Benjamin Sachs (1) and his colleagues at the University of St. Andrews (2) are working to create a framework for extraterrestrial environmental ethics. What deep philosophical questions could possibly be raised by space exploration you ask? The basic approach toward outer space discovery and demonstration projects is about to change. Once the exclusive realm of a few nation-states, a combination of advancing technology and private enterprise is literally democratizing space. Poised to have a new wave of explorers and devices fan out in the solar system, some swift introspection is essential.
It’s Always All About Us
Is there any value to the Universe beyond human needs and desires? Do we afford special consideration to any living entities we discover? What if the living things we find are ‘only’ microbes?
To date great efforts have been undertaken to prevent inadvertent forward contamination of Mars and other solar system sites with terrestrial microbes. This reflects the fact that scientific curiosity has been a significant impetus for exploring solar system bodies. Avoiding contamination reflects a basic exigency for life detection missions – scientists are interested in discovering novel, indigenous microbes, not terrestrial hitchhikers or invaders.
Finding unique life forms on Mars or other solar system sites, confirming a ‘second genesis’ took place, would be a tremendously significant scientific discovery and undoubtedly stimulate a large number of follow-up studies. Then what? Is there a moral duty to preserve such ecosystems? Would discovering living residents make Mars permanently off limits for ‘terra-forming’ proposals?
If private enterprises begin to dominate space exploration, we may have to contend with situations in which the needs of the corporation do not coincide with those of the scientific community or governments. Would a company be willing to face restrictions on terra-forming operations to keep some silly bacteria on Mars alive? Would corporate attorneys argue that the Tellico Dam-snail darter precedent (3) applies to Mars? In that case, since the company has already embarked on its vision of the 21st Century resurrection of Manifest Destiny, the prior claims of any lowly Aresian microbes would be void. Hopefully, the failed litigants will find the new and improved Martian world to their liking. If not, perhaps terra-forming companies will underwrite programs to preserve the genetic materials of the endangered species, selling it as a conscience-soothing hedge against extinction.
But, ‘No’ May Not Last Forever
Whether or not we agree humans have a moral duty to preserve planetary and other solar system environments, there is a scientific rationale to ensure such efforts are in place. Technology changes. New knowledge accretes and capabilities expand. The Viking lander missions to Mars in the 1970s are a prime illustration. Those landers were marvels of engineering for their day and they conducted direct tests to demonstrate the presence of living organisms in samples of Martian soil. Today, using molecular probes and technologies that did not exist in 1976, scientists have capacities to detect microorganisms that cannot be cultured. A search for life using molecular tools would likely yield quite different results from those where investigators could only study organisms that were active under the culture/incubation conditions the engineers guessed would be both good and practical to achieve. In short, a sample confidently declared ‘dead’ in 1976 might return a different result if it was checked with the more powerful, culture-independent methods in use now. Like archaeologists leaving portions of known sites unexcavated to await future investigators with new tools, perhaps planetary scientists will note that emerging technologies could yield new insights and take steps to safeguard pristine samples. Perhaps the official rule-makers will mandate a go-slow approach to space body development strategies.
Leave No Trace in Outer Space?
Sachs also wonders if humans are under an obligation to preserve the physical environments of the worlds we will explore (1). If a body is declared (probably) dead are we then totally free to plunder it? In the case of potentially resource-rich asteroids, will profit-making entities be allowed to literally consume them? Should some places be deemed common heritage sites off-limits to all but the most careful expeditions? That might be a very tough sell.
The Apollo mission lunar landing sites unintentionally illustrate a ‘leave no trace’ ethic has not been embraced by NASA Moon explorers. Environmental conditions on the Moon will enable these artifacts of exploration to endure far into the future. Some thoughts have been given to ensuring historic areas like these on the Moon are protected against damage or looting by future tourists (4). While getting a selfie standing next to a flag planted by 20th century astronauts may seem like a great idea, tourist traffic might quickly obliterate the authentic footprints of the original explorers. However, toxic dust (5) may mean large parts of the Moon will turn out to be not so hospitable to tourists and thereby prevent lunar heritage sites from being overrun. Other locations may also remain pristine because they are simply too unpleasant for humans.
Will the democratization of space exploration lead to anarchy? It is not clear what changes the forces of private enterprise will produce. Where will authority to permit or deny proposed activities be vested? Perhaps we are entering an age with millionaires on the Moon, tycoons sovereign on Titan and plutocrats presiding over Pluto. For those of us ordinary citizens with dreams of space exploration, the significance of moneyed interests enables us to make one solid prediction –
No matter where you go, there’s your landlord.
(1) Benjamin Sachs. Eight Questions We Should Ask About the Ethics of Space Exploration. The Conversation, 27 June 2018. https://qz.com/1316782/is-space-exploration-worth-the-ethical-cost-eight-questions-we-should-ask/
(2) University of St. Andrews, Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs – Exoplanet Ethics. http://ceppa.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/research-projects/exoplanet-ethics/
(3) Teresa Sparks. TVA and the Snail Darters: A Case Study in Environmental Management. http://web2.utc.edu/~John-Tucker/Courses/esc430/esc430mat/darter/tellico.html
(4) Daily Mail Reporter. Look, but Don’t Touch! NASA Releases Set of Guidelines for Potential “Moon Tourists” to Preserve Apollo Landing Sites. Daily Mail, 7 November 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2058614/Moon-tourists-given-guidelines-Nasa-bid-preserve-Apollo-landing-sites.html
(5) The Toxic Side of the Moon. 2018. ESA, 4 July 2018. http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Human_Spaceflight/The_toxic_side_of_the_Moon