Our Future in Space - or Dueling Ethicists
While today's program focuses on ethics and human missions to Mars, the issues and approach are also applicable to diverse other topics - especially in situations where advances in science and emerging technologies bring new capabilities for deliberate human activities, which may have uncertain impacts in the future. We proceed to explore and apply the new capabilities - making policies, laws or other decisions without certain answers about their cumulative impacts.
Although space activities may be far out (pun intended), they are not unique in the ways the impacts should be considered - there are plenty of examples all around us:
Columbus & the discovery of America - In retrospect, discovery irreversibly changed the New World - for both good and bad.
Or consider other case examples with unintended consequences:
Establishment of missions in the Americas - May have caused the demise of Native Americans from introduced pandemics (think smallpox, malaria... like today's Zika virus!)
Massive dam-building projects in tropical areas of the world - May bring electricity via hydropower to the less developed countries - but often with major impacts on environment, local cultures and economy where they are built. (Benefits are felt elsewhere-- with their own impacts.)
And now Mars One - Proposed human settlement on Mars via a series of one-way missions, using a combination of human and robotic spacecraft, bringing increasing numbers of people and infrastructure over time.
We're not starting with a blank slate - The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (ratified by over 100 countries) stipulates avoidance of harmful contamination during space exploration - by avoiding both forward and backward contamination - aimed at minimizing impacts both on the celestial bodies we explore and the Earth upon return.
We're constantly revising international treaties and policies as well as national laws and regulations to reflect our changing knowledge and abilities (think recent legal changes about cell phones and driving; autonomous vehicles on regular roads; and FAA regulations about aerial drones). So many of the ideas expressed in today's debate are precisely what will go into future policy consideration.
While today's pro/con debate about Mars human missions may seem like science fiction (consider the book/movie "the Martian"!), it's not as far off as you might think**. And it encompasses the kind of interdisciplinary thinking and training that are relevant to deliberations by NASA and other international space agencies as they plan long term space activities. We all have to think about what kind of future we should aspire to....or not.
[** ...for context-- the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (LEO) is about 250 miles away; the Moon is ~250,000 miles distant (6 days one way) -- but Mars is 50 Million miles from Earth-- a one way trip will take 7-9 months, and the overall round trip 2-3 years!]
Margaret Race, PhD, is a Sr. Scientist, Planetary Protection & Risk Communication, SETI Institute and NASA.