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Sunday, June 23, 2024

What Will Ethical Space Exploration Look Like?

If the dreams of space agencies and private companies come to fruition, within a couple of decades we’ll have orbiting hotels and lunar mining colonies, and the first human visitors will be en route to the Red Planet. But astrophysicist Erika Nesvold argues that the shape of tomorrow’s space expeditions and conflicts could depend on ethical choices people make today. Nesvold is coeditor of the book Reclaiming Space, which was published today, and the author of Off-Earth, due out on March 7. She’s also a cofounder of JustSpace Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for a more inclusive and ethical future in space, and a developer for Universe Sandbox, a physics-based space simulator.

Nesvold points out that so far humanity doesn’t have the best track record in space, and current challenges mirror Earthly ones. Space junk litters low-Earth orbitlaunch vehicles create their own carbon emissionslight pollution is transforming the night sky, and space industry leaders SpaceX and Blue Origin have been accused of labor rights abuses. There’s plenty of work to do to make future exploration egalitarian and environmentally sustainable.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WIRED: What first drew you to study the ethics of space exploration?

Erika Nesvold: I’m an astrophysicist by training, and I was out in Silicon Valley doing a really fun six-week NASA program about planetary defense. As part of that, I got to meet a lot of people working in the private space industry. That was a great experience, but I found I was very disappointed with some of the answers they gave to my questions.

In particular, they were really focused on finding answers to the technological questions (“How do we build a reusable rocket booster?”) or the economic questions (“How do we get investors to invest in our company?”). But if I asked more about other problems we’re going to face—how are you going to avoid contaminating the surface of a place you’re going to mine? How do you handle workers’ rights in space?—they were just dismissive. “Oh, we’ll worry about that later.” That did not sound like a good plan to me.

So I started reaching out to experts in the social sciences, and that’s what sort of set me on my path.

Give me some examples of situations or problems that would require ethical thinking, or ethics specifically tuned for space.

It turns out that a lot of the ethical problems we’ll face in space are extensions or mirrors of the ones we face down here on Earth already, which means we don’t have to start from scratch.

How do we protect the rights of people who go to space as workers? I talked to someone in the book who works at the International Labor Rights Forum, and she pointed out that there’s a clear parallel with a problem she dealt with regarding fishermen in Thailand. The workers would be taken out to sea. Their passports would be taken away. They could be out there for years; there were lots of abuses that weren’t being monitored. She could foresee the same thing happening if you’re going off to work in space on a rocket you don’t control. No one’s there monitoring the situation. You could end up with the same kind of labor exploitation.

But there are other ethical questions specific to space. “How do we protect an environment?” is a question we ask a lot here on Earth, but not “How much effort do we need to put into protecting a rocky, lifeless environment that doesn’t have anything living in it?” Here on Earth, we’re thinking about the plants, the animals, the usefulness for humans. What kind of intrinsic value does that environment have? That’s something that philosophers have been debating for a while, but soon it will be a practical problem.

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If you were to summarize a code of ethics for space, what main principles would you include?

One very key point is to get as many different kinds of people involved in the conversation as possible. Let’s get the social scientists involved, people who have been working on these problems, and activists in these areas. That also includes people from different cultures, because conversations about settling in space and space mining and such have been dominated by a certain subculture that’s Western and capitalistic and all of those dominant categories. But there are so many more people on the planet who should and can contribute a lot to the conversation.

At the beginning of your new book, Off-Earth, you compare space settlement to a line in Jurassic Park: Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Do you think humanity isn’t socially and politically ready to send a bunch of people to live on another planet?

I quote people in the book who argue that humanity is not ready yet and perhaps may never be. I, personally, am not completely swayed by those arguments. I think that if you argue that we should wait until we’re ready, either it will be too late because we’ve gone extinct on this planet, or we’ll just never have a unified, agreed-upon definition of being “ready.”

I think that part of the way that we improve as a species is by doing big difficult projects together, like learning how to live in space, both technologically and sociologically. So I think the journey itself will help us grow and mature.

I do agree with them, though, that we need to do that deliberately and with a lot of thought and collaboration, or else we’ll just keep repeating the same mistakes of our past.

I’ve seen people commonly use a bunch of terms for deep-space travel, including “settlers,” “frontiers,” “colonies,” and even evocations of “manifest destiny.” How much should we worry about the legacy and mentality of colonialism infusing some fledgling space settlement efforts?

There’s a lot of Wild West frontier American mythology seeped into the narrative about space—some of it completely inadvertently because a lot of people working on space didn’t pay that much attention in history class. So we just pick up whatever cultural cues there are. And that’s how we were raised: to think that humans are explorers by nature, we need frontiers.

But I think it’s important for anyone using those narratives to learn more about the mythology that they’re citing, to learn that it is a mythology, to learn more about history and what kinds of damage that history caused to humans, including Indigenous people, and the environment, so we’re not just copy-pasting that entire movement into space.

What about terms like “space commerce” and “space markets.” Do you worry about capitalism running rampant, harming the space environment?

There’s a lot of discussions of capitalism in space right now because of this growing private spaceflight industry. Pro-capitalists argue that that’s good because that’s how you afford big projects: You incentivize people to invest, and space is expensive.

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However, there are also a lot of recognized harms of capitalism, in particular, extractive capitalism that loves to go and find natural resources, gobble them up, and make a profit off of them. It’s extremely harmful to environments. People get excited about space because it seems infinite to them. But the resources that are usable and valuable to us within our reach are not infinite. So that could easily lead to overconsumption of those resources, and even violent conflict over them. Unfettered capitalism is just as likely to cause harm in space as it is here on Earth.

In Reclaiming Space, you write about future generations of space labor, such as about miners going after resources and the first settlers who have to assemble and test the new infrastructure before more people come. What are your concerns for them?

I noted a few specific characteristics of the space environment that reminded me of environments on Earth where terrible things have happened, in terms of labor rights. One of them is the idea of space as a transcontinental railroad. I quote people arguing for space infrastructure making that direct comparison—favorably. But if you look at how [the 19th century railroad] was actually built, the work took place in isolated, hazardous environments with hazardous technology—at the time, it was explosives—and the supply lines were tenuous. Chinese immigrant laborers were exploited. There was a lot of prejudice against them; they were not paid equally to other, white railroad workers; and when they tried to protest, because they were so isolated, the companies would do things like cut off their supply lines to break a strike.

I think it’s important to learn from historical scenarios and recognize parallels that we can see—especially isolation and dangerous work environments—and try to learn how to protect those workers better than we have in the past. We need a recognition that these future workers will be vulnerable and that they deserve to be protected.

When it comes to having certain principles, or protecting a space environment or a group of workers, how will we enforce them?

We see this with the orbital debris problem and the orbital overcrowding problem. A lot of space lawyers have pointed out to me that the really rapid growth of the private space industry is outpacing the development of regulations because regulatory bodies move slowly and deliberately.

If people decide to put workers on the moon to staff a lunar mining site, capitalism means they might very well do that faster than an international body could get together and say, “How do we want to regulate this?”

We do already have the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that provides some guidance on this, but in general it hasn’t been heavily tested in court. We’re inevitably going to make some mistakes. I just hope that we learn from them and keep trying to work toward a better, healthier society in space.

What might be the first conflict that could arise? Like what about the limited water ice on the moon?

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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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