Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

To Boldly Go: Ethical Considerations for Space Exploration

by Margaret R. McLean

With yesterday's budget proposal, President Bush put money behind his January 2004 promise: "We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own."

In the budget unveiled on Monday, almost $17 billion will fly into NASA's coffers with around $5.3 billion dedicated to space exploration. The Crew Exploration Vehicle and Launch Vehicles will be built; new spacecraft on their way to the moon and Mars will be whizzing overhead by 2014. NASA chief Michael Griffin claimed that this new budget would set the stage for "the expansion of human presence into the solar system."

But before we think about exploring-and potentially exploiting-"the final frontier," we would do well to remember that we do not have a very good track record in protecting our planet home. We have expanded human presence into pristine forests resulting in the disruption of migratory routes, soil erosion, and species extinction. What can be learned from our presence on Earth about the potential impact of our forays into the outer reaches of the solar system?

We are the only earthly creatures with the capacity to extend our influence beyond the 4 corners of the globe. This puts on us the responsibility to acknowledge that, despite the depths of space, it is not so limitless as to be able to weather mistreatment or suffer every demand we may place on it.

One way to think about expanding our presence in the solar system is through the lens of stewardship. Stewardship envisions humans not as owners of the solar system but as responsible managers of its wonder and beauty.

Stewardship holds us accountable for a prudent use of space resources. Such responsibility may support exploration of the final frontier, but at the same time it warns against exploitation of its resources. We must account for our urges and actions in terms of their impact on others, the universe, and the future.

As we boldly plan to extend ourselves to places where no one has gone before, we would do well to consider the following principles:

1. Space preservation requires that the solar system be values for its own sake, not on the basis of what it can do for us.
2. Space conservation insists that extraterrestrial resources ought not to be exploited to benefit the few at the expense of the many or of the solar system itself.
3. Space sustainability asks that our explorations "do no harm" and that we leave the moon, Mars, and space itself no worse-and perhaps better-than we found them.

As we expand human presence into the solar system, we ought not to park ethical considerations next to the launching pad. We must take our best ethical thinking with us as we cross the frontier of space exploration.

Margaret R. McLean is assistant director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

February 2006


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