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Space exploration for everyone

Sustainability and inclusion in space are vital for the future of humanity

Space exploration inclusivity sustainability tony milian

There is a central ethical dilemma at the heart of our human expansion into space. It does not concern the issue of state versus the private sector, and it does not concern whether or not we should go.

As a point about realpolitik, we are going. Even if Presidents Trump and Putin, as well as Xi Jinping in China, were to reverse their current positions and instead say ‘no’ to space, their opposition would not stick. The next set of political leaders, or those who came after, would simply reverse it. The political and economic dynamics for expansion are too far advanced to be put into reverse. We may argue about whether or not there is an innate human urge to find new frontiers (I think there is not), but the economics and politics of the thing are enough to ensure that this is going to happen.

Rather, the ethical dilemma concerns a conflict between two kinds of justice. On the one hand, justice across the current generation of humans. This points towards a need to broaden inclusion, and to increase the number of players in the space sector. On the other hand, there is the issue of justice between generations. This points towards the importance of sustainability, and the importance of avoiding too rapid an expansion of our overall human activities in space.

A broader conversation, involving many more stakeholders, is more likely to yield an approach with which includes voices capable for speaking up for the interests of future generations.

At the moment, the issue of inclusion appears to be more pressing. Our emerging space programs show strong signs of the domination of a small number of big players. Not just the US and Russia, but China, Japan and some other Asian countries too. India’s space program, for example, is ambitious, and includes a recent (failed) attempt at a soft lunar landing in the south polar region of the Moon, in August 2019. Eventually, they will get there. They have the resources, and at some point they will have the technology too.

A number of the gulf states are also looking for the next big thing, after oil. Western Asia’s economic hub, Dubai, the super-tech city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been particularly active among those showing interest in moving heavily into the space sector. The UAE formed its own Space Agency (UAESA) in 2014, but it has been pushing the idea of a much broader pan-Arab space agency, on the model of the European Space Agency, for more than a decade. And Europe itself, through the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union, has a significant stake in space, as well as ambitions for manned launch.

The race to space, this time around, is not repeating the Cold War model, which involved only two key players. However, the number of serious players remains limited. Broadening the process, and the associated conversation, to include many more voices, at both state level and below, is a difficult task. But it is also an important one. Not just in the sense that it is nice if more people are involved. Rather, a broader conversation, involving many more stakeholders, is more likely to yield an approach with which includes voices capable for speaking up for the interests of future generations. Narrower conversations can easily be skewed by the interests of powerful nations.

The Moon is a culturally significant object for all of us. Some have cosmologies which would sit poorly with any attempt to treat it simply as a quarry or as a convenient source of rare resources.

What this means in terms of space is that we should probably be doing at least two things. First, we should be welcoming initiatives by smaller states, even if we have particular concerns about some of the detail. Here we may think of the recent initiative by Luxembourg, who already have a major stake in Europe’s cubesat sector, to pioneer the first European legislation on appropriation rights for space mining. There is a significant risk here of a ‘go it alone’ attitude, but the Luxembourg initiative may also be thought of as a way to promote and advance a larger European and international conversation. We do not need to agree with the precise terms of the Luxembourg legislation in order to recognize the importance of a smaller player making a major contribution.

Similarly, we may think of the recent Israeli attempt to set down a lander on the Moon. Their Beresheet lander was no more successful than the Indian attempt and crashed into the lunar surface last April. But they came close. Very close. Again, we need not agree with all of the decisions taken. (The inclusion of dehydrated, microscopic tardigrades/water-bears in the manifest, was a particularly bad decision), but the ambition for a small nation to be a player in space was a good one. Something to be welcomed.

Second, it is important to think of inclusion at a level which reaches below states. The Moon, for example, is a culturally significant object for all of us, although this is perhaps clearer in the case of various indigenous peoples. Some have cosmologies which would sit poorly with any attempt to treat it simply as a quarry or as a convenient source of rare resources such as Helium 3. Their voices should be heard.

It is important that the space sector does not end up on the wrong side of environmental debates.

Some also have views of the world, and of time, which fit particularly well with the idea of multi-generational processes. And space exploration surely qualifies as an example of the latter. So, we need not think of indigenous attitudes as uniform or simply restricting. The voices of indigenous peoples can themselves be seen as a precious resource, something to draw upon in the many precursor conversations that we may have before moving on to actual policy.

None of this means that we can ignore economic interests, or the special entitlements of the major players, the ones who pay the largest price and have certain matching rights. However, if we favour inclusion, and worry about the ability of any narrower conversation to cater for the interests of future generations, then we will favour things of this sort: initiatives by smaller states, breadth of international discussion, and a genuine inclusion of indigenous peoples within the process.

In a sector which remains publicity sensitive, few of us want a repeat of the recent incident in Hawaii, where the proposed construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope on the dormant volcano, Mauna Kea, led to sustained opposition on the ground that it is a sacred site. We may think similarly about some of the shape-shifting of Russian and Chinese programs, with the moving of launch sites to new locations, in forest areas, which may impact woodland and, again, indigenous peoples. There are some major, and publicity sensitive, mistakes which we should all try to avoid. It is important that the space sector does not end up on the wrong side of environmental debates.

In the interests of justice and fairness, it is important that participation and inclusion in space is broadened, significantly.

This brings me back to my central ethical dilemma. I have no solution to it here, and merely aim to bring it into view. In the interests of justice and fairness, it is important that participation and inclusion in space is broadened, significantly. And this will improve conversation, giving more of a sense that all is going well. But the more inclusion there is in actual space initiatives (and not just conversations), the more competition there is likely to be for limited and concentrated resources in nearby regions of space.

There is, after all, only one Moon, and only one Mars. And between them they comprise most of the usable surface anywhere in the Solar System. They have to last humanity for all time. Similarly, there are only two asteroid belts (just beyond Mars, in one case, and beyond Neptune, in the other). Perhaps someone, one day, can do something with the rings of Saturn and the outer atmospheres of the gas giants, but again the resources in question are large but limited, exhaustible by exponential growth of the sort which has been typical of terrestrial economies since the industrial revolution.   

Justice and fairness between existing stakeholders points towards bringing more people on board, as soon as we start to access any of these things. And this may well make for a better, inclusive, discourse about space. But justice between this generation and those yet to come points towards the avoidance of anything like a gold rush, and the rapid exhaustion of all that we will ever have to work with. A well-intentioned enthusiasm for inclusion may itself increase the rate at which new resources are brought into play, placed under pressure, and exhausted. Expansion into space will pose many dilemmas. But squaring the ethical requirements for inclusion, and for sustainability, looks like the hardest dilemma of all.

In partnership with Airbus.

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