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Extraterrestrial Ethics

“At the core of NASA’s future space exploration is a return to the moon, where we will build a sustainable long term human presence” (NASA website, 2009)

Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Photo: timesunion.com2009 was a great year for space exploration! The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing marked a new era for our future in space. Key landmarks include the European Space Agency’s appointment of its first European Commander to the International Space Station. In October, the 60th International Astronautical Congress took place in South Korea. Then there were continuing attempts from South Korea to launch its first rocket in the aftermath of the ongoing controversy about North Korea’s testing of rocket technology in outer space. NASA even managed to identify water on the moon.

In a time of potentially catastrophic climate change, our need to consider the exploration of outer space is greater than ever. This need is made visible by the rise of various networks that are contributing to the establishment of governmental policies that will oversee our move into outer space, either as visitors or inhabitants. The importance of ethical debate within such conversations is signaled by the work of such organizations as UNESCO, which held its first congress on the ethics of outer space in 2004.

Applying ethical guidelines that will accommodate the wide and diverse interests of a global community presents considerable challenges and inhibits the willingness of space agencies to commit wholeheartedly to any such implementation. After all, haven’t societies been trying to find common ground on such values for at least half a century?

Are there no ethical principles we can share to help guide our colonization of outer space? If not, then how do we deal with some of the fundamental questions that govern such work? For instance, what obligations do we owe to the various life forms we send there, or those we might discover? Can we develop a more considerate approach to colonizing outer space than we were able to achieve for various sectors of Earth?

Astronaut in SpaceAnd what are our expectations of astronauts? What are we actually asking them to do and will they be aware of what they’re getting themselves into? Could our inevitable public surveillance of their behavior become too much of an infringement on their personal privacy? While it is tempting to believe that an astronaut’s time in outer space involves a lot of free floating antics and admiring the view, astronauts are hooked up to monitoring devices and poked and prodded ad infinitum to find out what happens to biology when it is outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Humanity has a moral obligation to discover, create and support emergent life forms via space exploration. This obligation arises from the discovery itself, the mere possibility of developing such technology. However, to understand the value of such achievements and why we should pursue them further requires that we connect space exploration to a long chain of other discoveries that have incrementally extended our reach. Consider that the first liquid-fuelled rocket was launched in 1926 by the American Robert Goddard, the same year that John Logie Baird demonstrated the first true television system.

Our neglect of the intimate set of connections that describe technological histories limits our ability to make sense of present-day interventions or their politics. Moreover, our failure to use these achievements wisely limits our ability to survive as a species. I am not going to argue that the end is nigh unless we find a way of colonizing outer space, though there are some people that would find little difficulty in accepting this proposition. But our obligation goes beyond the pursuit of new frontiers for its own sake, or our own survival. To this end, the exploration of outer space is far from a luxury. Rather, it is an integral component of a flourishing society. Without pursuing the most complex scientific challenges, we will want for solutions to many of our immediate social needs. Moreover, the goods of space exploration far exceed the symbolic value of landing on the moon or orbiting the earth. A vast amount of research and development derives from space exploration. For example, the United Kingdom’s 2007 Space Policy inquiry indicated that the creation of space products contributes two to three times their value in GDP.

Admittedly, many will have reservations about investing into space exploration given ongoing economic doom and gloom. This is why we should derive our imperative from moral, rather than scientific reasons.

Extraterrestrial in SpaceConsider for a moment the holy grail of space exploration: the discovery of life outside of Earth, not just some kind of water, but sentient life — the kind that has eyes. While there is a limit to how much one should be distracted by such ideas, it is useful to illustrate how the pursuit of extraterrestrials is increasingly aligned with other human practices.

After all, how should we treat the creation of new life forms, which derive from a range of cross-genetic breeding practices? Our own modification of the species pool through selection, modification, or transgenics creates a situation where distinct species properties emerge as a result of radical human-made interventions. We might even claim that such interventions transcend evolutionary processes.

In what sense should such entities be reasonably claimed as Earthly? When an asteroid enters the Earth – or when a shuttle returns – does our planet become less Earthly? It seems to me that we need to debunk the idea that Earth can be treated as an isolated structure, since we know it is not. We are already extraterrestrial in the most meaningful sense of the term. Thus, extraterrestrial ethics applies to life in general. It meets with the expansion of recently developed concepts such as ecosystem health as a broad area of moral concern along with the principle of procreative beneficence — the idea that our capacities of begetting new lives should be utilized to optimize human flourishing in its broadest sense. It promotes the principle of autonomy, while recognizing that individual decisions have consequences for others.

For me, the appeal of pursuing outer space begins with the imagination of new life forms. It is necessary that we consider our obligations to such lives and what responsibilities we should articulate for their continued survivability.

Decades after the beginnings of the first space race began, the next giant leap for humanity seems more to do with coming to terms with what we want from the next era of space exploration. To answer this question, we will need more than just scientists to tell us what is possible.

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