Law, Ethics and Space: Space exploration and environmental values

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle


There is copious scientific and technical literature analysing the issues of the environmental threat to orbital space. There is also now increasing legal awareness of the problems facing the space environment. These inquiries almost always focus on solutions based on processes, technology or providing sufficient alarm to jolt the international community into action. This discussion will adopt a different focus, providing an overview of the value system that is currently in place regarding human space activity and examining how this value system has shaped normative ethical positions on space exploration. The inquiry will consider whether the values of space exploration have been sufficiently concerned with the environmental impact of such activity and whether it is possible to generate the consensus needed to embed an ethical approach to space exploration. It is contended that only through embedding a concern for the environment at the core of human space activity will there be an enduring solution to the crisis posed by debris in Earth orbit. By promoting conservative consumption of outer space resources, such an embedded concern would become a natural process in space activity rather than a chastisement or limit progress. More crucially, such an overarching ethical position would ensure that the problems which have affected Earth orbit will not be exported when human space exploration leads to settlement on other celestial bodies.

The inquiry will start by examining the evolving nature of space activity, looking at the predominantly military backdrop to the early years of exploration. During these early years, the challenge of simply getting into space overrode any environmental consideration. More significantly, there was not the diversity of entities looking to go into orbit meaning that the amount of debris was limited, thereby softening concern. Space activity during this time was largely (although not exclusively) limited to two superpowers, Russia and America. Inevitably, this geopolitical situation shaped the law that was to govern space activity, and this is the law which has shaped normative behaviour in space. Indeed, had space remained the purview of States, environmental damage may have been significantly reduced, making it easier to regulate. This development is crucial to understanding the way in which shared human values have evolved, but is only part of the picture. Following this, the different generations of space travellers will be studied allowing for an evaluation of how their competing interests and backgrounds have shaped the value systems underpinning the exploration of space. The discussion will then go on to review the emerging body of literature discussing ethical approaches to space and establish the extent to which ethical values have shifted to match the diversity of actors in the space environment. There will then be a critique of how the change in the global space environment has necessitated a change in environmental governance, and whether this has actually occurred. Finally, the discussion will conclude with suggestions as to the way in which legal devices can be used to shape behaviours and begin the process of embedding a much-needed environmental ethic into space activity.
Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationEtyka
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sept 2018


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