect the planetary environment and harm local lifeforms. This can be ethically problematic not only because of the harm we could inflict on extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial ecosystems, but if extraterrestrial ecosystems are contaminated it could also mean that we lose the ability to answer important scientific questions about the development of life in the universe.

One of the concerns is the possibility of interfering with an environment that we may not fully understand and may wish to study. This raises issues beyond merely interfering with potentially already existing life. A broader issue involves affecting or changing environments in space that do not have life. This concern is raised by Vidaurri who points out, “WE made something on ANOTHER world that we do not fully understand. It has an environment, even if we deemed it ‘barren’ to any life on earth.” If we wish to engage in any kind of terraforming or significant alteration of the Moon or Mars, then we face an inherent risk of contaminating a hitherto pristine environment.

Alternatively, this raises an important question about whether environments, even lifeless ones, have some kind of moral status. For instrumental purposes, preserving a pristine, lifeless environment may allow us to study it better. However, the concern raised by Vidaurri seems to be that an environment, even a lifeless, barren one, may have some inherent moral worth and so interfering with it is morally wrong. Environmental philosophers have considered similar questions.

According to Ronald Sandler, for an environmental collective to have inherent worth it must be goal-directed since otherwise we have no clear way to determine if it has been harmed or benefited. One environmental collective which he suggests may have such worth is ant colonies. However, ecosystems as a whole, he argues, are not cohesive or goal-directed enough to possess inherent worth. If an ecosystem can’t claim to have inherent worth, then it is even more difficult to claim that a lifeless environment does. If it does not, then it isn’t obvious why it is inherently wrong to change extraterrestrial environments like the moon.

This issue is not necessarily new either. In his 1997 book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan addressed the matter. Where life may already exist, he suggests that safeguarding our species by settling other planets may be offset by the danger we pose to such extraterrestrial life. But in the absence of such life, he notes “here I find myself an unapologetic human chauvinist…on behalf of Earthlife, I urge that, with the full knowledge of our limitations, we vastly increase our knowledge of the Solar System and then begin to settle other worlds.”

According to chemistry professor Michael Mautner, seeding the universe with life is a moral obligation. Since life on Earth will not survive forever, he claims that we have an obligation “to plan for the propagation of life” on other planets. He proposes a strategy to deposit primitive organisms on potentially fertile planets in order to help modify their environments and jumpstart evolutionary development. While he has noted the concern about interfering with potential extraterrestrial life that may already exist, he proposes to only target locations where life could not have evolved yet. However, this does not address the concerns of those who argue that it is wrong to modify pristine lifeless environments that may include the Moon.

In a 2009 article in the journal Bioethics, Mautner echoes Sagan’s point and the concern about modifying environments in space. Taking a more pragmatic view, he notes, “Seeding other planetary systems could prevent the study of pristine space but seeding a few hundred new solar systems will secure and propagate life while leaving hundreds of billions of pristine stars for exploration.”

Questions about the moral status of lifeless environments are going to be important as further exploration of space takes place. It joins questions like do we have the right to change environments in space to our liking? and to what extent should we take efforts to protect alien life that we may not even be able to detect? The answers to such questions may not only affect how we behave in outer space, but also on Earth as well.

InSight’s Landing on Mars: Ethics of Space Exploration

Artist's rendering of InSight and the two MarsCubes as they approach Mars from Earth

On Monday, November 26th, at approximately 2:54 pm ET, NASA’s InSight probe landed on its three legs on the surface of Mars. InSight hurtled at 13,200 mph towards the open plains of Mars, the Elysium Planitia, to a safe landing.  The total descent took six and a half minutes, otherwise known to NASA as the “seven minutes of terror” because only 40% of missions on Mars are successful.  InSight’s landing is adding to the US’s success rate of seven Mars landings in the past four decades with only one failed touchdown. These missions can be risky and very expensive but can make very important scientific achievements.

Space exploration, such as InSight, has provided many benefits to our society. Inspired by human curiosity, the exploration is deep into the unknown. According to NASA, exploration pushes the boundaries of current scientific and technical limits, inspiring scientists to address challenges that are unique and rewarding. From the Apollo, they created the guidance computer, the predecessor to the microcomputer, now in all smart phones. Other advances have created fire resistant clothes and in-depth research with how diseases behave in microgravity. The immune system in particular has been studied in depth because microbes react differently in space. New industries have emerged and connections have been fostered between differing countries. These missions aren’t possible without lots of time and funding spent.

InSight traveled for seven months in space before the probe landed on Mars. InSight’s principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt, said, “It’s taken more than a decade to bring InSight from a concept to a spacecraft approaching Mars — and even longer since I was first inspired to try to undertake this kind of mission. But even after landing, we’ll need to be patient for the science to begin.” InSight’s purpose is to study the characteristics of the mantle, core, and crust of Mars to deepen scientist’s understanding about the great red planet. It aims to study the heat fluctuations and tremors on the planet’s surface. It is tracking the wobbles of the planet on the axis which will tell us if the planet is molten or solid at the core. Scientists hope to learn more about how Mars was formed, how this differs from Earth, and more in depth about the “liveable” conditions. “We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA. “Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”

InSight alone was a $814 million-dollar mission that took over a decade of planning. The amount of time and valuable resources spent towards this mission and other space explorations is astounding. It’s possible that those resources could be utilized on Earth. An important consideration to make is if the benefit from the space missions outweighs the cost of the expense. Beyond monetary expenses, space missions can be dangerous for the well-being of space travelers and the ecosystems of the planets being studied.

The human body and space do not go well together. When humans travel to space they are exposed to harmful radiation which can lead to increased risk of cancer, damage to the central nervous system, and radiation sickness. With a lack of gravity, the muscles and bones deteriorate. Food is primarily freeze dried and lacks in nutrients, increasing the likelihood of malnutrition. Astronauts are isolated in a confined space for extended periods of time which requires months of training and preparation. This travel is not ideal for the people taking the journey.

Not all space travel requires a human on board, as seen with the InSight probe.  However, similar to the concerns with the SpaceX mission launched this year in February, there is the risk of contamination to the planet of study. The probes bring microorganisms from earth which could contaminate the natural ecosystem of the planet. Spacecraft parts also frequently fall off. With global dust storms on the planet, it could carry these contaminants across the planet surface having a vast effect.

Having anthropocentrism, human-centric values one would argue that these possible adverse contaminations to explored planets aren’t concerning because these planets are of instrumental use to humans. However, a ecocentric holism viewpoint says that non-individuals, such as natural processes, species, and ecosystem interactions on earth have intrinsic value and deserve respect. So, where does the human ecosystem begin or end? It becomes a question of if extraterrestrial areas should be protected considering they are not technically a part of the earth’s ecosystem.  John D Rummel of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, proposes a precautionary principle that says, “If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” With this viewpoint, he says that because of the suspected risk to other planets, space groups like NASA must prove that the harm is not too great. We’ve covered environmental ethics of Mars and the morality of possible other life more in-depth here and here.

Space exploration leads to new ethical dilemmas with new discoveries. As the technologies begin to increase and our knowledge of other systems grows, we have to reconsider the ethics behind exploration. The basis of this is beyond our intentions for good and is the problem of not knowing our the actions taken towards space discovery might affect life and systems so different from Earth’s.