Why Is Space Exploration Important To Science?

The efforts of Virgin Galactic to open up the suborbital tourism industry and the ambitions of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) to settle Mars are most likely to be featured in popular science and technology news, whereas current scientific exploration initiatives, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars InSight mission, are less likely to be featured. 

Of course, this is reasonable given the fact that the founders of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, Richard Branson and Elon Musk, are very well-known and vocal public personalities. 

Scientific missions, on the other hand, take a long time to complete and, with the exception of the brief thrill of mission launches (and landings, in certain instances), do not pique public attention. 

  • (Of course, when things go wrong, as they did in Apollo 1, Apollo 13, STS-51-L (the Challenger tragedy), STS-107 (the Columbia disaster), or, less dramatically, the failure of the Schiaparelli lander, the public pays notice.) 
  • Furthermore, the US and Luxembourg have enacted laws promoting commercial spaceflight. 
  • The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 promotes private business to develop capabilities related to space resource exploitation, such as lunar and asteroid mining, in addition to encouraging NASA to depend more heavily on the private sector for launch services. 

There are a variety of reasons for the increasing use of the private sector to provide services to and in space, but the most important one is cost. 

  • Launching material into low-Earth orbit (LEO) is very costly, with prices ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 USD/kg (and much higher per-kg costs for missions to more energetically distant destinations, such as geostationary orbit (GEO), the Moon, or other planets or their satellites). 
  • Space missions should become more inexpensive as a result of increased private sector involvement and competition in the design, production, and usage of launch vehicles and spacecraft. 
  • This, however, raises concerns about what the primary goal of spaceflight is or should be. 

The current emphasis on commercial spaceflight indicates that spaceflight exists primarily to create new markets for economic activities. 

  • Despite this shift in focus from national and international space projects to private efforts, the language surrounding space exploration has remained mostly unchanged since the 1960s and 1970s Apollo program. 

Whether one is advocating for increasing NASA or ESA budgets, withdrawing from the United Nations Outer Space Treaty and its restrictions on commercial exploitation of space resources, or speeding up SpaceX's plans to settle Mars, it is easy to predict the types of arguments that will be made: 

*that we need to explore space to save humanity from extinction; 

*that we need to use a reliable spacecraft to save humanity from extinction; 

*that we.. Will need to use/navigate Space to save humanity from extinction; 

*that we need to save all life in general from extinction.

  • These and other factors tend to coalesce into a kind of "space advocacy bundle." 
  • However, the reasoning that is often provided in support of these assertions (if any is provided at all) is frequently of poor quality and rigor. 
  • It's almost as if speaking these "spaceflight facts" while defending spaceflight is a tradition, or a precept of some sort of spaceflight religion. 
  • The issue is that proponents of spaceflight seldom attempt to gather facts to back up their different arguments. 
  • Rather, space lobbying consists mainly of repeating a limited number of talking points again and over, perhaps with the help of astronauts, astrophysicists, or global leaders. 

Astronauts and astrophysicists, on the other hand, are not the best people to ask about whether spaceflight is educational or if humans have an inherent need to explore. 

Education scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and evolutionary biologists are the people to talk to. In most of space advocacy, there is a lack of attention to acceptable sources of evidence. 

  • And if you're someone like me, who thinks that spaceflight is very essential but that its significance should be proven via sound argument, you'll be disappointed with the present state of space advocacy. 

Philosophers are trained to pay close attention to the outlines of logic. 

  • That is, they tend to concentrate on the formulation, judgment, and assessment of arguments in considerable detail. 
  • As a consequence, philosophers have a proclivity towards adopting exceptionally high criteria when it comes to accepting and rejecting ideas. 
  • As a philosopher, you may assume that my skepticism of fundamental spaceflight rationales stems only from disciplinary prejudice. 
  • And, while I intend for this essay to contribute to professional philosophical debate, the majority of what I have to say will be accessible, meaningful, and relevant to people from a variety of disciplinary and vocational backgrounds—from planetary scientists to political scientists; from astrobiologists to anthropologists; from space program employees to lawyers and legal scholars. 

To put it another way, the reasons for rejecting most fundamental principles of space advocacy, and the arguments I'll give in their place, should persuade more than simply my fellow philosophers. 

  • They should be appealing to anybody interested in space exploration who is also interested in the development of beliefs based on reason and evidence. 
  • With any hope, what I have to say will persuade many of those who are skeptical about spaceflight's usefulness. 
  • But, whether or not my personal findings are eventually accurate, I will consider this article a success if it inspires people to think more carefully about spaceflight and its significance. 

So, what justifications do I want to provide in favor of spaceflight? In a broad sense, I view this as an ethical issue. 

Spaceflight, in my opinion, would actualize or promote something very beneficial, namely the creation of scientific knowledge and understanding. 

  • To put it another way, by "scientific knowledge," I mean a firm belief in a field of science that is supported by the best evidence available; by "scientific understanding," I mean systematic knowledge of a topic or theory in a field of science, as well as the ability to apply that knowledge in appropriate situations. 
  • As a result, I will argue that spaceflight is an important and productive means of expanding our knowledge and understanding of ourselves, our planet, our Solar System, and our Universe. 
  • Scientific knowledge and understanding are not only intrinsically valued (i.e., useful and worth pursuing for their own sakes); they are also instrumentally valuable (i.e., important for the ways they contribute to general society welfare and development). 
  • Neither of these things is intrinsically significant; instead of discussing the significance of possessing and using scientific knowledge and understanding, we might discuss the importance of, for example, being the types of people who seek scientific knowledge and understanding. 

When it comes to theoretical disagreements in normative ethics on the ultimate nature of good or wrong behavior, I try to retain as much neutrality as possible. My idea poses a number of issues. 

To begin with, the word "spaceflight" is too broad. 

  • Crewed and robotic exploration of the space environment, human space habitation, suborbital space tourism, space resource extraction, Earth observation from space, military and commercial satellite services, and so on are all part of it. 
  • Do I mean to support all of these activities equally, or just some of them, when I say that spaceflight should be supported because it adds to the creation of scientific knowledge and understanding? My response is that this funding is limited to just those initiatives that are most likely to make a significant contribution to science. 

As a result, I will not advocate for spaceflight in general, but rather for activities like Earth observation and robotic and crewed scientific research missions. 

Commercial and military spaceflight operations, on the other hand, are morally capable of much less. 

  • It is therefore alarming that the public seems to be much more interested in SpaceX and the possibility of forming a new branch of the US military dedicated to space security than in all of the great work being done by space scientists at universities and space organizations across the world. 
  • More importantly, my viewpoint has implications for what activities should be prioritized when it comes to space exploration and usage. 
  • There is a considerable danger of conflict between scientific and non-scientific applications of the space environment. 

Scientific applications of the space environment are linked with higher benefits, therefore they should be favored if they clash with other proposed uses of space.

That is, scientific goals should take precedence over, or even take the place of, commercial goals. 

  • If we had to choose between sending a mission to an asteroid to mine it for metals or other resources and sending a mission to an asteroid to research its composition and learn about the Solar System's early history and development, we should choose the latter. 
  • Importantly, my prioritizing of scientific applications of the space environment is time-limited and based on (what some would consider) cautious predictions regarding spaceflight technological development. 
  • Throughout, my emphasis will be on current spaceflight as well as the “near future” (which I take to extend two centuries into the future). 

I believe that no game-changing spaceflight technology will emerge fully within this time period. 

That is, I will assume that we will not develop technologies that are more akin to science fiction (warp drive; wormhole travel), that the frequency of space launches (and crew complements) will not increase by more than one or two orders of magnitude, and that interplanetary transit times will remain relatively constant. 

Outside of these restrictions, I cannot promise that I would argue a similar set of findings, albeit I do so very cautiously in the Epilogue. 

This leads us to the second issue raised by my position: 

Is it true that scientific understanding and information are useful in the manner I've suggested?

Is it worthwhile to pursue scientific knowledge and understanding for its own sake? 

Is it possible that their efforts will result in a variety of additional social benefits? 

Most readers, I believe, would agree that scientific knowledge and understanding are beneficial in these respects. 

  • However, this is another area where space enthusiasts prefer to give minimal assistance (as well as by science advocates and philosophers more generally). 
  • While it is intuitively true that scientific information and understanding are important both intrinsically and instrumentally, I would rather show rather than presume their worth. 
  • As I'll explain shortly, these are not easy jobs. 

A third concern is: 

What are the benefits of utilizing spaceflight to produce scientific knowledge and understanding vs the benefits of using spaceflight for other purposes? 

My goal, as I stated before, is to demonstrate why scientific spaceflight should be prioritized above non-scientific spaceflight. 

  • However, this seems to be difficult to sustain since non-scientific spaceflight is supported by significant responsibilities other than those connected to research. 

One of our most important responsibilities is to guarantee the human race' long-term existence. 

We must try to establish permanent, self-sustaining human civilizations in space since people cannot live on Earth indefinitely. 

  • Another important responsibility is to ensure and enhance humanity's material well-being. 
  • Because Earth's resources are finite, we must turn to space to meet humanity's resource requirements. 
  • While it is admirable to utilize space to create scientific knowledge and understanding, it takes away from the far more important goal of guaranteeing human existence and well-being. 

The appeal of my point of view is therefore determined by two factors: 

First, the case for space science is greater than previously thought. 

Second, the reasons for other kinds of spaceflight are weaker than previously thought. 

I believe that human survival and well-being are more important than scientific knowledge and comprehension, regardless of circumstance. 

  • As a result, I will not argue that duties to guarantee human existence and well-being are less than a duty to seek scientific knowledge and understanding. 
  • However, the strength of our responsibilities in reality is highly dependent on the circumstances. 

As a corollary to the notion that "ought implies can," if we don't have any practical, cheap methods of fulfilling a duty—even a very strong obligation—then the obligation isn't strong or overpowering in reality. 

  • Meanwhile, if we have an effective, inexpensive method of fulfilling a duty—even a little one—the power of that obligation grows in practice. 
  • If it can be shown in the near future that spaceflight either fails to guarantee human existence entirely, or does so in an ineffective and cost-effective manner, then there is no strong or overwhelming responsibility to utilize spaceflight for this reason. 
  • At the same time, if it can be shown that spaceflight is a cost-effective and efficient method of producing scientific knowledge and understanding, we will have a greater obligation to utilize spaceflight for this reason. 

I want to establish the relative importance of the value of space science using this kind of argument. 

Many of the typical space advocacy arguments are examined and rejected here. 

The first is the claim that spaceflight is educationally inspirational, implying that money spent on spaceflight boosts student interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 

Unfortunately, there are few obvious beneficial links between STEM undergraduate and graduate degrees and spaceflight funding. 

As a result, we lack the statistical data needed to construct a causal case that spaceflight has a significant effect on students' educational choices. 


The second argument is that spaceflight will provide answers to universally important issues, such as the genesis of human existence and whether or not alien life exists. 

  • Despite the fact that there is a scarcity of survey data on these subjects, the evidence available suggests that most people are uninterested in what science has to say about the origin and spread of life. 
  • Humans have a natural need to explore, which supports human space exploration and colonization, according to a third of the conventional rationales. 
  • Several genes have been linked to exploratory behavior (which mainly refers to activities like local reconnaissance) and historical human migration, according to genetic and anthropological studies. 
  • However, these links do not prove that people have a natural need to explore, since research shows that characteristics like inquisitive behavior were chosen for after previous migrations, rather than driving them. 
  • There is currently no documented genetic or biological foundation for the notion that people have an inherent need to see what lies beyond the horizon, much alone expand out into space. 

A fourth argument is that, in order to prevent stagnation, human civilization need a new space frontier. 

The settlers would face a difficult environment while conquering the Martian frontier. 

  • This would compel them to improvise, invent, and adapt in ways that would teach the rest of mankind important lessons about science, technology, and democratic government, much as the conquest of the American West did for the US. 
  • This kind of thinking is not only historically questionable, but it also drastically underestimates the potential for space colonization to teach unwanted lessons. 

For example, inhabitants on Mars may embrace dictatorial or totalitarian forms of government in order to live under the instantly deadly circumstances. 

  • Instead of fueling democratic culture, the outcome may be an exercise in human misery. 

The tenebrous nature of these rationales serves as the foundation for the essay's positive goal, which is to articulate and defend the worth of space research. 

The first (and most philosophically technical) job is to provide a case for the inherent worth of scientific knowledge and comprehension. 

  • In this paper, I address various disputes in current epistemology about the value of knowledge and understanding. 
  • The value of knowledge is mainly determined by the value of genuine belief, while the value of understanding is determined by the value of true belief as well as the value of cognitive accomplishment. 

The main challenge at hand is to defend the inherent worth of both genuine belief and cognitive accomplishment. 

  • I propose that each value may be proved using a broadly naturalistic method to explaining intrinsic value attributions, according to which an item is intrinsically valuable when it is appreciated for its own sake as part of the best explanation of a scientifically involved activity. 
  • This test is passed when genuine beliefs and cognitive accomplishments are valued for their own sake. 

True beliefs and cognitive accomplishments, in particular those linked to science in general and space science in particular, are therefore inherently valued. 

  • We must take up the challenge of defending the practical usefulness of scientific knowledge and comprehension. 

Increases in scientific knowledge and understanding contribute to societal development, according to the underlying premise. 

  • Furthermore, scientific exploration and study have a significant role in increasing scientific knowledge and comprehension. 
  • This is because scientific inquiry is essential for gathering new data and evaluating current scientific ideas, concepts, and hypotheses. 

Because space exploration is a kind of scientific exploration that is particularly likely to contribute to scientific advancement, it is implicated. 

Also, the importance of democratic governments' obligations to fund scientific research. 

I argue that democratic governments have a responsibility to promote scientific research when it promises to contribute to the democratic process in particular, significant ways, based on recent work in social epistemology and political science.

  • Through many instances, space science contributes significantly to the democratic process and, as a result, should be promoted by democratic governments. 
  • In discussions concerning the logic and scope of planetary preservation measures, we need to talk about the importance of science. 

Contamination of the space environment by biological and other agents poses distinct difficulties. 

We can't rule out the possibility that any possible finding of alien life is a very costly false positive until we can be certain that Mars or other places haven't been polluted by terrestrial species. 

  • As a result, different rules are implemented by space projects to reduce the danger of contaminating areas of interest in the hunt for alien life. 
  • However, it has only been acknowledged in the last three decades that anything of ethical importance might be on the line. 
  • Perhaps planetary protection is required, not only for the purpose of the scientific quest for life in space, but also for the sake of any indigenous life that may be discovered in these settings, even if it is just microbial in nature. 

Arguments have been made that any alien life discovered would be inherently valuable, and that therefore protecting this worth is the ultimate goal of planetary protection. 

  • While I will reply to some of the objections leveled at these arguments, I believe that a focus on preserving alien life for its own sake narrows the scope of what should be stated regarding planetary preservation ethics. 
  • The intrinsic and instrumental values of knowledge and understanding that may be produced via scientific study of the space environment are among the other values that must be safeguarded in the space environment. 

We owe it to future generations to protect possibilities for scientific exploration and study that advance our knowledge and understanding of the space environment. 

This highlights a far wider responsibility to safeguard the space environment from contamination or disturbance, since much more than astrobiology and the hunt for alien life is at risk. 

Any space habitat, planet, moon, or other celestial body has piqued the attention of the space sciences as a whole. 

  • Because scientific exploration is most successful in pristine settings, we should presume that space habitats are of interest to research unless the contrary is proved. 
  • We need to talk about how my perspective on the importance of space research and planetary preservation fits into a discussion of two topics that are presently getting a lot of attention in public debates about space exploration: space resource exploitation and space colonization. 
  • I believe that space scientific goals should take precedence over commercial exploitation of space and its resources, and that we should reject any efforts to modify or replace the Outer Space Treaty, which is considered to ban commercial use of space resources. 

Those advocating for regulatory relaxation often argue that development of space resources would save mankind from the many costs connected with terrestrial pollution and resource depletion. 

  • The aim is that by using space resources, such as those found on the Moon and near-Earth asteroids, we will be able to supply mankind with more raw materials and energy while also relocating polluting industry into space. 
  • Against this, I argue that there are significant limitations on the amount of space resources that may be accessed. 

While the resources of space are staggeringly enormous in theory, they are non-renewable and restricted in reality. 

  • According to current study, the total volume of water that might be melted from lunar polar ice, as well as all of the water that could be mined from asteroids that are as energetically accessible as the Moon, is only approximately 3.7 km. 
  • This contradicts the idea that space resources are unlimited or capable of relieving us of the need to fight pollution and resource depletion on Earth. 

While we have a significant social responsibility to prevent terrestrial contamination and alleviate the consequences of resource depletion on the ground, we cannot successfully meet this commitment by exploiting space resources. 

As a result, this is a use of space that we should forego for the time being in favor of our duty to maintain space for scientific research. 

Against space colonization, there is a fundamentally comparable space scientific defense. 

  • The seeming need to seek permanent, self-sustaining space colonies is motivated by a strong responsibility: the need to guarantee the long-term survival of the human species—or, as Tony Milligan puts it, the duty to prolong human existence. 
  • There are two types of arguments here: an in-principle argument that says space colonization is eventually essential for extending human life, and a pressing argument that says space settlement is urgently important for prolonging human life. 

I agree with the in-principle conclusion and defend it against various arguments, including those that throw doubt on the existence of a moral duty to prolong human life. 

However, I will argue that space colonization is not required immediately (i.e., in the near future) since most significant risks to human survival (asteroid collisions, ecological collapse, and so on) may be handled more effectively via other methods. 

For example, if you want to reduce the danger of human extinction due to an asteroid collision, the greatest thing you can do is increase financing for asteroid detection and diversion programs. 

This would not only reduce the danger of human extinction more effectively, but it would also be considerably less expensive. 

We can maintain the space environment for scientific research for the time being since there is no urgent or imminent need to settle space. 

  • However, space colonies will be required in the long run, which raises the issue of whether future generations of space-dwellers should be subjected to the circumstances of life in a space colony. 
  • In most cases, life in space will include living in artificial habitats (which would be necessary to protect settlers from the intensely hostile environments found throughout the Solar System). 

Life in a space habitat, in contrast to living on Earth, would be extremely limiting, both physically and emotionally, and would provide inhabitants with minimal privacy and limited options for education, profession, and sexual relationship. 

  • This exposes space colony as potentially exploitative of those born into the community, who may have no option but to live in inhumane circumstances. 

As a result, one of the criteria for morally acceptable space colonization is that the settlers can offer sufficient assurances that their offspring would not be subjected to undue exploitation. 

  • In the epilogue, I re-emphasize the significance of research and provide a short discussion of how loosening some assumptions (about time horizons and technological capabilities) may impact our space responsibilities. 
  • What emerges from this is the lasting significance of scientific research—not only for current civilizations, but also for any future society that may arise in the space environment. 

Scientific knowledge and understanding are very useful to anybody interested in establishing and maintaining human existence in space, regardless of their inherent worth. 

Indeed, the democratic argument for funding scientific research is much stronger in the case of space civilizations, which will be far more reliant on research for survival and development. 

  • As a result, scientific information and insight, particularly that gained via space travel, will continue to be valuable to human civilization. 
  • When it comes to choices regarding spaceflight funding priorities, spaceflight mission goals, and legislative and other policy efforts, science is and should remain the most important stakeholder. 

Commercial spaceflight has a lot of promise for lowering launch costs and increasing payload capacity. 

  • However, it should be encouraged to remain a handmaiden to the space sciences rather than being pushed to become an invasive species that competes for resources with space research. 

As a result, I hope that this article serves as a compelling, enlightening, and philosophically satisfying foundation for reclaiming the attention that space science seems to have lost to the "New Space" movement, but that it well deserves.

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan 

You may also want to read more about Space Exploration, Space Missions and Systems here.

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