π Space
Conquering Mars: realistic venture or a fantasy?

How to explore space, ethically

On September 8th, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
How to explore space, ethically
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.