Should Environmental Protection Extend to the Planets?

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Analysis by Ray Villard Mon Jul 26, 2010 03:12 AM ET 9 Comments | Leave a Comment

Human on mars
Is the solar system a frontier to conquer or a wilderness to preserve?
This question really hit the fan last October. NASA crashed an empty rock booster into the moon to see if water-ice crystals were at the south pole. Water on the moon would make establishing human bases more feasible.
What really hit the fan was the public outcry that the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) experiment was despoiling the pristine lunar environment. Never mind that the moon gets hammered with space junk all the time. This was a direct attack from Earth.

One indignant English teacher e-mailed me with a simple one-liner: “Stop ******* with the moon!” In a subsequent e-mail he went on to explain, “I found the standard, mundane argument [for LCROSS] in favor of arrogant disrespect of the universe, … Such logic has brought our world to the brink of nuclear and environmental holocaust. Who gave you or anyone else the privilege to intentionally inflict damage upon anything?”
This episode addresses a looming challenge our civilization faces when boldly going out to other worlds. Do we have an ethical duty to respect and preserve the natural environments of neighboring planets and their moons?
Some scientists have proposed that we should establish “conservation parks” on worlds like Mars where geologically awesome regions (like the giant volcano Olympus Mons) would be treated with the sanctity of earthly wonders like the Grand Canyon.
Olympus_mons_3dSM Others have said that all of Mars should be protected as a wildlife preserve where we do everything possible to avoid contamination; on the assumption Martian microbes could exist. NASA does have a planetary protection program where spacecraft are sterilized and sometimes destroyed at end-of-mission. Interplanetary quarantine will be much more difficult to enforce once humans reach Mars.
But the louder proponents on the flip-side of the debate largely overshadow this “astroenvironmentalism” movement. Large-scale human exploration and space settlement has been at the core of NASA space policy since former President George W. Bush created the “Vision for Exploration” in 2004.
Jupiterrocket1 The Obama administration has sidestepped the moon but still has Mars on the radar. And, the recent Congressional push for quickly developing a new generation of large space boosters — built at aerospace companies in several key states — would bolster extending the “human presence” into space.
This script is straight out of America’s pioneering roots: the conquest of the frontier. Just like in the old Wild West days, the solar system has practically limitless energy and mineral resources. And, off-world colonization might help absorb an exploding human population.
Caught in the middle of this debate is our simple quest for fundamental knowledge. For example, we can’t find out if life is on Mars without going there. It could conceivably require nothing less than the resources of a full-blown human expedition.
Concern about how we deal with the final frontier goes all the way back to pre-Sputnik days. In 1952 the International Astronomical Federation considered space law: what are the property rights in space, legal liabilities, and responsibilities? In 1967 the United Nations Outer Space Treaty insisted that nations couldn’t claim territories on moons and planets (planting a U.S. flag on the moon was strictly ceremonial). The so-called U.N.; “Moon Treaty” in 1979 (not ratified by the U.S.) asserted that space resources are to be shared with all mankind.
This will become a more practical problem in the coming decades. China, Indian, Russia, Japan and Europe are all becoming space-faring nations. Will eventual privatization of space tourism, colonization, mining and other resources exploitation become common on planets and asteroids by the end of this century?
ESA Moonbase
Given the current Gulf of Mexico oil-spill disaster it’s easy to become cynical and imagine the fragile terrestrial worlds of the solar systems being ravaged for greed and profit. I think this dilemma certainly resonated with viewers of the sci-fi blockbuster “Avatar.”
Alternatively, Earth is the only passenger car in a freight train of coal cars, as rocket engineer Kraft Ericke once put it. By moving industrialization, resource extraction, energy generation and overpopulation off Earth we better preserve the quality of life on our own little planet.
What worries me the most is the ethics of respect for life on other worlds — no matter how primitive. Assuming Mars could very well have a complex underground biosphere of organisms that have evolved to survive over several billion years, won’t we destroy that ecosystem with a permanent colony of humans? Then again, why would we be expected to treat alien microbes any differently that we treated the Native Americans in our conquest of the West?
Public communications researcher Linda Billings of the George Washington University in Washington D.C. maintains that the space community has not seriously considered questions of ethics, culture, and space law.
For example, in 2005, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said that space-faring people should take Western values with them into space. “Western civilization is the best we’ve see so far in human history,” he asserted. These comments echo the idea that space exploration is our Manifest Destiny. Becoming an “extra-terrestrial” civilization is an inevitable evolutionary watershed of technological societies. It also ensures survival of our species. And, our way of life too?
Billings says that historically, the space community has preferred a one way “expert to non-expert,” way to communicate to the public. What’s really needed now is a broader public dialogue on “whether, where, how and perhaps more importantly why we should be going into space.”
Image credit: NASA

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