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Ethics in the Study of Space and Its Emerging Technologies

By Dr. James J. Barney
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

At the 2021 Space Education and Strategic Applications (SESA) conference, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel where I discussed the promises and pitfalls of the study of space. In that presentation, I focused on how space studies programs must have an interdisciplinary focus, incorporate experiential learning opportunities in coursework and embrace a partnership model of education.

During this year’s SESA conference on September 22-23, I had the pleasure of building upon last year’s presentation. This time, I argued that universities and institutions that currently have or are launching space programs should incorporate an exploration of ethical issues into their curricula for an interdisciplinary approach.

Ethics is a field of philosophy that explores the difference between right and wrong human conduct, and it advocates for certain behavior deemed ethically right. In this year’s SESA presentation, I advocated for the incorporation of applied ethics into the study of space classes. The field of applied ethics seeks to develop theories about what is right or wrong and then applies a set of principles to practical moral problems.

The use of applied ethics is used by instructors in many academic fields. For example, law, medical and business students will encounter the use of applied ethics in their classrooms. This method is the most common way of teaching students that their behavior must align with the ethical code of their chosen profession.

My recent presentation was influenced by my summer reading of a wonderful book called “Space Ethics.” It was written by Brian Patrick Green, the director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Space Is an Interdisciplinary Field

Over the past decade, several universities, including our own, have developed space programs. While space is widely thought of as a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field, space is an interdisciplinary field that addresses a wide range of academic subjects in addition to STEM. For example, the study of space includes an exploration of space history, politics, public policy, law and ethics.

Commentators like Brian Patrick Green in Space Ethics” have highlighted how space exploration and the future exploitation of space resources raise a collection of ethical questions that must be discussed and considered by space professionals. These questions range from whether it is ethical to engage in space exploration when the Earth has so many unresolved problems to the ethics of the future colonization of other planets and the use of space resources.

Moreover, Green noted that future potential encounters with non-human life, as well as human interaction with pristine space environments, raise profound ethical issues. In addition, Green said that technological advances, including the use of robotics and artificial intelligence that will become tools of space professionals, raise additional ethical questions.

In the view of Green, space professionals must develop an ethical framework that enables future space professionals to make choices that benefit individuals or spacefaring nations. That same framework should consider what is good for humanity, including the vast amount of people who will never directly participate in space industry activities.

While it would be presumptuous for me to propose an ethical system that would bind the actions of people centuries into the future, Green and other commentators on space ethics make a compelling case that ethical questions raised by space activities warrant a central place in the study of space.

The Most Vocal Proponents of the Space Industry Have Painted a Rosy Picture of the Future

While critics of ethics in the classroom may argue that academics should stick to facts or data rather than the instruction of moral lessons, such a line of criticism reflects a series of ethical choices and propositions that deserve careful consideration inside the classroom.

The discussion of space ethics is necessary because many of the loudest advocates of space exploration, like Elon Musk, have painted a rosy picture of its potential. They have promised a multi-trillion-dollar industry, technological advances that will improve people’s lives on Earth and the colonization of other planets.

However, there are alarming trends in the space industry. Competition between spacefaring nations, the commercialization of space, and an ethos surrounding space exploration that includes elements of elitism and escapism are all bad omens for the future of space.

Also, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics, tools in the space industry, have the potential to transform the nature of work and impact the lives of millions of people on Earth as well. If space instructors and students do not explore and study space’s ethical issues, space exploration and the exploitation of space resources may recreate not only the Earth’s many already existing problems in space but also create new problems.

The Internet and the Age of Exploration Are Cautionary Tales

The internet experience and the Age of Exploration are cautionary tales for the future of space. Idealists in the early 1990s, for instance, believed that the internet could become a platform for connecting people from across the world and the free exchange of ideas.

Unfortunately, the internet is far from the utopia promised by the idealists of the early 1990s. Instead, it has become a reflection of the best and worst of society.

Admittedly, the internet has enriched the lives of many millions of people who use the internet to continue their education, access information and connect with people they may not otherwise have met. Without the internet, I would not have had the great fortune to teach thousands of students via the internet over the years.

Still, bad actors have used the internet to engage in a collection of nefarious activities. For instance, cybersecurity is expected to grow into a trillion-dollar industry, with cybercrime costing trillions of dollars in damages. The example of the internet illustrates the dangers of not establishing an ethical framework or carefully considering the ethics of innovative technology before widespread adoption of that technology.

The Age of Exploration from the late 15th to the 17th century is another reason why ethics in space studies are necessary. The European discovery of the Western Hemisphere unleashed a series of historical forces that transformed the Earth in a collection of unforeseeable ways after the first European explorers set foot on the Western Hemisphere.

For the most part, the ethics of the Age of Exploration excused behavior that people in the modern era find morally reprehensible. For example, Laurence Bergreen in “Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504,” details how the Age of Exploration started with Columbus. It began a long process that resulted in the destruction and death of indigenous cultures and peoples, the development of a transatlantic slave trade that brutalized millions of people from Africa, and actions that resulted in the degradation of the physical environment.

Thus, the recent experience of the internet era and the more distant example of the Age of Exploration provide space professions with cautionary tales about how exploration and new technologies can unleash negative forces. Moreover, these two examples illustrate the need for the formulation of ethical codes to avoid repeating mistakes made by prior generations.

Space Ethics Have Contemporary, Real-World Consequences

Some people view space as a futuristic field without contemporary, real-world consequences or implications. However, this viewpoint ignores the fact that the space industry is already a multi-billion-dollar industry that is expected to grow over the next two decades into a trillion-dollar industry. This growth has, in part, taken place without a public debate or discussion over space ethics.

Several events that have occurred over the past year alone illustrate that the space field raises ethical issues now. The conflict in Ukraine has had a tremendous impact on space exploration. For example, the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union against Russia could create a situation where space will become merely another front of the conflict between spacefaring nations.

Similarly, some people question both the prudence and ethics of investing in space. This type of investment may not be considered profitable now; it does not increase shareholder value in the near term or directly improve the lives of ordinary people. Instead, the Earth and its people face other, more pressing problems like climate change, income inequality and poverty.

Additionally, recent events raise a collection of other ethical issues related to the role of non-state actors in space. For example, Starlink, a company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, has developed a network of thousands of satellites created with the aim of providing wireless internet access to millions of people who do not have access to such technology.

Even though Starlink has laudable goals, developing an extensive network of satellites by a non-state actor raises a host of ethical questions about the role of private actors in space. For example, there are ethical issues raised by allowing a private entity to establish a potential monopoly in the wireless space without assuring that the technology will provide low-cost access to millions of underserved people across the world and in the United States.

Additionally, some people have argued that the installation of thousands of satellites will harm the ability of astronomers on Earth to conduct valuable research.

During the conflict in Ukraine, some news outlets suggested that Starlink and other private companies have assisted Ukraine in the conflict. That activity has raised more ethical questions about the role of private entities in space, fueling criticism that these private actors are merely proxies for spacefaring nations or that private companies may advance their own independent agendas in space.

These contemporary examples illustrate the many ethical issues raised by activities in space. As a result, these issues will require further exploration in classrooms.

An Exploration of Ethical Issues Does Not Have to Involve Moral Sermons

The study of ethics does not necessarily involve moral sermons. For example, in the current legal studies courses that I teach, I build ethical issues into the coursework more subtly, using questions, role-playing, fact pattern analysis, and debates to illustrate how legal professionals must operate in accordance with an ethical code. I also emphasize how there are consequences for unethical behavior.

Similarly, space studies instructors can incorporate similar techniques into their coursework to illustrate the ethical implications and effects of emerging technologies and space activities. Academics can use these educational tools to demonstrate that while possessing great promise, space activities and emerging technologies also have possible negative implications that need consideration. Consequently, the exploration of ethical issues can be made entertaining while raising awareness of complex ethical issues in students.

Ethics Must Form the Core of Every Academic Subject, Including the Study of Space

Space studies teachers have an obligation to not only provide their students with technical knowledge, but also to explore the ethical implications and effects of those technologies. Ethics incorporated into space curriculum may not provide students with all the answers to the ethical questions posed by space. However, exploring ethical issues will at least create a much-needed awareness of how emerging technologies and activities in space raise many ethical issues that deserve consideration and further study as part of an interdisciplinary curriculum.

James Barney 3

Dr. James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies at the School of Security and Global Studies. Dr. Barney has been the recipient of several awards. He teaches undergraduate and graduate law and history courses. In addition to having earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Memphis, Dr. Barney has several master's degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy and a J.D. from New York Law School. Dr. Barney serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity and the Model United Nations Club, and he is the pre-law advisor at the University. He is currently writing a book on the politics of New York City during the administration of David Dinkins, New York City's first African American mayor, 1989-1993.

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