The ethics of space exploration

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When you use a SatNav, or check a modern weather forecast, you’re using technology made possible by space exploration. Emerging space industries include tourism, and some tentative plans to mine asteroids, or the Moon, for rare materials. Space now has its lawyers, its policymakers, and even its ethicists. Robert Seddon went to King’s College, London, to meet Tony Milligan, a moral philosopher who has worked extensively on the ethics of space exploration.

Robert Seddon: So, how did that begin?

Tony Milligan: Well, that’s a piece of guidance from my students, in fact. There was a student who wanted to work on the issue of terraforming—which is one of the big, sexy issues in space ethics—and I thought, hmmm, does the world really need this to be done? And then I looked into it, and he produced the work, and it was a good piece of work. So I thought, this bears looking into a little bit closer; so I did a short course, and the blurb advertising the course was picked up by Space Policy, the journal: they invited me to write an article. And then from the article other people wanted other things, so it sort of snowballed into a new research direction for me, which was good, because it’s a fresh area, and it’s interesting stuff, and you’re also dealing with things that matter. And that’s always a nice added bonus.

RS: Do you see much engagement from people involved in space industries in practical terms?

TM: Well… up to a point. I think there are people who want to have a story about the importance of space. Elon Musk wants to have a story about backing up the biosphere and the ethical significance of what they’re doing, and he’s got shareholders that he has to keep happy, and so on. So there is that high level interest, and the stories aren’t particularly convincing ones from an academic ethicist’s point of view, but they’re interesting stories. And then you’ve got the wilder reaches of the ethics of space, which is all about really big questions, and it doesn’t connect up with the agencies.

And then you’ve got stuff that’s done by people like myself, Jacques Arnould… And we try, in our own modest ways, to be embedded, not… We would like, ideally, more of a dialogue, I think, with the players within industry, but you already have the agencies, you have NASA, you have the European Space Agency, and we connect up at that level.

And so at the moment, for example, there’s a white paper getting put together—I’m meant to be doing editing; I’ll diligently do that tomorrow—and that’s for the establishing of a European institute for astrobiology, and the role of the key people that you would want across Europe, with some feed-in from NASA people and elsewhere, to the rationale to get that off the ground and funded. And one of the things that we say in the white paper is that we need to get, to move, beyond that level of academics talking to the institutions. We also need much more of a dialogue with people from industry.

RS: Do you think Musk and co. will get what they want, or will they have to make do with something else?

TM: Well, nobody ever gets quite what they want… or if they do then they’re never quite sure that it’s what they wanted. When you’ve got investors, when it’s a big money game, when there’s a lot on the line, you have to sell things quite hard. So it’s difficult to understand, or difficult to separate out, what’s the image, what’s the sales patter, from what he realistically expects will be realised. One of the things that usually is over-optimistic is time scales. So there are people: Mars One and so on… (That’s not Elon Musk; Musk’s much more… He’s got the technology to do stuff. Mars One doesn’t.) But they’ll talk about: well, we’re going to put somebody on Mars within a couple of years—and that’s ridiculous: there’s nothing… There’s no way you’re getting there. So they’ll change their time scales, and so on, and you get the same thing up to a point with Musk, and you get the same thing up to a point with Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

So there they have this plane which will take you up into space, and just the very tip of it, just the very edge of it. And they’ve a small-scale model, and it’s going to be simple to scale it up… Ten years later, and the scaling up process looks like it might finally be heading somewhere. So it happens. Progress gets made in terms of the achievement of the goals which are being set by the big financial players, but the progress doesn’t necessarily get made within the time scales that they initially envisage, or even within the time scales that they generally revise a couple of years down the line.

RS: And does that also apply to the ethics of space exploration?

TM: Yes… Where are we in terms of the development of the ethics? Well, we’re in a better situation than we were ten or fifteen years ago, because we have more of a couple of things. We have more of a serious literature, good scholars who’ve done their work and are familiar with the various ethical theories, and who’re not just… They don’t just sit down and say, well, we have three ethical theories, we have deontology and we have consequentialism and we have virtue ethics, and what I’m going to do is, I’m going to write a paper which applies each of these to this particular problem in space ethics. That’s not kind of ideal because the appreciation of the ethical theories doesn’t go through every line that they have, so it’s kind of forced. So we have a better literature.

But we also have an emerging international community of scholars who are much more connected up to one another, and are much more familiar with each other’s work. We go to the same conferences, we sit on the same panels, we publish in the same journals and edited volumes, and that’s crucial in terms of separating out what’s realistic space ethics from what’s a more speculative thing. Because nobody does it all on their own. You have to have that disciplining element of an emerging and expanding and well informed community of fellow scholars too… Well, I need that to make sure that I don’t say quite as many crazy things as I might otherwise say. I mean, I still say crazy things, obviously—but not so many as I would.

RS: I suppose the sceptical position would be something like: look, this is perfect virgin territory. It’s all empty space, it’s rocks… These are resources free for the taking by the first people able to get to them. How could there possibly be a moral concern here?

TM: Well, I think there’s a certain number of reasons why there can be moral concern. First of all, you could run those arguments with the Grand Canyon. You could run them with Ayer’s Rock. But nobody’s about to go mine Ayer’s Rock for driveway chips. There would be objections. Nobody’s about to say, look, we have this big, big space in the United States, we have got some serious problems in terms of agricultural waste—let’s dump all the agricultural waste into the Grand Canyon. Technically feasible but nobody’s going to buy it. And that’s because places sometimes are deemed to have a certain kind of significance. And you can run the arguments about why that is the case: some of them appeal to the significance that these places have in terms of history and culture and the ways that we’ve interacted with them, and that’s certainly the case with Ayer’s Rock. Ayer’s Rock is this sacred site, so you don’t get to muck about with that, any more than you get to muck about with Stonehenge. And if somebody says, you know, it’s just a rock, or if somebody says, these are just bluestones at Stonehenge, so I’m going to take them and use them in a nearby building, nobody’s going to buy that.

TM: So when you get into the detail, if somebody asks you to… If somebody’s asked, what is your ethical theory, then you’ll probably reply in terms that make it seem that humans—or perhaps, on an extended account, humans and other sentient creatures—are the only things that you can have ethical concern about. But then when you look at the way in which they actually respond and the way in which people lead their lives, then you see a much broader patterning. A wider range of things turn out to be ethically significant to beings of our sort.

So when it comes to the Moon, for example, you’re talking about something that’s been culturally significant for a very long period of time. But you’re also talking about one of the few places within the Solar System where we could actually go. A limited number of planets: one of them is just too close to the Sun, you’d just… It’s a nice way to get cremated. If you go outwards to the further reaches of the Solar System then you’re reaching gas giants. Now we don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to do anything even with the gas giants. And the reason for that is that you start to get to… Because they’re enormously big compared to the Earth, you start to get really big gravitation problems. These are big gravitational wells that, if you fall into them, it’s going to take a lot of energy to get back out.

So that means places like Mars and the Moon… These are the big candidates for other large-scale bodies within the Solar System that we could actually envisage human beings settling on. So we don’t necessarily want to turn them into quarries. Or we don’t want to use all of them as quarries, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of future humans.

Now there’s a thought there that, well, that’s just limiting ourselves to thinking about the Solar System. When we get out and beyond that, as Star Trek so repeatedly informs us we will, then it’ll be hunky dory. There’ll be all of these worlds for us to explore, and complete with Arabesque civilisations and things like that. But the reality is we don’t know that we’re ever going to be in a position to get beyond the Solar System. And therefore, even in terms of what is of value for humans, in terms of our human future, in terms of what there will be for future generations of humans to enjoy and to utilise and to live as part of, you’re talking about a very, very small, limited resource, and limited resources of a valuable sort, of the kinds of things that you cherish.

So I’m going to kick the argument that, well, these are just rocks—I’m going to kick that into the long grass, and say, that doesn’t understand… It’s just a lack of understanding of what we are and a lack of understanding of what’s available to us.

RS: Say, damaging the Moon… The way the Moon looks—the culturally significant way the Moon looks—there’s a plausible case for thinking, it’s already been damaged and defaced, hasn’t it? What more could a quarry do?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting question… Suppose we take an ethical concept is sometimes applied to the Moon, and that’s the concept of integrity. Now, if you look at Futurama: they turn the Moon, I think, into a golf course. And it’s the incongruity of the Moon just being used as this mundane object, as a lunar golf course… Or is it Mars they do that with? They do something. It’s a theme park in the Moon… Anyway, it’s inappropriate uses, and it’s the way in which the comic utilisation is so out of keeping with the character of the of the place which makes it a kind of funny thing.

But does that mean that, even if we think that certain kinds of uses of the Moon, or of Mars, would be, as it were, not just change but damage—in some way violate the integrity of these places—that doesn’t mean to say that all change is wrong. Nor could all change be ruled out, for the reasons that you’ve mentioned. Even though the lunar surface is to a large extent, as it were, four-and-a-bit billion years ago, there’s impacts upon the Moon all the time. So then we have to develop some kind of ethical theory about the kinds of changes that would seem reasonable, that would be permissible. And the kinds of changes which would rob future generations of the opportunity to experience the Moon in particular ways: to rob them of that opportunity to have, as it were, wilderness experiences.

RS: Are there any changes that could be seen as positive? I’m thinking of the idea—which perhaps you’d want to reject—that someday we might terraform Mars and make it more Earth-like: turn a dead world into a living one.

TM: I’m not sure if it’s a dead world… We tend to use terminology that loads the bases. So if it’s ‘dead’, then obviously, if we reanimate then that’s a wonderful thing. But we don’t know if there was ever life there, and if there wasn’t life there it doesn’t make that much sense to speak of it as a dead world. Another one that’s used is ‘barren world’.

TM: But there are different ways of speaking about these places. To say ‘dead’ and to say ‘barren’ suggests one thing; to point out that the biggest volcano in the Solar System is on Mars: you’ve got Olympus Mons… To point out that you have the Valles Marineris, which would have… You could fit the Grand Canyon into the Valles multiple times. You have the unique geology. You have the awesome landscape of the place: features that, for example, would be as significant, perhaps, to humans who settle upon Mars at some point in the future, as, say, Ayer’s Rock or Stonehenge are to us. Now, do we want to rob them of that kind of opportunity? Do we want to preserve the opportunities of encountering the most striking environmental features of Mars, which are features nowhere reproduced within the Solar System? They’re unique.

RS: Some of the biased language we use, even in relation to wilderness on Earth… We call it pristine, untouched, unspoilt. It seems to be quite sceptical about human involvement. And I think there’s something similar, sometimes, in relation to space: the idea that we haven’t always been responsible stewards of our own Earth, that we’d better get it right this time, that we might risk polluting space… that we already are, perhaps?

TM: Well, we already have done. We’ve got all of those… to improve telecommunications, back in the Sixties, all of those millions of little dipole antennae. They blasted them out into space with the notion that it helps to bump the signals back. But of course they’re an absolute menace out there now, and all the space junk that we’re developing industries to try and cope with. Of course space seemed really open and really free at first, but when you get to cislunar space, when you get to just beyond the medium atmosphere of the Earth, things can get really pretty crowded pretty quickly when you’re continuously firing things up there.

But when you go beyond that, there are reasons why we don’t want to contaminate. One is the science: so you don’t want forward contamination, because we want to know what we can about life, and we would like to detect rudimentary forms of current or historic life somewhere else. But in order to be sure of the results we have to make sure that we didn’t bring it there—and we have done that kind of thing before. Somebody sneezed on one of the camera lenses of the Apollo mission—the Moon landing missions—and on a different world that could have had very different consequences. That stuff wouldn’t happen now; but we want to protect these places for the science.

And we want to make sure that certain kinds of irreversible changes are done in the right way. So for example, you speak about terraforming. Now, if you’re going to terraform Mars, then you have to melt some of that water and carbon dioxide ice at the polar caps. That’s a one-shot deal: if you do that the wrong way, then you just end up with a more-or-less evenly, or unevenly, distributed package of ice round the rest of the planet. So if we go in gung-ho, and mess it up, then the possibilities of a successful, viable process of terraforming might be compromised for hundreds of years, perhaps even permanently.

So we’ve got an ethical responsibility to make sure that if we’re doing these things, then we’re doing them in a reasonable manner: that we’re not just guilty of impatience; that we actually have the technologies to succeed in reasonable projects. Now, I’ve spoken about the nature of these environments—something that merits ethical consideration and certain kinds of protection—and of course the same is true of the Earth. But what’s interesting in relation to—one of the many interesting things in relation to—discourse of protection down here is that the more Nineteenth Century ideas that wilderness means complete virgin territory, never touched by human hand, never impacted upon by humanity: that doesn’t work for anywhere on the Earth now, because of the way in which humans have impacted upon the atmosphere. There aren’t places that are free of the human stain, as it were, or the human impact. And that’s not necessarily, in all cases, a bad thing.

So we have a more modest conception of what wilderness is, which is that there are certain kinds of impact that are not allowed. So if something’s wilderness, then, yes, people are allowed to visit, with certain constraints. Yes, we accept that the volumes of carbon locked into the rocks will be impacted by industry elsewhere. But it’s wilderness by virtue of the fact that we’re not allowed to use it as an industrial resource, for example. Wilderness in that sense. And that’s much more modest. So when we translate that much more modest conception of wilderness to the Moon, or to Mars, again, it doesn’t exclude all human activity. It doesn’t exclude all human industrial activity. But it does mean that there are ethical constraints upon the ways in which that can legitimately be done.

And there has to be discussion about how much impact we can have and where that impact should be. Obviously there’s a strong case for keeping impact away from the most distinctive areas of the Moon or Mars. If one wants a complete protection, a hands-off attitude, I don’t think that’s a viable ethic, given the nature of our society, in that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. I don’t think we can protect these places in those ways, even if we wished to do so.

RS: A lot of what you’re saying sounds like environmental ethics; but the way environmentalism’s developed on Earth, generally, is that it’s basically summed up in the one word ‘green’. It’s about ecosystems, organic life. The green movement. And obviously space is, among other things, not at all green. (Until terraformed.)

TM: So here we make a distinction between ecology and environments. Ecology’s about systems that contain living things and how they function as integrated wholes. Environments are just the surroundings; and sometimes the surroundings have life in them, sometimes the surroundings don’t. You can go places in the Earth, and on the Earth, where you don’t get life, but you still have environments.

So the thought then is that we need an expanded conception. And many environmental ethicists already have that kind of conception. They think of, say, rivers ethically considerable in various respects. Now of course rivers have life forms within them, but even if they didn’t, then you’d have environmental ethicists who would say that the Colorado River has to be… we have to think about it in particular ways.

RS: The commercial exploitation of space: I’ve seen particular concerns about the possibility that this is basically just going to benefit rich people, big companies… everyone else gets left out. Is that a moral problem or just a political concern?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting concern. It’s the concern that you get, sometimes in environmental ethics and sometimes in science fiction. Which is… I’m going to pitch my science fiction screenplay to you. I personally have one but I’m going to invent one to yourself. So, this is copyright: if anyone hears this…

RS: I hope some people will hear it!

TM: If Spielberg’s out there he could get in touch with me, definitely: we have something to talk about… But: here is the rogue individual who finds themselves caught up in a mining operation which is run by The Company. The Company is so large that they wield vast political influence as well as having economic power both in space and back on Earth. This is a model we’ve iterated numerous times. How likely is that in relation to space?

Well, if the only place where you’re getting development is going to be on the Moon or on Mars, then monopoly-type systems might operate. But if you start talking about the asteroid belt, which is really where you want to go if you’re going to build large-scale structures off planets—and there’s no reason why, because of the small number of planets and moons that you can work with, there’s no reason why you would want to simply restrict yourself to that—plus there’s all those metal resources which are out there in the asteroid belt… It’s really, really big. Asteroids are very far apart from one another. Space is a big place. It’s not a place which lends itself particularly well to monopolies. Quite apart from the political ramifications and repercussions of having power concentrated in a small number of hands. You certainly wouldn’t want that.

If you’re talking about settlements, you have to remember that authoritarianism generates its own counter-culture, and monopoly systems are inherently authoritarian. And counter-cultures, beyond a certain point, in space can be quite… It’s quite dangerous: what do you do? Do you stop producing oxygen? There’s a whole range of things that you can do, that you’re at liberty to do in terms of protest here on Earth, that would just be absolutely lethal if you tried them in space. So the kinds of settlement, political structures that you need to evolve into, I think have to be ones that are non-authoritarian, where you have redundancy built into the system. You can’t have one oxygen supplier. This is crazy: that’s just giving your lives over to the boardroom. You have to have redundancy; you have to have multiple suppliers; you have to have multiple sources coming in.

Now I’m not denying that the first settlements that we have, if we manage to get to the point of settlement, will almost certainly inherit the command systems that they went with. So you have that initial element of authoritarianism there.

A great many things really militate against anyone being allowed to monopolise. Yes, in the early stages, big players will merge, and they will be SpaceXes, just better: bigger, better, more efficient than anyone else that’s around. And they’re likely to be bigger, better, and so on, for quite a while to come. So lots of smaller players will lose the shirts off their backs. There will be big players, as there are in these emerging sectors. But once you develop the technology it’s very, very difficult to stop people from piggy-backing off that and developing rival commercial interests.

NASA Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbitting the planet earth.

NASA Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbitting the planet earth.

So if The Company story is true then our future in space is just going to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But if you can get beyond that, to multiple players, multiple stakeholders, then you are much more in a position to have a sustainable process of development. And you’re also in a much better position to have a viable dialogue and practical impact in terms of the environmental ethics of space. If you go up against one big player it’s really, really tough: we’ll tend to think it’s a tough opponent to go up against. If you’ve got multiple players bidding for the ways in which they would carry out processes, then you get move leverage.

RS: We’ve been talking largely about ethics as a source of constraints: it tells us what not to do, what we mustn’t do. But I wonder whether you think ethics might also play a positive role, give us things to aim for in space?

TM: I think so. I’m not wildly convinced of a whole heap of arguments about why we should go: we should go because there is a biological imperative to explore and to move into new frontiers… I’m not sure that there is. Maybe that’s a species trait; it doesn’t look to be an individual trait. People will stay at home until you kick them out. That’s pretty much the human history: you don’t think, hmmm, well, I’ve got enough to eat here, and we’re well catered, for, and so on; I think I’ll go over there, where there’s a reasonable chance of me starving and dying a horrible and gruesome and protracted death. Humans don’t do that, but as a species we have tended to expand: not always a good thing.

But I guess I’m going to say that I quite like the intuition—and it is an intuition; I’m not sure how I would begin to build a rigorous ethical argument for it—I quite like the intuition that perhaps we do have a duty to extend either human life or life as such. I think that the presence of life is by and large a good thing. And that doesn’t mean to say that you have to have life everywhere. It does mean that, for example, we don’t know how much life there is out there; we don’t know, really, if there is life out there… We would like to believe that there is; we have some reasons to believe that there is; on balance there probably is—but we don’t know that. And through our neglect and negligence of possibilities for extending life: it would be a bad thing, it would be a dereliction with that kind of duty if we allowed life to die out through that kind of failure. So there is the expansion of presence of life, or possibly of human life, to other worlds.

Plus there is the growing sense that we’re running out of terrestrial resources. That does seem to be happening: you can see it in terms of the metals. Now the Earth’s got a dirty big metallic inner bit—but, but, but we can hardly haul out there… The metals that we can extract: a limited resource, many of them due to run out over the next few hundred years. Yes, we will have new technologies; yes, we will be better at extracting; and that will extend the time span a little bit. Yes, we will have new materials and so on, but it’s difficult seeing us doing without metals. So I think there’s a good case for having a graduated shift to a more balanced system which is not restricted to one planet which we happen to have messed up in some quite severe ways. That’s a decent picture of the future to me.

RS: A sentiment I sometimes see is: we’ve already got as far as the Moon, and then we’ve currently stopped sending human beings there; wouldn’t it be a huge disappointment for our entire species if we never went back?

TM: Well… It’s disappointing, maybe not for the entire species… Maybe for me, maybe for you, maybe for a lot of people. I’m guessing a lot of people have more immediate, pressing things on their plate. I guess it’s what we do: we can go and do things badly. We can go and do the same, make the same mistakes. I don’t think that’s necessarily the outcome that will happen, because we’re starting in a different way, and the dynamics of living in space impose restrictions and constraints upon us which we cannot ignore. I don’t mean to say that they’re morally inescapable; I mean to say that they’re physically inescapable, that there are certain aspects of the sheer nature of space that impose certain ways of doing things and certain needs for humans to work with one another to get different kinds of jobs done.

RS: Thank you for talking to Pod Academy.

Main photo: NASA Goddard space flight

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