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A new scientific discipline is on the horizon in Finland: space ethics is on the rise

During his master's studies, Oskari Sivula came across a captivating topic in a newspaper article: space ethics. The topic lingered in Sivula's mind, and today he is writing his dissertation on space ethics at the University of Turku. In an interview with SpaceFinland, the doctoral researcher delves into the key questions of the emerging field of space ethics.

Many still consider space ethics to be an almost exotic discipline. What is space ethics about?
Oskari Sivula: Space ethics explores ethical and societal issues related to space. Space ethics often involves a normative component and asks questions such as: “How are we supposed to act in outer space? What is humanity's role in space?” Within philosophy, space ethics falls under the domain of applied ethics, but I prefer to conceive of space ethics as a broader interdisciplinary project. In addition to philosophers, researchers in astrobiology and other space sciences, political researchers, futurists, sociologists, and legal scholars engage in space ethics research.

When and how did the field of space ethics emerge?
In a certain sense, the roots of space ethics can be traced back to the early days of the space age: in the 1960s, Hannah Arendt critically addressed space activities in her essay "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man". However, the roots of space ethics are generally located in the context of the research efforts on terraforming Mars in the 1980s. This gave rise to a myriad of ethical questions: If it would be technically possible; should we try to render Mars’ conditions more conducive to life? What are the risks associated with this endeavor? Are we justified to modify space environments as we please?

What is the current state of space ethics in Finland?
Until now, there hasn't been extensive space ethics research in Finland – the field is just beginning to take root here. Besides myself, astrobiologist Kirsi Lehto and philosopher Mikko Puumala from the University of Turku have explored the field. We are currently conducting research related to space colonization.

What questions do space ethicists grapple with concretely?
A significant part of space ethics involves environmental ethics: Why should we protect celestial bodies? How should we think about lifeless space environments? What is the moral value of microbes on Mars? What is a fair distribution of space resources? How can we promote sustainable use of Earth's orbits and avoid space congestion?

Which space ethical questions have arisen lately?
Recently, the debate around space colonization has been growing, partly fueled by Elon Musk's ambitious plans regarding Mars: What reasons do we have for colonizing Mars? What ethical challenges are associated with space colonization in general?

What questions have you focused on in your career so far?
So far, I have pondered questions such as whether we should attempt to spread life beyond our solar system: this is known as directed panspermia. Today, directed panspermia is still science fiction and not technically feasible. It is nevertheless possible that one day we might be able to send space probes carrying primitive life to exoplantes. The flourishing of life on other planets would have massive implications: the story of Earth-originating life could be extended far into the distant future.

Why are you personally interested in space ethics?
Cosmic questions have always fascinated me. On the other hand, I'm intrigued by the fact that space ethics is a relatively uncharted but growing scientific territory. I'm also interested in future-oriented research: I want to explore where the world is headed. As an ethicist, I’m particularly interested in the question which direction it should take. 

Why do we need space ethics?
Without ethical deliberation, space activities risk to be dominated by commercial interests, which may not necessarily align with the common good. Further, if we were to rush to the Moon or Mars, we might harm environments which are important for scientific research. A key task of space ethics is to examine and weigh the partially conflicting interests and values that guide space activities.

What are these conflicting interests and values?
Conflicts can arise between commercial and scientific interests. On the other hand, many environmental values may be jeopardized as a result of space activities. Crewed space missions might potentially restrict individual autonomy for the sake of project success. Space activities can also raise concerns in international relations: it is conceivable that the scarcity of valuable space resources would lead to geopolitical disputes.

Aren't space resources practically inexhaustible after all?
Contrary to popular belief, space resources attainable with current and near-future technologies are far from limitless – this is why sustainability considerations are crucial in the context of space.

How do ethical contemplations affect space activities?
In order for space ethics to have an impact, it is important that the research doesn't stay confined within the realm of philosophy. Ideally, space ethics also extends to a dialogue with key decision-makers: for instance, the French space agency CNES has its own ethical advisor. A practical example highlighting the field's impact is that the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) has incorporated moral philosophy into its work on planetary protection. Furthermore, with NASA's Artemis program, the first woman and non-white person are set to travel to the Moon.

What is the future of space ethics in Finland?
There are some indications that the field of space ethics is growing in Finland: for example, the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SSoCIA) conference will be held here next summer. Currently, both space activities and technology seem to be developing in Finland – these developments give rise to various ethical challenges which philosophers will have to confront.

Further resources on space ethics:

Oskari Sivula[email protected]