Ethics: A Trip to Space

Grishma Gupte shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

Aristotle the legendary Greek philosopher said, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.” Although, humans are known as social “animals”, yet we consider ourselves to be superior to other animals. With our highly developed cortex, we demonstrate social abilities especially self- consciousness and self-cognition which sets us apart from other animals. Since humans are the only species currently deciding the fate of all life on Earth, in some way or the other, we are responsible for the safety and protection of other life forms.

Animals have been used and exploited by humans for their own benefit, be it in the form of entertainment at the circus or as biological models in scientific research. Anthropocentrism, also known as humanocentrism, is the belief that human beings are the most significant entity of the universe. Anthropocentrism is considered to be profoundly embedded in many modern human cultures and conscious acts. Author and anthropocentrism defender Wesley J. Smith from the Discovery Institute has written that human exceptionalism is what gives rise to human duties to each other, the natural world, and to treat animals humanely. Writing in A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy, a critique of animal rights ideology, “Because we are unquestionably a unique species—the only species capable of even contemplating ethical issues and assuming responsibilities—we uniquely are capable of apprehending the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper conduct toward animals. Or to put it more succinctly if being human isn’t what requires us to treat animals humanely, what in the world does?”

The Space Race refers to the 20th-century competition between two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US), for dominance in spaceflight capability. It had its origins in the missile-based nuclear arms race between the two nations that occurred following World War II. The technological superiority required for such dominance was seen as necessary for national security, and symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, un-crewed space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.

After the success of Sputnik 1 in October 1957 by USSR, they decided to launch Sputnik 2 by November, and this left them with only 4 weeks to design and build the spacecraft. Sputnik 2, therefore, was something of a rush job, with most elements of the spacecraft being constructed from rough sketches. It was decided that Sputnik 2 would carry a canine, thus repeating the triumph of Sputnik 1. Three dogs were trained for Sputnik 2 flight- Albina, Mushka and Laika. The dogs were confined to progressively smaller cages for 20 days in order to adapt them to the tiny Sputnik 2 cabin. This made the dogs stop urinating and defecating and made them restless. The dogs were placed in centrifuges that simulated the acceleration of a rocket launch and were also placed in machines that generated noises of the spacecraft. Laika was chosen to be the flight-dog and was placed in the spacecraft 3 days prior to launch. One of the technicians preparing the capsule before final lift-off stated that “after placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.”

Laika died due to the overheating caused during the flight. It was later reported to the World Space Congress that it was impossible to create a reliable temperature control system in such limited time constraints. We must note that if sufficient time was given USSR could develop a better system, but due to the rush to beat US in the space race it failed to do so. Humans gave priority not to the life of an animal but to their own political interest. One of the Soviet scientist confirmed that they did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog. This brings us to the concept of Utilitarianism which is an approach used in animal rights. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that states that the best action is the one that maximizes utility. The other approach is that of rights-based. The difference between utilitarianism and rights-based approach reflects a distinction that philosophers draw between ethical theories that judge the rightness of an act by its consequences (consequentialism/teleological ethics, or utilitarianism), and those that focus on the principle behind the act, almost regardless of consequences (deontological ethics). Deontologists argue that there are acts we should never perform, even if failing to do so entails a worse outcome. Peter Singer supports the utilitarian concept that “the greatest good of the greatest number” is the only measure of good or ethical behaviour, and Singer believes that there is no reason not to apply this principle to other animals, arguing that the boundary between human and “animal” is completely arbitrary. There are far more differences, for instance, between a great ape and an oyster, for example, than between a human and a great ape, and yet the former two are lumped together as “animals”, whereas we are considered “human” in a way that supposedly differentiates us from all other “animals.”

Initially non-human animals were used to test the survivability of spaceflight before attempting human spaceflight. By 2004, the space shuttle program had flown over two dozen SpaceLab experimental packages. Later non-human animals were flown to study various biological processes and the effect of microgravity.  Some of the biological functions that have been studied are (to name just a few): brain states, behavioural performance, cardiovascular status, fluid and electrolyte balance, metabolic state, tissue development, and mating in zero gravity.

Here are some examples of specific experiments:

Nov. 9, 1970: Two bullfrogs were launched on a one-way mission to learn more about space motion sickness.
July 28, 1973: Two garden spiders named Arabella and Anita were used to study how orbiting earth would impact spiders’ ability to spin webs. Arabella spun a fairly symmetric web even though the thread thickness varied — something that earthbound spiders don’t experience.
July 10, 1985: Ten newts flew on board the Bion 7. Their front limbs were amputated in order to study regeneration in space to better understand how humans might recover from space injuries.
April 17, 1998: More than 2,000 creatures joined in 16 days of neurological testing alongside the seven-member human crew of the shuttle Columbia.
September 2007: Microscopic creatures commonly known as water bears (tardigrades) survived a 10-day exposure to open space. The creatures are known to have the ability to withstand extreme conditions, including dehydration, and still recover and reproduce. The animals were dried out and re-hydrated after surviving cosmic rays, a near vacuum, and freezing temperatures. And the list continues.

The crux of the argument between pro‐animal testing parties and opponents to animal testing is whether it is ethical. The arguments for animal testing include:

  • Human life has greater intrinsic value than animal life.
  • Legislation protects all lab animals from cruelty or mistreatment.
  • Millions of animals are killed for food every year – is medical research not a comparatively worthier death?
  • Few animals feel any pain as they are killed before they suffer.

The arguments against animal testing almost perfectly counter these:

  • Animals have as much right to live as humans.
  • Strict controls have not prevented researchers from abusing animals – although such instances are rare.
  • Deaths through research are unnecessary and are morally no different from murder.
  • Animals suffer while they are locked up and how do we know whether they feel pain?

The three Rs of animal research were put forth in 1959 by zoologist William Russell and microbiologist Rex Burch are as follows:

  • Replacement – use alternative non‐animal methods to achieve the same scientific aim such as testing on human cell cultures in test tubes.
  • Reduction – use statistics methods to reduce the number of animal trials required to generate comparable amounts of data.
  • Refinement – improving the experiments in order to reduce the possible suffering of the animal.

Today, there have been improvements in the way animals are treated in space research. There are even international guidelines known as The International Animal Welfare Agreement for Space Borne Research. In the US, such research is now conducted according to the NASA Principles for Ethical Care and Use of Animals. These guidelines cover rodents, which are now the highest order animals sent into space by the US.