Cosmic Questions

An ethicist considers law and order on the final frontier

| November-December 2006

Not since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 has there been such a buzz about space exploration. With the promise of commercial space travel just over the horizon, traveling the cosmos will no longer be limited to an elite group of highly educated, disciplined astronauts; the average Joe can, for the first time, truly reach for the stars. Lost in all the excitement, however, is a host of ethical dilemmas that, if they are not considered soon, could end up aborting our journey before it really begins.

Given what we’ve done to our own planet, a natural first step is to ask whether or not we should be encouraging private space exploration in the first place. An overdeveloped sense of nationalism could lead to a space war, and ignoring the cumulative effects of seemingly small acts could quickly lead to overcommercialization and pollution. The militarization of space is also a worry, given our history of making new technologies into weapons and carrying old conflicts over into new lands.

We’ve already littered our outer atmosphere with floating debris that spacecraft and satellites need to navigate around, and we’ve abandoned equipment on the moon and on other planets. So what safeguards are in place to ensure that we don’t exacerbate this problem, especially if we propose to increase space traffic? Are we prepared to risk accidents in space, especially given the danger level of certain technologies, such as nuclear power?

If space is commercialized, then property claims—by governments, corporations, and individuals—will need to be made in order to operate various ventures without interference (lawsuits have already been filed on Earth to lay claim to such things as asteroids). We also need to consider what it will mean to actually “own” parts of space. Is our relationship with space one of “positive community of ownership,” in that we each own an equal share in space and its contents? If so, several other questions arise. To illustrate the point, imagine there are only eight people alive on Earth and only eight other planets in our solar system: Do we each get our own planet or one-eighth of each planet? And how do we account for future people—must we factor in their legacy before we can claim our shares?

On the other hand, if our relationship to space is one of “negative community of ownership,” then no one has a prima facie claim to the property in question. In other words, no one owns anything yet, so we share a common starting point of zero. This raises the question of how it is possible to gain ownership.

The trick here is to justify the property-giving process in a way that explains why other processes—such as simply pointing at an unclaimed asteroid and saying “That’s mine” or perhaps roping off a section of the moon in order to claim it—don’t lead to property rights.

12/8/2014 5:04:28 AM