Diapers on the Moon #213 (P)
The ethics of seeding life in space
Dear friends of Daily Philosophy,
Yesterday we didn’t have a free article, because I’m just grading a bunch of exams and term papers. Sorry about that. I’ll have a new free article for you next Friday.
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In the meantime, if you are interested, have a look at the Daily Philosophy website, where you will find Prof. Robert Zaborowski’s detailed and very interesting review of The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Consciousness. I like this review format a lot, so I’m curious what you think!
In related news, I published a call for books to review on the Philos-L mailing list last week and received a whole stack of great books to review. So for the rest of this year, we will also have a series of book reviews in this newsletter. I’ve taken care to select only books that are of interest to the general public (unlike the Oxford book above, which is why I didn’t send it around in this newsletter), and I’m sure that you will find many of them fun and enlightening.
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When the first Apollo astronauts stepped on the moon in July 1969, no one really knew what they would find there. Would deadly bacteria be hiding in the lunar dust? Would alien contaminants pose a threat to all life on Earth? Would we even be able to identify a threat before it was too late?
A Time article from June 13, just a little over a month before the historic moon landing, is amusing to read today — but also a bit chilling. After presenting the possible threats to Earth, the article goes on to discuss the measures that NASA thought would keep the dangers of alien microorganisms at bay: the astronauts would clean all surfaces inside their ship with wet towels, and they would use a vacuum to suck up any free-flying moon dust. They would fly back to Earth and splash down in the Pacific. A lifeboat filled with disinfectant would be waiting for them, and someone would rub the outside of the capsule with more disinfectant. Then the astronauts would be held in a 21-day quarantine, while the lifeboat and any remaining, contaminated towels and other equipment would be sunk in the ocean, hopefully never to be seen again. You can read all the details of the procedure on NASA’s history archive.
Of course, the probability that there would be life on the moon was very small, but whether the astronauts would have prevented an alien invasion with wet towels and a vacuum cleaner is questionable. When they opened the hatch after splashdown, the contaminated air from the inside of the capsule would have escaped to the environment, and we better don’t ask what any possible lunar microbes would have done being left on their own, down there on the ocean floor.
The billion-dollar wastebag
On the other hand, the masterminds of Apollo had much less of a problem with exporting Earth’s bacteria to the moon. A moment’s thought about the biological processes taking place inside the astronauts’ bodies makes one wonder what happened to their digestive waste. Did they bring their soiled pampers (which they did wear, since there were no portable toilets on the surface of the moon) back to Earth, to dispose neatly in a biohazard bin?
The price of returning a gram of matter from the moon was estimated at $50,800 in 1973 US dollars; that’s 300,000 USD in today’s money. Not to go into too much detail, but let’s assume that a single, daily portion of digestive product weighs about half a pound (on the meagre rations of an astronaut in flight). Add to this about a litre of urine at minimum, and the waste products of the two astronauts over the almost 24 hours they spent on the moon would be worth 900 million USD!
Now this calculation is a bit bogus, because the 300k is the total cost of bringing back the moon rocks, and most of this cost would have occurred anyway, independently of the heroes’ metabolism. But it does put things in a sort of perspective. Faced with such price tags, NASA decided to just dump the stuff on the moon and use the additional 3kg to bring back more moon rocks.
The NASA document linked above makes some effort to argue that the waste bags will not contaminate the moon because they will be stowed in special compartments of the landing stage of the vehicle, which will remain forever on the moon’s surface. But we know how these things go.
Alien dump sites
In 2013 already, the Curiosity Mars rover found a piece of plastic on the surface of the red planet. A few weeks ago, the Perseverance rover found another piece of NASA trash on its way, a piece of a thermal blanket. And not to mention Elon Musk’s two tonnes of broken car that he abandoned somewhere in orbit around the sun.
Long before the first human even has had an opportunity to leave their digestive products on the pristine Martian sands, we have already littered the place like any old beach on Earth with rusting rovers, broken parachutes, pieces of rockets, thermal blankets and shards of plastic. It used to be that the explorer’s flag was the first thing to touch any “new world” that the European conquistadors of old put their feet on. Now, when their descendants will step out of their spaceships, they will find themselves surrounded by a familiar array of plastic garbage, radioactive waste and broken electronics with logos from Tesla to Sony. Just like home.
Beresheet was also the name of the first Israeli moon lander, which crashed on the moon on April 11, 2019. Presumably the “beginning” of the name was supposed to refer to the Israeli space programme, but Beresheet also began something else: the reckless contamination of celestial bodies with higher forms of Earth life. Where the Apollo planners had had at least the decency to lie about the storage of human waste (and a very solid financial reason to abandon it on the moon), the designers of Beresheet put into their probe, without any good reason and without official authorisation from their space agency, a container with live tardigrades. When the thing crashed, the capsule with the tardigrades ended up somewhere on the lunar surface, with a real possibility that some of the microscopic animals ended up on an EVA trip in the footsteps of Armstrong and Aldrin: a small step for a tardigrade, but a giant leap for space contamination.
The ethics of contaminating space
Leaving our garbage on other planets has, unfortunately, become something we do with as little thought as sending it to Africa. But in the case of Africa, we can clearly identify who we are harming. In space, things are not so clear. Is a piece of abandoned plastic on the surface of Mars or a battered car orbiting the sun really harming anyone? Is there any harm done if we crash-land a family of tardigrades on the slopes of a lunar hill? Even if they would manage to survive, have we actually done anything bad? And why exactly?
Let us for a moment not look at the animal rights question regarding the tardigrades themselves. This is certainly an issue, but it is not specific to space. Experiments with animals are also being performed on Earth and there is already a lot of literature and activism dealing with these problems. The more interesting question is whether sending life (or waste) to space creates any new moral problems that we didn’t have before.
One peculiarity of space is that it’s big. Even if we export all our garbage all over the solar system, it will simply disappear. The red spot on Jupiter is three full Earths wide, so even if we convert the whole Earth into radioactive waste, it would disappear in the depths of Jupiter without a trace.
But of course, that’s not the point. The habitable parts of the solar system are much more rare and precious. Nobody could ever live on Jupiter. The surface of Mars, the clouds of Venus, the underground oceans of Europa and Enceladus — these might already be all the places we will ever be able to visit. Even if these places don’t really matter on a galactic scale, ruining them creates a problem for future generations in the same way as ruining the Earth does.
In a fascinating article , Tony Milligan of King’s College, London, tries to make sense of the ethics of biocontamination of other planets.
On the one hand, he says, we feel that it is wrong to endanger alien life. Even if we were to discover only microbes on another planet, we would still think of them as an incredibly valuable discovery, something to protect and study, and we would go to great lengths to make sure that we don’t endanger or harm them. On the other hand, we have no concerns at all disinfecting our homes and our hands, boiling our tea and our food, and deploying antibiotics every time we get an infection. And this applies not only to harmful bacteria. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human ones, and still we routinely and often intentionally destroy bacterial life.
Why is that? And how can we reconcile these two contradictory attitudes? Why should we value alien life so highly while, at the same time, we are willing to destroy terrestrial life without a second thought?
Structure as intrinsic value
Milligan suggests that we respect life because of its “intrinsic value.” But the intrinsic value does not come from sentience or moral autonomy, as Kant might have thought, because even alien bacteria wouldn’t have these properties. But then, what is it that makes life valuable?
Perhaps, Milligan says, part of the solution is structure. We value life because of its structural properties, its complexity, its fine organisational detail that is, at least at the level of species, unique and irreplaceable.
Appeals to integrity [of structure] already tend to do this, either deliberately or by accident. They shift towards more of a “systems” view of things, locating individual things in a broader supporting and enabling context. For example, Holmes Rolston III ... is notorious for making this move of an appeal to “integrity” of other planets in his early attempt to theorize environmental ethics in space: unique structures bear the marks of unique history. The value of whatever has value is not then to be thought of exclusively in terms of its immediately present structure, but in terms of the combination of structure, the unique past that it is a signature for, and its contribution to diversity. (Milligan, p.120)
This also makes it more plausible why we would kill microbes on Earth rather than in space: as structure has a relational component (its history, its unique past etc), microbes here are less valuable (because more common) than alien microbes. Their particular history in relation to us (or lack thereof) makes alien organisms unique and endows them with that intrinsic value that earthly microbes have only to a lesser extent.
It is also important, Milligan notes, to realise that not all our moral judgements are rooted in our self-interest or in the interests of other humans. We may think that someone should not destroy a forest without good reason, even if that forest does nothing for us as human beings. Destroying life is seen as something that is, in itself, to be avoided. And just the fact that it is seen in this way by sane, moral agents, makes it a behaviour that we should avoid.
Certain kinds of suitable observers are disposed to respond in particular ways, with sensitivity to what others might miss, and certain kinds of things are disposed to produce the relevant response in agents of this suitably sensitive sort. The dispositions are not all on the one side, with the human agent. The dispositional properties are both here and there. In terms of metaethical theory, this may well be “the best game in town” ... But it is also an approach which blocks off arbitrary restrictions of value to rational beings, or sentient beings. Instead, it keeps such attributions aligned closely with the broader range of things that suitable and well-placed agents are actually disposed to value. (p.122)
Milligan emphasises that “harm” can be identified as such even when nobody is conscious of having been harmed. Burning all the works of Shakespeare long after his death would still harm the poet, although he won’t know it. So we can indeed harm microbial life, as we can harm a forest by burning it down, even if the harmed things are not themselves conscious.
And finally, Milligan says, we don’t need to take moral egalitarianism to extremes. Albert Schweitzer was advocating equal respect of all life, as Jainism does. But seeing all life as equally valuable is neither practical nor does it fit our intuitions. A kind of relational ethics seems again to be the better, more sensible choice. We would want to protect a rare species of bacterium perhaps, or an alien one, but we don’t need to relate in the same way to the bacterial life in our toilets or kitchen sinks:
Talk about their having value or (more precisely) intrinsic value can be understood in terms of our having reasons to act in ways which show a regard to avoid harm, but which are not driven by our own interests. ... A consideration may be justified in one context, but not in another context. (p.128)
In conclusion, Milligan thinks, we might one day want to send tardigrades to space, but we should not do so in the haphazard and uncoordinated way the Beresheet researchers did. If we seed life to other moons or planets, it should be within the right context — as a rationally made decision of the people of Earth, backed up by the institutions which are tasked with coordinating our individual decisions into a collective will: governments, space agencies, the United Nations. On the other hand, we don’t need to have anything like “a microbial version of the prime directive in which interference with life is outlawed” (p.131).
Still, randomly crashing a bunch of little animals onto the moon seems as unjustifiable as leaving one’s soiled diapers on it.
 Milligan, T. (2021). The Ethics of Biocontamination. In: Torres, O. A. C., Peters, T., Seckbach, J., & Gordon, R. (Eds.). (2021). Astrobiology: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy. John Wiley & Sons. 113-134.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next Friday! Have a great weekend and a thoughtful week!
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