When he rode to the edge of space on board Jeff Bezos’s reusable New Shepard rocket, William Shatner found the experience was not quite as he’d imagined. The Canadian actor famous for his phlegmatic captaincy of the starship Enterprise said on his return to Earth that ‘when I looked … into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold … all I saw was death.’
‘Everything I had expected to see was wrong,’ he went on. ‘The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.’
It was an unusually astute and honest perspective on human spaceflight – but hardly the one Bezos, whose space-exploration company Blue Origin operates New Shepard, must have hoped to hear. Most of those who venture into space aren’t, like Shatner, taking up an offer out of sheer curiosity, but have already decided that this is indeed where humans should be heading. They are predisposed to relate the awe, splendour and adventure, but perhaps less inclined to question the whole enterprise more deeply.
Shatner’s brief voyage to the final frontier shared nothing of Star Trek’s vision of a united humankind, but was made possible by the eye-watering private profits of capitalism. When the US president John F Kennedy offered his rationale in 1962, at the peak of the Space Race – ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’ – no one was under any illusion that the real motivation was Cold War rivalry. (There are, after all, plenty of other hard things one could do, but the Soviets had already beaten the United States into Earth orbit.) Yet still, it was deemed expedient for the US project to claim, when the lunar module of Apollo 11 touched down seven years later, that ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’
While today’s commercial spaceflight initiatives, such as Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, still mobilise that utopian universalism, they are building a business. Others hope to profit from mineral resources mined in space. ‘For all mankind’ won’t cut it any longer; it is time to mothball the inherited rhetoric of the first space age, and to look honestly at the reasons human spaceflight is being pursued and at the ethical issues raised by both the current practices and the potential future goals.
For many in the space industry it is not obvious that there is any real ethics to discuss. In 2016, the astrophysicist Erika Nesvold asked the CEO of a (now-defunct) California space-mining company how he planned to address the danger that his proposed lunar mining equipment might contaminate the moon in ways detrimental to its scientific study. He told her: ‘We’ll worry about that later.’
Nesvold discovered that others in the private space industry had a similar response to dilemmas their plans raised. How will workers in space be protected from exploitation in such a vulnerable setting? How will interpersonal conflicts of people living in space be mediated and settled? Should there be property rights at all in space? If so, how would they be decided – and enforced? What obligations do we have to the space environment? What are the best structures for space governance, whether of activities in near-Earth orbit, planetary settlements or commercial activities? Who gets to go?
Rather than think about such issues, Nesvold wrote in her book Off-Earth (2023), many in the industry ‘seemed to be focused exclusively on technical challenges like reusable rocket designs, economic strategies for making space activities financially feasible, and legal structures that would invigorate rather than inhibit their industry’. [Continue reading…]