What You Need to Know about Space Ethics – Richard J Tilley: Space Strategist and Ethicist
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

What You Need to Know about Space Ethics

Please allow me to start with a quote from Chelsea Haramia’s article, “Why We Need Space Ethicists,”

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.

Space Ethics covers a great deal of scientific and moral neotic considerations. How should we prevent light pollution? How should we prevent contamination of our footprint on other planets and moons? What of microbes? What of colonization? What of representation? What of the fact that suffering continues on Earth while we simultaneously invest large sums into space exploration? What does a space future look like? How should we go about working towards it? What precautions should we take? How do we prevent historical human atrocities on foreign worlds? How prepared should we be for first contact situations?

The real question is: What of possibility? Anyone trained in ethics will tell you possibility is largely what is considered and the construct of possibility becomes reality more often that one might think. We can say with certainty that this is a concept that is moving into the mainstream through cultural and political edicts of realization. It is happening slowly, but it is happening all the same.

Andrea Owe, who refers to herself through her academic background as an Ecological, Space, and AI Ethicist, writes in her post, “Space Ethics and Ecological Ethics,” that,

The holistic and planetary perspective on environmental and civilization concerns offered in space science is helpful in several ways. From the planetary perspective, the Anthropocene represents an  entirely new evolutionary stage in the development of life, and a planet which is entering a phase where cognitive processes are becoming a major agent of planetary change. As David Grinspoon puts it in his Earth in Human Hands (2016): “We are witnessing, and manifesting, something unprecedented and still completely unpredictable: the advent of self-aware geological change.”

It is an advancement that disrupts and rearranges all our systems of time-keeping, braiding together the three timescales of human history, geological time and biological time into one inseparable narrative. The Anthropocene constitutes a significant cognitive shift concerning our self-perception and is to a great extent about how we may, and how we should, step into our new role as a planetary force. David Grinspoon puts it beautifully:

“We are just beginning to come to grips with this strange new development. Like an infant staring at its hands, we are becoming aware of our powers but have not yet gained control over them. (…) We have so far achieved global impact but have no mechanisms for global self-control. (…) We have, unconsciously, been making a new planet. Our challenge now is to awaken to this role and grow into it, becoming conscious shapers of our world.”

This cosmic perspective on the Anthropocene is highly suitable when discussing what may become one of the key events of the epoch; humankind migrating to outer space, in other words; becoming multiplanetary. Becoming multiplanetary is a civilizational project and a project in civilization. In order to attempt to foresee, or at least speculate, about how we may and how we possibly should go about this project, we need an appropriately ontologically and epistemologically expanded perspective. As such, we may manage to capture the intricate web of correlations, from microscale to macroscale, and locate a conscious path through it.

If there is a future in space, Konrad Szocik points out that women are “more resistant to stress in space” (Theology and Science, 2020). Feminism plays a role in future space exploration, as much as NASA and other competing independent space agencies might like to imagine that is not the case.

So, we can see there are two major elements that are important to consider when discussing space ethics. One is mostly scientific, though even science is not without inevitable ontology (many scientists will strongly disagree, but I am holding my ground – all is all is all), and the second is the human element; societal, cultural, humanistic and idealist qualities that will take place as we move towards a more space-infused future. What both of these elements share in common is their potential for ethical breach and the post-totalitarian reality that we will take humanity’s troubles with us into space.

As many science fiction stories and programs will tell us, that means we are not ready for deep space missions. Therefore, should that stop us? It is unrealistic to consider that it will stop us. It is unrealistic to believe that Earth will solve all its problems before venturing into space. Yes, that first impression utopia would be ideal, and should be strongly argued, though it will not be a reality. Therefore ethicists must act as editors in the print of future exploration. Not to censor the footprint of humanity in the stars, but to stir and implement guidelines for what we should and should not do with the hopes of establishing a working relationship with the actors in question. After all, what most ethicists will tell you, it is rare that their full message is taken to heart and followed upon. If they were we would not need to have this conversation.

Richard J Tilley