Since Paleolithic times, settlement and development of new territories have been key to unlocking new resources and opportunities for our species. But along with the benefits have come catastrophe, including the spread of disease and destruction of cultures, the untimely death of explorers and pioneers, wars over newfound territories, and damage to the environment from the mixing of life from different ecosystems.
Now that humanity is on the brink of building settlements in space, we have the responsibility to learn from past mistakes and plan ahead. To do so, we must create a carefully crafted new field of “space ethics,” modeled in part on the bioethics that have guided medicine for decades. Space ethics must embrace stewardship of the space environment, the human rights of those endeavoring to extend civilization into space, the rule of law, and how the benefits of space can broadly benefit humanity while particularly motivating and rewarding those who risk, dare, invent, and invest.
To borrow a phrase from Star Trek, we need to boldly go where no one has gone before. But this time we need to do it peacefully and responsibly.
We are not off to a great start. In the early days of space, we didn’t consider some of the key ethical implications of exploration or commerce. We weren’t concerned when spacecraft blew up in orbit. Now, millions of pieces of debris travel in low Earth orbit alongside thousands, soon to be tens of thousands, of spacecraft. If the debris is not managed well, it could make passage through low Earth orbit dangerous and the operation of satellites impractical. Already, NASA analysis suggests that spacecraft impact from orbital debris may be the largest hazard astronauts face when traveling to the International Space Station.
It’s also time to update international space law to recognize property ownership and salvage rights. Under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, space debris remains the property of the state that launched it, even if it’s a satellite antenna or rocket body abandoned in orbit decades ago. That’s a legal impediment for companies developing satellites to clean up orbital debris and firms eager to recycle abandoned antennas and rocket bodies.
Rather than abandoning used spacecraft and landers, we should establish rules based on the international Law of the Sea Treaty to encourage conscientious cleanup and reuse to ensure the actions of one group do not endanger others.
The ethical considerations of stewardship will be much more extreme when humans venture on to deep space. The most important unanswered philosophical and scientific questions are: Are we alone? And is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Those who believe life in the universe is common expect to find existing or fossilized life on Mars.
In our quest to explore, settle or exploit the resources of the Red Planet, we should proceed carefully. Mars may have a biosphere very different from Earth’s. Making contact for the first time with another biosphere in the universe could potentially drive it to extinction by overwhelming it with terrestrial microbes or polluting the environment in a way that hampers critical scientific investigation for all time. Before we plunge ahead to build a city on Mars, we need to thoroughly explore the planet robotically. If there is a biosphere, we must investigate and understand it to learn how not to damage or destroy it.
Likewise, before we start permanent settlements on the moon or Mars or in deep space, we must carefully study and consider the bioethics of constant exposure to radiation and reduced gravity. These effects are reasonably well understood as they relate to small groups of carefully selected adult astronauts on missions of finite duration in Earth orbit, where radiation is far lower. Even limited exposure in orbit is known to permanently affects astronauts on a molecular level. After about a year on the International Space Station astronaut Scott Kelly’s immune system, metabolic function and protein production differed significantly from that of his twin brother, former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy Captain Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth.
The impact from lifetime exposures or exposure of developing fetuses and children in deep space is virtually unstudied. There are solid scientific reasons to expect that the effects will potentially be catastrophic and multigenerational. Endangering future generations of settlers to uncertain but debilitating medical maladies without careful study first would be a prime violation of the principles of bioethics.
Prior to any settlement we must establish bioethics review boards and develop guidelines for human activity that go far beyond NASA’s current guidelines for astronaut missions. Such boards would be likely to require multigenerational animal experiments and extensive clinical trials to examine the long-term effects of radiation and reduced gravity on the human life cycle. We must discover, for example if there are epigenetic consequences of such exposure and if there are, how to mitigate them.
We call upon the White House National Space Council to coordinate private companies and organizations to include think tanks, advocacy groups, and the science community to work together to define the field of space ethics and use it to guide the development of laws and regulations that will ensure the rapid and peaceful exploration, development and settlement of space.
This is a call to move forward as fast as feasible to ethically explore space and do the research that will enable settlement of the high frontier. We have a chance to show that humanity has learned from history and is evolving morally and culturally by encouraging the exploration and development of space for the betterment of all.
Sercel is president and founder of TransAstra Corporation. Kwast, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, is chief global officer and president of Genesis Systems, LLC.
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