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          WINTER, 2006 - RESEARCH PAPER

Published in Astropolitics journal, Winter 2006, vol. 4, no. 3: 281-294; and as presented at 25th annual International Space Development Conference 2006, Los Angeles, May 4-7, 2006:

Space Ethics: Look Before Taking Another Leap for Mankind

By Patrick Lin


Commercial space travel is looking more like a real possibility than science fiction, but tied to that ambition, we may be held back by the gravity of emerging ethical dilemmas. This paper is a “think piece” that surveys a range of social, economic and political questions as well as critically evaluates reasons why we should explore space.

The usual ethical issues related to environmental and safety concerns are only the tip of this iceberg and are not so much the focus here. Rather, there are many other interesting questions, such as: What would be a fair process for commercializing or claiming property in space (as opposed to a chaotic land-grab similar to that with Internet domain names)? How likely would a separatist movement be among settlements who want to be free from their mother nations on Earth? Are reasons such as for adventure, wanderlust or "backing up the biosphere" good enough to justify our exploration of space?

The point here is not that we shouldn’t explore space; rather, if we are to move forward with our journey, which may be unstoppable anyway, then we should seriously consider these issues. At the least, this would give the public more confidence that we are looking ahead before we take another leap for mankind.


1.0 Introduction

Not since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 has there been such excitement about space exploration again. Why? Because for the first time, the average Joe now has a real chance to reach for the stars. Space travel will soon no longer be just for an elite group of highly-educated and disciplined astronauts; instead, the possibility of commercial space travel is just over our horizon. But lost in all this excitement, there is a crescendo of ethical dilemmas that is building up and may put the brakes on our adventures, if not considered early in our journey.

Our efforts to introduce everyday individuals into space are aggressive, with private individuals and corporations unwilling to wait for the government to open the doors. As the first step in space tourism, the X Prize offered a $10,000,000 bounty that fueled unprecedented competition to make the first, repeatable privately-financed space flight. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to offer commercial space travel by 2008. Besides plans for “space elevators”, nanotechnology already gives us new, lighter materials – and later promises more powerful energy sources and computing capabilities – that can enable more efficient and farther-reaching launches.

So with the growing possibility of commercial space travel, we appear to truly be on the cusp of a new frontier. But what does that imply? Space has been long called “the final frontier”, but have we taken the time to consider what our responsibilities are as “frontiersmen”? Are there any ethical and social considerations we should consider beforehand? Let’s briefly compare this new era of space exploration to other instances of charting new frontiers to see why space ethics is a critical area of discussion.

1.1 Learning from History

Going back a few centuries to colonial America, our history lessons seemed to have glossed over the fierce ethical debate that had surrounded English colonialism, that is, the moral permissibility of settling on lands already occupied by the indigenous people of America or Amerindians. It was not at all obvious that colonialism was an unproblematic practice, and in fact, it seemed to be such an intractable and important ethical dilemma that it inspired some of the most notable thinking in political philosophy. For instance, John Locke’s influential Second Treatise of Government, that explained the origins of private property and civil government, is now believed to be a defense of English colonialism, establishing a legitimate mechanism to claim property in lands that are already occupied (though not “owned” by Amerindians as they were believed to be nomadic and only wandered across the land rather than have ownership in it).[1]

The difference between colonialism and space exploration, of course, is that we do not run immediately into the problem of displacing or interfering with pre-existing inhabitants of whatever space bodies we explore next, since no such “alien” life-form has yet to be established. And given Fermi’s Paradox, this may be a problem we need not tackle in the near future. Rather, the point here is if we are taking another giant leap into the space frontier, our position is not too different from that of colonialists: we have the unique opportunity to start a new world, but in doing so, there may be important ethical and social issues we should consider first.

Our last New World proved to hold many conflicts and challenges – from territorial disputes with other nations to the chaos of the Wild West to current population-related issues – that may similarly arise in the context of space exploration. But now, we have the benefit of hindsight and another unique opportunity to identify and defuse those potential landmines before we step on them. It has not been easy getting from pre-United States to where we are now, and we might expect similar trials on our road to space settlements as well.

Other relevant lessons from history may include our recent development of cyberspace, or the Internet frontier. Without planning ahead for related intellectual property issues as well as online sales tax, Internet crimes and other areas, the rush into cyberspace has been messy at best. Domain names represent a frenzied and frustrating land-grab of sorts that go to the first person to claim it, rather than to the most deserving person or organization with an established interest or trademark associated with the name, notwithstanding legal action against domain-name “squatters.” The usual free-market principles don’t even apply here. If they had, domain names might have been auctioned off to the highest bidder. So it is unclear what our guiding philosophy or strategy is in developing cyberspace, and the absence of an overarching strategy is a likely contributor to our current problems in the Internet Age.

We might also draw an analogy between developing space to, say, developing Antarctica: if that frozen land were to somehow become available for commercial exploration and settlements, what kind of social planning and ethical considerations would we discuss then, and are we applying the same forethought to space development – and if not, why not? We would not rush to develop the South Pole without a well-thought plan, so the same reasonable precaution would seem to apply to colonizing space.

To be sure, much has already been said about certain issues in space ethics, which we will quickly survey in the next section, but there are also new “big picture” worries that have not received much or any attention. Addressing these issues would at least give the public more confidence that governments, scientists and astronauts are thinking ahead in our collective interests, rather than barreling forward with little regard or public discussion of important consequences, for example, as we have done with biotechnology – which created an entirely new discipline of bioethics – and what seems to be occurring now to an extent with nanotechnology.

2.0 Familiar Issues in Space Ethics

The prospect of increased space travel brings with it a host of ethical questions, such as related to environmental conservation, competing priorities, safety risks and non-proliferation of military technology. These are somewhat familiar questions, and though they will not be the focus of this paper, we will discuss them briefly here for the sake of completeness.

One of the first and natural reactions of many is to ask: Should we be encouraging private space exploration, given what we’ve done to our own planet? What’s to prevent problems on Earth from following us into outer space, if we have not evolved the attitudes that have contributed to those problems? As examples, an over-developed sense of nationalism may again lead to war with other humans in space, and ignoring the cumulative effects of small acts may again lead to such things as the over-commercialization of space and space pollution. Have we learned enough about ourselves and our history to avoid the same mistakes as we have made on Earth?

Preserving the pristine, unspoiled expanses of space is a recurring theme, much as it is important to preserve wetlands, rainforests and other natural wonders here on Earth. We have already littered our outer atmosphere with floating space debris that rockets and satellites need to track and navigate around, not to mention abandoned equipment on the moon and other planets. So what safeguards are in place to ensure we don’t exacerbate this problem, especially if we propose to increase space traffic? Are we prepared to risk accidents in space from the technologies we might use, such as nuclear power?

Another common concern is for the safety of our pioneering astronauts: Should we send people to other planets when robots might do the job just as well but more safely and less expensively? Of course, as X Prize’s chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis argued in his U.S. congressional testimony[2], our country was founded by adventurous people who lost their lives in crossing the Atlantic, the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains, and beyond. Immigrants who’ve come to America risked everything to make the journey, even to this day. So it’s practically un-American to shy away from these risks. But with today’s regulations, the Wright Brothers might never have had been allowed to take off on their flimsy, bicycle-powered flying contraption. Even if safety is not a key ethical concern for astronauts who have consented to the risks, what about any children that are born in or taken to space who cannot give legal consent?

Many critics have also asked whether we should be redirecting our significant investments in space exploration – much of it funded by taxpayers – to solve more pressing problems on Earth, such as helping economic development in depressed areas, alleviating poverty and hunger, providing access to clean and affordable water and energy, and addressing other issues including human rights violations. Others are also worried about the militarization of space, given a history of weaponizing new technologies and carrying old conflicts over into new lands.

3.0 Broader Issues in Space Ethics

If the environmental, safety and other concerns previously discussed are near-term issues in space ethics, there are also mid- and far-term questions that we should consider, most notably related to the economic, political and social impact of space exploration and settlements. Many of these questions are familiar in philosophy, but this section will help connect the dots to their relevance in space exploration.

3.1 Property Rights and Economics

If space will be commercialized, then property claims – by governments, corporations, individuals, or all three – will need to be made in order to operate business ventures without interference from others. Just as a patent provides an inventor with the protection needed to invest the time, money and hard work required in the first place, a company may be less willing to invest hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to, say, build time-share condos on the moon without having clear rights to that property. At any rate, it seems to be in our nature to acquire or want things to be ours and ours alone, so these issues will naturally arise.

But notwithstanding U.N. treaties that preserve outer space as commonly-owned property (at least for now), what would be a fair process for claiming property in space, without which we risk a free-for-all, chaotic land-grab? (Note that lawsuits have already been filed on Earth to lay claim to such things as asteroids[3], so the idea of dividing up property in space may not be so far-fetched.)

First of all, we need to understand what it means to own space in common with others. Is our relationship with space one of “positive community of ownership”, in that we each own an equal share in space and its contents? If so, several other questions come up here. To illustrate the point, imagine if there were only eight people alive on Earth and only eight other planets in our solar system: do we each get our own planet or only 1/8 of each planet? And how do we account for future people – must we factor in their legacy before we can claim our shares, e.g., now I can claim only a 1/1000 share of Mars in order to leave enough land for others who might exist in my lifetime?

On the other hand, if our relationship to space is one of “negative community of ownership”, then no one has a prima facie claim to the property in question, i.e., no one owns anything yet, or we share the common starting point of owning no part of space. This raises the question of how it is possible to gain ownership of unowned objects. Some of the mechanisms or processes by which we can legitimately acquire property might include laboring upon the object (e.g., shaping clay into a bowl) or improve it (e.g., cultivating a field for crops), but why should that be enough to give us property rights – why not other methods?

The trick here is to justify the property-giving process in a way that explains why other processes don’t lead to property rights, such as simply pointing at an unclaimed asteroid and say “That’s mine” or perhaps roping off a section of the moon in order to claim it. If only labor and/or improvement is enough to do the trick, what is so special about it such that an object then becomes ours? And what is the extent of our property rights – are we permitted to destroy what we own, e.g., irradiate our land, or freely transfer all our rights, say, to an individual person or company who might then own the entire moon or planet?

Of course, we might simply extend our existing rules of property to govern space as well, assuming all nations involved endorse a free-market system. But in uncharted territory, such as with cyberspace, our options seem to be limited to first-come-first-served and to the highest bidder, which we have seen lead to the inefficient and disorderly Internet gold rush. And because how we formulate property rights sets the tone for whatever economic model is adopted – e.g., a high-bid process would naturally foster capitalism – this has great implications on how markets and transactions would proceed in space.

If entering space marks our opportunity to start over again, then it seems that unfettered capitalism should no longer be a sacred cow and should be subject to critical evaluation along with other competing economic models. For instance, a purely free-market economy, while efficient at allocating scarce resources and inspiring innovation, is not so much concerned with need or merit, so a hybrid model may be desired.

3.2 Justice and Government

At the risk of cynicism, if we were to truly apply Earth rules to space, then the ultimate, albeit morally problematic, litmus test for claiming property may be about one’s ability to physically defend the property. Without a police force in space, it may first start with individuals or corporations defending their parcel against competitors in turf battles, despite any prevailing laws on Earth. But while “right through might” may perfectly describe frontier justice, one would hope that we have evolved beyond that.

Even among enlightened people, there will inevitably be property-rights disputes in space, just as there is on terra firma between reasonable parties, so we will need a regulatory or administrative body that has jurisdiction over those lands, in addition to an enforcement agency. It won’t be enough that we govern from Earth – we will need a local organization to maintain law and order in real-time as well as to more efficiently administer public policy, urban planning and other matters. Again, these concerns point to our new era in space exploration as a true opportunity to start over from scratch, bringing with it new responsibility to architect a blueprint for society in space.

But no matter who leads this government – whether it’s the U.N., U.S. or other countries ruling over their respective claims – once moons or planets can be terraformed and their human inhabitants self-sufficient, what incentive do people there have to continue under this rule? Perhaps they no longer want to be Earth’s little socio-scientific experiment or newest vacation spot. Why should humans on Mars think of themselves as an extension of any nation today, if they can form – and defend – their own government and start from a clean slate?

Think again about colonial America: even without oppressive policies and taxes from King George III, there was no compelling reason to remain a territory of England. For all practical purposes, America was already a different nation and culture from England, given the vast distance between them. And looking at the state of affairs in today’s world, where separatist movements are pushing for independence for their own little countries, it seems that it’s in human nature to want to break free. Even here in the U.S., people are still calling to break up California into several separate states and some counties, such as Santa Barbara, into two.

4.0 Why Explore Space?

The point here isn’t that we shouldn’t explore space. It’s that if we are to move forward with this plan, which may be unstoppable anyway, then we should look at these issues before we take another leap in the name of mankind. Indeed, there are good reasons to want to explore space. Wanderlust is in our DNA – that’s simply what humans do. Call it the indefatigable, and arguably incorrigible, “human spirit” to push our physical, intellectual and creative boundaries. In this section, however, we will take a critical look at these reasons to explore new worlds, since finding a moral imperative or justification for such a venture in the first place must be a fundamental part of space ethics.

Sir Richard Branson explained on his Virgin Galactic website: “We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensations of weightlessness and space flight. The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”[4] But is the desire for tourism or adventure reason enough to open up space to private individuals? After all, we don’t allow, say, free travel to Antarctica or settlements in Yellowstone National Park for the same reasons.

Perhaps the difference between space and Antarctica or protected parks is that there may be much more to discover in space, including possibly the origins of Earth and the universe. But then this changes our reason for space travel to be more about the sake of knowledge, and if that’s the case, it’s unclear how commercialization of space furthers that goal, in contrast to exploration by only trained scientists. Social dynamics may be an interesting area of investigation – such as how people self-organize and live in an isolated environment, or how basic government might arise – but these seem to be experiments we can already conduct on Earth, and even more so in the future if we ever acquire the technology to terraform inhospitable environments.

If not for adventure or curiosity, there are other, more pragmatic reasons to consider. For example, scientists talk about “backing up the biosphere” in case our world becomes uninhabitable.[5] Of course, if that ever happened, it may be our own fault, given our weapons of mass destruction, freely-distributed recipes for the 1918 killer virus, predicted misapplications of bio- and nanotechnology, and other possible man-made catastrophes. So is it a good enough reason to inhabit another planet, because we want a “do-over” if we destroy our own? And if so, again, what are we doing to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes and lay waste to another biosphere? If we have put ourselves in a position where we need a back-up plan, it is unclear how colonizing space will improve our predicament until we address those root issues.

Less metaphysically, does having a safety net, such as a back-up planet, make it more likely that we take more chances and treat our current planet less carefully? This would seem to be consistent with human behavior: as risks decrease, we are more likely to engage in that activity. And the converse is true as well: as risks increase, we are less likely to engage in that behavior. However, an argument might be made that people who engage in possibly-catastrophic acts are not the kind of people worried about our future and would proceed ahead regardless of a back-up biosphere. Further, perhaps having a “Plan B” does make sense, if we think that a natural apocalypse may occur, such as an asteroid collision.

Another related reason for space development is that inhabiting other planets is the “social release valve” we need to alleviate overcrowding and diminishing resources here on our home planet.[6] But is this an argument for space exploration, or for population control and more intelligent use of our natural resources? Once again, if we need to escape our own planet for societal, political or economic reasons, what’s our plan for doing it right on another planet, or will we be bringing the same baggage into space to create more of the same?

Another reason, and one that is perhaps too straightforward, was recently articulated by Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and founder of SpaceX: “My goal is to make humans the first interplanetary species.”[7] This seems to speak either to our biological drive to propagate our own genetic lines, which incidentally serves to continue the species, or to a more narcissistic desire to literally take over that which is within our reach. Either case should give us pause: what are the ethics of introducing new species to environments where they are not normally found, and is the fact that we can send the average citizen into space and extend the human species on other planets or moons reason enough to do it? Would we have a moral issue with populating the moon with, say, monkeys or dandelions instead? And if not, what are the relevant differences between that and populating certain areas of Earth with non-indigenous animals, such as letting loose rabbits in Australia or ferrets in California?

Even if a more defensible reason is that space exploration pushes human limits, that drive to break past existing boundaries surely must be subject to reasonable limitations. For instance, we are able to clone human beings, yet we refrain from that practice for ethical reasons. We are physically able to build homes inside national parks and other uninhabited areas, but we refrain from doing so, at least to comply with laws designed to preserve that environment.

One possible reply to this series of irritating questions might be the following: instead of formulating a positive reason to explore or develop space, the burden of proof should be placed on opponents who believe we should not boldly go forward into space; they should give us compelling reasons not to. This seems to be an intellectually-lazy answer and perhaps the burden of proof should fall on both sides.

Further, if we truly believe that space exploration is so obviously unproblematic in a moral sense, then we should be able to defend that intuition or claim. The strongest defense may be to argue that we have a presumptive right to explore space and interact with the cosmos as we see fit, particularly if (1) there is no one else in the universe to object, (2) no one else to harm, and (3) plenty of room for everybody. If this is a reasonable line to take, then our focus should be on understanding the origin and nature of that right as well as any responsibilities tied to that right. (If there are other beings in the universe to object or harm, then the task of justifying space development, which brings us closer to encroaching on their domain, may become more complicated.)

If you believe in “The Big Bang”, the origin of that right may perhaps be found somewhere in the fact that we, homo sapiens, came from the stars in the first place. The atoms that make up our bodies – as well as everything else around us – are the exact same atoms that originated from the singular point that once contained all that is. If that is the case, and we view ourselves in the simplest materialistic terms, then why would we not have the right to travel back from where we came? We already covered the distance, so exploring outer space doesn’t really cover new territory; we’ve been there. Or so that argument might go.

And at any rate, it may be an exaggeration to say that there are serious opponents to space exploration or development. It seems to be more the case that there are many concerns surrounding our space efforts, and these may very well be solvable concerns. But until they are fully investigated and taken seriously by the space community, the public perception might be that our exuberant rush into space comes at the expense of these concerns.

5.0 Conclusion

If space development is just on our horizon, there looks to be enough questions to require forethought and advance planning related to the social, political and economic landscape of space living, in addition to the usual near-term issues in space ethics. If this is our chance for a fresh start, then we should be deliberate and careful with our actions, thinking through as many of the unintended consequences as possible.

We already have centuries of philosophical, political and economic theories in our stockpile; now is the time to dust them off, re-evaluate them, and finally turn theory into action. One reasonable starting point would be to consider space development through political thinker John Rawls’ Original Position in which we operate under a “veil of ignorance” or pretend that we don’t know any facts about ourselves, including who we are, what economic class we belong to, what nationality we are, and so on.[8] With our biases stripped away, what rules would we set up, knowing that we would have to live by those rules once we find out who we are? You may be just as likely to be a poor farmer in the heartland of America, or a Buddhist in Japan, or a wealthy businessman in Germany, or an AIDS patient in South Africa, or an amputee in Iraq. Applying the veil of ignorance to rules in space, this helps ensure that the processes we set up are fair and consider the interests of all people, including protecting the worst-off people from an even worse and uncaring fate.

What we probably don’t want to happen is to rush into orbit without a “big picture” strategy – allowing individuals or corporations or governments to make up a plan as they go along, whether it’s to camp on or erect billboards on or lay claim to other planets, untethered by orderly processes and safeguards. Had we given that kind of forethought to administering the Internet, we might not have had cyber-squatters camping out on domain names, or disgruntled teens writing virus programs that exploit gaps in the technology, or unscrupulous companies clogging our in-boxes with spam, or any number issues related to IP, privacy, security and other key areas.

History gives us plenty of other examples where we’ve introduced new technologies or crossed barriers without giving forethought to our actions, which then caused problems that we could have avoided. We don’t even need to look at the most obvious cases, such as splitting the atom. The automobile, for example, enabled us to more easily and quickly travel greater distances, but it also created pollution, urban sprawl, pressure on natural resources, and other problems – things we could have addressed much earlier. Nanotechnology, as another example, promises to give us great benefits, but it also holds great potential for misuse and raises ethical questions, e.g., related to health, privacy, human enhancement, military, economics and more.

This is not to say that we should not move ahead with nanotechnology or space exploration, but simply that we need to pay attention to possible harms and conflicts as well as develop plans to mitigate those scenarios. Whether space ethics or nanoethics, some people will always be afraid of these questions. They may see these issues as “hype” or annoying roadblocks to moving science and business ahead. But if we’ve learned anything from history – as recently as Enron and WorldCom’s implosion or even biotech’s fight with its “Frankenfoods” image – in the name of public confidence and because it’s the right thing to do, ethics must go hand-in-hand with technology and business, no matter where we find ourselves in this universe.


Barbara Arneil, John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism (1996), Oxford University Press.

2. Prepared Statement by Peter Diamandis at a House Science Committee Hearing on NASA Aerospace Prizes (July 16, 2004).

3. See, for example, Gregory W. Nemitz v. United States, U.S. District Court (2004)

4. See
http://www.virgingalactic.com/en/why.asp (accessed on April 14, 2006).

Brad Lemley, “Shooting the Moon: Internet multimillionaire Elon Musk bets his entire fortune developing a subcompact rocket that could make outer space as accessible as cyberspace”, Discover (Sept. 2005).

6. Keay Davidson, “Final frontier for lawyers – property rights in space”, San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 16, 2005).

7. Jeff Wise, “Space Cowboys: The Final Frontier May Be Closer Than You Think”, BlackBook, Issue 43 (Mar. 2006), p. 88.

8. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971), Harvard University Press, §§4, 24.

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