Colonize the Final Frontier?

Researchers examine the ethical implications of space exploration


Space might be the final frontier, but as China announces plans to build a moon base, NASA begins working on manned missions to Mars and spaceships continue to probe deep space, one group of scholars is asking: Are human colonies in space ethical?

“As long as space colonization was merely the dream of science fiction fans, serious questions about how and if we should do it were moot. However, now that colonies have become a near-term possibility, the question of whether and how we ought to build them becomes pressing,” said Kelly Smith, a philosopher and biologist at Clemson University and founding president of the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SSoCIA). Smith and Keith Abney, a philosopher at Cal Poly, co-edited a special issue of the academic journal Futures devoted to exploring these issues.

Topics like the immediate and irrevocable impact humans will make in space were missing from the discussion until recently. “Now, astrobiologists are looking for fossil evidence of past life on Mars, and the possibility that Mars might host microbial life today is growing stronger,” says Linda Billings, a consultant to NASA’s Astrobiology Program and the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. “Once humans land on Mars, the environment will be contaminated for further scientific exploration.”

In Futures, Smith, Billings and 14 other scholars address space colonization from their variety of disciplines: philosophy, communications, ecology, animal rights, anthropology and religion. The essays are a collective call to “incorporate the ethical dimensions more explicitly in our decision-making,” Smith said.

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