Next Thursday, scientists and space enthusiasts around the world will wait in anticipation as NASA’s rover Perseverance lands on Mars. The Hope probe launched by the UAE and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter also just reached the planet, and the Chinese orbiter will release a lander to the surface in May. It’s part of a busy schedule that portends a future in which both robots and humans explore and perhaps colonize the red planet.
The missions seek answers to scientific questions, such as whether Mars does — or ever did — harbor life. They also raise ethical considerations about how humans should treat extraterrestrial environments and any microscopic organisms found in them.
NASA’s Planetary Protection Office is working to prevent forward and backward contamination — the introduction of microscopic organisms from Earth to other planets or vice versa. But those protections don’t go far enough. Another team at the space agency, the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Working Group (EDIWG), recommends developing ethical frameworks for “how future crewed missions to the moon and Mars will interact with those planetary environments.” Last October, EDIWG published a white paper proposing that NASA develop better ways of exploring space to prevent contaminating other worlds not only with bacteria but with conflicts and systems that perpetuate inequality, including capitalism.
But prioritizing ethics in outer space doesn’t mean opposing exploration. Some proponents of space exploration frame its future as a fight between “frontierists and protectionists.” But why depict the future as a conflict, especially when that’s precisely what humans need to avoid?
Monica Vidaurri, an EDIWG member and a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, says that if humans found life elsewhere, she’d “pop all of the Champagne bottles.” But after celebrating, scientists would “have to address the big question: How do we proceed from here?” Finding life would raise the stakes: “What rights does life on other planets have, even if we haven’t found it yet?”
Carl Sagan, the late astrophysicist, embraced both exploration and ethics and advocated crewed Mars missions, but with an important caveat. “If there is life on Mars, then I believe we should do nothing to disturb that life. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if they are microbes.”
Because discoveries can lead to exploitation and disruption — such as terraforming, or altering Mars to make it more Earthlike — Sagan argued that “the preservation of that life must . . . supersede any other possible use of Mars.”
And if Mars doesn’t harbor life? Would a place devoid of life need protecting? After all, if protective measures existed a half-century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might not have planted an American flag on the moon.
According to EDIWG, regardless of whether humans find extraterrestrial life, protective practices would help humans safeguard themselves and the future of our species. “The choices we make in the next decade of space exploration will dictate the future of humanity’s presence on other worlds, with the potential to impact the environments we interact with on time scales longer than the human species has existed,” the EDIWG paper’s authors argue.
Translation? Mindsets and motivations matter in the cosmic long run, which is why even a potentially “dead rock” like the moon needs protections. If space exploration becomes a capitalist free-for-all, for example, or if humans establish a Mars colony without considering environmental sustainability or social and political stability, then in a millennium or two, humans may find themselves in the familiar position of sucking dry the world they call home, fighting over resources, and exploiting one another.
“People largely agree on the ugliness of humanity’s past,” Vidaurri says. “We don’t want to bring that to space.”
Devising ethical frameworks is easier said than done. But so is building spacecraft that land on other planets. If humans can do that, they can figure out how to make space exploration ethical as well as productive.
For millennia, humans have cast their eyes to the stars, the moon, and Mars. They’ve wondered about the possibility of life and fantasized about traveling to such places. Most humans don’t look at the cosmos and think, “How can I use it for power or profit?” Why should that question guide humanity’s future in space? Space exploration invites people to stretch their imaginations and to improve on what humans have already accomplished. “Why not delve into the risk of being better humans?” asks Vidaurri. “It’s easier than terraforming Mars. And we’re ready to do it now.”
Joelle Renstrom is a science writer who teaches at Boston University.