The last ethical consideration in activity regarding the cosmos is the question of moral priorities. With so much human and environmental need right here on Earth, many ponder the rightness of consuming precious resources on the limited tangible rewards of astronomy, astrophysics, and space flight. For this blog, I will concede the direct value of these is small, though likely more knowledgeable scientists and project directors might contend otherwise. Still I think the value of our journey into space and of knowledge of the cosmos justify the investment.
Stephen Hawking offers these intangible benefits of space research: (1) it instills an enthusiasm for all science, (2) it accelerates technological progress with some everyday applications (e.g. scratch resistant glass, water filters, and the exercise treadmill – all developed by NASA), and (3) it offers a novel perspective of Earth and thereby motivation for its preservation. He surmises that the current ¼ of 1 % of GDP for the adventure, wonder, and future of the human race seems reasonable and unlikely to interfere with other important concerns while the funds used would in all likelihood not be diverted to those concerns in any case.9
Hannah Arendt is less specific but equally compelling. “The magnitude of the space enterprise seems to me beyond dispute, and all objections raised against it on the purely utilitarian level – that it is too expensive, that the money were better spent on education and the improvement of our citizens, on the fight against poverty and disease, or whatever other worthy purposes may come to mind – sound to me slightly absurd, out of tune with the things that are at stake and whose consequences today appear still quite unpredictable.”10
The practical philosopher may struggle to justify billions of dollars being spent now for a future benefit by no means certain but perhaps less about tithing a small fraction of our present resources for the good of our descendants and for cosmic objectives. If humanity represents the best agent we know of capable of furthering the priorities of the universe, then such an investment in the future is both ethical despite diverting resources from current human needs and strategically sound in terms of bringing about the greatest potential towards that end. Virtue then only requires the calculus of such a choice integrate candidly the many factors in so monumental a decision. For myself, I choose to be a lifelong student of science, especially astronomy and astrophysics, and support a World effort at the exploration of space, colonization of habitable but vacant worlds, and the search for extraterrestrial life, while, perhaps naively, suggesting we fund all of this by a complementary reduction in military, not social, spending.
9Hawking, Stephen, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, New York, 2018. ISBN 9781984819192, pages 166-169
10 The Great Ideas Today 1963, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1963. Page 43.