The Final Frontier
With every great technological or cultural revolution comes a serious paradigm shift within the ethics of our bureaucratic institutions. Electricity, Aviation, The Internet, Nanotechnology and Biotechnology are among many evolutionary plateaus which challenge existing mindsets and therefore, ethical ideals.
We currently are in the infancy of one of the greatest albeit slow moving revolutions in human history. This is undoubtedly the frontier of Space. Space exploration is a field which has recently fallen out of the hands of government agencies and into the free market. This has given birth to new (and very important) concepts such as Space Tourism, which will be the focus of this paper. Although I will maintain a focused view in this essay we must keep in mind that the final solution to this problem is not merely a local evaluation but a global construction of a new discipline. There is no single answer to this problem besides understanding that space ethics and its obvious association with engineering ethics is a field which is currently spaghetti of ideas, regulations and concepts which are not sufficient to allow us to flourish in space. Since space exploration now lies in the realm of private enterprises there will be a new space race emerging. One which infuses the risk, temporal pressure and bragging rights of the 1960’s with an additional monetary prize rivaling that of the aviation industry of the 1900’s. How should we apply Space Tourism to the Code “Regard the practitioner’s duty to public welfare as paramount”?
This requires us to understand how public welfare applies to space travel, even if just viewed as the short term cultural, medical and economical implications. Simply asking question about long term concepts in space travel falls directly into a chimerical realm of science fiction. It is this lack of knowledge which limits progress, and historically we have seen this on a case by case basis. However, it is the successful leaps of past revolutions which we can use as canonical tools to teach ourselves with.
In the words of the great late Carl Sagan “Space exploration has not received nearly enough attention” (Sagan 1983). It is this simple fact that our societies are short term thinkers, for obvious financial and selfish reasons, which limits our ability to address long term issues we may face 15, 50, 100, 1000 years down the road. To understand the problem we must be able to draw obvious correlations such as European Colonialism and the recent difficulties with space junk cluttering up earths geosynchronous orbits (Lin 2006). Although Space may seem infinite in size and limitless in resources we will soon find that this is not the case. It is specifically when we realize we have hit these cross roads that public welfare is challenged or threatened.
Looking even at the immediate ethics of space travel let’s return to Space Tourism to understand why this is such a serious and immediate issue. Here we must face a very simple question; should we let the application of international controls and regulations during the infancy of space exploration limit the potential of progress to be made in the field? Let’s remind ourselves that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is planning to fly us to space in 2008 (Press 2006). Do we want to stop this free market of entrepreneurs from taking us to space on our own dime? If we are going to apply blind faith to the free market we only need to look at the recent political history of the Clinton administration or the New Labour party and their faith in the market democracy. Accepting formalist views of market economies is now widely accepted as untrue by economists, we must take into account a more irrational model of market complexity (Curtis 2007).
We must recognize the dichotomy developing between our understandings of public welfare in space. On one side the premier private space tourists have been said to “view the upcoming launches in the same light as ‘extreme sport”‘ (Mastromatteo. 2007) fully aware and accepting of large risk factors. This has been personified with the introduction of the Ansari X Prize which offered $10,000,000 for the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable manned vehicle into space twice within two weeks (Foust. 2006). The detractors of government regulations will further remind us that “with today’s regulations, the Wright Brothers might never have had been allowed to take off on their flimsy, bicycle-powered flying contraption.” (Mastromatteo. 2007)
Now we much realize that this is obviously not a sustainable way to explore space. As with the aviation industry, what started as an experiment quickly became a fully regulated and controlled worldwide industry. The vastness of air space in the early 1900’s transformed into a super highway of air traffic in merely a few decades. The important idea to understand is not only if this will happen in space travel, but when it will happen. “We have already littered our outer atmosphere with floating space debris … not to mention abandon equipment on the moon and other planets. So what safeguards are in place to ensure we don’t exacerbate this problem?” (Lin 2006). Here we can see the simple problem with short term thinking and it applies to all aspects of the conquest of space.
Returning to the immediate issues with public welfare during the infancy of space tourism, we must understand two main ideas. First, if we are treating the premier space tourists and corporations as experimental thrill seekers then we must realize there is a balance between protecting welfare and limiting progress. We should, as best practice, look to Aristotle’s golden mean to give direction in this regard. We have to put new rules into place that will protect public welfare in a world of space travel. We must be wary of putting the solution entirely into the hands of the free market which is an idealistic solution to the problem. We must also realize the limitations imposed by big government bureaucratic controls of such a vast potential of exploration (An obvious example is the enormous funding issues inside NASA) (Jones. 2007).
The solution can be derived in part through the lessons learned during recent scientific revolutions. Two prime examples were the recent breakthroughs in biotechnology and nanotechnology. Both addressed big picture ethical issues and created subsequently new ethics disciplines. Let’s be very clear here. Before biotechnology who would have dreamt of raising questions regarding designer babies or genetic privacy? Similarly, what about social implications of nanopollution or nanoparticle toxicology? It is the realization that, at times, breakthroughs in human achievement warrants the re-inspection of our ethical structures that must occur. Although we can let the specific details of a new discipline evolve naturally over time, it is our job now to create the framework for the field of space ethics — One which benefits both the free market and public welfare as a whole.
To conclude with a solution would be shortsighted, it is our job now to stop and look far, far forward. We know our current ethical system for public welfare will not map directly into space and we must therefore learn from recent achievements and failures to guide us forward.
CITATIONS The Trap. 2007. Documentary. Produced by Adam Curtis, UK: BBC two Jeff Foust. (2007). A day at the space show. Available: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/474/1. Last accessed May 28 2007. Richard M. Jones. (2007). AIP FYI Number 37: NASA Hearings Highlight Continuing Funding Problems . Available: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=23831. Last accessed June 1st 2007. Patrick Lin. (2006). Space Ethics: Look Before Taking Another Leap for Mankind. Available: http://www.nanoethics.org/paper042406.html. Last accessed June 1st 2007. MICHAEL MASTROMATTEO. (2007). Who Rules?. Engineering Dimensions. 27 (1), 2-4. Associated Press. (2006). Virgin Galactic Aims to Fly Passengers by 2008 . Available: http://www.space.com/news/ap_060718_virgin_update.html. Last accessed May 26. Carl Sagan (1983). COSMOS. USA: Random HOuse. 144-206.