Space: The Final (Ethical) Frontier

From settling the moon to a deathly swirling cloud of space trash, a new book from the Markkula Center’s Brian Green tackles the big questions of what’s right and wrong when it comes to space travel.

Space: The Final (Ethical) Frontier
Infrared image from NASA Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars in the core spiral of our Milky Way galaxy. Photo courtesy NASA.

In 2001, Elon Musk began consuming—and, allegedly, committing to memory—textbooks on rocket science that, along with advice from industry experts, helped him launch his aerospace company just one year later.

The SpaceX and Tesla founder has a vision: commercialize his company’s rockets to put humans on Mars by 2026 in hopes of establishing a self-sustaining city of a million people by 2050.

So that’s five more years for the billionaire to read one more book, not on getting to space but on the morality of doing so. Specifically, Space Ethics, by Brian Patrick Green, director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Musk isn’t the only one who should get this assigned reading.

While our journey to “the final frontier” is something Green and many others believe is vital—we’ll need a “back-up Earth,” he says, to hedge against global catastrophe—how humans are going about space exploration, how they are using (and abusing) space, and planning for its future, is raising troubling ethical issues that Green says should serve as important wake-up calls for us all.

In these and other scenarios, the world of science fiction is “not just fiction anymore,” says Green. “Now it’s become the real thing. And the stakes are a lot higher.”

We sat down with Green to discuss his book—seven years in the making—and why he hopes its concepts will lead to “a revolution in ethics” about space.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon launches a six month mission onboard the International Space Station on Nov. 10, 2021, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image courtesy NASA.

Santa Clara Magazine: Space Ethics explores everything from safety risks to health effects on humans who space travel, to military uses and contamination risks of space exploration. Future-oriented questions involve how we settle on planets, planetary resources, long-duration space flights, and planetary engineering. Which subjects have readers told you intrigued them most?

Brian Green: The space debris situation—with a growing cloud of deadly debris (of trash injected into space from Earth)—often surprises people. The forwards and backwards contamination issue is another one; they hadn’t thought about that before. The chapter on aliens—people like to think about alien life and alien intelligence—is another. And corporations in space, which is a big transition in the way we’re dealing with space, from governments to corporations.

SCM: Orbital space debris—NASA calls it “any man-made object in orbit around Earth which no longer serves a useful purpose”—is a huge concern because it becomes a cloud of man-made pieces and particles that experts say can threaten other commercial satellites and human spaceflight for years to come. Debris ranges from derelict satellites, to shards of satellites (after countries carelessly destroy their own satellites in space), even flecks of paint. How worried should we be?

On Earth, people might drop a fast-food wrapper on the ground and the wind blows it around and eventually it gets washed down a drain into the Bay. And if it’s plastic it stays there forever. But it’s incredibly hard to conceptualize how different debris is in orbit. It continues whizzing around the planet at a very high speed, and if you get hit by a hamburger wrapper in outer space, it will kill you. It’s something people need to talk about and recognize as a problem, because if we don’t figure it out, we could risk losing access to space. We’re risking trapping ourselves in a giant, whirling cloud of death.

Animation depicting movement and build up of space debris orbiting earth.Video courtesy NASA.

SCM: Can you explain forwards and backwards contamination?

BG: There is no way to put humans on Mars without taking a lot of Earth microbes with us, which would contaminate Mars. And we may become contaminated with something on Mars that is pathogenic. Could those people (who first go to Mars) return to Earth, or would it be a one-way trip? What are the costs and benefits? There’s a tension there.

Some people say this isn’t a big issue; we’re already trading meteorites back and forth from Mars and if there’s any life, that would have been shared already. I’m not convinced about that. We have the ability to do science on Mars, and I think we should do science first. But good science will probably take longer than Elon Musk wants it to.

SCM: But in their race to be the first, the spirit of many innovators is to move fast and take risks. It’s what drives their success.

BG: If you’re going to be a visionary, you have to be a dreamer, and he’s absolutely fantastic in that regard. But at the same time, people who get their hearts set very strongly on things sometimes get so focused on achieving the thing they want that they don’t fully consider the negative consequences. It’s what I call “the Jurassic Park question”:  the scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should.

SCM: Instead of trying to settle Mars right away, you recommend settling the moon first. What would be the advantages?

BG: A moon settlement can do everything a Mars settlement can do, including serving as a “back-up Earth,” for much less cost and risk. It has lots of resources—not quite everything, but almost (NASA has detected water molecules on the moon)—and what it lacks can be imported from Earth or from asteroids. We know the moon doesn’t have any life, so we know there is not going to be a forwards/backwards contamination issue. No one has returned to the moon since 1972. Let’s go there first; it’s a lot closer and it’s a lot easier. It’s still super difficult, but not as difficult as Mars.

Mars Perseverance Rover.photo1
Mars Perseverance Rover.photo2
Images of the Week” from January and February 2022, respectively, from NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover. The Perseverance launched in July 2020 and landed on Mars in February 2021. Its main job is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and soil for possible return to Earth. Photos courtesy NASA.

SCM: The term “space colonization” rubs you and others the wrong way. Why?

BG: We should talk about settlements, not colonization. Because if you say colonization in India or Africa, or actually in most of the world, that’s problematic language that raises red flags and makes people skeptical about space exploration.

It’s not just the word; there’s also that colonizing mentality behind it which is that the universe is here for us to exploit, for whatever we want. And that’s an attitude that leads to bad things happening in the future. I think the right way to think about space and the natural world is that we need to have a cooperative attitude, not an exploitative one.

SCM: You write that charging into space without stronger international trust and cooperation may lead us to what’s known as “the tragedy of the commons,” where an unregulated shared resource is unsustainably exploited. We’ve already done that on Earth with climate change, for example. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

BG: It gets to the fundamental question of, how do we actually do the right thing? The answer is you have to set up a world where good behavior is incentivized and bad behavior is not incentivized. And it’s very difficult to do that. It’s fundamentally a question of who has more power, and right now in the world powers, nobody’s in charge. Nobody can trust anyone else so the question is: How do you promote international trust?

One of the things I hope becomes clear in the book is that we don’t know what the future is going to be like, but we do know we’re going to be the people in the future, making decisions. Therefore, we really need to concentrate on what we are doing now in order to make ourselves morally better people. There are folks around the world who want to do the right thing in space. We need to recognize that our cooperation here is necessary, and that we’re not going to get through this without working with each other.

SCM: What’s your call to action?

BG: I want some sort of conversation to happen. The next step is: How do we get over that hurdle that’s preventing us from gaining critical mass so we can make things happen? People like space, and people are recognizing, I think, that ethics is an issue now when it comes to space. We just have to get to the level where we can actually get stuff done.

I hope people will read the book and say, “You know what? I think we can do better, and I’m going to be part of that change. I’m going to be one of the people who helps to make a better future.”

SCM: You sent a copy of Space Ethics to Pope Francis. Why?

BG: I did send a copy to the Pope, to be delivered by a bishop I know. It did arrive, but I am under no pretenses that he will ever read it. I will be happy if he just sees it (which I am also under no pretenses that he will). He’s a busy guy.

Small Moon
In October 2020, scientists confirmed they’d identified H20 molecules on the moon. Brian Patrick Green maintains the moon would be a more cost-effective, resource-effective “second Earth” than Mars. Image courtesy NASA.

Partly I sent it as a notification to him, or whomever sees it, that people in the Church are working on these sorts of subjects. The Vatican should know what new things are happening in the world, so I thought I would help out by making it easy.

Also, it was in appreciation for his work on technology ethics, as laid out in Laudato Si, and because of his general interest in science and theology.

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