Body, Spirit, and the Emptiness of Space

Mohit Nalavadi shares his ethics & society case study, which he completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

Characterized by the belief that we can plan and create a better world through action, the 1960s approach to human progress may soon meet us again in 15 years. NASA, the ESA, SpaceX and others agree that the 2030s is the realistic decade in which we send humans to Mars. Inevitably, this in consequence will reinvigorate our primal instinct of exploration and the need to push the human race forward. It’s easy to welcome the concept; looking back, the generations who watched the men of Apollo set foot on the moon firsthand were the same generations inspired to invent personal computing, the internet, digital cameras, electric cars and other commonplace modernizations of our era. It’s comfortable to look forward to a new collection of engineers, doctors, and businesspeople who will make planet Earth richer, healthier, and sustainably enduring in the coming years, but the notion of moral process tends to blur into the periphery as our focus converges on a distant objective.

In space, even the young get osteoporosis and even Cross-fit won’t prevent muscle loss. White blood cells fail to mature, lowering the guard of our immune system. Interstitial fluid, normally pulled down by the gravity of billions of tons of rock, equalizes, causing our heads to swell and vision to blur. All the while we are being ceaselessly bombarded by cosmic radiation as we leave Earth’s protective magnetic field. Humans are not meant for space. Artificial gravity is on its way in, but I struggle to believe that a cure-all panacea will arrive before our 350 million mile flight, if ever. Above all, no level of quantitative research or ingenuous countermeasure can refute the creed that humans are social animals, and space is utterly lonely. Michael J. Collins, the third member of Apollo 11 who orbited the dark side of the moon solo, devoid of human contact, put it in perspective:

“[Solitude] is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”

Does our rush to explore and understand fundamental biology require the use of human guinea pigs in ‘Experiment Colonize Mars’? What’s more, is it even possible to adequately prepare for a minimum 4 year voyage of solitude and severe psychological adversity? Lonely exploration isn’t new. Pioneers of the new world, the western US, sea passages and other new frontiers all permanently left their families to push into the unknown. But those travelers dealt with their constraints alongside relatively large crews and with walking space, idealistic comforts of the space bound. A Russian experiment from 2010-11 called for 6 men to be sealed off in a mock spaceship for 17 months to test the hypothesis. Four of the men developed major problems that lead to difficulties in group cohesion and lack of productivity. There is irony in the fact that exploration-psychology remains largely underexplored, but understanding of this science will be significantly important in long-term space travel.

The Russian study points to an interesting development. We know the emptiness of space tests our psyche, but perhaps it also tests our progress. Its essential that our travelers are productive to justify the challenges of this huge undertaking. If studies prove that we cannot be constructive, could we be putting these space pioneers in unnecessary psychological harm? On the other side of the coin, we take this new knowledge as the basis to explore new technologies, like virtual reality or novel stress therapies, which could help us adapt to the space environment while also solving parallel problems, like PTSD or terminal illness, here on Earth.

The premise here is consequentialism: we can judge the morality of our actions based on the consequences of those actions. Most futurists are well aware of the caustic biological and psychological impacts of space travel, but they have rationalized individual struggle (made by choice of course) with the virtue of progress for all of humanity. It’s easier to see our problem as a question of deontology: that the morality of our actions should be based off of a set of rules. It’s obvious to objectively so ‘no’ to human to suffering or the expenditure of billions of dollars on minor short term returns. But because we can’t see or know what space colonization will yield, it’s difficult to see the long-term, consequentialist incentives.

Whatever our motives – further our understanding of life itself, ensure the survival of our species, prove the resilience of human ingenuity – we must always question them. Humans, and most life on Earth, were born preprogrammed with ambitious curiosity. The corollary emergence of technical innovation has, for the most part, been beneficial for the betterment of species, but not without ethical obscurity. As we push forward into humanity’s next chapter, we need to gain a deep understanding of whom and what we will effect along the way, and to what ends and magnitudes. The more we learn about the complex systems which we act with and within, the better we can recognize our moral dilemmas, past and future. It’s these kinds of recursive comprehensions of elementary truths that perpetually force us to rewrite our plan for the future.