Rationales for Space Exploration

Oxford Academic
May 30, 2020 · 5 min read
Featured image via Pixabay.

Read an excerpt from The Value of Science in Space Exploration, where author James S. J. Schwartz discusses the rationale behind the need for space travel and exploration.

Space exploration is expensive and full of risk. Even with recent cost reductions stemming from increased competition among launch vehicle manufacturers, reliable payload delivery to low-Earth orbit (LEO) remains well in excess of 2,000 USD/kg, with even greater costs associated with higher orbits (such as MEO (medium-Earth orbit) or GEO (geostationary orbit)), or with interplanetary missions. Human missions to LEO cost on the order of tens of millions of USD per passenger. Meanwhile, national spaceflight budgets tend to be quite small. In 2017, the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was approximately 19.5 billion USD — 0.47% of U.S. federal outlays. What’s more, even the most reliable launch systems, such as ESA’s Ariane 5, the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V, etc., have failure rates of 1% to 5% or higher. Human-rated systems are no exception; 2 out of 135 NASA Space Transportation System missions resulted in catastrophic failure — the Challenger (STS-51L) and Columbia (STS-107) disasters of 1986 and 2003. It should come as little surprise, then, that spaceflight advocates have felt the need to engage in lively defenses of continued or expanded spaceflight activities.

There is something like a “spaceflight advocacy package” of arguments that tend to be employed whenever the topic is broached. Among the battery of spaceflight rationales often promulgated are:

• Increases in spaceflight activities will inspire more students to become interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

• Through the exploration of the Solar System, and especially through the search for extraterrestrial life, space exploration promises to deliver answers to many of life’s “big questions” about life’s extent and origin.

• Crewed spaceflight is a natural expression of our innate exploratory and migratory urges.

• The “conquering” of the “space frontier” will realize various societal goods purportedly realized by the “conquering” of the American West.

• The exploitation of resources from space (e.g., from lunar and asteroid mining) will promote human well-being by mitigating terrestrial resource depletion.

• Human expansion into space is a necessary means for preserving humanity against global terrestrial catastrophes (e.g., ecological collapse, meteorite strikes).

• Space exploration is a critical driver of technological innovation (the “spinoff” justification).

As this list evinces, the term “space exploration” is ambiguous. After all, a supporter of “space exploration” could be a supporter of: the scientific study of space environments (either crewed or robotic); the use of space for commercial purposes (e.g., space hotels, space mining); the use of space for human habitation; etc. The significance of this ambiguity is that there is no such thing as a rationale for space exploration simpliciter. Rather, there are many and varied rationales for the many and varied possible objectives or activities that might be undertaken in space.

It should come as little surprise, then, that spaceflight advocates have felt the need to engage in lively defenses of continued or expanded spaceflight activities.

A central question of this book is whether and in what senses we are justified in saying there is a moral obligation to support space exploration. A necessary condition on the existence of an obligation to satisfy a spaceflight objective is that, ceteris paribus, some amount of good would come from satisfying this objective. However, this condition is insufficient on its own, because other things may not be equal. It may be that the opportunity costs are too high, i.e., that we could realize more good by working toward other objectives. Or it might simply not be possible for the moment to satisfy some spaceflight objective. For example, it may be true in principle that it is good to mitigate terrestrial resource depletion by exploiting space resources. Similarly, it may be true in principle that it is good to ensure long-term human survival via space settlement. But in each case there are good reasons to doubt that we can, at present, accomplish these tasks effectively. This motivates two further necessary conditions on the existence of an obligation to satisfy a spaceflight objective: that it is possible in the first place to do this; and that doing this is a justifiable use of energy and resources. If some spaceflight objective satisfies all three conditions, then we know that, in addition to being good to realize in principle, it is also a good that it is possible for us to realize, and one that can be defended as worthwhile against other possible uses of our energies and resources.

Importantly, whether and to what degree a spaceflight objective satisfies the three conditions — of being good in principle, of being possible to realize, and being good on balance — varies over time. At any given time, certain spaceflight objectives might offer more good (in principle) than others, and ceteris paribus, we have an obligation to prioritize those objectives most likely to bring about the most good. At present, inspiring students to study STEM disciplines may be more important, all things considered, than establishing permanent space settlements. But several centuries into the future it could well be that space settlement becomes a prominent societal goal. Similarly, the possibility of satisfying spaceflight objectives varies over time. As an application of “ought implies can,” if a particular spaceflight objective is beyond our scientific, technological, or economic capabilities, then it could not be demanded that we satisfy this objective. Thus, if it is presently within our power to use spaceflight to inspire students to study STEM disciplines, but not in our power to establish space settlements, then our present obligations attach more strongly to the former objective than they do to the latter.

Importantly, whether and to what degree a spaceflight objective satisfies the three conditions — of being good in principle, of being possible to realize, and being good on balance — varies over time.

Furthermore, our ability to satisfy spaceflight objectives effectively also varies. Perhaps it is possible that we can use spaceflight both to increase STEM enrollments and to establish extraterrestrial settlements. Still, the former would arguably be much easier, much less expensive, and much less risky. For this reason, we might judge that for the moment we have a stronger obligation, all things considered, to use spaceflight to increase STEM enrollments. (And with respect to goals such as increasing STEM enrollments, there is always the possibility that some alternative means is more efficient and effective!) We must keep in mind, then, that we have numerous obligations, some of which come into conflict, and that many of these obligations admit of multiple means of satisfaction, some of which conflict. This means that the existence and strength of an obligation to engage in any particular activity is a highly contextual matter that cannot simply be read off of the mere observation of an apparent need together with an apparent means for addressing this need. What we in fact have an obligation to work toward in the present might look very different from what we are obligated to do decades and centuries into the future.

James S. J. Schwartz is Assistant Teaching Professor of Philosophy at Wichita State University and coeditor of The Ethics of Space Exploration.

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