The privatization of space exploration

The privatization of space exploration

The SpaceX Dragon returned to Earth on Thursday, hailed as “triumphant from start to finish,” and heralded by many as a historic step in the new age of commercial space flight. But when I look at the state of the planet we live on, I can’t help but feel ill at ease with the prospect of a for-profit space exploration industry.

The SpaceX mission may be called a private venture, but it received about half of its billion-dollar budget from NASA, and based its rocket engine design heavily on the pioneering work of NASA’s Apollo program. Still, many look forward to a time when private funding by itself can send ordinary — or more likely wealthy — citizens into space. Others are excited by the prospect of harvesting resources from our nearest celestial neighbors.

A huge shift in space policy raises questions of ethics and technological accountability, but I haven’t seen much discussion of relevant ethical issues in media coverage of these events.

Some of the most basic principles of space law adopted by the United Nations are set forth in the 1963 “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space”:

All space exploration will be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law. No one nation may claim ownership of outer space or any celestial body. Activities carried out in space must abide by the international law and the nations undergoing these said activities must accept responsibility for the governmental or non-governmental agency involved. Objects launched into space are subject to their nation of belonging, including people. Objects, parts, and components discovered outside the jurisdiction of a nation will be returned upon identification. If a nation launches an object into space, they are responsible for any damages that occur internationally.

But the profit motive has a way of clouding the noblest intentions. I worry that international law either will not have time to keep up with the challenges of regulating for-profit space activities or will simply be ignored, as it so often is here on Earth, subject to the whims of power and nationalistic interests.

Our species hasn’t figured out how to exist sustainably or responsibly on this planet. There’s little reason to think we’re wise enough or sufficiently equipped to responsibly manage other regions of the universe. Space exploration up to this point has been, at least symbolically, accountable to the people because it’s been handled by governments, which can either be democratically influenced or overthrown by the societies that create them. Those who wish to join a space industry for profit must be accountable to some regulatory power.

What happens the day a rogue trillionaire can fund and embark on his own space missions? Will there be sufficient rules in place to ensure he does so responsibly? Space law says celestial bodies cannot be owned, but will that apply to resources extracted from planetary bodies, and how will this principle be enforced?

Who is seriously considering these questions before we take further irreversible technological plunges?

The following list was written by ethics scholar Margaret R. McLean, and conveys tenets of sustainable and responsible space exploration that I think humankind would be wise to adhere to:

1. Space preservation requires that the solar system be valued for its own sake, not on the basis of what it can do for us.
2. Space conservation insists that extraterrestrial resources ought not to be exploited to benefit the few at the expense of the many or of the solar system itself.
3. Space sustainability asks that our explorations “do no harm” and that we leave the moon, Mars, and space itself no worse — and perhaps better — than we found them.

These principles could also be applied to our stewardship of life on Earth. After all, whatever havoc we wreak, the Earth and the universe will self-regulate in the context of deep time; it’s the diversity of life as we know it and our own future as a species that we risk by careless mismanagement of the resources of the universe.