Fly Me to the Moon
Space exploration is the investigation of celestial structures across the universe through the advancement of technology. We strive to answer fundamental questions such as “what is life?” and “how did we get here?”, but are the answers worth the money and the danger?
The advantages of space travel are vast, from ubiquitous ‘spin-off’ technologies to vital protection of our planet. Since the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the human race has reaped numerous benefits.
As well as contributing to life-saving medical techniques and redirecting asteroids the size of countries, space exploration provides jobs, encourages STEM careers and promotes collaboration between nations. And those directions Google Maps gives you don’t come from nowhere. If these reasons aren’t enough to convince you that space exploration is needed, it’s beginning to look as if we’ll need a second planet. And aren’t we intent on discovering alien friends that are almost certain to be out there?
The principle of utilitarianism measures consequences of actions against human pleasure; the optimal solution to a problem is that which brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. So the question is, what would this mean for the future of mankind’s burning desire for cosmological adventure?
Using this approach, space exploration should arguably continue, perhaps increasing the proportion of missions carried out by private companies. Not only do the advantages of space exploration largely outweigh the costs and safety risks, they bring “happiness” to everyone on Earth. With more private missions, less taxpayers’ funds would be dedicated to the cause, further increasing the happiness of millions of people.
While utilitarianism has downfalls, such as the inability to objectively measure happiness and the unpredictable nature of consequences, it is a straightforward, widely-accepted system.
On the other hand, the Kantian approach, a natural opposite to utilitarianism, treats morality as a logical construct; consequences of actions are irrelevant to their morality. A moral action is one with good motivation and can be universalised. So, can space exploration be deemed a moral action?
Kantian ethics suggests space exploration should continue as it is; it may be viewed as a dutiful task that not only satisfies the natural curiosity of mankind but is ultimately for the sake of our survival. For the good of our species, it becomes an empirical preparation for global disasters and overpopulation.
Thus, encouraging space travel is an action that can be universalised. If everyone were to contribute, a universal duty would be fulfilled and the human race would prosper through scientific and medical advancements and international cooperation resulting from space travel.
A Kantian approach requires that humans aren’t treated as a means. Professionals involved in space exploration programs are acting on their own desires; they aren’t manipulated or deceived. We know research failures are costly and spaceflight is dangerous.
Although Kantian ethics can’t resolve conflicts between multiple different rules, it is a rational framework that produces universal guidelines and treats all humans as equals.
Totally Over the Moon…
While it is true that space travel could encourage a rosy, perfect world in which everyone is friends, we need only look back to the Space Race to see this isn’t guaranteed. Before space became the playground for intellectuals and screenwriters, it was first a platform for Cold War competition. When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the US responded by creating NASA, along with programs to exploit the military potential of space and gather intelligence on the Soviet Union with satellites. The story of NASA’s origins tells less a tale of altruism and more a tale rooted in egoism.
The virtue ethics framework emphasizes the motives of central figures. Since the original motivation for space travel was one of egoism and espionage, it may be argued that it shouldn’t continue until we know space won’t act as a “cloak and dagger” extension of the military tension on Earth. This guarantee could take the form of space becoming a “neutral zone”, not to be used as military ammunition.
Just like space, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to this framework; it has been criticised for lacking focus. Virtue ethics has a lack of Telos; there’s no right or wrong and no purpose to act virtuous. However, virtue ethics allows for a morality, which isn’t strictly governed by laws, to analyse the situation and promotes a sense of community.
We should also not brush over the extortionate costs of exploring space. The total expenditure for the UK Space Agency in 2016/2017 was around £372 million; surely more benefit could be reaped by directing this money elsewhere. One could take the approach of the common good principle, which aims to achieve “conditions that are equally to everyone’s advantage”. Although the Common Good principle assumes everyone prospers only as part of a community and not individually, it allows for exclusion of individuals, unlike utilitarianism.
It could be argued that halting space exploration would provide “everyone’s advantage” better than any further space knowledge. There are still a lot of problems to be tackled at home, so why not focus on these before considering extra-terrestrial predicaments? In the UK, there has been a 73% increase in people sleeping on the streets in the last 3 years and in 2015, there were 166,000 charities attempting to raise money for a range of causes. We could improve these figures by directing money towards these Earthly problems as opposed to romanticised quests for arbitrary desires in space.
Everybody recalls Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon in 1969, but what benefits did society really receive, and were they worth the lives of the three astronauts who died two years prior whose names no one recalls?
Our solution is based on analysis of the ethical frameworks. We believe the most ethical approach would be the utilitarian one; space exploration should continue but with more private investment.
For eons we have looked up into the stars, dreaming of what lies beyond. Now this dream is a reality, should we not pursue it to its greatest extent?