Ethics in outer space: can we make interplanetary exploration just?

Ethics in outer space: can we make interplanetary exploration just?

Future space explorers need to take care to avoid the harms caused by colonialism and exploitation on Earth.Credit: Detlev Van Ravenswaay/SPL

Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space Erika Nesvold MIT Press (2023)

Reclaiming Space: Progressive and Multicultural Visions of Space Exploration James S. J. Schwartz, Linda Billings and Erika Nesvold (eds) Oxford Univ. Press (2023)

From Star Trek to Apollo 17, space exploration is often framed as humanity pushing collectively towards a better future. But those utopian visions probably won’t mesh with reality. The book Off-Earth explores the ethical implications of humans moving into outer space — and whether those who do can avoid bringing along Earthly problems such as environmental destruction and social injustice. Nature spoke to its author, Erika Nesvold.

Nesvold is a computational astrophysicist, game developer and a member of the team behind Universe Sandbox, a physics-based space simulator. Based in Severn, Maryland, she is also co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, a non-profit organization that works for a more inclusive and ethical future in space, and co-editor of Reclaiming Space, a collection of essays that explores similar themes.

Why is now a good time to talk about ethics in space exploration?

A lot of people are talking about these topics because of the growth of the private space-flight industry. For decades, human space exploration was done by national agencies with different motivations, different rhetoric surrounding it and different levels of public participation. With private space flight, members of the public — if they get rich enough — can actually think about going into space.

Erika Nesvold headshot.

Erika Nesvold explores ethics of space travel.Credit: Todd Dring Photography

You talk about ‘settling’ space, rather than colonizing it. Why?

Because of all the terrible behaviour that came out of the colonization model here on Earth. People talk about space as the final frontier — there’s always references to the Wild West. But living on the frontier in the Wild West was not an ideal experience for most, including Indigenous people, women and Black people. We can’t just pick and choose the nice shiny parts of history and apply them to space. We have to also look at what was harmful about those times and how we can avoid that in the future.

What messy Earth problems could humans carry into space?

It’s not just that we’ll bring all the same problems with us into space. There are certain physical characteristics of the space environment that could make all of this worse — making people more vulnerable to exploitation, for example. People working in space — say, mining asteroids or whatever we send them out to do — are going to be in isolated environments without a lot of oversight or monitoring. They’re going to be at the mercy of their employers for air, water, food and a trip back to Earth.

This has parallels with a lot of environments where we see labour exploitation and abuses on Earth. During my research for Off-Earth, I spoke to a labour-rights activist who talked about the Thai fishing industry, in which migrant workers are hired, their passports are taken away, they’re put on boats and taken off to sea. And they can be kept out there for years and abused without anyone watching. They don’t have a way back. Solutions that work on Earth, such as strong labour unions and regulation to defend workers’ rights, will also help to safeguard future space workers — assuming we put deliberate effort into putting these protections into place.

Why does Off-Earth also talk about reproductive rights in space?

This felt like one of the most futuristic topics in the book because nobody’s saying, oh, let’s start having children in space. But if we want someday to have a permanent human presence in space, then we have to be able to replenish our population without continually shipping people from Earth. That means human reproduction in space, but there are so many ethical complications.

In the long term, it leads into questions of population control. If you’re in an environment of real scarcity, such as we imagine a space settlement would be, you need to keep your population from getting too big or too small. And we’ve seen on Earth that trying to control a country’s population can lead to some really unethical and horrific practices.

What can people who have worked on these issues on Earth teach us?

Historians, especially colonial historians, can point to lessons learnt — cautionary tales and also success stories from the past. Anthropologists, sociologists and economists can explain how humans live together and how their culture shapes behaviour, and vice versa. And how all of this affects the success and happiness of communities.

While researching my book I talked to Michelle Brown, a criminologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Walidah Imarisha, who is a writer, an activist and director of the Center for Black Studies at Portland State University in Oregon. They both taught me a lot about prison abolition and restorative justice. If we talk about maybe not needing prisons in space, then the question is, what’s the alternative? And it turns out there’s a ton of people who are exploring how different cultures around the world handle harm within their communities in ways that don’t involve locking people up in prison.

How do we ensure that voices from all around the globe are heard?

There’s been discussion that we just need to bring more people to the table, to have more of these conversations across a diverse range of cultural backgrounds, expertise and lived experiences. But even that assumes it’s the Western space industry’s table, and that we get to decide who comes to it. What I’d rather see is more amplification of the conversations that people outside of the Western world view are having about space and their own societies — so that we can encourage a more global conversation that’s not dominated by one country or one cultural viewpoint.

A lot of people in the space industry like to talk about space as if they’re speaking on behalf of all of humanity, which is really disingenuous if you haven’t even consulted with all of humanity about their interests and what their motivations are for space. Someone living in a community whose culture is deeply tied to their land might be much more interested in how space technology could help them to continue protecting and restoring the health of their land and community, rather than imagining relocating to space in the distant future.

What impact does diversity among astronauts have on these issues?

Representation and diversity matters in space and in space travellers. NASA has committed to sending the first woman and the first person of colour to the Moon. It has the responsibility as a US government agency to reflect the demographics of its population and make sure the astronaut corps is as accessible for as many people as possible. In the long term, if you’re looking at creating permanent populations living in space, you want them to be representative of humanity.

What can researchers do to ensure the ethical exploration of space?

One thing I encourage astronomers to do is to learn from scientists in other disciplines, such as genetics, who have had to think about the ethical implications of their research and how they balance, on a personal level, the work and the potential harm it could cause. Having conversations involving different disciplines would be useful.

More broadly, scientists who want to help to build a better future in space but don’t work in policymaking or philosophy can do a couple of things. They can have conversations with their friends and colleagues about what a better future in space would look like, what kind of world in space they would want to live in, and also just focus on making a better society here on Earth today, whatever corner of the globe they live in. If we do manage to make Earth a better place and a nicer society to live in, within our lifetimes, then we’re helping our future in space.

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