“Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space Exploitation” by Tony Milligan. Published by McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers in 2015. 188 pages including bibliographic references and index.
What is the future of humanity in space? Will expansion beyond Earth become necessary for our survival? Will such expansion require extensive modification to off-world environments? If we are ultimately capable of such expansion, should we proceed without hesitation? These questions, although not new, have experienced a resurgence thanks to what seems to be a recent interest in expanding our relationship with nearby and distant space. In 2019, NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and although our exploration efforts have now expanded toward the outer solar system (and beyond) using probes and remote sensing, the crewed Moon landing of 1969 remains the only successful example of humans setting foot on another world. Not much progress has been made in this area since then, but that is likely to change soon, with NASA aiming to send humans to Mars in the 2030s and the private sector’s increasing influence in space-related activities, which is bound to accelerate human space exploration.
Along with the exciting prospects of sending humans to other worlds (and perhaps eventually establishing permanent colonies there) come serious concern. Many are carefully considering the impacts of such activities on the integrity of Mars itself and the societal implications they will have here on Earth. International regulations on “Planetary Protection” defined by the United Nations already exist, and are put into practice by NASA and other space agencies to protect moons and planets primarily from forward contamination (the contamination of celestial bodies by humans) brought about by space exploration activities. However, we have recently been confronted with the fact that existing regulation and oversight procedures do not sufficiently restrict the private sector and ensure that they abide by planetary protection rules. In 2018, mere months ahead of Apollo 11’s anniversary, an Israeli lunar lander called the “Beresheet” crashed on the moon and spilled its cargo, which included DNA samples and live microorganisms called tardigrades (also known as “water bears”). While it is not definitively known whether any of these survived the crash, we have good reason to believe that at least a few did. Tardigrades are notorious for being some of the hardiest creatures on Earth and can persist under the most extreme conditions (including the vacuum of space!), so it is reasonable to assume that some may have survived (and could now even be thriving) after their crash landing on the Moon.
. . . we have recently been confronted with the fact that existing regulation and oversight procedures do not sufficiently restrict the private sector and ensure that they abide by planetary protection rules.
Perhaps more troubling than the prospect of lunar water bears was the fact that the lander, in addition to its scientific missions, was also serving as a sort of “Noah’s Ark” for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization called the Archmission Foundation to create a “back-up planet Earth” on the Moon and seed evidence of human existence throughout the universe. The ethical problems related to this sort of expansion are at the heart of Tony Milligan’s “Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space Exploitation.” In his book, Milligan, a teaching fellow in ethics and philosophy at King’s College London, examines the ethics of human/space interactions of many kinds ranging from terraforming (the deliberate transformation of a moon or planet to support Earth-life), space tourism and long-term space travel, seeding (of the kind promulgated by the Archmission Foundation), and resource mining.
Milligan begins with the subject of terraforming to set the stage for many of the recurring themes that appear in the work, including the sentiment that just because we can do something does not mean we should to do it. (15) He uses various hypothetical terraforming scenarios to introduce this stance because currently the prospect of extensive terraforming, to the point of enabling human survival in otherwise inhospitable places, seems very unlikely. To balance this lack of optimism about the possibility of extensive terraforming, Milligan underlines the fact that “[…] while there is a danger of being too speculative, there is also a danger of sleepwalking into a future that is closer than we might imagine.” (9) And as has already been highlighted, the current buzz about space exploration and exploitation suggests that carefully considering the ethical implications of human expansion into the universe might indeed be worthwhile. He concludes that, while not as extreme or extensive as might usually be envisioned in works of science fiction, terraforming even of the modest kind appears to be possible on Mars. By doing so, Milligan seems to justify the careful presentation and critical evaluation of various ethical stances on space exploration that ensues while simultaneously outlining his own ethical framework, which he builds up incrementally throughout the book.
While examining different examples of real and proposed human interactions with space and some of the underlying motivations behind them, a few major themes emerge. The first is the confrontation of a common stance which uses human survival (and general human interests) to discredit any ethical considerations that might prevent or slow down expansion into space. Milligan repeatedly warns against this type of “consequentialism,” arguing that blind adherence to such a view would mean losing sight of “what it means to be human.” (17) This is a concept that underpins many of Milligan’s reservations about space exploration, and yet risks not being pragmatic enough to convince those who tend to place human survival and human interests above everything else to reconsider their stance. Nonetheless, he presents several ways in which terraforming, space colonization, and resource mining could actually encroach on human interests (assuming this is the most important ethical consideration), including robbing future generations of survival because of botched, premature attempts to transform other worlds, or committing “intra-generational injustice” (18) and depleting non-renewable resources. While important to consider, these arguments are easier to favor because they do not require having to make a case for human survival, something that is, with few exceptions, universally agreed upon to be a desirable outcome.
In his book, Milligan, a teaching fellow in ethics and philosophy at King’s College London, examines the ethics of human/space interactions of many kinds ranging from terraforming (the deliberate transformation of a moon or planet to support Earth-life), space tourism and long-term space travel, seeding (of the kind promulgated by the Archmission Foundation), and resource mining.
Some of the more interesting and challenging ideas explored by Milligan relate to the arguments against consequentialism that do not directly relate to human survival, but rather to the protection of other forms of life (particularly microbial life) and the integrity of celestial objects themselves. These notions are much more challenging to make a strong case for, and sometimes require a more nuanced appreciation for philosophical and ethical discourse. This includes disentangling the “intrinsic value” of objects or entities from their “relational properties” both to each other and to us. Milligan tends to emphasize the latter. One particularly convincing example is when he features the Moon as a culturally significant object for humanity, suggesting that its defacement would constitute a form of vandalism. (105) He also states that celestial objects like the Moon or Mars have their own complex history, which should grant them protection from destruction (much like we protect the Grand Canyon and other terrestrial artifacts). This echoes Milligan’s earlier appeals to the human condition as he encourages us to strive to be “[…] more than the beings who seize and appropriate all that surrounds us.” (99)
A second major theme is a pessimistic outlook on the outcomes of space activities based on our track-record with similar practices here on Earth. Indeed, right at the outset, Milligan describes the failed attempts of a town in northern Italy to “terraform” the landscape to solve its sun exposure problems by installing a large mirror. Milligan also frequently highlights climate change, humanity’s overwhelming failure to establish protected areas in an effort to preserve pristine environments, and social injustice enacted throughout history against certain groups to emphasize that our track record does not elicit optimism. He suggests that we fix things on Earth first and spend more time considering the potential political and environmental repercussions of space exploration before we proceed outward to prevent expansion beyond Earth from constituting a “mere relocation of existing flaws.” (85) Space exploration and expansion might represent “the de-centering of humanity, the loss of our sense of belonging, the loss of our sense of finitude and connection to a shared past.” (88)
Some of the more interesting and challenging ideas explored by Milligan relate to the arguments against consequentialism that do not directly relate to human survival, but rather to the protection of other forms of life (particularly microbial life) and the integrity of celestial objects themselves.
Another prominent theme is the appeal to the human condition and a rejection of the notion that we have a colonialist duty to expand as far as possible beyond Earth, which builds upon the consequentialist view that humans have intrinsic value. Milligan connects this overestimation of human value to nineteenth-century colonialism and the drive toward “expansive dominance” (61) but separates it from humanity’s urge to explore. Accounting for this urge in space ethics is in line with the author’s suggestion that we need to “[connect] the ethical discussion of space with the task of making sense of our shared human predicament rather than denying that we have such a predicament.” (67) Interestingly, Milligan appears to dismiss the threat of colonialist dominance as a milder concern given that, at the time the book was written, space research was much less entangled with military priorities. However, military-driven space activities are likely to be reinvigorated now with the establishment of the Space Force.
Milligan’s central thesis in Nobody Owns the Moon is that we should avoid applying overly simplified ethical guidelines to make decisions regarding current and future activities in space, and that we need to weave multiple moral concepts into a complex and flexible framework. According to Milligan, such a framework will require that we engage in any space-related activities with respect both towards our own planet and other celestial objects, whether they harbor life or not, and that we do our best to consider what makes us human (our shared history, our relationship with the world and each other) in making any decisions. We need to abandon colonialist views, carefully consider our expectations and be prepared to scale back our ambitions, and diligently assess whether we should engage in a particular endeavor on a case-by-case basis by evaluating the potential consequences in a manner that reflects the inescapable complexity of these problems. Indeed, the ethical expansion of humanity into space will depend upon exercising “balanced judgement,” (49) which can be continuously revised and improved as we learn more about our place in the universe and the future of humanity beyond Earth.
I was particularly intrigued by Milligan’s perspectives on the roles and consequences of finding life beyond Earth, whether microbial or sentient, in shaping the ethics of space exploration. As an astrobiologist, I am interested in the search for life on other worlds in the context of resolving uncertainties about the origins of life on Earth and the fundamental principles underlying the transition from non-living to living systems. In the context of astrobiology, finding a second example of life would help us understand how common life is as a general phenomenon. This discovery would completely shift how we view ourselves in the universe. Therefore, the motivations behind astrobiology research directly complement those Milligan advocates for and suggests should guide human space exploration and exploitation ambitions. The scientific exploration of space to search for life beyond Earth might have negative consequences from a planetary protection perspective, but is also likely to contribute to a more refined and well-informed ethical framework for further exploration. Another compelling point made by Milligan is that compromising ecosystems that are native to other worlds would effectively rob us of the opportunity to study life forms. This would directly impact the efforts of scientists, such as myself, whose careers are dedicated to the discovery of additional examples of life. He also offers an interesting solution and proposes hypothetical experiments where we could test the effects of Earth life on extraterrestrial life. With the Mars 2020 rover launching last year, which included the first steps toward a sample-return mission, such experiments might become feasible in the near future.
Another compelling point made by Milligan is that compromising ecosystems that are native to other worlds would effectively rob us of the opportunity to study life forms.
Overall, Nobody Owns the Moon is a thought-provoking introduction to space ethics that thoroughly explores arguments in favor and against many different scenarios, most of which currently remain hypothetical. While it is clear that Milligan’s intent was to present a broad framework without taking strong stances on any of the subjects examined and therefore capture a diversity of perspectives, some might find the inevitable lack of depth resulting from this ambivalent approach frustrating. Therefore, this book might be more appropriate for readers looking to get a general sense of the subject rather than an in-depth treatment of specific ethical issues. Another weakness is that the text as a whole seems a bit disjointed, which can make it difficult to follow Milligan logical flow in some instances, particularly in some of the later chapters. These minor flaws aside, this book strikes me as a great starting point for anyone interested in the ethics of space exploration and exploitation.