«LEGAL AND ETHICAL FRAMEWORK FOR ASTRONAUTS IN SPACE SOJOURNS Proceedings 29 October 2004 House of UNESCO 125, avenue de Suffren, Paris 7e Legal and ...»
On knowledge intermediaries and knowledge spaces in contemporary space science Thank you for this opportunity to speak about some of the social and ethical issues concerning the status of astronauts in the age of the International Space Station (ISS). I shall be approaching this topic primarily in terms of the social effects generated by knowledge intermediaries within the contemporary world of space science. I shall also talk about the ethics of outer space by way of reference to particular knowledge spaces. My opening remarks are prefaced, however, by a somewhat generalising comment – one that, to my mind at least, remains fundamental to all current enquiries in this field.
Space exploration and the models of entrepreneurship that underpin commercial space research are governed by various monetary, governmental and institutional constraints. But at the same time space exploration is suffused with idealism. What does this apparent tension between norm and ideal amount to in political terms? The tentative answer – and the one put forward by this presentation – is that space ethics policy needs to be considered in terms of broad social and cultural contexts. It is incumbent on members of the space community to ask explicit questions about the kind of future worlds we want both for the present generation and subsequent ones.
Formulating an ethics of outer space, in other words, is about formulating challenging and nonobvious questions concerning the interrelations between science, culture and civilisation. In one sense we might say the most obvious social ideal (knowing about what we need to ask) is linked to peace and international security, and to the value embedded in human wellbeing. This of course is the familiar remit of UN-COPUOS (United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) and its important work. But planning for an international space ethics invites further careful deliberation on such issues as access to new technologies and new knowledge in medicine and health; as well as how the role of technical experimentation is linked to social ideals of progress and equality across cultures. For instance, the cultural value we place on science and international cooperation, space-based solutions of digital equality and the sharing of scientific results between developed and less developing countries. An explicit focus on such developments makes us think again about the ethical status of the astronaut in the globalised era.
For, at the outset of the twenty-first century, it is no longer the case that the astronaut is serving solely in the name of science. Working towards a vision of an improved science for ‘mankind’ now means other things.
I have before me, as I speak, a copy of the preparatory policy document on outer space formulated by COMEST in June 2004 (UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of
Scientific Knowledge and Technology). Building on the Report by Pompidou (2001), this explores the feasibility of an international instrument for an ethics of outer space and identifies a number of general ethical principles. These principles include: transparency of decision-making relating to space agencies and governments; ethical data protection and sharing; international cooperation; the development of public engagement initiatives for future space policy. My brief presentation today takes up some of these ‘baselines’ for an ethical framework by asking some further questions about the duties, obligations, entitlements or protections required of, or afforded to, the professional astronaut. The talk will be in three parts. First, I shall make some points about the status of the astronaut as a ‘knowledge intermediary’ and introduce the idea of the ‘citizen astronaut’ involved in education and public engagement projects. Second, a few observations follow on the emergence of the non-professional astronaut or so-called space traveller / space tourist. I will then return to the familiar notion of the astronaut as ‘envoy of mankind’ to question how the person of astronaut remains in some sense ‘special’ or ‘different’.
The suggestion put forward here is that space missions linked to medical experimentation involve an ethics of sacrifice on the part of the professional astronaut. I will comment also briefly on the requirements of long duration missions in permanently inhabited facility in outer space, and on interactions amongst multicultural crew teams.
Public engagement: the citizen astronaut as knowledge intermediary Increasingly, the astronaut’s professional profile is linked to wider public communication and dissemination activities. Communicating the social significance of the space age to non-scientific communities involves the so-called ‘citizen-astronaut’ in public engagement activities. What space science entails, what developments are on the horizon – anticipations as well as emerging problems and opportunities – this is the figure of the astronaut as a kind of ‘knowledge intermediary’, the astronaut who orbits between the worlds of science, media and public relations.
Participating in educational and promotional activities with a view to bringing the European human space programme and research in space to a wider public, especially to young people, will become increasingly important, both for the credibility of science in public culture, for the legitimisation of state-based funding, and for the whole image of space science and space scientists. Films, videos and books that circulate in public culture – films like “Life on Mars” or Foss’s drawings documenting the “Diary of a Spaceperson” can be excessively fantastical or sensational. So then the ethical status of the citizen-astronaut is premised on the realisation public hype and certain fallacies about outer space conquest need to be countered with sanguine public discussion. Talking about the real-life experiences of the astronaut, or explaining the nature of medical experimentation – especially around sensitive areas such as the use of tissue culture – and developing visual, educational link-ups to earth (for example ESA astronaut Pedro Duque’s communications during the Spanish Soyuz mission Cervantes [October 2003]); all such activities can make a contribution to science and society debates, to the way that democratic governance is brought into science, to the mutual exchange and flow of information between scientists and publics. One can think of such activities as forms of connoisseurship or knowledge brokerage that instantiate ‘socio-technical vigilance’ (Healey 2004). In this regard too, the role of NGOs in space activities such as the International Council for Science (ICSU) or professional astronautics bodies will become an increasingly important component of the ethics of outer space knowledge mediation. This leads to a related point. The emergence of the non-professional astronaut or space tourist/traveller: space tourism fuelled by the interested space visitor.
Legal and ethical framework for astronauts in space sojourns
A day return to the stars Burt Rutan, head of the aircraft design company ‘Scaled Composites’ and designer of SpaceShipOne (SS-1) which reached sub-orbital space in June 2004, has spoken of an ‘enormous, pent-up hunger’ amongst the US citizenry to fly in space (Barkham and Glaister 2004).
SpaceShipOne certainly puts outer space on a different experiential scale: potentially, it brings the stars to the masses – makes what has been hitherto only distantly perceived with the naked eye newly detectable and within the orbit of everyone. Business analysts estimate the market for space tourism and private space travel will be huge in coming years. According to a 2002 study, 13,000 Americans declared themselves willing to spend more than £50,000 to fly in space (‘Tiny craft..’), and in the previous year (2001), Dennis Tito, a wealthy businessman, paid almost £11m to become the first space tourist when he visited the ISS on a Russian craft. (Tito was followed by Mike Shuttleworth, a dotcom millionaire from South Africa.) The move towards the age of the private space race gives rise to a new breed of commercial astronauts, those whose voyages are not supported through state funds; a new age – or at least vision of an age of space travel – kindled by the hope that brief and relatively low sojourns in space could be less than a decade away. Initially this would cater to a minority market of wealthy ‘space tourists’, accessibility to space by a broader mass market would follow in time. An age of space travel at down-to-earth prices, the EasyJet of space tourism – is seen by some as marking ‘a new frontier of a new space’ (‘Tiny craft…’) – the eventuality that anybody could venture into space as visiting astronaut. Already the media in Britain is reporting the possibility of a “day return to the stars”.75 These ideals, however, are not new visions: the idea of colonies in space preceded and accompanied much of 20th century modernism. One hundred years ago the Russian pioneer of astronautics, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, proposed a huge habitable cylinder that would spin on its axis and contain a greenhouse with a self-supporting ecological system. And in his novel, The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929), J.D. Bernal devised so-called ‘Bernal Spheres’, selfsupporting ‘worldships’ capable of housing many thousands of inhabitants. These colossal concepts were revived again in the 1970s by Princeton academic Gerard K. O’Neill with his proposal to found colonies in space as a way to ease population pressures on earth.
While it is easy to run away with possible visions that evidently are yet to be realised, it is important to pose research questions in advance of possible developments; moreover to pose these and seek tentative answers without falling into the skewed discourse of excessive sensationalism. The prospect of a future in human space-faring raises the issue of what role the ISS should play regarding public access to space. This in turn raises questions about how we conceptualise the emergence of space habitats, including futuristic visions of cities and factories in space (Genta & Rycroft 2003); as well as the very notion of a ‘space-faring civilisation’ (Zubrin 1999). What would a space-faring civilisation look like in terms of its social, philosophical ethos?
Such a question we can start to approach in terms of an ethics of “offworld” / “offterrestial living” or an ethics of “terraforming” predicated on long-term habitation, species adaptation and the kinship relations of interstellar migration (Finney 1985; Fogg 1995; Kondo 2003).
What these questions show – simply by the very act of posing them – is that issues relating to the ethical status of astronauts need to be put in broad social and cultural context. To think about the duties, obligations, entitlements, special protections or even ‘immunities’ of professional The Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2004, p.23
astronauts, and to think about the conceptual language in which we develop an ethics framework for outer space, requires awareness of and engagement with cultures of innovation, technological transformation and the management of unpredictability. In other words, the ethical status of the astronaut cannot be divorced from the space industry, the work of national and international space agencies, space consultancy contractors and space engineers. Nor can it be separated from various publics such as non-scientific space consumers, or the role education and the media play in shaping and transforming public responses to and expectations of new future worlds.
Space medicine, ethics of sacrifice and the professional astronaut I want to re-consider now the sense in which the status of the astronaut is endowed with special significance, and here the point is to differentiate the professional astronaut from the casual space traveller / space tourist (“commercial astronaut”).
Space medicine, the study of the effects of weightlessness on the human body, has preoccupied scientists since the earliest days of space flight. Continuing research in this area dominates current and future space station programmes76. Medical researchers see astronauts aboard a space station as flying laboratories in their own right (supplemented by real laboratories such as “Biolab” – the biological experiment laboratory aboard Columbus)77. It is accepted that the weightless environment makes biological systems do unusual things from which a great deal about typical bodily functions can be deduced, and it is this possibility that constitutes one of the principal scientific justifications for building the ISS in the first place.
But a regulatory and conceptual framework for an ethics of outer space must ask critical questions about the social value that is given to such experimental space habitats. Many
astronauts sacrifice their time, privacy, and indeed their entire physical selves to space science:
constantly giving blood, wearing sensors, logging their food and drink, storing their excrement for study and submitting themselves and each other to all kinds of indignities, and perhaps dangers. (During the first shuttle docking mission with Mir, astronaut Bonnie Dunbar suffered an allergic reaction to an injection she had been given prior to the flight in readiness for a weightless medical experiment. More extreme, there is of course the risk of aborted missions and loss of life.) These risks aside, it has been argued that bone disorders in weightlessness may justify the expense of sending astronauts into space (as against automation and the use of robotic probes).
In terms of osteoporosis research, the health care costs of treating osteoporosis (for, say, 30million US sufferers) amount to over $60billion a year. The hope for many is that the ISS may eventually recoup its costs by contributing significantly to medical knowledge in bone chemistry research.