Santa Clara University

After words

'Astropreneurs' need to be stewards of outer space

All I really need to know I learned from "Star Trek"-to seek out new civilizations, to keep my phaser set on stun, and never to put all the officers in one shuttlecraft. So imagine my surprise when I heard Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise plead that NASA ought not go so boldly into the universe.

“Human fascination with conquering...space may promote a troubling lack of concern for our impact on the universe.”

The captain was responding to President Bush's ambitious plan to investigate the solar system. In announcing his vision for space exploration on Jan. 14 at NASA headquarters, Bush prophesized, "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." This journey of discovery includes completing the international space station, developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle to venture beyond Earth's orbit, and turning the moon into a stepping-stone to Mars and beyond.

Exciting as these projects may be, Picard-or more properly, actor Patrick Stewart-is right to inject a note of caution. Human fascination with conquering-and potentially commercializing-space may promote a troubling lack of concern for our impact on the universe.

For example, when NASA astronauts land on the moon in 2015, they are liable to find the place littered with debris from home- business cards, knickknacks, and cremated remains. The private company TransOrbital Inc. plans to launch an orbiter this fall that will hurl itself into the lunar surface with a payload of earthly mementos and human ashes.

Margaret McLean
Margaret R. McLean is the director of biotechnology and health care ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Center's assistant director 

Also this fall, another company, LunaCorp, will launch a flying camera that will beam back detailed video for mapping the lunar surface, a necessary step if the moon is to become an interstellar transit hub. The moon also contains important natural resources including helium 3, a nonpolluting fusion fuel source, and solar energy. Given human hunger for energy, one could envision so-called "astropreneurs" sprinkling helium mines and solar cells along the lunarscape.

As we think about the moon as an extraterrestrial Grand Central Station and energy field, we should remember that we do not always do enough to protect our earthly environment from harm. Our disposal of heavy metals into waterways, for example, has given us swordfish and tuna unfit for consumption. What have we learned from our impact on Earth about our potential impact on distant planets? What will we leave besides footprints in the lunar dust?

Strikingly, humans are the only earthly species with the capacity to impact moons, stars, planets, and deep space. This gives us the special responsibility to recognize that, despite the vastness of the universe, there may not be so much space out there that it can meet every demand we put on it or suffer mistreatment lightly.

Allow me to propose four guidelines for thinking about "Star Trek's" final frontier.

1. Space preservation insists that the universe be valued for its own sake, whether or not it benefits humanity in terms of knowledge, energy, or the bottom line.

2. Space conservation asks that we take care of the universe's resources for the sake of others and avoid exploitation to benefit the few.

3. Space sustainability requires that in our explorations we "do no harm" and leave the moon and the solar system no worse than we found it.

4. Space stewardship demands that we be held accountable for the management of planetary and other resources. This attitude advances the common good by compelling us to consider how our actions affect others, our vast surroundings, and the future.

Human dignity and wellbeing are strengthened and supported by preserving a universe in which we can thrive with and under the moon and the stars.

This essay represents the opinion of Margaret McLean. While staff and scholars affiliated with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics argue on behalf of many positions on ethics issues, the Ethics Center itself does not take positions on such issues.

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