Since the Paleolithic, colonizing and developing new areas has been key to opening up new resources and opportunities for our species. But with the benefits comes a disaster ranging from the spread of disease and the destruction of cultures, to the untimely deaths of explorers and pioneers, to wars over newly discovered areas and environmental damage from the commingling of life from different ecosystems.
Now that humanity is on the verge of building settlements in space, we have a responsibility to learn from past mistakes and to plan ahead. To do this, we need to create a carefully crafted new field of “space ethics”, partly modeled on the bioethics that have guided medicine for decades. Space ethics must include responsibility for the space environment and the human rights of those who strive to expand civilization space, the rule of law, and how the benefits of space can broadly benefit humanity, while those who take risks dare to invent and invest, be particularly motivated and rewarded.
Borrow a phrase Star TrekWe must courageously go where no one has been before. But this time we have to do it peacefully and responsibly.
We didn’t get off to a good start. In the early days of space, we ignored some of the major ethical implications of exploration or trade. We weren’t concerned when the spaceship exploded in orbit. Millions of debris are now moving in low-earth orbit next to thousands, soon to be tens of thousands, of spacecraft. If the debris is not handled well it can make passage through Earth orbit dangerous and make satellite operations impractical. NASA’s analysis already suggests that spacecraft impact by debris in orbit is the greatest threat to astronauts when traveling to the International Space Station.
It is also time to update international space law to recognize property and salvage rights. Under the 1967 Space Treaty, space debris remains the property of the state that created it, even if it is a satellite antenna or missile body abandoned in orbit decades ago. This is a legal obstacle for companies developing satellites to clear debris in orbit and for companies eager to recycle abandoned antennas and missile bodies.
Rather than abandoning used spaceships and landers, we should establish rules based on the International Treaty on the Law of the Sea to encourage scrupulous cleaning and reuse, and to ensure that the actions of one group do not endanger others.
The ethical considerations about management will be much more extreme when humans venture into space. The main unanswered philosophical and scientific questions are: Are we alone? And is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Those who believe that life is widespread in the universe expect to find existing or petrified life on Mars.
We should proceed with caution in our search for exploration, colonization, or exploitation of the Red Planet’s resources. Mars may have a different biosphere than Earth. The first time you make contact with another biosphere in the universe it may be threatened with extinction by overwhelming it with terrestrial microbes or polluting the environment in ways that forever hamper critical scientific investigation. Before we set out to build a city on Mars, we need to thoroughly robotically explore the planet. If there is a biosphere, we must study and understand it to learn how not to damage or destroy it.
Before we begin permanent settlements on the Moon or Mars or in space, we need to carefully examine and consider the bioethics of constant radiation exposure and decreased gravity. These effects are fairly well understood as they relate to small groups of carefully selected adult astronauts on missions of finite duration in Earth orbit, where the radiation is far less. It is known that even limited exposure in orbit has permanent effects on astronauts at the molecular level. After about a year on the immune system of International Space Station astronaut Scott Kelly, metabolic function and protein production differed significantly from those of his twin brother, former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain, Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth .
The effects of lifelong exposure or exposure of developing fetuses and children in space have practically not been studied. There is solid scientific reason to expect that the effects will be potentially catastrophic and cross-generational. The endangerment of future generations of settlers from unsafe but debilitating medical diseases without careful study would be a major violation of the principles of bioethics.
Before reaching any agreement, we must set up bioethics review boards and develop guidelines for human activities that go well beyond NASA’s current guidelines for astronaut missions. Such boards would likely require multi-generation animal testing and extensive clinical studies to investigate the long-term effects of radiation and reduced gravity on the human life cycle. For example, we need to find out whether such exposure has epigenetic consequences and how it can be mitigated.
We call on the White House National Space Council to coordinate private companies and organizations to involve think tanks, stakeholders and the scientific community to collectively define the area of space ethics and use it as a guide for the development of laws and regulations Ensure rapid and peaceful exploration, development and settlement of space.
This is a call to move forward as quickly as possible to ethically explore space and do the research that enables colonization of the high line. We have the chance to show that humanity has learned from history and is developing morally and culturally by promoting the exploration and development of space for the betterment of all.
Sercel is President and Founder of TransAstra Corporation. Kwast, a retired Lt. General in the Air Force, is the chief global officer and president of Genesis Systems, LLC.