What happens when you leave empty seats at the table?

Constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink could provide broadband Internet access globally, but also jeopardize astronomy and threaten safe operations in low Earth orbit, effects that need to be considered by a wider audience. (credit: SpaceX)

The drafters of the Outer Space Treaty could not have predicted artificial constellations that hinder astronomical observing and storm tracking, actors shooting down space debris, and tardigrades unknowingly placed on a lunar lander and subsequently spilled on the Moon. This is, of course, to say nothing of human survivability in non-Earth environments. A critical component of assessing our impact on other worlds is assessing other worlds’ impact on us, both physically and socioeconomically. Physically, neither space agencies nor private spaceflight companies have conducted sufficient research regarding human survivability in space, in terms of radiation exposures, differences in gravity, psychological complications, and many other factors.

However, the most pressing of these untouched and necessary impacts of our future in space are the impacts it will have on all communities of Earth. Behind all of the policy, law, regulations, and even science behind human expansion into space is the human condition: our individual attitudes towards what we think we should do in and with our cosmic backyard. These individual attitudes are influenced in no small part by our surroundings and social groups that we voluntarily or involuntarily find ourselves in. Given the examples of “act first, ask questions later” that is already shaping in space, it is clear that the on-Earth socioeconomic implications of our actions are not being discussed and acted upon nearly as much as they should. Space exploration is nothing if not dangerous and risky. However, we have the ability to at least attempt to mitigate forwards and backwards contamination, update safety procedures, and bring in native and diverse voices to think about the ethical implications of our science. Not doing so is simply unethical.

Now, define “good”…

This is not to say that all progress should come to a halt. In truth, the rise of the spaceflight sector and space philosophy signals the coming of a new age of technological and scientific progress for humanity, and it is nothing if not exciting. However, at this point in human history we are all painfully aware of the legacy and the cycle that humanity falls into over and over again. Modern examples include communities that are disturbed for their resources (the Dakota Access Pipeline), for their location (Mauna Kea versus its twin location in Spain), and projects that, while argued as being “for the good of humanity”, greatly impact public science and weather tracking (5G networks.) The exclusionary rhetoric surrounding “democracy” and “American domination/exceptionalism in space” displays an open disregard of all other nations that participate in space, and a disregard for the right that all nations and people reserve for science and exploration. And, of course, colonizing other worlds comes with an astronomical burden to resolve: who will be able to do the colonizing, who is going to set this in motion, and why?

What each of these instances comes down to is the exact same dynamic that has shaped all international relations: to the victor, to the richest, the quickest, and to those who plow ahead with their ideals without first reviewing ethical and socioeconomic implications of their work, go the spoils. Is this just? Is this sustainable? Is this equitable? Is this setting a good precedent? Is this the future that all humans consent to create—even those that could not be reached to consent?

Use of the word colonization gives rise to both enthusiasm and criticism in the space community. To some, colonization is thought of as a purely historical and completed act, something that humanity has since learned from. For proponents of permanent human presence on other celestial bodies, we have therefore redefined colonization. To them, a long-term presence in space represents valor and dignity, spreading life to the lifeless. To soften the blow of the word colonization, they now use the term “settlement.” However, in remembering its historical legacy, the term colonization carries enough historical baggage that we fear that humanity will once again find itself falling back into the exploitative tactics of historical colonizers.

Opposers believe that even though we have yet to colonize other worlds, colonization is not just a historical act. Rather, it is a deeply-rooted institution, whose values are still very much alive and practiced in modern institutions. In this case, “colonization,” “settling,” or whatever it will be called, will do nothing to change the path that humanity has gone down time and time again, where we will once again find ourselves placing scientific progress above the right of communities to exist without exploitation and erasure. We don’t even have to have settled another world for the institution of colonization to have seeped into space exploration. The stark contrast of the voices supporting and those opposing is undeniable evidence. One thing is certain: humanity’s near-term future in space will set the tone and pace for science, technology, and ethics for generations to come; it will be how humanity is remembered.

The conversation still looks the same

In this light, ethical exploration and a responsible approach to fair play in space is going to require a serious and uncomfortable assessment surrounding the goals that both public and private sectors have in space, a humbling assessment our technological readiness, and an even more uncomfortable assessment of who the proponents for colonization/settling historically have been and currently are, and why they view colonization as our right. A small population of humans currently hold the ability to push their own will on other worlds, and even on communities that share the Earth with us. Whether the hopes of these particular humans are seen as potentially destructive or constructive of an otherwise mostly even playing field in space, and whether humans are seen as creators or destroyers, does, in fact, depend on factors such as race and gender, and as we see in the space sector, age. The current conversation, and consequently those that will be determining humanity’s next steps in space, is not diverse, just like the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) fields that represent space science, exploration, and commercialization. The lack of diversity and ethical review in these conversations is in and of itself a warning sign that humanity is bound to the same paths we have traveled; what we continue to facilitate on Earth will naturally travel with us into space, assuming that the institutions of outdated institutions of racial inequality, gender inequality, exploitation, and yes, colonization, are not recognized in their modern forms and discussed.

If those who are privileged enough to lead the charge back into space truly cannot see the destructive, exploitative, and imperialist tendencies of historical victors, then there are already voices that are being silenced; no colony on the Moon required. The attitude of “mistakes first, policy later” does more harm to other communities that take part in space in the long run than good to the actors that carried out the mistake for instant gratification. While we don’t know what we don’t know, having a system of accountability and ethical practices in place will help to prevent careless—or purposefully selfish±—mistakes. Thus, acknowledging and tearing down institutions of inequality, diversifying the conversation around colonization, and shifting the focus from “what we can do” to “what we should do,” becomes a critical part of ensuring space is truly for all.

Science first, ethics later?

Today, we have the ability to combine public and private partnerships in a way that can progress humanity forward in a way that has never been seen before. And, for the first time in human history, we have the opportunity to ensure that our next giant leap as humans is truly fair and ethical. Maintaining the belief that ethics will slowly follow science is a blatant vehicle for the institution of colonization, and specifically the United States’ own institution of capitalism, that will ensure future space economies continue the pattern of exploitation of Earth economies.

Ethics following science will ensure that less powerful and less wealthy communities that participate in space and science will have their voices silenced before the exploration even happens. Ethics following science ensures that science gets enjoyed by only certain groups; though many powerful nations have an affinity for competition and capitalism, other nations that have just as much of a right to participate in space may not share the same ideals.

Ethics following science means not developing even the slightest of safety procedures to mitigate any potential backwards contamination to astronauts. Those that go swimming in large public pools or use a public gym know that they’ll encounter contamination, but rules against glass, large-scale contamination such as spilling chemicals, and social norms of good faith (e.g., wiping equipment), supported by enforcement, ensure that these spaces may remain, truly, for all. These rules and norms do not prevent those people from having their birthday party or breaking a personal record—they prevent others from ruining that space and encroaching upon those rights.

For the first time in history we have the ability to ensure that we take our first steps to rid ourselves of colonization and exploitation for good. Whether human expansion into space is seen as a divine right or an uneasy privilege, we at least owe it to ourselves, to the next generations of explorers, and to underrepresented interests to begin working on eliminating ugly historical inheritances and tendencies, and create a safe and collaborative future. Our return to the heavens can not only usher in a new age of scientific and technological progress, but for the first time, create an age of progress that is ethical and inclusive.

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