Ethics of Space Exploration: Exploring to Sustain?

Space. 

The final frontier. 

For as long as many of us can remember space has been at the forefront of the minds of most of the global population. Whether this fascination has to do with scientific exploration, resource extraction, or the desire for the fame and glory that comes with being one of a handful of people who have left the planet, there is little doubt that at some point or another nearly everyone has looked up at the nighttime sky and wondered what else is out there. 

This desire has driven incredible feats of physics and engineering in our lifetimes. We’ve put satellites and telescopes in the sky, rovers on other planets, and people on the moon. Within the subsequent generation, these ambitions will take their next major step forward with the potential for a constructed station on the moon and a manned trip to Mars

As exciting as all of this (we all feel that inner-child giddiness), it begs the question at what cost?

Logistics of Space Exploration

Any scientist or engineer could tell you that getting to space is no easy feat no matter how many times it has been done. There are all sorts of logistics that have to be worked out for each aircraft ranging from the weight of the supplies that it will carry, to how it will be fueled, to how food and human waste will be handled in space for months on end. None of it is cheap — in fact, space exploration is spendy and we as a society put a lot more money towards it than some of the lesser-known yet essential parts of our own planet like the oceans

Creating equipment that will survive in space over the long-term isn’t easy either. Things such as robots that are used widely in space exploration have to be made strategically in order to survive the harsh conditions. After all, they have to survive debris traveling at incredible speeds, extreme high and low temperatures, and have the battery life to last. Much of this essential testing and retesting adds up and frustrates politicians who hold the purse strings and want results quickly. 

Outside of funding, many experts in space programs are also worried about the shrinking list of qualified professionals who have the experience and expertise to push the global space program to new boundaries. In the United States, for instance, the number of students seeking STEM degrees that are essential for space exploration is quite low and it is hoped that increased space funding will inspire more young adults to pursue those types of valuable degrees. 

Free Resources?

Establishing a presence on the moon and manning a trip to Mars are amazing scientific feats, things every global citizen should be proud of. The tools developed to make these happen will be creative and amazing. Take for instance the idea of creating a swarm of droid insects that could travel the surface of a planet like Mars, taking photos and samples as they go. 

However, science is not where it will stop. Rather, space exploration is poised to go much the same way as any other exploration in our human history has. Resource extraction for personal gain is likely to be a priority with no real plan for dealing with any unforeseen consequences until much later. There is already an estimated $700 billion billion worth of valuable mineral resources in the asteroid belt alone.  

These include all sorts of valuable minerals such as tungsten, which is actually used in space travel because of its high melting point and strength. Other valuable minerals that many entrepreneurs already have their eyes on include things like nickel, iron, gold, and platinum to name a few. Many make the valid argument that most of the mining for these metals done on Earth is hazardous, unethical, and heavily polluted. Moving these types of industries to outer space could be a real benefit for the planet. 

Space exploration tugs at all of our heartstrings and is one of the few things that really brings the world together. Though exciting exploration is expensive and has some significant time and personal limitations. If this is something we manage to master in the near future, things like mining and other extractive industries will be quick to follow. The real question is: are we actually ready?

Indiana Lee
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