Why We Need Space Ethicists

We have the opportunity to make our way into this untrammeled territory with an attitude of reverence and cautious discovery-making, not conquest and claims-making.

Beeple for Noema Magazine
Chelsea Haramia is a philosophy professor and co-editor of the journal 1000-Word Philosophy. Her current research focuses on the ethics of science, technology, space exploration and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos.

If Elon Musk has his way, there will be a million people settled on Mars by 2050. Artist renderings from SpaceX show glowing glass domes on the Red Planet, tapping into our fantasies about space exploration — even if the reality of Martian life would likely not be that different from living in lockdown during a pandemic. Musk frames this project as being for the good of humanity — he says that becoming a “multi-planet species” will increase our chances of survival. But when commercial enterprise leads the way into space, there are important costs for humanity to weigh. If we rush to Mars before sufficient scientific exploration can take place, we might forever lose the opportunity to make discoveries about the nature of the universe and our place in it.

Mars might already host life. Granted, this life is probably microbial, and microbes don’t stoke our imaginations the same way that a flashy illustration of a Martian habitation does. But discovering this life and confirming that it is indeed extraterrestrial life would be a major step in understanding the origins of life here on Earth — one we can hope to make only if we delay plans for Martian societies and other disruptive projects.  

If recreational or commercial ventures arrive on Mars before scientific ones, the bodies they bring will be rife with Earthly microbes, contaminating the Martian environment and preventing us from determining whether any microbial life we later find on Mars was there before us. Dwellings on or under the surface of Mars would drastically disrupt billions of years of largely undisrupted systemic processes, thereby fatally contaminating scientific observations and callously destroying that which is not ours to destroy.  

The point here is not to impugn non-Earth habitation on the whole. Surely we would learn a lot in the process of establishing settlements on Mars, and  aspects of human expansion could meaningfully inform our ethical deliberations about our extraterrestrial future. But — as philosophers often do — we may acknowledge and maintain assumptions about one debate in order to better focus on another, and the question at the moment is primarily one of timing. In the case that Martian settlements and scientific exploration of Mars are both morally appropriate, we can gain the value of both unique Martian data and new Martian societies — but this valuable outcome is only possible when science is allowed to go first. 

“In cases where competing projects are mutually compatible only if science goes first, science should take precedence.”

Scientific study of the cosmos is a public good that stands to benefit all of humanity, not just scientists. And so, in cases where competing projects are mutually compatible only if science goes first, science should take precedence. When timing allows for compatibility, we should regulate and temporarily prohibit projects that greatly inhibit, contaminate or prevent valuable scientific study of space until sufficient research has taken place. This is a moral imperative, and it follows from the claim it is worse to outright prevent valuable projects than it is to merely delay valuable projects.

This principle also holds true closer to home, since conditions on and around the Earth itself can disrupt important cosmic observations. Some astronomy research requires dark skies, but those skies are currently being threatened by excessively bright communications satellites which portend a future of satellite mega-constellations. These constellations seriously risk permanently shuttering some of astronomy’s most exciting and ambitious projects. 

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s telescope, for example, is poised to provide a view of the sky that is “unprecedented in the history of optical astronomy.” But as this observatory is nearing completion, SpaceX has launched 60 of its planned 42,000 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit. Due to the number, brightness and changing positions of these satellites, streaks from Starlink constellations would greatly complicate and confound the data that the Rubin Observatory is gearing up to collect.

SpaceX plans to darken its satellites in response to this problem, but the change is likely to be insufficient for scientific purposes. And other companies, such as Amazon and Samsung, are getting ready to launch their own communications satellite constellations, adding to a problem that will directly and predictably prevent remarkable scientific achievements if nothing is done. This is why, in April 2021, the American Astronomical Society penned a letter to the U.S. Department of State underlining the need for dark and quiet skies to carry out work that is “poised to make great discoveries about the universe for the benefit of all.” 

“We need space ethicists to help us to tackle the thorny moral questions that growing interest in space exploration raises.”

Things get more complicated when we stop to examine the assumptions we’re working under. What if delays aren’t enough or projects aren’t mutually compatible? In those cases, we’ll need to make hard choices between scientific discovery and other projects. This is why we need the burgeoning philosophical field of space ethics to help us tackle the thorny moral questions and complicated debates that growing interest in space exploration raises. 

Morally relevant considerations include the fact that scientific projects could easily conflict with one another, as well as the fact that there is not a perfectly clear line between science and non-science. For example, imagine a commercial-scientific project that both disrupted some other scientific study of a space environment and also created something that we desperately need to solve a humanitarian problem. To preemptively and ethically address such worries through regulation, we need to anticipate and weigh the morally relevant considerations at play in the space environment. 

Scientific discovery also sometimes comes with disruption to natural environments — take Martian rovers, for example. NASA acknowledges that “each time a space vehicle visits another world it runs the risk of forever changing that extraterrestrial environment.” The photo of the first hole drilled on Mars by the Curiosity rover is a vivid depiction of unequivocal disruption. And, though the scientists at NASA try their best to avoid this, there is always the risk that a rover will bring with it microbes from Earth that could potentially wreak havoc on any ecosystems the Red Planet contains. 

The risk runs in the other direction, too. If Martian microbes exist, they could hitch a ride back to our planet and interact in unknown or unpredictable ways with Earth’s ecosystems. Our best efforts to avoid contamination of either planet could still inadvertently lead to harm, which is why scientists are planning to exercise extreme caution when retrieving and studying samples returned from Mars. Scientific study is valuable, but this value must also be weighed against corresponding risks, as well as against the value of pristine environments in space. Space ethicist James S.J. Schwartz raises an important question when he asks, “Should planetary protection focus on potential obligations to alien life in addition to/instead of its current focus on protecting opportunities to study that life?”

As valuable as scientific study can be, it is not automatically more important than everything else at all times. Consider for a moment the Hawaiian resistance at Maunakea. Since the 1960s, Native Hawaiians have resisted the plans of astronomers who wish to build telescopes on the sacred volcano, whose summit has conditions that are favorable to astronomy research. The most recent conflict involves plans to build the Thirty Meter Telescope, which is projected to be among “the largest ground-based observatories in the world.” A January 2020 white paper by Native Hawaiian scientists and allies critically rejects the settler-colonial dynamics that undergird the project. 

This is not merely a clash of cultural interests versus scientific interests. It is the product of generations of oppressive hierarchies that harm unjustly subordinated people — concerns we have seen arise throughout history. Powerful humans have not only oppressed and degraded Indigenous peoples and their lands, they have also consistently disrupted, degraded and at times wiped out native species and entire ecosystems in the process of proliferating and expanding. These intrusions carry enormous moral weight, and there is great value to be found in the resistance of oppressive hierarchies. Many scientists themselves recognize this, along with the importance of respecting Indigenous history.

“Along with space ethicists to help adjudicate these questions and come up with new regulations, we need new planetary institutions to enforce them.”

We need space ethicists to help us weigh important and often competing concerns so that we may proceed into space in a morally justifiable manner. Moral deliberation about practical matters is often highly complex. Philosophers are experts at creating, testing and adjudicating between candidate principles and competing interests in order to arrive at the most ethically defensible position. They can help us to reason as carefully as possible as we construct new and important regulations, to balance what is valuable with weighty considerations like justice and harm prevention, and to clue us in to relevant moral considerations that may not arise in popular discourse. 

And along with space ethicists to help adjudicate these questions and come up with new regulations, we need new planetary institutions to enforce them. Both the scientific study of the cosmos and projects like Mars habitations or satellite mega-constellations transcend national boundaries and institutions. The issues under review here are not national; they are planetary. Until we have planetary institutions equipped to enforce regulations on projects that conflict with the scientific study of space, these planetary responsibilities could, as Jonathan Blake and Nils Gilman have advocated for in this magazine, be delegated down to local governments. 

This solution is especially useful because it would help to address not only the asymmetrical negative effects of competing planetary projects, but also the worry that science itself can be oppressive at the local or ecological level. On the one hand, in cases such as satellite mega-constellations or dwellings on Mars, some of the parties involved are extremely powerful, and only planet-wide regulations could effectively enforce the goal of delaying competing projects until valuable scientific study of the cosmos has taken place. Governance there belongs with planetary institutions.

On the other hand, in cases involving cultural heritage sites, colonial power dynamics or species and ecosystems that cannot speak for themselves, local arguments and local histories will need to be heard and taken seriously. Governance by local institutions can and should effectively serve to promote those voices and causes. In both cases, philosophers — and space ethicists in particular — can help us take a step back from our unexamined assumptions and take seriously all that we should be factoring into our moral deliberations.

By making space for careful ethical reasoning and regulation, we can avoid making moral mistakes again as we reach out beyond Earth. We have the opportunity to make our way into this untrammeled territory with an attitude of reverence and cautious discovery-making, not conquest and claims-making. The study and use of outer space provide a myriad of avenues for hope and growth — and just as many potential pitfalls and unacceptable risks. If we proceed with the tools of careful ethical reasoning and enforceable regulations by planetary and local institutions, we can look forward to fertile conditions for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, human progress and caring preservation that stand to benefit humanity, our planet and our expanding understanding of the universe.