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What Will Ethical Space Exploration Look Like?

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The moon is interesting because there are valuable resources people want, like the ice on the poles. But even though the moon hasn’t been mined yet, and it seems like a big pile of resources that we can all just get our hands into, it’s limited, finite resources. And on the moon, they’re in finite areas: Most of the stuff you want from the moon is all in one place. The ice is at the poles. If you want uninterrupted sunlight, it’s at “peaks of eternal light” that get round-the-clock sunlight. If you want really cold areas to put your radio telescopes, for example, you need to be at the bottom of craters. That means we’re all going to be headed to the same place, fighting over the same things. 

The Outer Space Treaty does have some guidance. It says that if there are going to be activities that cause harmful interference, there needs to be consultation. Like, maybe I put down a radio telescope on the far side of the moon, and someone wants to put a launchpad next to it that’s going to kick up a lot of dust and block my view every time it launches, then they will have to do some consultation. But that’s really vague language at this point, and we haven’t really seen what that’s going to look like. We’ll find out.

What are the space ethics questions that people aren’t thinking enough about yet? 

Crime in space is a great example. I hadn’t really thought about it before. But now I’m talking to criminologists who are writing books about the idea of crime in space and how to handle it. We just need to connect people working on these issues with people who are decision-makers, policy-makers, people working in the space industry.

There are also people who want to start building orbital hotels and start taking paying customers. We might have the first pregnancy in space. This is part of the concern about private spaceflight in general. We’ve spent all these decades with all these space travelers who’ve been in a tightly monitored and regulated environment because they’re employees of national governments. Now there are a bunch of civilians who are just paying customers and won’t be following the same rules.

When it comes to ethical discussions on Earth, people use many different religious, cultural, and political frameworks. How do we find a code of ethics that represents our whole planet?

I don’t know if I have the answer to that. If we knew how to all get together and work out our differences and compromise and agree, we wouldn’t be having this big a problem with climate change as we’re having right now. But I think we can learn from climate change and nuclear disarmament. We can see what works, what hasn’t. I think part of the problem is this isn’t really about space, but about humans, and how we can solve big problems together.

We’re all often looking decades, even centuries, into the future. What should we do today to work toward building a just, equitable, and sustainable presence in space? 

Having these conversations is important, and learning more from people already working on these problems. I think this is useful even if it’s going to take centuries, past our lifetimes, to have permanent settlements in space. I think it’s useful because by thinking about these problems in space, we learn more about the injustices that are happening today on Earth.

It also helps us imagine more radical solutions to these problems—in a sci-fi context in space—than we would consider on Earth, where everything feels impossible some days. I think that’s a useful exercise to really imagine: If we were starting from scratch, how would we do it? And is there a way to get there from here, even on Earth?

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