photograph of starry night in the woods

Space exploration has been all over the news this year, mostly because of billionaires racing to send their rockets and egos into orbit. This cold war between geek superpowers – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson – is a bonfire of vanities. The obvious moral critiques have been made (here, here, here, et cetera, ad nauseam caelorum). Petitions have even been signed to deny them re-entry into our atmosphere.

Despite such criticisms, the public remains strongly supportive of our collective investment in space. According to a recent C-SPAN poll, 71% of Americans think that space exploration is “necessary.” A similar Pew poll found that 72% of Americans deemed it “essential” for the United States to continue to be a leader in space exploration. In our age of polarization, this is quite a consensus. But I suspect the view is wrong. I suspect that space is the immoral frontier.

I’m not suggesting that we should pull the plug on all extraterrestrial investment. Life as we presently know it would come to a standstill without satellites. I am, however, suggesting that it is no easy task to justify our spending another pretty penny in putting a human being on the moon or Mars or any other clump of space dirt. It seems to me that before we set out for other planets, we should first learn to live sustainably on the one we presently inhabit.

Most people would probably agree with me that humanity must learn to dwell on our present planet without destroying it. But they probably also think that we – or at least the Bezos crowd – should throw some money at space exploration. Four arguments have been frequently given in support of this view. Let’s consider each in turn:

The Capabilities Argument

When JFK pitched the Apollo program to the American people, he argued: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” This is surely not the full reason for the Apollo program, but it was part of it. The mission summoned all of our capabilities as human beings. It gave us the chance to see what we as a people and species could achieve.

This argument reflects a “capability approach” to ethical theory. According to that approach, our actions are morally right to the extent to which they help us realize our human capabilities, and especially our most valuable ones. Making friends is one such valuable capability, throwing frisbees less so. JFK’s argument reflects this capability approach insofar as it holds that space exploration is worth doing because it helps us realize our most valuable capabilities as human beings. It demands that we bring out “the best of our energies and skills.”

Realizing our capabilities may very well be an important part of the good human life. But must we realize our capabilities by sending a few astronauts to space? Are there not countless other ways for us to be our best selves?

The Eco Argument

Some will say that space exploration promotes precisely the kind of environmental awareness that we need to cultivate. Sending people to space and having them share their experiences in word and image reaffirms our reverence for the planet and our responsibility to protect it. When Richard Branson held his post-flight press conference, he made this very point: “The views are breathtaking…We are so lucky to have this planet that we all live on…We’ve got to all be doing everything we can do to help this incredible planet we live on.”

The Eco Argument has a bit of history on its side. The photograph “Earthrise” (below), taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, helped spark today’s environmental movement.

The photograph is undoubtedly beautiful, and its influence undoubtedly significant. But should we really keep shelling out billions for such pictures when a sunrise photo taken from Earth, at a fraction of the cost, might do comparably well? Moreover, a sense of reverence is not the only reaction that photographs like “Earthrise” provoke. As philosopher Hannah Arendt already observed in The Human Condition (1958), such photos can just as easily prompt a sense of relief that we have taken our first step “toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And that invites laxity. If the scientists will save us, why worry? In this way space exploration produces marketing collateral that is double-edged: it can deepen our appreciation for the planet just as much as promise an escape hatch.

The Innovation Argument

A second argument is that we should invest in space exploration because it promotes technological innovation. Without NASA, we wouldn’t have LEDs, dust busters, computer mice, or baby formula. Even if a space mission fails, those invented byproducts are worth the investment.

This Innovation Argument is also nearly as old as space exploration itself. We heard it from Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, who got together to inform other “city dudes and country cousins” that space research has given us medical imaging technology and other life-saving devices. This is no doubt true, and we should be grateful that it is. But Frank and Willie do not give us any reason to think that space research is especially well-suited to producing technological innovation. Most of the great inventions of the past century have had absolutely zilch to do with outer space.

The argument becomes even weaker when we recognize that the technological innovations generated by space exploration are often quite difficult for poorer communities to access – and particularly so for communities of color. I can do no better than quote Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” (1970):

“I can’t pay no doctor bills.

But Whitey’s on the moon.

Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.

While Whitey’s on the moon.”

Medical imaging is life-saving, but not so much for those who can’t afford it. Might we be better off providing affordable (dare I say free?) healthcare before investing in more space gizmos?

The Insurance Argument

Back in October 2018, Elon Musk tweeted:

“About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth & half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves”

This, in a nutshell, is the Insurance Argument: let’s invest in space exploration so that we can be sure to have an escape hatch, just in case of a meteor strike or nuclear fallout.

This is an argument that seasoned philosophers have also offered. Brian Patrick Green, an expert in space ethics (with a forthcoming book so titled), has been making a version of this argument since at least 2015 (even on CNN). It is quite plausible. Every building has an emergency exit. Shouldn’t we have an emergency exit for the planet we live on? Just in case?

It’s a compelling line of thought – until we consider a few facts. Mars is hands-down the most hospitable planet that astronauts can reach within a lifetime of space travel. But Mars is freezing. At its balmy best, during the summer, at the equator, Mars can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. But at night it drops to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s little surprise that when Kara Swisher asked Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, if she wanted to live in outer space, Diana immediately answered “No!!!” We humans were made to live on planet Earth, and there’s no place like home.

If an asteroid slams against our planet, we will likely go the way of the majestic dinosaurs. But are we sad that velociraptors aren’t prowling the streets? I certainly am not. Should we really be sad at the prospect of our ceasing to exist? Maybe. But we probably should get used to it. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius was on to something:

“Life is given to no one for ownership, to all for temporary use. Look back at how the past ages of eternity before our birth are nothing to us. In this way nature holds up a mirror for us of the time that will come after our death. Does anything then seem frightening? Does it seem sad to anyone? Does it not appear more serene than all of sleep?”

We cannot escape death or extinction. So perhaps we should stop allocating resources on moonshots for the few, at the expense of the poor. And perhaps we should instead invest in those who are in greatest need. They deserve a life befitting a human being — a life of dignity in a safe community with access to education, medicine, and a chance to marvel at the starry skies above.