From the Chief of Space Policy
Among the many fine benefits of space exploration is its ability to crystalize aspects of society, culture, or the individual. Though this tool is frequently deployed in the guise of science fiction, our growing capabilities in spaceflight can itself catalyze unique insights into the human and social condition.
This month, I’m thinking a lot about ethics, specifically the ethical challenges inherent in space settlement. Dr. Erika Nesvold, my guest on the latest Space Policy Edition podcast, is the author of a new book on the “ethical questions and quandaries of living off-Earth.”
I was particularly struck by the broader ethical implications of who’s going and who’s not. Or, more to the point, what type of organization is attempting to settle space, and which kind is not.
At the moment, no national space agency has an explicit goal of human space settlement. Space exploration by these organizations is a practical endeavor replete with “spinoffs,” job creation, scientific knowledge, and technical development. These are all great values, but they epitomize the so-called “acceptable” reasons for spaceflight endemic to modern public institutions, which reward the quantifiably practical over the soulfully inspiring.
Ambition for human settlement is currently the exclusive domain of the private individual. SpaceX is the obvious — and most credible — example, and is building the massive Starship to enable its founder’s desire to see human society expand to Mars. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, with its goal to have “millions of people living and working in space” is another credible example.
The public sphere, unable to justify or generate effective policy for settlement, has therefore ceded human settlement of the Cosmos to the whims and interests of individuals. This isn’t inherently bad, but it does carry a consequence: the public has no direct avenue to influence the ethics, politics, or values of those initial settlements. Democratic institutions are designed to incorporate and synthesize public input into their projects, private institutions bear no such responsibility; public influence is applied in ad-hoc, idiosyncratic ways, or is irrelevant.
Whether Blue Origin or SpaceX or some other private institution can succeed in such a massive endeavor is very much an open question. But for those of us who care about the future of human development, and who want certain values integrated into those efforts, the lack of competing public endeavors provides little opportunity to guide this effort. Perhaps it’s time to consider the consequences of this lack of public agency ambition.
Until next time,
Chief of Space Policy
The Planetary Society
Space Policy Highlights
Trends in NASA authorization legislation (thespacereview.com) "NASA authorization legislation has become less frequent and grown significantly longer since the early 1980s. This represents a marked departure from the first two decades of NASA’s history, in which Congress passed annual authorizations of consistent length...this reflects increasing political polarization in Congress, which reduces the frequency of non-critical legislation."
Texas is planning to make a huge public investment in space (arstechnica.com) "As part of the state's biennial budget process, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called on the state legislature to provide $350 million to create and fund a Texas Space Commission for the next two years...This would be an extremely large state investment in the commercial space industry. The present leader in such activities is Florida, where the Space Florida promotional organization has supported myriad commercial space activities around its space coast and launch industry. Compared to the Texas proposal, Space Florida has a modest annual budget of $12.5 million."
Trials and tribulations of planetary smallsats (thespacereview.com) "In 2019, NASA selected three mission concepts for further study that would use smallsats to study the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, with a cost cap of $55 million each...All three, though, have run into problems."
Are Moonshots Giant Leaps of Faith? (issues.org) "It is due to the remarkable success of [the Apollo] program, politically as well as technologically, that we refer to this sort of policy proposal as moonshots. If we resist the temptation to assume that more is always better—and therefore that much more is much better—what do we really know about the effects of surges in research budgets? In other words, is every moonshot a giant leap forward for mankind?"
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
Humanity is on the cusp of attempting permanent settlement on other worlds. But who gets to go? How will we govern ourselves or enforce laws off Earth? How can you have property rights, labor rights, or even individual rights when the very air you breathe is limited and potentially controlled by your employer? Dr. Erika Nesvold, astrophysicist and author of the new book “Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space” explores the ethical challenges facing our species as it dips its toe into living beyond our home planet.