The following is a guest post by Philip J Reed, on behalf of Exede,which specializes in high speed satellite Internet.
Space: the final frontier. As intoned by William Shatner in the opening scenes of the classic sci-fi show Star Trek all those years ago, it seemed like a peek into our future. As it turned out, it was just that. A mere three years after the USS Enterprise took flight on the television show, Americans were taking their first, weightless steps onto the surface of the moon. Today, with the promise of commercial space travel looming on the horizon, we take a step back and look at some of the deeper, ethical considerations involved in the exploration and colonization of space.
It’s nearly impossible to separate the future of space travel from the history of the United States. We are a country born out of colonization, and have never relinquished our spirit of exploration and progress. Of course, this was always confined to the ethical issues of conquering land here on Earth. While our history books may be slanted in favor of the conquerors, the issues that divide right and wrong are fairly well defined, for anyone who doesn’t keep their head wrapped in an American flag. But while our bloody history as a nation may hold things we can’t be proud of, it gives us few clues about how to move forward into this uncharted territory. There are, after all, no natives on Mars, as far as we can know now.
Do we owe the vast reaches of space a more considered and measured approach than that which we’ve taken with our own home planet? Even those staunchly opposed to the theory of man-made global warming must admit that, in part, we’ve treated the planet like our personal garbage can for a very long time. In fact, some of the pressure to develop working solutions to space colonization is due to the possibility that Earth won’t always be inhabitable. Overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources and irreversible environmental damage may make our interstellar travel more than a flight of fancy; it may become a necessity. Do we repeat the process with our space station in the sky?
Patrick Lin, in his piercing exploration of the topic, says, “Preserving the pristine, unspoiled expanses of space is a recurring theme…” when discussing the ethical considerations surrounding work in space. Are our wars and lack of environmental concern a part of our basic nature, or are there things we can change about the way we conduct business?
As much as history is written by the winners, it’s fair to say that the future is shaped by the pioneers. Is it their personal ethical values that shape what is to come when talking of our space-bound future? If so, there may be cause for concern. The late Jim Benson, founder of SpaceDev and the Benson Space Company was one of the foremost proponents of extra-terrestrial colonization. As David M. Livingston pointed out in his Space Future research paper, “The Ethical Commercialization of Outer Space”, Benson’s comments were often controversial and thought-provoking. Speaking at a conference in 1998, Benson said, “I think it is extremely important to create a precedent for private property rights in space.” This only reinforces the belief that the future of space travel and colonization will follow the same models we developed on Earth, i.e., the “what’s mine is mine” model.
Effects on Earth
Of course, even as technology continues to grow at an exponential rate, we are likely a long way from colonizing another planet. But there are more immediate ethical considerations when working in space. With natural resources beginning to dwindle, finding outer space alternatives is likely. Asteroid mining is but one example of this. According to Robert Lamb’s analysis on Discovery.com, the typical asteroid may contain as much as a billion metric tons of iron. The ramifications, as pointed out in his exploration of Guy J. Consolmagno’s lecture on the subject, could be significant. Yes, it is another source of an important resource, but what impact does harvesting it have on continents such as Africa that depend on the export of the resource for sustainability?
Concerns about pollution, future wars and even speculation about how asteroid mining might affect the global economy are, of course, secondary to the most immediate concern: the safety of the first humans to push our boundaries. Not everyone who signs up to work at NASA does so with the idea of becoming a human research experiment, as noted by the agency’s chief bioethicist, Paul Root Wolpe, in an interview with the New York Times. “They are covered by something called the Common Rule,” he notes when asked about the ethical issues. This rule gives any astronaut the opportunity to withdraw from an experiment without fear of repercussion. But, as Wolpe himself points out, big dollars are on the line with any manned space travel, as well as experiments performed in simulations on Earth. NASA has already proposed modifying their interpretation of the rule, perhaps to reduce the chances of a wasted experiment. How do we balance the need for human data with the importance of protecting safety? This, among other questions, will need to be answered as we move into brave new worlds.
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