SpaceX and the Ethics of Space Travel

An image of faraway galaxies taken by the Hubble space telescope.
"Hubble's Wide View of Mystic Mountain in Infrared" by NASA Goddard Photo & Video is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, February 6th, SpaceX will launch a rocket that could be the future of space tourism. If successful, it could be the rocket that takes private tourists around the moon within the year and lay the groundwork for taking humans on missions to Mars. With human expansion within sight at this level, three sets of ethical concerns arise – bioethical concerns, and political concerns both among the nations of Earth and between Earth and those that venture off-planet.

The bioethical concerns relate to contamination. Contamination has been a concern since the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars in 1976. We have a number of models of the damage that invasive species can wreck within a planet’s environment here on earth. For example, on Christmas Island, sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, red crabs migrate annually towards the ocean in numbers reaching the tens of millions in a spectacle that has been described as a wonder of the natural world. However, visiting boats brought an invasive species of ant that is feeding on the red crabs. The “yellow crazy ants” arrived in the early 20th century and have led to fewer crabs, which has led to a domino effect in the animal make-up of the forests.

We can see dramatic effects that a single species can make in an ecosystem when the species is from the same planet, and this raises concern with introducing earth-born organisms to alien worlds. There are scientists working to limit these worries, such as NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection and COSPAR and the International Council of Science’s Committee on Space Research. It is impossible to completely sterilize the materials and personnel that make the trek to space, however, and with technology advancing at the non-linear pace it currently is, and with private companies leading the charge in many countries, it is difficult for regulatory bodies to keep up with the advances.

The political concerns break down into two levels: the first is the complication of who has legal jurisdiction over what happens in space now that more than scientific goals are being pursued. Already, there are companies attempting to sell leases to real estate on Mars and the Moon to private individuals. Experts agree that there is no legal backing to such documents, but what sort of national claims could develop as we develop deeper into the cosmos?

There could be a model of community ownership, like the International Space Station. International treaties and agreements legislate ownership of the ISS and the operation and findings of experiments that take place on it. It is a shared enterprise between the US, Russia, Europe, and Japan, and Canada.

The existence of private companies with the ability to run tourist trips to the Moon opens the possibility of land claims by such companies. Can SpaceX, for example, set up a resort on the Moon? Would that area be under US jurisdiction? Or would it be a no-nation-land legislated by SpaceX? Will space, and the land in space, more reasonably be run by a consortium of nations that have reached space? This leaves other nations without a voice or claim in how to legislate extra-terrestrially, a potentially objectionably elitist or privileged governing body.  

The second political concern with sending people out into space is that of political legitimacy itself. Consider the complications that colonization brings to the table – the relationship between whatever body on Earth is legislating for the colonists and those living off-Earth will be a novel one. Thus, beyond the question of who on Earth should have governing rights over the land in space, we can look further into the future at the goals articulated by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Dutch entrepreneur Bars Lansorp, among others: colonizing Mars.

The droves of applicants to the various still-largely-hypothetical missions to colonize Mars make clear that the pioneering spirit is alive and well. The potential pioneers are willing to go where no human has gone before and step foot on the red planet, doing the work of figuring out how to put together a society of human lives in a radically foreign habitat.

The possibility of an other-worldly colony complicates the way we understand the structures of society, however. Those volunteering to be the first extraterrestrial pioneers may have similar drives, ambitions, fears, and motives of the colonists and pioneers of centuries past on earth – they could be adventurers, wanting to be “part of something”, looking for a new/better/different life, etc. – but there are many important differences that lead to ethical concerns.

As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has discussed, the first stages before colonizing (before people will be able to stay for periods of time on the planet) will involve cargo trips. This highlights the degree to which the Mars colonists will depend on Earth put its political autonomy in a unique position. The society on Mars will be facing new and difficult problems, not just of survival but of living human lives, trying to flourish. Once we reach long-term living on Mars, the lifeways may differ from those of the Earth societies providing them with much-needed supplies.

In 2015, NASA suggested that the nutrient in Martian soil could be sufficient to grow crops, with fertilizer added. In 2016, scientists successfully grew tomatoes from “Martian” soil. The technology, driven by the will to advance, has been progressing quickly.

Mars has less gravity than Earth and the surface is exposed to radiation that is not healthy for humans, so anytime humans are outside of buildings they will need to be in special suits. On Earth, there have been experiments done to try to experience the effects of living in the conditions that Mars would demand. In Russia and Hawaii (HI-SEAS), small groups of scientists lived in isolation for extended periods of time as if they were living on Mars. MARS-500 in Russia recreated Communications lag, autonomy, resource rationing, health, conditions of isolation and hermetically closed, confined environment are the main peculiarities of the Martian flight.

No doubt the beginning of our travel to Mars will most resemble exploration to the harshest and most foreign biomes on earth – to the Arctic, Antarctic, and the deep sea. When humans venture to such places, they remain largely dependent on the society that sends them and remain only for limited periods of time. When the first organized exploration happened to areas that were known to be hostile to human habitation, psycho-social research began, the beginning of that conducted in MARS-500 and  HI-SEAS, the size and make-up of the groups were mindfully constructed. They were sent in odd numbers so that conflicts were less likely to cause enduring fractures to the group, and often psychological tests were conducted to ensure success. Now in the Antarctic, the stations that have been set up are the most long-term of these and while the subculture that exists there is multinational, it is dependent on influxes of supplies to continue.

The way of life for the colonists will differ significantly from those of the governing body. The laws and crimes may be new and different, and there may be disagreement between Earth and Mars regarding what would be appropriate. Growing families may add complexity to the matter. Imagine the way that societies were regulated in the “Wild West” – systems of law enforcement were loose and roughly organized to maintain stability within the community. With communities that are more primitive (in the sense of having less structure to their regulating bodies and perhaps harsher punishments) because of limited resources and the primacy of the concern for survival, the deliberative structure tends to be different. This raises the question of whether the seemingly harsh law enforcement style in such pioneering communities was due to the distance in time from us today or because of the structure of pioneering itself.

If the lifeways and ruling system in the offshoot community begin to differ strongly from the Earth community, how will their relationship evolve? The offshoot in this case relies heavily on the Earth community, but the typical structures of legitimacy may be undermined – the right of the origin country to dictate how things are to be done in the offshoot will be dictatorial at best in cases of disagreement. The offshoot relies on the origin country’s goodwill in order to continue with resources and thus needs to garner the political will of Earth to maintain its survival.

These three clusters of issues face us as we look to send people to space. We will impact whatever environment we enter. The question of who on Earth own and legislates real estate and resources on space is not a straightforward one. And, finally, how we should handle the relationship between colonies and the governing bodies that remain on Earth is a question of political legitimacy that we have yet to face.

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Meredith is the Uihlein Fellow of Ethics at Lawrence University. She earned her PhD at the University of California, Riverside with a research focus in Philosophy of Action and Practical Reasoning. She is interested in biomedical ethics, ethics of technology, philosophy of law, and normativity.