Ethics and Space Development

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 2, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

SpaceX Falcon launcher

SpaceX Falcon launcher

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)


NASA will no longer have the responsibility of designing and building rockets for carrying people into space, if Congress approves the Obama Administration’s proposed budget for the space agency.

The Space Shuttle will be retired either late this year or early next year. Existing plans were to replace it with the Ares I rocket and a new Apollo-style space capsule called Orion. However, Obama’s budget does not contain any money for Ares I. Nor does it contain any allocations for a substitute to Ares I.

This is not to say that Obama will end human space flight in America. Quite the opposite – he has authorized extending the life of the Space Station until 2020.

For the foreseeable future, Americans will have to send their astronauts to Russia to get them to the space station. Russia and China will be the only two countries with the capacity to send humans into space. Europe does not have that capacity, and America will lose that capability once the Space Shuttle is retired. So, Americans will only be able to enter space on a Russian rocket.

However, the hope is that America will regain the capability of sending humans into space on commercial rockets. Eventually, the Obama Administration hopes that it will no longer need to pay a Russian company to deliver astronauts to a space station, but an American company. It would be a company such as SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon space capsule.

In the debate to come, I fear that the advocates of human space flight – those interested in seeing America continue to send humans into space – will be that project’s worse enemy. I fear that they are going to argue for the status quo – for the traditional practice of having NASA directly involved in building and operating the rockets that carry humans into space.

They want another moon mission. They want to see Apollo: The Sequel and relive the glory days of the space race.

I think that the Apollo program was a terrific achievement. On my own blog, Atheist Ethicist, I am marking the 50th Anniversary of the milestone of that project. However, this does not mean that I think we need to duplicate it today. We do not need another set of “flag and footprint missions” owned and operated by a government agency.

However, it is time to let that paradigm go. Eventually, space travel is going to have to go commercial, like airline travel. Eventually, the government is going to have to quit building government planes to carry government officials and government cargo around the world, and to simply purchase tickets on commercial airplane flights – except for that which serves a distinctly military purpose. Similarly, the government needs to stop building and flying its own space missions and buy tickets on a private space launch vehicle.

The survival of humanity requires getting enough people off of earth and to create an infrastructure that could survive the destruction of all life – or, at least, all human life – on earth itself. It will happen, some day, that there will be no humans on Earth. Any descendents we have that survive that day will be living in space. If there are too few of them, or if they are not set up so as to survive the destruction of Earth, then on that day humans will become extinct.

There is also the fact of the vast amount of resources in space that is currently not being used. I have mentioned before, the asteroids alone have enough material to build space stations with the surface-area equivalent of 30,000 Earths. The amount of energy we have on earth is virtually nothing compared to the amount of solar energy we can harvest in space.

As you look at pictures of galaxies upon galaxies spread across the sky, there is reason to suspect that there have been civilizations that have suffered that fate. Their people did not leave their planet fast enough or in large enough numbers to survive some catastrophic event on their home planet. Now, all that is left are ruins that, themselves, will disappear over time.

It may well be the case that all civilizations are doomed to fail eventually. That is no more of a reason to opt for an early death than the fact that an individual life ends eventually is a reason to commit suicide at a young age. With a little bit of care, our civilization has at least a few trillion years ahead of it. And we remain so substantially ignorant of what the universe is really like that we can only guess at what future generations – if there are future generations – will find.

That future is best secured by a present that involves getting people off of the Earth in sufficiently large numbers and with a sufficiently well developed infrastructure to survive the destruction of the Earth. That is not going to come about through a string of government space projects. That will eventually require people putting time and energy into space development independent of government contracts. That requires the government using its money to give those private ventures a boost, rather than using its money on its own, isolated, private projects.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

inajeep February 2, 2010 at 7:41 am

What happens to the test data, design and other related information of the Ares I rockets? Will there be a knowledge transfer from NASA to the private sector then to speed things up?

Disclaimer: As a software developer I know nothing of NASA’s or the public industry’s current rocket development status however I do know that knowledge is lost in such a transfer of duties.


Lorkas February 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

It may well be the case that all civilizations are doomed to fail eventually.

Unless we’re wrong about the end of the universe, then that is definitely true.


Dave February 2, 2010 at 10:03 am

@inajeep – The test data from Ares I-X confirms you can fly a four segment Shuttle SRB. But we knew that from the several hundred flown over the past 30 years. I think there is not a lot of design or knowledge to transfer. NASA has spent 30 years designing and canceling rocket programs. The successful designers and flyers (outside of the shuttle itself) are the commercial companies.

If NASA had not gone down the cul-de-sac with Michael Griffen and had in fact listened to their internal engineers, we would now be flying a shuttle derived launch vehicle. The DIRECT team fought for that to replace the Ares I / V boondoggle, and fought for an open ended exploration architecture involving propellant depots, advanced proulsion technologies, and the construxction of a true space faring infrastructure.

But it is now too late to save the shuttle stack and its workforce. DIRECT has lost that battle, but may well have won the war. The “Flexible Path” architecture championed by the Augustine Commission, and picked up by this administration is what DIRECT fought for. We may not get their rocket (admitted by them as sub-optimal, but the best that political and budgetary limitations would allow), but it seems that they have succeeded with the exploration architecture.


Jeff H February 2, 2010 at 2:58 pm

How exactly does this follow from desirism? Do we have any reason to promote the well-being of distant future generations? And if so, why? Because right now, those future generations do not have any desires. I’ve been told in previous discussions that desirism does not count “potential” desires, but only actual desires that real, living agents have. Thus it seems that future generations should not factor into any of these calculations. How do we use desirism to reach the conclusion that we should be worried about the fate of humanity a thousand years from now?


lukeprog February 2, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Jeff H,

All this has been written about, so I really need to develop my FAQ.


Eneasz February 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I believe the short answer is that people who have children (almost everyone) have reasons to promote a general concern-for-future-generations desire in others. Thus a desire exists in the present which does influence actions, even though future desires do not. Much like I have reasons to promote an aversion to smoking in myself, despite the fact that my cancer-stricken-future-self’s desires don’t affect me.


Jeff H February 2, 2010 at 7:32 pm


Well I look forward to the answer…thought maybe Alonzo can give an answer sometime in the next decade :P lol


That answer would work for close future generations – children and grandchildren, perhaps. But it seems just as reasonable that we would have reason to promote a concern for just the next two or three generations – considering that those are the only people that exist currently. And such a desire would seem to be just as malleable as the more general concern for all future generations.


Ajay February 2, 2010 at 11:25 pm

How will the private companies make money by doing such things? What will their business model be?


Eneasz February 3, 2010 at 9:41 am

JeffH, I basically agree with you. I think that for some people this desire is strong enough that it bleeds over into “concern for all future generations” and they worry about the eventual death of our sun. For others the desire is fairly weak and they don’t seem to care past one or two generations (those who deny global warming or vaccination, for example).

But in either case, there is some level of reason to act in a way that is beneficial for future generations.


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