π Space
Conquering Mars: realistic venture or a fantasy?

How to explore space, ethically

Jacques Arnould, Responsible for ethical questions at CNES
On September 8th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Jacques Arnould
Jacques Arnould
Responsible for ethical questions at CNES
Key takeaways
  • Since the launch of Sputnik the COSPAR (Committee on Space Research created in 1958), has developed rules to preserve exploration sites in space.
  • The measures taken consist of sterilisation operations and manoeuvres to both preserve the integrity of these sites and protect life on Earth.
  • Nevertheless, the French space agency, CNES, is the only one to have an in-house ethical expert: Jacques Arnould, a doctor in the history of science and theology.
  • He questions the way in which space exploration missions are carried out and their potential effects.
  • For example, if space is not for sale, who will guarantee the application of space law?

Space is on a roll… at least if we are to believe how much inter­est shown the media have shown for Thomas Pes­quet and the ‘space barons’ that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Bran­son have become. Per­haps this suc­cess is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask our­selves what the eth­i­cal rules of space explo­ration should be. Because, if the big play­ers in the sec­tor do not ask them­selves these ques­tions, they can­not ignore them if soci­ety has already made them.

Preserving celestial bodies

As a civil­i­sa­tion, we are becom­ing increas­ing­ly con­cerned – and not with­out rea­son – about the future of our plan­et. As such, is it rea­son­able to com­mit tech­ni­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, and eco­nom­ic resources to the explo­ration of out­er space? Rather than dream­ing of dis­tant worlds, imag­in­ing them as refuges for our species and thus risk­ing for­get­ting our Earth, should we not con­cen­trate on the lat­ter, in order to care for it, pre­serve it and thus ensure our survival?

At the same time, we can ques­tion the way we con­duct our explo­ration mis­sions and their effects. Based on six­ty years of expe­ri­ence, since the launch of Sput­nik, COSPAR, the Com­mit­tee on Space Research cre­at­ed in 1958, defined a set of rules and pro­ce­dures to pre­serve loca­tions where we place our probes and astro­mo­biles. While we must first and fore­most avoid con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing the sites where we are look­ing for traces of extra-ter­res­tri­al life with ter­res­tri­al organ­isms, the aim is more gen­er­al­ly to reduce the pol­lu­tion and dete­ri­o­ra­tion of these envi­ron­ments, which we still know only very imper­fect­ly, to a minimum.

Cer­tain­ly, the mea­sures tak­en con­sist of very thor­ough ster­il­i­sa­tion oper­a­tions. But they also push for avoid­ance manoeu­vres for ves­sels arriv­ing at their des­ti­na­tion, with the goal of pre­serv­ing land­ing sites and celes­tial bod­ies. Sim­i­lar­ly, we must be care­ful not to endan­ger life on Earth, and there­fore our­selves, when we bring back sam­ples from anoth­er plan­et. This con­cern, dat­ing back to the time of Apol­lo mis­sions to the Moon, will be very top­i­cal when we return sam­ples from Mars in a few years’ time; some­thing that has tak­en on a more threat­en­ing dimen­sion with the cur­rent glob­al pandemic.

COSPAR’s plan­e­tary pro­tec­tion mea­sures con­stant­ly evolve, both on the plan­ets to be explored and on Earth – as they do so they become more com­pli­cat­ed. Beyond the frame­work of these very con­crete pro­tec­tion mea­sures, is the ques­tion of the right we have (or claim) to explore the uni­verse, to trans­port or sim­ply to trans­mit ele­ments of our nature and prod­ucts of our cul­ture in space. So far, no rule or law exists on this sub­ject… and we are prob­a­bly not yet ready to make it the sub­ject of a pub­lic debate!

Final­ly, with­out claim­ing to be exhaus­tive, it is appro­pri­ate to add a last ques­tion: that of the inevitable shift that will occur between the explo­ration phase and the exploita­tion phase. There is no lack of exam­ples in the his­to­ry of our species where the first phase (explo­ration) was inter­rupt­ed or botched by a rush to start the sec­ond (exploita­tion). Even if they are often described as ‘colos­sal’ or ‘utopi­an’, Mars coloni­sa­tion projects bloom­ing on our screens and in the pre­sen­ta­tions of stake­hold­ers in ‘New Space’ are no less wor­ry­ing because they seem to dis­miss or even ignore the sci­en­tif­ic research that has yet to be car­ried out on the red planet.

For an ethics of space exploration

There is no doubt that these ques­tions are part of the ethics of space, like sim­i­lar approach­es in all fields of human activ­i­ty, in par­tic­u­lar those con­cern­ing human beings and their envi­ron­ments. Space ethics con­cerns above all the play­ers, whether they are “his­tor­i­cal” (States, space agen­cies, research organ­i­sa­tions) or “new”. Admit­ted­ly, few of these organ­i­sa­tions and struc­tures have estab­lished real eth­i­cal “pro­ce­dures”: CNES, the French space agency, is cur­rent­ly the only agency to have an inter­nal eth­i­cal expert (myself); UNESCO end­ed up dis­solv­ing the group that was inter­est­ed in space activ­i­ties with­in COMEST (the World Com­mis­sion on the Ethics of Sci­en­tif­ic Knowl­edge and Tech­nol­o­gy). How­ev­er, aca­d­e­mics who are begin­ning to take an inter­est in the ethics of space find its roots in the devel­op­ment of space law, as ear­ly as the mid­dle of the 20th Cen­tu­ry and even before the launch of the first Sput­nik. It inspires and is inspired by the prin­ci­ples of free access to space, non-appro­pri­a­tion and coop­er­a­tion based on the Space Treaty (1967) and the Moon Agree­ment (1979) drawn up by the Unit­ed Nations.

It is in the light of this legal cor­pus that cur­rent issues such as the man­age­ment of debris around the Earth and the envis­aged appro­pri­a­tion of space resources by pri­vate com­pa­nies must be addressed. For­mal­ly, space is not for sale: it is con­sid­ered by law as a com­mon good, like the sea, or even as a com­mon her­itage, as is the Antarc­tic. But who can police space effec­tive­ly? Who will the guar­an­tee the appli­ca­tion of space law? And con­se­quent­ly the same doubt aris­es with regard to debris around the Earth: the absence of bind­ing reg­u­la­tions and mon­i­tor­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, mean that respon­si­bil­i­ty and man­age­ment rest sole­ly on the stake­hold­ers and their good­will. In view of the sit­u­a­tion around the Earth, will this suffice?

One thing is clear: for humans, space has always been a screen onto which they have pro­ject­ed their dreams, their hopes and their fears, to the point of iden­ti­fy­ing it with the homes for their gods or with a promised par­adise. And we con­tin­ue to do so, for exam­ple, when we dream of a back-up plan­et, a ‘Plan­et B’. But space, over the past six­ty years, has also become a mir­ror of our human­i­ty; its activ­i­ties, suc­cess­es, and fail­ures. We are devel­op­ing high­ly advanced lev­els of coop­er­a­tion, such as that which has enabled the con­struc­tion and man­age­ment of the inter­na­tion­al space sta­tion. We are also con­duct­ing com­pe­ti­tions in which its tech­ni­cal nature does not con­ceal the issues of nation­al sov­er­eign­ty and eco­nom­ic dom­i­na­tion. Why should we be sur­prised? Space is above all a human endeavour.

Exploration or the challenge of being human

There­fore, we should not expect to find solu­tions to our ter­res­tri­al and human prob­lems in space: “Help your­self, and the sky will help you”, pop­u­lar wis­dom tells us, and not with­out rea­son. It would be fool­ish to pre­tend that we can do with­out space, giv­en that in the space of a few decades our human­i­ty has not only devel­oped a depen­dence on it that is almost dis­turb­ing, but has also been shaped by its dis­cov­ery and the begin­ning of its use.

Like­wise, to claim to have end­ed its explo­ration would deny the very essence of our nature, of our human con­di­tion, which is based, in part, on curios­i­ty, a thirst for knowl­edge, and our imag­i­na­tion. At the same time, we must be rea­son­able in our choic­es, mak­ing them accord­ing to our means and our needs, both indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly. Space has final­ly pro­vid­ed us with shock­ing images of the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of our species. “Look at this lit­tle dot again. This is it. This is our home. That’s us,” Carl Sagan wrote as he con­tem­plat­ed an image of our plan­et tak­en from deep space. Today, this obser­va­tion has all the mak­ings of a challenge.


Jacques Arnould

Jacques Arnould

Responsible for ethical questions at CNES

Historian of science, agricultural engineer, theologian, Jacques Arnould has been in charge of ethical issues at the Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES) since 2001.

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