The changing landscape of space travel invites excitement, complex ethical questions

Future of Space Exploration
By Asli Kocak

As Caroline DePalma highlighted last week, our human spirit has pushed space travel forward for generations. Space inspires wonder in us the way few things do. Only 12 people have ever walked on the moon, and fewer than 600 have been to space. From “The Martian” (2015) to “Star Wars,” our fascination is clear in pop culture; we continually imagine what the vast universe contains and what it would be like to leave the only home we’ve ever known. 

NASA’s next manned space program to the moon is the Artemis program, named for the Greek goddess of the moon, who is also the sister of the sun god, Apollo. This program will endeavor to take the first woman to the moon by 2024, and eventually, using lessons learned on the moon, send a manned mission to Mars. This mission has been a long time coming, considering that the last time an astronaut left Earth’s orbit was the final moon landing mission in 1972. Now, nearly 50 years later, we are again attempting to voyage beyond our home planet. 

However, the Artemis program is a resurgence of the old order in a changing landscape of space exploration. After the end of the space race in the 1970s, diminishing political support led to a dramatic reduction of NASA’s budget. NASA’s research is invaluable, as it has informed our ideas about the universe and has led to inventions such as the CAT scan and baby formula — but it is not necessarily profitable.  

In recent years, space travel and exploration has become increasingly privatized with the rise of companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. NASA has been working with private contractors, such as aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to build spacecrafts for years. During these projects, however, NASA was still actively involved and ultimately maintained ownership of the spacecraft. Last summer, SpaceX made history when it launched the first manned mission to space on a privately owned spacecraft, the Crew Dragon. What does this mean for the future of space travel? Private companies have more capital to work with, and often more ambitious ideas. One of SpaceX’s current projects is Starship, a massive reusable spacecraft, which Musk has claimed is intended to aid in the human settlement of Mars — a much more ambitious goal than that of NASA’s Artemis program. 

With private companies at the helm, the cost of space travel will be driven down dramatically, meaning that space tourism may soon be within reach. However, even with competition and privatization reducing costs, space travel is still wildly expensive. This means that the indescribable view of the curvature of Earth will only be open to the richest of the rich. Andy Weir, known for his fact-based science fiction, imagines a tourism-fueled lunar colony in his novel “Artemis” (2017). A two-week stay in a few decades may cost $70,000, according to Weir. Once, space was only accessible to the most courageous and determined, who were willing to risk their lives to further the journey of humanity out to the planets and stars. Now, if only the rich can ascend into space, have we tarnished the blank slate of space with the same inequities that plague the Earth?

This is only one of the possible inequities that will emerge as we continue to reach out beyond our blue planet in new and different ways. Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have expressed their intention to use their respective companies to pursue human settlement of the solar system. This popular idea in the scientific community was examined in Episode 2 of “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” (2020) as a way to save the human race if climate change makes Earth uninhabitable, or even as a way to outlive the death of our sun, if we survive that long. 

An important question that arises, however, is how this settlement will occur. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevents countries from claiming any moon or planet as their territory, but this was enacted before the rise of private companies in space exploration. The potential for monopoly is clear as private companies expand their reach in space. What would a settlement on the moon or Mars owned by a company look like, with everything the settlers need to survive owned and controlled by one corporation? The goal of business is profit, and without a governing body to protect settlers, it is likely that deep inequities would emerge between those who controlled the means of production and those who performed the work, as occurred during the rise of industrialization in the 19th century. 

And what if we stumble upon life in the polar ice caps of Mars or the underground seas of Saturn’s moon Europa? Would it be ethical to intrude on their environment and possibly damage their delicate ecosystems? We have already irreparably damaged the ecosystem of our own planet and caused the extinction of many species. Would we become the worst sort of colonizers — moving through the universe, using up the resources of world after world, draining them dry? Though the idea of human settlements in space is exciting, these and other ethical questions must be central to the discussion as we move toward these possible futures.

The work of brilliant scientists at private companies and government organizations alike provides reassurance that humanity has an incredible future in space exploration and travel. We will discover extraordinary things and move ever closer to understanding the universe we inhabit. However, we must avoid replicating the inequities and injustices that have permeated our relations with each other, other species and our planet — and be careful to maintain the wonder and human excellence that have powered our previous explorative forays away from our little blue planet.