Ep 08: Should We Make Mars More Like Earth?

How do we balance out our hunger for resources in space with the desire to preserve the space environment for future generations? Will something inherently valuable and important be lost when we start transforming the Moon or Mars to extract resources and make habitats where we can live? How should we preserve our history on the surfaces of other worlds?

Space lawyer Christopher Newman rejoins us to talk about how environmental conservation might be regulated in space. Philosopher James Schwartz discusses the ethics of mining and terraforming other worlds. And space lawyer Michelle Hanlon tells us about For All Moonkind, an organization dedicated to preserving our historical space heritage.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Hello! This is Erika Nesvold from Making New Worlds. In case you’ve been following our schedule on the website, I wanted to point out that we’ve rearranged the order of the next few episodes. I also want to point out that Episode 12 will be an audience feedback episode. We want to hear from you! You know all those questions I ask at the end of each episode? If you’ve got answers, send them our way. Maybe you disagree with something we’ve said, or you have a question about something we haven’t covered. Send a written comment or audio file to makingnewworldspodcast@gmail.com by February 7th, and we might include it in our episode. Now onto today’s episode.

This is Making New Worlds.

Imagine this: You’ve got the day off from your job working on the space settlement’s life support systems, so you decide to put on your pressure suit and go for a hike. You head for your favorite spot: the top of a crater ridge to the north, overlooking a fantastic view. But when you get up there, you see a sign posted: Development Coming Soon. Some waste disposal company has gotten the rights to dump toxic waste here. Soon they’ll be tearing up your beautiful view, and you won’t be able to come anywhere near it without risking radiation exposure. Is there anything you can do about it? Or will you just have to find another favorite hiking spot? What happens when more and more of the nearby surface gets taken over by waste disposal, mining, and new habitats?

Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. Today’s episode is about environmental conservation in space. Space may be infinite, but the amount of valuable land and resources that are within our reach is limited, and will be in high demand. How do we balance out our hunger for resources with the desire to preserve something for future generations? Is there something inherently beautiful and valuable in the untouched landscapes on the Moon or Mars? Will something important be lost when we start transforming that land to extract resources and make habitats where we can live?

The topic of environmentalism is always at the edges of conversations about settling space, because the deteriorating environment on Earth is one of the big reasons that space enthusiasts point to for spreading our species off-world. But the early space pioneers weren’t particularly concerned with environmental conservation, either here or in space. Here’s space lawyer Christopher Newman again, talking about our old friend, the Outer Space Treaty.

Christopher Newman: “One of the things that we find is that space activity and space regulation is shaped by one instrument, and that’s the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Now, again, as I kind of say to all of my law students, if ever you want to understand a piece of law, then look at the law it was passed. 1967: environmentalism wasn’t in the mainstream, it wasn’t a consideration. Getting to space was difficult enough. It was an achievement just getting up there. We didn’t worry quite how we got up there. We certainly didn’t worry about leaving things there. So you look at the Apollo mission, for example, tremendously wasteful, tremendously environmentally unfriendly, you know? There was a lot of stuff left on the Moon, because it was– it would save weight, you know, not bringing it back. And there wasn’t really a discussion, as well, what type of damage are we doing to the lunar environment, what type of damage are we doing to the Earth’s environment? Just getting up there was an achievement.”

A lot’s changed since 1967. The environmentalism movement has grown, and people are more aware of the damage we are doing to the planet Earth. Meanwhile, that damage is increasing, as our population and energy requirements grow. And our increasing dependence on technology is affecting the space environment, too. Specifically, low-Earth orbit. Here’s the problem: for decades, countries on Earth have been launching spacecraft into low-Earth orbit: telecommunications satellites, military spy satellites, GPS navigation satellites, astronomical telescopes. Sometimes, when a satellite gets too old, its controllers on Earth fire its thrusters one last time to either deorbit it back down to Earth, or send it out into space. But a lot of the time, it’s just deactivated and left in place.

So this space junk just stays there, hanging around in orbit. As time passes, the problem gets worse. Sometimes satellites collide, breaking into smaller pieces that spread out along the orbit. All of these pieces of debris are moving incredibly fast, and are hard to track, so they pose a danger to other satellites and spacecraft. NASA says there are over half a million pieces of orbital debris larger than a marble, and millions of untrackable smaller pieces, and those numbers are only growing.

Christopher Newman: “The mess that we’re making in low-Earth orbit, the mess that we’re making due to space debris. What we’ve– You know, if we go to the planets, if we go to the Moon, if we go to Mars, we’re gonna need infrastructure. We’re going to need that satellite network for communications, for navigations. We’re gonna have similar problems if we’re not careful, that we’re exporting. And that’s just before we even land on the planet. That’s just putting the infrastructure in place to have a useful human habitat.”

This problem is a big deal in the space community, and a lot of people are discussing what can be done to clean up this debris before the problem gets worse, but it doesn’t seem to be talked about much by the general public, with the exception of the movie Gravity from a few years ago.

Christopher Newman: “And I mean, I think the problem is, there’s a lot to be said for when you can’t see the manifestation of the problem, it doesn’t become that much of a problem, you know? In Western society and across the world, actually, we’re beginning to see quite severe, profound climate change. And that climate change is, you know, accountable to human activity. And we’re seeing that, but we’re not seeing orbital debris. People can’t look up and see the skies are clouded. People can’t look up and see the dangers from hundreds of thousands of small fragments. So it doesn’t exist, so there’s an advocacy job to be done, as well. You know, as well as a regulatory job.”

So let’s say we’ve dodged all the debris and made it out of low-Earth orbit. We’re out in the untouched wilderness of space. What’s the first thing we’re going to do? Well, according to a lot of the space companies today, we’re going to grab a space rock and start drilling.

Christopher Newman: “A lot of the discussion around contemporary space activity on other planets tends to revolve around mining activities, and humans as workers. I think, you know, from my knowledge of the mining industry, it’s very difficult, there’s no really such thing as an environmentally friendly mining activity. So we’re inherently affecting the environment of the planet, of the celestial body that we’re going onto, if we’re looking to use it purely as resource utilization.”

There’s a lot of discussion about the feasibility of asteroid and lunar mining in the space industry now. In particular, space mining companies are trying to convince investors that it’s a profitable enterprise, that you can get enough water and precious minerals out of space to make it worth the cost of going up there. We talked about some of this in our economics episode. But today I want to talk about the resources themselves, not the economics of asteroid mining. Sounds like a job for an ethicist.

James Schwartz: “I’m James Schwartz, I teach philosophy at Wichita State University. And what I mostly research is philosophy and ethics of space exploration and space policy.”

James has been doing some recent work on the ethics of resource extraction in space. He argues that these mining resources are more limited than a lot of people imagine, especially when you take into consideration how difficult it is to reach the asteroids you want to mine.

James Schwartz: “Because, you know, we’re talking about exhaustible resources, as well. Not just limited resources, but exhaustible ones… These are the kind of things that are gonna get used up pretty quickly. And once they’re gone, you know, it’s not as though somebody can just hop in at the next slot and do everything they wanna do. So I tend to think that from a sort of philosophical or ethical point of view, it matters what you’re gonna do with the stuff. So I’m not as concerned about issues with fair access as I am concerned with issues of fair use, here. Because when you have extremely limited resources, now it becomes even more of an ethical decision about, you know, what are these resources gonna be used for? Are they just gonna, you know, satisfy some really rich person’s desire to have a hotel on the surface of the Moon? Or is it going to do something like contribute to valuable human scientific research?”

But let’s set aside the problems with mining and resource extraction for a minute. Humans are perfectly capable of damaging an environment just by living in it. Do we need to worry about environmental conservation when we’re building our space settlements? What if someday we go beyond building domes or underground habitats, and start trying to terraform another planet? Scientists and engineers have proposed different ways for creating and maintaining an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars, bringing back the Martian oceans, and protecting the surface from radiation. If humankind can someday pull this off, we could live on the surface of Mars without needing spacesuits. But we will have fundamentally changed the face of the planet. Is this morally okay?

The answer to that question sort of depends on whether we end up finding life on Mars, which is still a bit of an open question. Let’s assume for the moment that there’s no life there. James points out that this removes a lot of the arguments for environmental conservation.

James Schwartz: “So, the challenging question about terraforming, especially if we think that Mars ends up being lifeless, is, how do you have a reason to preserve or protect a lifeless environment? Because if you look at most views of environmental ethics, the thought that there’s some ecosystem there that ought to be preserved is a real guiding thought. Maybe it’s not an ecosystem, maybe the focus is on the species level, or the individual organism level, but the presence of life has been very important in most views. So it becomes challenging, then, when you’ve got an environment that you take to be completely lifeless. And so you have to sort of get a little creative in terms of the ethical argumentation that you provide. Maybe the claim is that something of great beauty is there and would be lost. Maybe the claim is something about how, you know, even if there’s no life there, it would still demonstrate this great hubris on our part to completely remake a world. Maybe we can describe planetary surfaces as just valuable in themselves. And I don’t think any of these are incoherent claims, but I think they end up being fairly difficult claims to provide good justifications for.”

But what if there is life on Mars, even just microbes? If they’re thriving in the Martian environment, they likely wouldn’t do so well if we terraformed Mars to be more like Earth. Here’s space lawyer Chris Newman again.

Christopher Newman: “What do we do, for example, if we discover microbial life on Mars? Are we in a situation of contaminating that environment? Yes, we’re obviously going to contaminate it to an extent. But if we then inhabit the planet, you know, are we an infestation? I mean, I’m using quite crude terms there, but it’s something that I think we need to start having the conversation about.”

This gets into a topic called planetary protection, which we’ll spend a whole episode talking about next week. For now, I want to point out one more thing we need to consider when we think about the changes we’ll make to the surface of places like the Moon or Mars, and that’s historical conservation.

Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Thanks to the lack of weather on the Moon, the Apollo landing sites, including the first footprints made by a human on another world, haven’t been washed away by wind or rain. They’re perfectly preserved– If you had a spaceship, you could go look at them right now. But if everyone had a spaceship, they probably wouldn’t last too long, thanks to all the tourists that would be bouncing around on the Moon’s surface.

Is there something we can do to protect these historical sites from future space tourists? I’m glad you asked.

Michelle Hanlon: “Hi, my name is Michelle Hanlon. I’m the co-founder of For All Moonkind, which is an organization which is dedicated and committed to preserving our human heritage in outer space. That means that we want to create international guidelines that will protect all of our first footsteps in outer space, starting with the Apollo lunar landing sites.”

Michelle is a space lawyer, and her organization is staffed by lawyers from around the world who volunteer their time to try to figure out how to put protections in place now to prevent damage to historical sites on the Moon in the future.

Michelle Hanlon: “In thinking about how we go to space and how we explore space, we really need to focus on what we’re gonna take of our own civilization into space. And we need to make sure that we take some of our civilization into space, because it will be very easy to end up with tyrannies. So, the first step in a world where our superpowers and up-and-coming powers can’t agree on much with respect to outer space, I think we can start with agreeing that those first footsteps, these were technological achievements that can be shared by humanity. And so if we can recognize those footsteps– both Apollo and Luna and, you know, the Jade Rabbit from China– recognize those as universal achievements of humanity, maybe we can start our exploration of space on the right foot as a human species and not as a particular nation or commercial entity.”

I asked Michelle to talk about why she thought that these historical sites, in particular, were so important and worth preserving.

Michelle Hanlon: “We mark achievements that we make as a human species, as a culture. The first footsteps in space, whether by man– human, or by rover are an incredible technological achievement, one that is unparalleled. And it is that– It is, like I said, the threshold of our exploration of space. It marks a change from being an Earth-bound species to a space-faring species. It’s really important to protect and preserve those first footsteps, because they say a lot about us as a species. The fact that there’s three different nations, you know, different flags, that’s a history that we have to protect and preserve and remembers as we go forth to colonize the Moon and elsewhere. We want to be able to look back and remember, “Okay, we came to the Moon in the midst of a Cold War, but look how far we’ve advanced since then.” Or, “Let’s remember that Cold War and make sure we don’t slip back into it.””

For All Moonkind is a pretty new organization– it was founded in June of 2017– but they’re hoping to get some kind of regulations in place before the space industry really takes off and traffic on the Moon’s surface increases.

Michelle Hanlon: “What I’m worried about is a lack of care. I don’t– I know right now, there are a number of organizations, of private entities and state entities looking to go back to the Moon with rovers. I don’t look at any one of them and think, “Oh, you’re gonna be the one who’s gonna run over those footprints.” The problem is, is we are on this threshold. Today, there are eight or ten companies that are– have their eyes set on bringing a rover to the Moon and bringing samples back. In fifteen years, that’ll be tripled or quadrupled. I mean, look how fast we went from Orville Wright to the Space Shuttle. We’re gonna go from ten rovers to hundreds of rovers before we know it. And when we have that many players up on the Moon, we’re gonna stop being able to police it as well, or write– You know, let’s get those regulations in before we reach that point where people can sort of slip up there and grab something and sell it on Earth, or go up there and make a claim to a footprint or vandalize a footprint just out of spite.”

So how can we protect these sites?

Michelle Hanlon: “Right now, the Outer Space Treaty, which has been a fantastic framework for our exploration thus far, has gaps with respect to preservation. Sure, the objects that we put on the Moon– that a country, I should say, puts on the Moon– remains the property of that nation. But the actual site itself, you know, we’re talking about the footprints themselves, the tracks themselves, aren’t protected at all. There’s nothing to stop anybody, from a legal standpoint, from going up and saying, “Oh look, these messy footprints. I’m going to erase them.” So, the concern about the sites needs to be addressed at an international level, because the United States can’t say, “Oh, well, let’s make it a National Park.” Because that would imply ownership. So, we’re working to create a convention on the preservation– management and preservation of our heritage in outer space… Our starting point is the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. And we’re looking at the Antarctic Treaty, as well, just to look at– There’s no question people, nations, everybody understands the importance of preserving. And now we just need to look at the best way to manage that preservation in outer space. This isn’t about stopping people from developing. This is about making sure we are preserving what we need to preserve before that development occurs.”

Maybe international law and regulations are the best way to protect the environment in space, in general. Chris Newman says, it’s a little more difficult than that.

Christopher Newman: “The big problem with that, because we see, we look at the geopolitics around the world, I mean, I’m from the United Kingdom. We’re pulling out of the big international treaty. And it’s grinding our political system to a halt. The intricacies of trying to renegotiate our position within the European framework and outside the European Union– Big international treaties tend not to be in favor at the minute. States prefer to be more agile. So guidelines allow that flexibility. States aren’t necessarily making binding commitments that perhaps gives over elements of sovereignty. They can instead say, “Okay, we will do this activity. And if we do it, there’ll be things like technology sharing. And we’ll be able to pool resources and we’ll be collaborating on missions and things like that.””

Chris pointed out a problem with environmental regulation in general, which is that no one wants to take on the burden and cost of conservation and clean-up.

Christopher Newman: “So, the reason there hasn’t been a bigger overarching treaty looking specifically environmentalism is because we see from terrestrial environmentalism, getting agreement on environmental issues is nigh-on impossible. You will only get the most anodyne agreements because there’ll be two layers of activity. There’ll be the space-active nations, who may well be liable for cleaning up the mess, who will say, “Well, we spent a lot of money getting into space. The space technology you have is as a result of our activity. So you now want us to spend yet more money cleaning up space? No!” But of course the developing space nations will come back and say, “Hang on, you’ve had the pick of the shop. You’re now, you’ve made the mess, you should clean it up.” So that’s immediately gonna cause conflict and immediately gonna make any sort of binding treaty extremely difficult.”

My conversation with Chris started to sound a lot like conversations about fossil fuel companies and environmentalism here on Earth. He suggested that the best method might be to incentivize space companies to make environmentally-friendly choices, and that the space corporations will start promoting themselves as “green” companies as our culture shifts more in favor of conservation.

Christopher Newman: “I have a friend who is an environmental lawyer and they say the parallels between space environmental law and terrestrial environmental law are almost identical. It’s almost the same discussion as, you know, climate change and fossil fuel, and space debris. It, you know, it’s the same balance of, we want to progress and we want to use space as an engine of progress, but if we do that, we’ve got to be aware there are negative environmental consequences… And I think in space activity, that there needs to be this sort of recognition, as well, that environmentalism, actually, if we can develop sustainable technology, that’s gonna help every space player. It’s gonna help the developing nations make it cheaper, it’s gonna help the– those that are already in space have increased access to space. So that’s the line, I think, that space environmentalism needs, is taking.”

And just like on Earth, advocacy for environmental conservation is vital, to keep up the public awareness and to hold corporations accountable.

Christopher Newman: “Actually discussing it, having it as an issue, having it as something that people care about. Having the discussion that, alongside the issues of, the glamour of rocket launches and space exploration, that there is an awareness going, “Well, hang on. At the same time, this might have a negative impact. This might not be a wholly good thing.” So I think, advocacy. I think, discussing it. I think, you know, shaping regulation in a way that is environmentally sensitive. So, promoting these good behaviors on an individual level, you know, it’s back to the old capitalism winds of buying from companies that you know favor environmental practices. So there’s a whole range of things that we can do in a soft sense. And in behavior-shaping. Because I think that’s ultimately the way that this is gonna have to develop, because there seems to be no sign of the desire of legislators in the international community to get together and hammer out a space environment treaty.”

Philosopher James Schwartz had another suggestion for how to balance the hunger for more resources against the preservation of space for scientific research.

James Schwartz: “And something I would ideally like to see in the future regulation is that, you know, you have some, I don’t know, panel that comes in every time somebody wants to engage in a new act of, say, asteroid mining. Where it’s not solely an industry decision, but you’ve got, say, interested scientists there that could maybe say, “All right, well no, this one’s pretty interesting. We haven’t seen anything that looked quite like this before. So we want to reserve this one for scientific study.”  And, you know, when I’ve said something like this in front of industry people, they just, you know, they get shocked and, you know, “How dare you?!” But if you think about it, I mean, some oversight would be helpful to industry, because if you’ve got scientists going through some material, they’re actually gonna give you a catalogue of what’s there, ultimately. And so I think, you know, a very good partnership with space industry on this score would be important. Not only for, you know, increasing the amount of good science that’s done, but for safeguarding some of it.”

So what do you think? Should we make an effort to preserve the environment of space? If there’s no life on the surface of a planet, does it matter what we do with it? Is there some intrinsic value in a lifeless world that should be protected, or do we only need to be worried about preserving resources for future generations?

Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com. Remember that Episode 12 will be our audience feedback episode, so please send in your written or audio commentary on any of the topics we’ve discussed so far if you’d like to be featured in the episode. Get your comments in by February 7th to be included.

Christopher Newman can be found on Twitter @ChrisNewman1972. James Schwartz has co-edited a book called The Ethics of Space Exploration, which I read cover-to-cover while developing this podcast. He also has a website called thespacephilosopher.space, where you can find some of his lectures and papers. If you’d like to support historical preservation on the Moon, Michelle Hanlon suggests following For All Moonkind on Facebook or on Twitter @ForAllMoonkind. You can also learn more on their website, forallmoonkind.org, where donations are very welcome.

Next week, we’ll be talking about planetary protection. Not protecting the Earth, but protecting other planets, and the life that might be living there. How far should we go to make sure we don’t contaminate other worlds with Earth life? What if our space settlements pose a threat to the local life? Is it even possible to prevent contamination of other planets? Join us next week!

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.