Staff Editorial: Prioritize science, not space tourism

 PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Outer space has long been viewed as the final frontier for humanity, a mystical place waiting for its contents to be discovered and its potential tapped. The latest fascination with space manifests in the concept of colonizing nearby planets, whether that be Mars or the moon. In the 21st century, we should stop investing in science fiction fantasies of space and instead continue focusing on exploring for the purpose of ethical science.

Space colonization is what it sounds like: both public and private entities pushing for full-time residences on planets other than Earth. NASA says on their website that “the urgency to establish humanity as a multi-planet species has been re-validated by the emergence of a worldwide pandemic.” Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, wrote in a 2008 Esquire article, “Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond our little blue mud ball — or go extinct.”

On the way to colonization, moguls like Elon Musk are creating a private sector space tourism industry. Space tourism would allow people to pay hefty fees — upwards of $450,000 per seat — to blast off above Earth. If flying in a rocketship becomes as frequent as flying on a plane, the environment could pay the price.

Launch rates of rockets are predicted to increase ten times in the next two decades, according to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These disruptive launches leave behind the only “human-produced aerosol pollution above the troposphere, the lowest region of the atmosphere.” Such pollution could increase annual temperatures in the stratosphere by one to four degrees Fahrenheit, harm the health of the ozone, and increase ultraviolet exposure in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Instead of wasting resources by flying wealthy people around the moon, investors should prioritize the science conducted in outer space that can help fight climate change. NASA’s Earth System Observatory, a plan that will utilize five satellites to collect data on “severe weather, natural hazards, wildfires, and global food production,” according to their website, could give important insight into climate change trends and deserves more public awareness. 

NASA’s 2023 federal budget is $25.4 billion. In addition to funding causes that benefit human life on Earth, we should create a framework that models ethical international space policies. 

During the 60’s, a cold-war decade marked by advancements in space exploration through Sputnik and the Moon Landing, the United Nations put forth the Outer Space Treaty, which stated that outer space is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This treaty laid a foundation for international space regulation and inspired a slew of UN treaties to follow. 

However, the UN’s actions have not satisfied everyone. On last month’s FogPod episode, USF astronomy Professor Aparna Venkatesen said that the treaty “remains a document of lofty ideals.” Venkatesan centers much of her work on Indigenous cosmology and protecting the skies as a heritage site for humanity. She said that “things are getting crowded” in lower Earth orbits, with satellites brightening the night skies and disconnecting us from the stars. “Many Indigenous collaborators have said explicitly that when they’re in ceremony with the stars and the satellites just get in between, it’s like a literal interruption of ceremony and a painful repeat of colonial history,” she said.

In 2020, NASA released the Artemis Accords, a treaty that expanded upon the original UN treaty and included the preservation of “Outer Space Heritage,” but not in the sense that Venkatesan calls for. NASA defines that heritage to include “historically significant human or robotic landing sites, artifacts, spacecraft, and other evidence of activity on celestial bodies,” but not our relationship with space from an Earth perspective. 

Earth is at the precipice of an influx of space travel. To prevent interplanetary capitalism, we need to create regulatory restrictions for the space travel industry and think critically about how to prevent further destruction of the home we all share, and the skies that keep us grounded.

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