• Thomas Cheney

What's the Value of Space?

Updated: Apr 26

The Value of Science in Space Exploration by James S.J. Schwartz (Oxford University Press 2020)

Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity by Daniel Deudney (Oxford University Press 2020)

In many ways Daniel Deudney’s Dark Skies and James Schwartz’s The Value of Science in Space Exploration are very different books. Deudney is an international relations scholar concerned with the pitfalls of ‘space expansionism’ (his term for the views expressed by the likes of Elon Musk that humanity must urgently become a ‘multiplanetary species’). Whereas Schwartz is a space ethicist concerned with the ethical basis for human activities in outer space. Their tone is also very different. It would be a disserve to describe Deudney as ‘cynical’ but the title Dark Skies is certainly apt. Schwartz by contrast is more positive about a human future in outer space even if it doesn’t fit in with the Muskite vision of cities on Mars by the end of this century. Schwartz, falls into what Deudney calls the ‘Clarke-Sagan’[1] camp, a more gradual, exploration focused vision of space expansionism that perhaps most crucially lacks the urgency of the Muskites. However, despite their differences these two books tackle an important, central question. Why bother going to space? They have similar but importantly different conclusions.

Deudney engages in a sweeping, and brilliant, deconstruction of most of the major debates and discussions in the ‘space community’ albeit through a ‘security lens’ (he is an IR scholar). This is where the book really excels and is worth reading for the first two parts alone. His analysis covers a range of topics including space weapons, resources and terraforming. To put it mildly, Deudney takes a dim view on pursing any space activities beyond Earth orbit. His argument is essentially that the costs of doing so, both financially but also in the potential political disasters that such developments may unleash are too great and are therefore not worth it. Planetary and space science does not fit much into this analysis although it doesn’t seem to be something he takes much of an issue with, he does recognize the value of Earth orbiting satellites, but the arguments for the settlement and development of the solar system don’t pass muster in his estimation. In answer to the framing question of ‘why bother going to space’ I expect Deudney would say ‘don’t.’

Schwartz takes a slightly different view. Schwartz is an ethicist and the book examines the ethical basis for space exploration. He examines key concepts such as the intrinsic and instrumental value of science. As well as the ‘scope and justification of planetary protection’ as well as giving consideration to the ethical aspects of space resource development and space settlement. Schwartz does not outright reject the ‘space expansionism’ derided by Deudney but his does, convincingly, argue that there is no ethical justification for doing anything other than scientific exploration beyond Earth orbit for the foreseeable future (which he defines as about 200-300 years). To put it simply, Schwartz argues that there is no rush. The danger of damaging or destroying the scientific value of the solar system by prematurely undertaking ‘space expansionism’ is too great. Further, while the Earth does face ‘existential’ threats, colonizing Mars is not the best (or most ethical) way to deal with those, at least not in the foreseeable future. So to once again ask the framing question of ‘why bother going to space’ I expect Schwartz to say .science, at least for the next 200-300 years’.

These are two interesting and important books. Both are worth reading and considering. Why bother going to space? Is an important question. Motives matter. Particularly for governance issues. We cannot assume that we all think alike or have the same priorities. For some the search for life is the most important thing humans will ever do. For others, terraforming and colonizing Mars is an urgent imperative. Yet others will think either or both endeavour to be a waste of time and money. The holders of these perspectives will value different things and that has implications. If terraforming Mars is your number one priority because you think humans need to move to Mars ASAP then you won’t care about planetary protection. Indeed as Deudney points out you may not care about Earth issues all that much either, at least unless those issues ‘impede’ going to Mars. Therefore motivation matters, and there needs to be a broader more vibrant debate on the ethics and politics of the proposals of many space enthusiast. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the vile response to Shannon Stirone’s excellent article in the Atlantic[2], the Muskites aren’t all the receptive to debate, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it. In fact, it makes it more necessary. These two books are excellent contributions to that debate and both are worth your time and consideration.

[1]So named due to the leading figures of that ‘school’, Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan [2]Mars Is a Hellhole - The Atlantic

The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.

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