February 2018 marked the successful test launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, garnering media attention from across the globe. It raised questions regarding whether it is ethical for the US government to fund SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, in his efforts to progress his ambitions in space whilst there are arguably more pertinent issues facing the US such as an opioid epidemic and high levels of gun crime. The US government wants value for money from the space program whilst also pleasing the electorate; SpaceX, a private company, wish to maintain profitability and achieve their goal of establishing a Mars colony; and the US public desire an improved overall quality of life. After presenting for and against arguments based on popular ethical frameworks, this article concludes that SpaceX should receive funding from the US government.
Why SpaceX Should Receive Funding
Although it is simple to take investment in space exploration at face value, there are long lasting economic and social benefits in space exploration. For every $1 invested in NASA by the US government the American economy has seen $7 to $14 in new revenue. This investment has also spurred technological development, for example breast cancer detection was derived from terrestrial remote sensing. By the application of pragmatic ethics, the impact of space exploration extends far beyond ‘just’ rockets and rovers. It is evident from historical examples, such as the Apollo missions, that investment in space exploration is beneficial to the US government and public alike.
For the many, not the few
With the cancellation of the NASA Space Shuttle programme, opportunities for growth in the private space and astronautical sector have risen rapidly. SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance dominate this market, but arguably the former draws the most attention due to the reusability of its Falcon series of rockets, and the popularity of Elon Musk. These companies are worth more than $20bn to the state of Florida alone, with 150,000 skilled jobs, leading to speculation the “Space Coast” golden era is returning.
Mining the moon and asteroids has the potential to provide access to resources we are running out of on Earth, including iron and water. Water shortages in particular are already causing problems across America. The question is, why aren’t Americans already mining in space, given they’ve been able to get to the moon for decades? One explanation is that such investments are too risky for private companies to shoulder directly and states are too timid in this time of austerity. So, by awarding contracts to SpaceX, the US government is getting the ball rolling towards the goal of accessing resources of space for its people, without sticking its own neck out too far.
Therefore, US government investment in SpaceX and other private space companies is not simply money for personal vanity projects. Awarding contracts to these companies represents a utilitarian act which has the potential to offer widespread benefits to the American people.
By taking a stance rooted in postmodern ethics, one may argue that humanitarian crises are an inherent and chronic property of humanity. This viewpoint leads to the realisation that no amount of funding would solve all crises as new ones would continuously materialise. Moreover, the solutions to crises are frequently the source of fresh problems. One example of this being the US opioid epidemic – the drugs which so many people are now addicted to were developed to alleviate pain. Thus, investing government money into space exploration and technological advancements is appropriate, useful and provides a welcome distraction from adversities.
Why SpaceX Shouldn’t Receive Funding
Look to the ground, not the stars
On the same day as the Falcon 9 heavy’s maiden flight, nearly 175 Americans died from opioid overdose. One of the most developed countries in the world is facing a serious drug crisis with 2.5 million Americans addicted to opioids. This casts doubt at to whether government resources that go to SpaceX (who launched a car into space for “fun”) are being used in the most morally just way. In a country with no free universal health care, limiting rehabilitation and drug addict support, would these resources be better applied elsewhere? This begs the question: should government authorities act by consequentialism and tackle serious issues closer to home rather than chasing for the stars.
Kant’s theory of ethics yields one argument in favour of prioritising funding aid for humanitarian crises over SpaceX when maintaining a duty to help others – a duty difficult to construe as anything other than ‘good’ and held by a non-negligible portion of the US population. As Kantianism disregards the outcomes of actions and instead focuses on the motives, in this framework, providing aid to humanitarian crises can be considered ethical, independent of whether the aid funded has a significant or even beneficial impact on the stakeholders affected by the crises.
In President Trump’s recently released budget, there are plans to cut mandatory healthcare spending with funding for infrastructure and defence set to rise. This has prompted speculation that the US administration may seek to exploit technological advancements made by private companies such as SpaceX for the weaponization of space, whilst ignoring the deep-rooted social divides in America. By considering the impact on the US public in terms of social order and wealth as is done in state consequentialism, Trump’s actions can be deemed unethical.
Elon Musk claims he wants to colonise Mars, and that SpaceX’s current operations and government contracts are financial and technological stepping stones towards that. These kinds of commercial operations in space require private ownership of land and resources, in the same way as they do on Earth. Whether this is permissible under the UN Outer Space Treaty is debatable but by allowing private companies, run by wealthy individuals, to ‘own’ parts of space denies them to the general public. By funding SpaceX, the US government is opening space up to the super rich but not the wider American people, perpetuating social inequality from mainland America to space. Therefore, citing consequentialism, continued funding of SpaceX is not the morally correct course of action.
As engineering students, the authors admit to a preconceived bias in favour of space exploration and technological development. That being said, in balance we believe the ethical arguments in favour of funding SpaceX provide a stronger and more progressive case – benefitting all the key stakeholders in numerous ways including US economic gains and increased access to space-derived technologies and resources.
(Cover Image of courtesey of Imgur.com)