Human Race vs Space Race

Group 3

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.

Escapism

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

Homeless Person sleeping under a Union Flag on a bench
‘The American Dream’ image courtesey of Preusspodcast.com

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.

Bleak future

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.

The Verdict

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)

30 thoughts on “Human Race vs Space Race

  1. A well and fairly argued presentation of the case. It certainly gets you thinking, particularly what the role of the state is in relation to private investment. Using private contractors to advance the common good is an acceptable means to an end but there need to be safeguards in place that public funds aren’t misused. Maybe SpaceX should apply for charitable status?

    1. Thank you for you response!

      It is a thought-provoking topic and I agree with you that that private companies should disclose the spending of government investments.

  2. Thank you
    Some really important arguments for what I might have initially considered a frivolous pursuit of a minority ambition. At the same time the honesty of declaring an ‘engineering bias’ was laudable.
    The evidence for economic benefit, creation of jobs etc is clearly put, however I do have some reservations about high government investment in something that profits an individual or company without a great degree of certainty of the returns for the broader population. I agree that the potential scientific breakthroughs are significant and who wouldn’t wish to support these? However these are only ‘potential’ and we can’t guarantee that there will be scientific discoveries that will benefit humankind more broadly – so the consequentialist argument is based on a probability rather than a certainty. (I guess that’s what investments are about?)
    However as the counter argument proposes, more down to earth investment in current ongoing social or healthcare deficiencies will bring known returns to the individual beneficiaries across the board. (Assuming of course an absence of corruption in the process of distribution). All be it a lower return economically through this investment, the human benefits may be still significant and more widely distributed – following the ethical principle of ‘justice. The discussion about an ‘opioid crisis’ has been over-influenced by media portrayal of these drugs. If a healthcare system was more fairly distributed, with a morally virtuous approach, this would have been preventable. The real ‘opioid crisis’ internationally is that the vast majority of the worlds population does not have access to the strong opioids it needs for pain management – particularly for those who are dying. Jan Sternswald
    Retired Director of the WHO cancer pain programme stated that the major impediment to pain control world-wide is the pharmaceutical industry (because of their refusal to provide generic cost effective morphine and what he described as ethically questionable and aggressive marketing introduction of their own much more costly but not better drugs. – the influence of ‘big pharma’. The alternative investment should be about anticipating and preventing crises rather than trying to bail out of them.

    If one considers the socratic virtues of piety, courage, temperance, justice and knowledge (with the latter being the virtue that governs the others, – to know, not just the facts but also how best to use them), Courage sometimes requires us to take risks to move progress forwards, however piety, temperance and justice may ask of us to be more concerned about the ‘simpler’ aspects of what makes a ‘good life’ for people.

    For the government to invest, it needs to recognise the ambitions of the public that it serves, above the ambitions of an individual. Can we really progress in one dimension for a ‘select’ group when there are still so many left behind in terms of past developments in health or social care. The health and economic divide grows ever wider.

    Hence this is a really important debate to be had by the wider population and for me the answer is still unclear. I would be happier if the control of these developments were more within a broader national strategy agreed and shared by government and ‘the people’ rather than left in the hands of a powerful corporate institution or individual. Who is there to challenge or ‘put the brakes on’ when needed?

    1. Thank you very much for your detailed response!

      Whilst considering investments in science on a case-by-case basis may not often guarantee high returns, investment into ‘blue skies research’ as a whole has been shown to drive economic growth amongst having other additional benefits.

      Your insight into health care systems and the influence of ‘big pharma’ will fuel deliberation over what is the most morally just course of action. Once again, thank you.

  3. An interesting investigation and presentation of each side of the argument. The part about space exploration being used to access natural resources was particularly pertinent, as this is something which I would say is often overlooked or underestimated by those who aren’t particularly ‘space-minded’ shall we say. Perhaps if these potential benefits were more widely addressed and targeted towards the general public, then the ‘human race’ would be more on board with the ‘space race’?
    Although by no means does this solve the funding issues or the abundance of other crises you have mentioned, but it may help to improve the ‘image’ of companies like SpaceX in the long run. That is, to make them seem less like corporate bodies taking away valuable funding from other public issues, and more like an institution that are working to improve the sustainability of the planet and quality of life through providing alternatives via innovative means.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and for giving sharing your thoughts!

      I agree with you that marketing plays a vital role in the public perception of endeavours such as those of SpaceX.

  4. I would agree with your overall verdict that funding of the space industry has the more progressive and sensible case, Although many systems in the US (and our own country) have serious flaws and many dreadful oversights, I do not believe blaming these flaws on the funding of progressive industries holds any standing, especially when so much Government money is wasted on far more frivolous things!

  5. A balanced and informed article with good ethical inputs as well as clearly identifying the cases for and against.
    Like the authors I’m also biased in terms of space exploration. I think, partly, because we simply enjoy exploring, discovering and growing. Earth has been explored and we are outgrowing her, although it is clear that we need to learn how to manage our home much better than we are currently doing. Every time we go into space we look back and see how small our home is and the vast emptiness of the void makes our jealousies, envies and fears seem petty.

    1. Thank you for your response.

      Curiosity perhaps defines what it is to be human, I for one hope to live through many more discoveries beyond our pale blue dot.

  6. Really interesting, concise and well structured ensuring the reader’s attention and interest are sustained throughout. Your arguments considering economic long-term benefits of the ‘Space Race’ are convincing, particularly when considering the contextual history of the US. Whilst this is true or appears to be, this does not change the fact that space exploration is considered to be a scientific adventure, rather than a beneficial aspect of the economy. This becomes more concerning when we realise that space exploration is viewed socially as a domain dominated by the rich, educated and perhaps male and middle class; this naturally contrasts social issues within the US such as gang and drug crime which are typically associated with the poor, or minorities. This perhaps suggests that the issue is contingent on the marketing of Space X; educative advertising should highlight benefits and attempt to undermine the negative association with space exploration when thinking ‘ethically’ about using resources responsibly.

    1. Thank you for your response, I am pleased you found it an interesting read.

      You raise a great point about the contrast in the social backgrounds of those invested in space exploration and those affected by the crises occurring in the US.

  7. This informative and persuasively reflective piece by engineering undergraduates is highly topical and thought-provoking, particularly in the light of yesterday’s latest US space agency launch of their “planet-hunting” Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess) via – what else? – a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

    With US technological innovation and progress in space exploration apparently advancing exponentially, with rockets (although not humanly crewed) seemingly, to the casual observer, being fired almost routinely into space, the momentum is reminiscent of the compulsive competition which fuelled the Apollo Program to be the first nation to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth”, then subsequently the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initative, attributed to US presidents Kennedy and Reagan respectively. How much can this latest push beyond 62 miles straight up be attributed to presidential zeal and pride, the desire to attain immortal legacy beyond the Kármán line? These young engineers are quite right to conduct a thorough examination of motives.

    I suppose the crux of the matter – given this rapid and breathtakingly impressive advance in engineering – is not simply what ethical framework should be adopted with regard to space exploration/exploitation, but can ethics ever hope to keep up with the pace of technological developments? With regard to another fast-growing field, social media, the answer is a most emphatic “No!”.

    Notwithstanding, the authors should be lauded for stressing the importance of an ethical framework within which progress in space can take place most safely and advantageously in respect, not only to the US, but also the human race as a whole. Their erudite consideration of various moral perspectives lends credulity to their arguments, including Consequentialism (John Stewart Mill’s Utilitariansism), Non-consequentialism (Kant’s Categorical Imperative), Humanism with the emphasis on the dignity and worth of all people, and Post-Modernity accepting that morality is messy. They take effective account of the disparities; the shockingly basic human issues challenging one of the most developed nations on earth and seemingly overlooked by their leadership from an outsider’s point of view, versus massive investment in dreams of space-colonisation, apparently inconsequential to their day-to-day struggles. A recipe for division.

    At this point it might be prescient to consider the Aristotelian Theory of the Golden Mean, to encourage moderation in all things, to strive for a desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. As applied in this case it could be argued, perhaps simplistically, that the most moral stance would be to aim for the stars, but only with fully functional ethical principles worked out and applied, including complete regard and respect of human issues raised now here on earth, resulting in happiness for all. If only!

    Their section headings made for clear sign-posting and I enjoyed one in particular, a corruption of Prof Stephen Hawking’s famous quotation “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” Perhaps we not only can, but ought to do both, which on reflection sounds quite Aristotlean…

    Quite rightly these engineering undergraduates understand how essential a properly worked out ethical framework is for an individual to receive US funding. The numerous & highly inflammatory objections, domestic, environmental, defense etc – of which many were cited – by American citizens to such vast spending in their name by a space-entrepenor ideally should be seen & felt to be being attended to realistically & ethically by their elected government.

    Weighing up all sides in comprehensive and elegant fashion, the group conclude the reasons the US is morally justified in paying Musk’s private spaceflight company to get NASA projects quite literally off the ground via SpaceX and it’s variety of propulsion available – including, as mentioned, the record-breaking capacity of it’s cargo-lifting rocket, the Falcon Heavy – are beneficial and irresistible, not simply because of the relative economic appeal or that SpaceX appear (whether by successful trial and explosive error, or high-profile stunts in outer space) to be developing the ability to deliver on space exploration.

    The potential of colonising Mars or a more favourable planet exhibiting conditions within the Goldilocks zone, perhaps to be revealed by Tess, would have please Prof Hawkins immeasurably. After all, he made grave warnings about the future of the planet.
    In 2017, he set a deadline for humanity to save itself. Within the next 100 years, he warned “we need to colonise Mars and other planets. If we don’t, we may not survive climate change, disease, and other versions of doom we’re bound to inflict on ourselves this century”. Save our species? A compelling moral motive for funding Mr Musk? This example may seem extreme, however it serves to illustrate the potential significance of ethical considerations and the impact of decision-making within engineering, for humanity and beyond, which the group well comprehends.

    Their conclusion in favour of supporting US funding of Elon Musk’s bid for the stars (or planets) is reached by demonstrating a “stronger and more progressive” ethical case via due intellectual rigor. Bravo Group 3!

    1. Thank you very much for your in-depth response, it will certainly aid us in writing the second assignment.

      Your argument regarding The Theory of a Golden mean is particularly interesting and I agree that it is a great goal to strive towards although it is likely unattainable.

  8. A really interesting and well thought out argument on an important and topical ethical issue in engineering. I particularly commend the students’ reflexivity in acknowledging how their own preconceived bias in favour of space exploration influenced their argument. I have a few questions to raise regarding the arguments presented both in favour of, and against space exploration:

    – You argue that space exploration and in particular mining the moon and asteroids has the potential to address water and other resource shortages on earth. Surely we ought to be addressing the issues that have led to these shortages (e.g. over-intensive agriculture, over extraction of groundwater etc), rather than simply widening the remit of our over-exploitation?

    – You argue that there are high economic returns on investment in space exploration and as such is beneficial to the wider American public. The arguments of ‘trickle down’ and ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ have been dis-proven, and so how do we know that this money which results from space exploration will translate into benefits for the American people?

    – I agree that it would appear unethical to fund space exploration when there are seemingly more pressing issues at hand such as the current drug crisis and other healthcare issues. However I don’t necessarily see a direct relationship here. Lack of funding for healthcare and lack of will to address the opiod epidemic is in my view a political and ideological choice, rather than something that the American government are unable to do because they are instead investing in space exploration. The sort of binary thinking which posits this as an either/or situation merely fuels the ‘Daily Mail’ school of thought wherein, for example, the current crisis within the NHS is a result of immigration rather than a result of the governments ideological choice to privatise and underfund this vital service.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and leave your thoughts.

      I agree that the root problems should be addressed, though one of the root causes seems to be overpopulation. Development of sustainable technologies and practices is extremely important, however investing in asteroid mining may provide a suitable contingency.

  9. A well written and thought provoking article, refreshingly jargon-free for the non-expert reader. I agree with the authors from an economic perspective. The key is public education. The current article represents a step in the right direction by effectively summarising a highly nuanced scientific/ political debate in an accessible way. I hope it sparks further debate

  10. A well written and balanced article. While I appreciate your verdict and agree that investment into science and technology important for society, I believe there are far more urgent issues in need of funding. Perhaps reducing the defence budget and introducing universal healthcare may be a step towards solving many of the USA’s humanitarian problems, however whether an administration advocating such policies could come into power is questionable at best. When examining the actions of the US population, one must consider that an individual’s ethics will likely result in deviation from the utilitarian action that leads to benefits for the most people.

    1. Thank you for your response!

      You raise an important and interesting consideration regarding the distinction between the ethics of an individual and the ethics of a large collection of people. Perhaps, in the future, events may cause a shift the ethics held by individuals to frameworks that benefit many people rather than themselves. There are certainly enough problems facing humanity, such as climate change, that require a selfless outlook.

  11. Why should SpaceX be given funding?

    NASA has effectively been a monopoly in American space development.

    In business when you have a monopoly there isn’t any real incentive to innovate, minimise costs or drive up value, then as a result you have inefficiencies.

    Musk is like a disruptor in the market place, offering a product which offers value, is innovative and is also significantly cheaper, hence introducing an element of competition to a field in which none previously existed. The definition of a disruptor in business terms is when a small company with relatively minimal resources (SpaceX) is able to enter a market and displace the established player (NASA).

    The Week magazine reports: “The basic argument for the private sector is that market competition fosters efficiency and quality in a way government structures can’t, so maybe you get the same thing better for less money.”
    Source. https://theweek.com/articles/595730/embarrassing-truth-about-spacex

    It could therefore be argued that the US have a moral obligation to ensure American taxpayers get value for money. If they can bring down the cost of space exploration then that is a strong reason in favour of funding Musk, as Group 3 concluded.

    And why spend on space at all? Prof Hawkins had four goals to ensure the survival of the human race by before we perish. Two of them were firstly to develop new technologies to launch us farther and faster into space, and secondly to bring the cost of spaceflight down dramatically.

    1. Thank you for your thorough comment – you raise some excellent points.

      I too believe that it is important to heed the advise of renowned, progressive thinkers such as the late Prof. Hawking – particularly on the subject of the future of the human race.

  12. The group’s main composite image is very atresting, cleverly portraying the dichotomy at the heart of the question they were required to examine: why SpaceX should receive funding?

    That dichotomy is whether the US government is justified in fuelling further human expansion into space by funding the company of a wealthy individual, or if it might be viewed as a vast pile of tax-payers’ dollars literally going up in smoke.

    As a final reflection and as it’s a Friday, within the context of one of their principal strands – the complex ethics of the funding of an independent non-government operation of a private company in space with the potential to exploit the universe for valuable minerals – I am reminded of the 2009 film “Moon”. It envisages the scenario of a commercial lunar facility post-oil crisis on earth, mining the moon for the alternative fuel helium-3 from the gas-rich lunar “soil”. Whilst a work of psychological science-fiction, nonetheless it remains a film praised for it’s scientific realism and plausibility.

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      You have touched upon a somewhat recurring theme throughout the comments left on this article – perhaps marketing is all that is required to make the public view this funding in a more favourable light?

      The film sounds really interesting, I will keep an eye out for it on Netflix.

  13. I like the discussion about the fact that funding companies such as SpaceX will open space up to the rich and exacerbate the social inequality that already exists on our own planet. In the future, when cities have been established on Mars, what/who will dictate the morals by which the citizens live? A democratic US based governmental body? Would the international community as a whole have a say in the laws and morals of a city on a different planet? How much influence would Elon Musk’s successor or SpaceX have? I worry that Musk and SpaceX are so powerful and influential that they may be able to bypass any ethical debate that you have discussed.

    That being said, I believe that space exploration is essential to benefit the whole of humanity, whether directly or indirectly, as you have mentioned. As long as one person/company is not allowed to be sole moral authority on any technological advancement.

    1. Thank you for leaving your thoughts.

      With the colonisation of extra-terrestrial planets, I would envisage a government based on western democracies once well-established – though perhaps something akin to an oligarchy when first formed?

  14. Post-modernism seems like quite a pessimistic outlook, I would like to think that continuously providing aid will result in at least a reduction in the world’s hardships.

    Although you do give compelling arguments against the funding of SpaceX, I feel that the pragmatic argument is most convincing, not to mention that the achievements of the Apollo missions never cease to amaze me.

    1. Thank you for expressing your opinion.

      I too find the pragmatic argument compelling. I have often heard historians cite that events are cyclical – if it has been beneficial in the past, why shouldn’t it work once again?

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