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Ethical questions about space exploration, with William Kramer - Extraterrestrial Policy Analyst

William Kramer is a person who dedicated his life to protecting endangered species on Earth, and since 2005, when he became interested in astrobiology and the extraterrestrial life, he has focused on bioethics and outer space, medical and environmental ethics.

William studied wildlife biology at the University of Maryland in 1970s, and has a Master Degree in Political Science (environmental policy), from the University of Hawaii. Later on, he continued his training with a doctorate in Science and Futures Studies, in 2012. His interest in space domain came as a natural follow-on after being an endangered species consultation biologist.

We are hoping that people like William will make us all more aware of the environmental impact of human actions at extraterrestrial sites and political boundaries in the outer space, so that we no longer repeat the great mistakes of history.

Read our interview and if you are interested in William’s activity do not hesitate to read more about his interesting studies.

A.P.E.C.S.: When and why did you become interested in astrobiology? How do we currently search for life on other planets?

William Kramer: I am a wildlife biologist and spent most of my professional career working with endangered species of animals and plants. My work focused on conservation and the impact of human actions (like industrial complexes, highways, dams, mining, and other activities) on wildlife and their habitats.

Later in my career, my work shifted to developing government policy regarding endangered species and land use. When I started working on my doctorate degree at the University of Hawaii in 2005, I was trying to choose a dissertation research topic when I heard about NASA’s Viking missions to look for signs of life on Mars. With my endangered species background, I wondered that if life is discovered on Mars, would that be treated like we do endangered species here on Earth? Would extraterrestrial life have any legal standing?

I took courses in biotechnology, astrobiology, astronomy, and ethics to help me understand those questions. They formed the basis for my dissertation, “Bioethical Considerations and Property Rights Issues Associated with the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Biological Entities – Implications for Political Policy in the Context of Futures Studies” (2012).

(If you are interested, a copy of the dissertation and other works I have published that discuss these questions in more detail can be accessed through my website: www.OuterSpaceConsulting.com)

There are three major categories of how we search for life on other planet in, and beyond, our solar system:

First, receiving data from space – The organization SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been “listening” for evidence of extraterrestrial electronic transmissions for decades. Their network of radio telescopes has been scanning the heavens to detect transmissions from outside our solar system. So far, no such signals have been detected, but the search continues. Similarly, orbiting telescopes, like Kepler, are identifying planets in other solar systems that may have the characteristics required for life, such as moderate temperatures, the presence of water or organic chemicals associated with life, and other factors.

Second, a more direct approach is to go to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in our solar system and sample for the presence of life. Rather than looking for living organisms specifically, the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s sampled regolith to test for chemicals that would be associated with living organisms. More recent missions have continued that search for signs of life. Samples returned to Earth have been examined for evidence of fossilized life.

Third, we collect and examine meteorites that have landed on Earth. Do they contain any evidence of extraterrestrial life? For example, a meteorite that likely originated from Mars was collected in the Allen Hills region of Antarctica in 1984 (AH84001). It contained microscopic structures that may have been left by microbes. Later, these were determined to not be signs of previous extraterrestrial life; the structures are believed to have resulted from chemical, not living, processes. But we are still sampling and examining meteorites for life “signatures.”

A.P.E.C.S.: How can ethics and bioethics be applied to the space field? What are the major ethical issues in the space domain?

William Kramer: Outer space gives us a chance to reinvent everything, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Such a new environment allows us to be free of centuries-old unethical standards and practices that have become engrained habits in our cultures and are difficult to resolve and outgrow. Space gives us an opportunity to reinvent ethics, especially bioethics, to be more just, fair, and reasoned, especially as our knowledge of the capacities for other species of animals and plants is showing us that they may be worthy of ethical consideration.

My interest is in bioethics and medical ethics as opposed to other kinds of ethical studies, like business ethics. There are three areas of concern:

First, ethical issues of sending humans into space, especially for long-duration missions. This would include medical ethics questions such as, is it ethical to treat humans as research subjects when we know that humans are not biologically designed for space environments? We know, for example, that humans suffer bone loss during long periods of weightlessness in the low gravity of space or extended periods on a planet with gravity lower than Earth’s, like Mars. There are also problems associated with eyesight, circulation, and other vital physiological systems. Long-duration flights or living on the Moon, or another planet, also presents the ethical issue of children that may be born there. Would they ever be able to return to Earth? Would that be an ethical issue? Absolutely!

Second, there are ethical issues regarding our relationship with any extraterrestrial life we may discover and the landscapes that support them. Would it be ethical to harm such organisms or use them for human benefit? And even if there is no extraterrestrial life, there are the ethical issues of destruction of landscapes for human purposes. For example, is it ethical to mine a planet’s resources if it prohibits other future uses of the area? These are the same kinds of ethical issues we face every day back here on Earth.

A third area of concern is more immediate. Is it ethical to spend huge sums on national and private space programs when there are so many suffering here on Earth? Would it be more ethical to spend money on health research, agricultural development, education, endangered species protection, and global issues such as climate change and, potentially, space debris before we venture into space beyond Earth orbit?

A.P.E.C.S.: Regarding the commercialization of space and its patents, what does “patent a living organism” mean? What are the controversies to this subject?

William Kramer: There are thousands of new patents issued every year for new products, such as a new design for a pen or a computer chip. When the patent involves a living organism or a biological process, it is considered a life patent. Importantly, patent laws vary between nations. For example, in the US, if someone is able to change a living organism (say, a microbe, by altering its genetic structure, or a plant by breeding a new variety) and can then show how that change is useful in some way (say, to increase the yield of a crop or to produce a medicine), that “new” organism is considered a “manmade invention” and can be patented -- the person could “own” that organism and profit from it.

However, other countries may have quite different laws that might not allow that kind of patent. It is more difficult in India, for example, to patent a genetically modified organism to be used as a medicine.

What would happen if someone were to discover a new organism on Mars and then change it in some way and then apply for a patent it in the US? Would that be legal (or ethical)? A consideration is that the extraterrestrial organism may be thought of as being “owned” by everyone on Earth as opposed to just the person who discovers it and modifies it. If a private commercial enterprise like Elon Musk’s SpaceX were to discover an organism, would they have to “share” it with others? These kinds of questions need to be addressed, hopefully before extraterrestrial life is discovered.

A.P.E.C.S.: Can you explain to our readers why is there a need for an extraterrestrial impact assessment and analysis? Of course, this works both ways, but how can we avoid producing a severe impact on another planet’s life?

William Kramer: Almost all nations on Earth require that when a large project (for example, a highway or a hydroelectric dam) is proposed that will significantly alter the landscape or environment, that the person or company proposing that action consider its environmental impact. This requirement has proven extremely useful as a way to avoid or limit environmental damages and improve human health and welfare.

The process can often reduce the cost of the project by identifying, and avoiding, problems in project design and implementation. However, there is no such requirement for actions in outer space, such as mining on the Moon or building human settlements on Mars. I believe this will become a very significant issue in the decades ahead when humans are actively using those areas.

I also believe it will benefit those government or commercial enterprises that are seeking to use the Moon, Mars, or beyond, by helping them gain broader public support. It is foreseeable that once profits begin to be made from, say, mining on the Moon, that there will be increased pressure from the public back here on Earth that the industries take responsibly for their impacts on extraterrestrial landscapes.

Very importantly, an environmental impact assessment process would help in preserving extraterrestrial landscapes for use by future generations. We want to ensure that those new areas are used for their best purposes and not damaged in ways that would limit their use decades, or even centuries, from now.

Links to papers I have published on these questions can be found at my website: www.OuterSpaceConsulting.com. They provide a more detailed discussion of these issues.

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