2 Vol 74 No.5 May 2021 JBIS
JBIS VOLUME 74 2021 PAGES 2-9
WHAT DO WE NEED TO ASK BEFORE SETTLING SPACE?
JAMES S.J. SCHWARTZ1, SHERI WELLS-JENSEN2, JOHN W. TRAPHAGAN3, DEANA WEIBEL4, KELLY SMITH5 1Dept. of Philosophy,
Wichita State University, 1845 N Fairmount, Wichita, KS, 67260, USA; 2Dept. of English, Bowling Green State University, Ohio; 3Dept.
of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin, Texas; 4Dept. of Anthropology and Religious Studies Program (IRIS), Grand
Valley State University, Michigan; 5Dept. of Philosophy and Religion, Clemson University, South Carolina
We advocate for a “humanitarian review” of space settlement proposals, which takes seriously the various cultural and
ethical questions that space settlement raises. As a preview of how such a review might be conducted, we discuss ﬁve
rationales or objectives for space settlement (for long-term human survival; for resources; for scientiﬁc knowledge; for
adventure; and for spiritual insights). We argue that none of these rationales escapes the need for thorough scrutiny,
because each rationale raises challenging and distinctive cultural and ethical questions during all phases of the settlement
process. Of particular relevance here are questions concerning who gets to participate in settling space as well as who
beneﬁts from the endeavor. Thus, regardless of our rationale for settling space, we will not do so ethically unless we
continually subject our decision-making to critical scrutiny, not only on Earth during the planning phase, but also while
settlers are in-transit and throughout the settlement’s founding and growth.
Keywords: Space Settlement, Space Colonization, Ethics, Culture, Religion
What would it mean to say that we are ready to settle space?
at we have powerful enough rockets for instigating settle-
ment missions? at habitat engineering and in situ resource
utilization are suciently mature? at biomedical research
has developed reliable treatments for space-based health haz-
ards? While these are the rst kinds of answers we might give,
there are other equally important matters to consider. Even
more daunting than the above are the seldom-appreciated eth-
ical and cultural challenges associated with establishing a per-
manent (and ideally, self-sustaining) human space settlement.1
A basic premise of the ensuing discussion is that questions
about our readiness to instigate space settlement are largely
incoherent on their own, and that such questions can only be
investigated meaningfully alongside questions about the prox-
imate and ultimate purposes that space settlement might serve.
Aer all, we could hardly determine whether we are ready to
accomplish some task before dening the task and identifying
criteria of success. In other words, we cannot answer the ques-
tion “Are we ready to go?” before answering the question “Why
go?” e trouble here is that a great variety of answers have
been given to the “Why go?” question, ranging from adventure
and scientic study to economic development and long-term
human survival. While reasonable people may disagree about
which of these rationales is the most attractive or defensible,
and while we would insist that space settlement is too impor-
tant and too expensive to be done for the wrong reasons, nev-
ertheless we would be remiss if we did not emphasize that this
1Also under-appreciated are the distinctively political and
geopolitical challenges space settlement raises [1,59], but discussing
these matters falls outside the scope of this paper.
question is only the rst of many that need to be asked. Indeed,
rationales for space settlement do not exist in a vacuum, and
each raises numerous ethical and cultural questions that shape
how we (should) think about what it means to pursue a suc-
cessful, worthwhile space settlement program.
To see this, consider that even if there was universal agree-
ment behind a single space settlement rationale – to create a
“backup planet” for humanity, for instance – many important
issues would remain: Who gets to participate in the endeavor?
Who is responsible for nancially and materially supporting
the settlement? Who receives the benets of establishing the
settlement? Will the settlement govern itself? How closely will
it be tied—economically, socially, and politically—to Earth?
e simple fact is that even if we agree on why we must settle
space, we must still grapple with how we are going to use space
settlement to satisfy this objective. is point should be recog-
nizable to anyone familiar with the planning of contemporary
space missions: Mission success comes only aer a lengthy but
necessary period of critical, technical, and nancial review, of-
ten resulting in a mission that is substantively dierent from
the earliest proposals. Space settlement missions are dierent
in this regard in only one way: Given that their “success criteri-
on” is the establishment of a sustainable human society, then a
“humanitarian review” is mission critical.
What we will explore below are some of the questions that
should be raised as part of this humanitarian review. It is di-
cult to overstate just how complex this matter is: Why we pursue
settlement missions aects who participates in these missions;
and each of these things aects to whom and to what degree
space settlement provides tangible benets. In all likelihood,
space settlement will be pursued for an assortment of reasons,
which serves to multiply rather than reduce our task. If we are to
pursue space settlement in support of multiple objectives and in
JBIS Vol 74 No.5 May 2021 3
2Much as  outlines in the case of asteroid mining.
the service of multiple stakeholders, we are going to have to nd
a way to draw reasonable tradeos and compromises between
these groups.2 A secondary objective of this paper, then, is to
provide a reference source for such a negotiation.
In Section 2 we discuss several common rationales for
space settlement, highlighting important ethical questions
raised by each. Rationales included in this discussion are that
space settlement: is necessary for long-term human survival;
will provide new resources for new and unprecedented eco-
nomic growth; is a means for growing our scientic knowl-
edge and understanding; provides an outlet for humanity’s
adventuring or exploring spirit; and will oer humans new
spiritual insights. While these discussions are by no means ex-
haustive, they nevertheless highlight that the ethics of space
settlement are a complex, ongoing aair, and one that we must
continue forward with alongside developments in space ex-
ploration and settlement. Following this, Section 3 addresses
some limitations of our discussion, which might strike some
readers are unhelpfully idealistic. e paper closes in Section
4 with a brief conclusion.
2 WHY GO, WHO GOES, AND WHO BENEFITS?
At the dawn of the space age, only governments had the re-
sources to even consider adventures into space, to say nothing
of attempting to establish permanent, self-sustaining human
societies there. As time has passed, the situation has grown in-
creasingly complex. NASA, for instance, is actively seeking the
support of private companies to utilize the International Space
Station . Along with this, other companies are vying for the
prestige and prot of launching satellites, shuttling people and
cargo to the International Space Station and tossing handfuls of
wealthy tourists into Earth orbit . With such developments
afoot, it is more dicult than ever even to gure out who all
the space actors are, much less what their individual motives,
aspirations, or operating principles might be. Governmental,
private and public entities are making substantial progress,
hoping that the enterprise will prove protable, and showing
few signs of a reective pause .
With the passage of time and the development of both tech-
nology and social understanding of humankind's approach to
space, the reasons to go to space have proliferated. With re-
spect to space settlement in particular, we observe ve basic
categories of reasons: human survival; resource base expan-
sion; scientic investigation; adventure; and spiritual growth.
While each of the authors has, in their individual scholarship,
grappled with the overall plausibility of these motivations, it
will not be our goal here to endorse or oppose any specic ra-
tionales for space settlement. Instead, our goal is to explore the
ways in which these varying rationales overlap, conict, and
add complexity to ethical questions surrounding space settle-
ment. Aer all, deciding on a rationale only tells us what we are
trying to accomplish in outline, and not very much about how
we should go about accomplishing it. Regardless of our ration-
ale for space settlement (and it seems undeniable that multiple
operating motives will be in play), it would constitute negli-
gence to omit debate over the ethical tradeos of competing
space settlement proposals.
But how can this “humanitarian review” be conducted? e
rst step is to make sure that we raise productive and incisive
3It is important to note that although this seems like an
uncontroversial idea, there are forceful arguments that expansion
into space in the near term is more likely to endanger the survival of
humanity than to ensure it .
4ough it seems intuitive and obvious that there is an obligation to
preserve humanity, the ethical grounding of such an obligation is a
matter of some controversy in ethics. See  for discussion and
questions – questions that reveal hidden assumptions, oper-
ating principles, and value commitments. If space settlement
is to serve the greater good in just and substantive ways, this
will not come automatically or as some inevitable consequence
of creating a space settlement. It will be because of deliberate
choices made in the planning and implementation of space set-
tlements. Perhaps, if the best choices are made, we might even
create communities in space that are better than the ones we
have on Earth. Our intentionality could make all the dierence.
2.1 For Survival
Perhaps the most enduring justication for space settlement
is that it is a necessary means of securing the long-term
survival of the human species in the face of possible global
terrestrial catastrophes [6-9].3 What must we consider if we
decide to settle space for long-term human survival? First,
we need to ask how eectively space settlement can help us
to ensure long-term human survival. is is, fundamentally,
an empirical question, but it is one that has a confounding
number of dicult-to-constrain variables: Where will the
settlements be located? How self-sucient and sustainable
will they be? How well will they protect their residents from
existential threats? Will the existence of space settlements in-
crease or decrease overall political stability? How much will
space settlements change the risk of total human extinction?
At what level of risk reduction would the benets begin to
outweigh the costs (including the opportunity costs)? ese
questions play an important role in deciding where and when
to attempt space settlement.
While these matters are not likely to be settled anytime
soon [1, 10-16], it seems dicult to deny that space settle-
ments will, at some point, play an essential role in the preser-
vation of humanity. Whether the urgency exists only for far
future humans, or whether we will experience it in our life-
times, it is worth considering how pursuing space settlement
for survival might shape how plans and decisions are made.
A basic question here is whether ensuring long-term human
survival (what Tony Milligan calls the “duty to extend human
life” [17,18]) is a good enough reason to pursue space settle-
ment. Taking for granted that we have such an obligation,4
questions remain about what it means to satisfy this obliga-
tion, who stands to benet from this, and who is responsible
for carrying the burden.
Space settlement is sometimes described as being benecial
to the human species as a whole, but it is not obvious why this
would be the case. Aer all, the direct beneciaries of a space
settlement would seem to be specic individuals: the settlers
and their descendants. Were a global tragedy to completely de-
stroy terrestrial civilization, none who stayed on Earth would
survive to enjoy the continuation of the human species. Per-
haps, subjectively, their deaths would be easier ones, safe in the
knowledge that the species (along with whatever value inheres
in humanity simply existing) will persist despite the demise
WHAT DO WE NEED TO ASK BEFORE SETTLING SPACE?
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of terrestrial civilization. But the result would still be human
suering and death on an unprecedented scale. is also high-
lights the important point that space settlement should not be
pursued as a replacement for attempts to mitigate threats to
humanity’s existence on Earth. If we conceive of the duty to
extend human life as one that attaches to humanity in toto (that
is, to all humans, rather than a proper subset), then space set-
tlement is one tool among many that must be pursued to satisfy
But we might choose to understand our obligation to ex-
tend human life in an entirely dierent way. Perhaps we could
view it as implicating cultural or social survival, i.e., the pres-
ervation of human communities of various kinds. is could
lead us to include cultural diversity as a signicant criterion in
crew selection and mission planning. If this is our goal, then
our obligation to extend human life might focus our attention
on building space settlements in as diverse and inclusive ways
as possible. at said, cultural adaptation to the space environ-
ment appears unavoidable [20,21]. ese adaptations might
result in cultures and practices that appear foreign or unrecog-
nizable to their terrestrial progenitors. So, the preservation of
specic cultural practices may be unattainable,5 but that does
not mean we should not strive to preserve autonomous cul-
tural evolution. Pragmatically speaking, this could prove to
be absolutely vital for ensuring long-term human survival: If
cultures vary in their ability to adapt successfully to the space
environment, then we might risk “mission failure” if we restrict
our attempts to a narrow set of human cultures and social ar-
If human survival is among our reasons for pursuing space
settlement, then we must think carefully about what we mean
by “preserving humanity” . Aer all, only those individ-
uals, cultures, nations, etc., that actually produce permanent
space settlements will be those that survive, should the worst
happen to every human living on Earth. Of course, a happi-
er future would be one in which terrestrial and space societies
both continue to exist, ideally as cooperative partners. is
points to another motivation for space settlement, which is to
enable the acquisition and distribution of resources from space.
2.2 For Resources
A second rationale for space settlement (as well as for space
exploration more generally) is that settlements will lay the
groundwork for a permanent human workforce in space, so
that human progress can be facilitated by way of an exponen-
tially expanded resource base – at rst from the Moon and
near-Earth asteroids, and then from Mars and the Main Belt
asteroids, and eventually from the gas and ice giants and their
satellites and beyond [23,60]. What questions should be asked
if the exploitation of space resources is a critical space settle-
One question we need to ask is: What value systems should
guide us as we expand further into space and exploit its re-
sources? e model that guides our expansion into space will
profoundly inuence what happens – both to ourselves and to
other worlds. Related questions include: How do we value ex-
traterrestrial life? How do we value extraterrestrial landscapes
and “resources”? Should our fundamental guiding values be
5And downright undesirable in the case of sexist, ableist, racist,
homophobic, and other unjustiably discriminatory practices.
based on notions of consumption and progress or sustainabili-
ty and stewardship? Are these views necessarily in opposition?
Perhaps most fundamentally, we need to ask: Is the universe
ours to exploit?
While humans have never agreed upon what types of value
systems, political systems, kinship systems, and economic sys-
tems should be employed, nevertheless in the last two centuries
a single way of thinking about these matters has come to dom-
inate much of human behavior, including human spaceight
activities. is way of thinking—what we will call the “Growth
and Consumption Model” (GSM) of economic and social be-
havior, undergirds the “NewSpace” movement and more gen-
erally underlies calls to scale up the commercial exploitation of
space. e GSM holds that resource consumption, economic
growth, expanding wealth, and overall well-being exist in a
positive symbiotic relationship:
Humans in this schema are primarily represented as eco-
nomic beings – homo economicus – for whom decision-making
related to political, social, and other facets of life is routinely
reduced to market-based considerations and rationality .
So, we might ask, should we maintain the status quo as we ex-
pand into space, or should we dispense with the GSM in favor
of some other value system?
e GSM makes several assumptions: First, the purpose of
resources—whether natural, educational, economic, political,
or spiritual—is consumption, and the potential to expand the
exploitation of resources is essentially innite. As long as we
can nd more resources, we can and should exploit those re-
sources in order to allow for increased consumption which will,
in turn, better human life. Resources, from this perspective,
exist for the purpose of satisfying human needs. e second
assumption, which is closely related to the rst, is that virtually
anything can be understood as a resource that can be accrued
as capital. is ability to accrue capital gives individuals greater
capacity to manipulate available resources in such a way that
generate personal and collective benets. In other words, re-
sources are to be exploited and those things that can be exploit-
ed include human capital and non-human capital.
is particular model of human behavior and society has
beneted from an anthropocentric moral and religious milieu,
in which humans are viewed as special beings in a “Created Or-
der”. In the Abrahamic worldview, this “human specialness” is
represented as a product of the idea that a deity created the uni-
verse and in its considerable generosity decided that humans
would reside in a unique and privileged place in that universe
. As a result, humans have limited or no responsibility to
restrain our exploitation of that Order, because it was created
for us in the rst place.
Within the Abrahamic worldview an additional assump-
tion shapes how humans, particularly in the West, have come
to think about the use of resources and has contributed to the
ease with which we have used some resources, such as fossil
fuels and precious metals, to the point of near exhaustion. is
particular assumption is related to the idea of time that oper-
JAMES SCHWARTZ ET AL
JBIS Vol 74 No.5 May 2021 5
6ough the author is not specically concerned with space settlement,
see  for discussion of further value systems.
7At one extreme, this perspective indicates a necessity for restraint
from eating animals and even killing any form of animal life. But
like other philosophical traditions, there are dierent interpretive
takes on the idea and in some societies that have been heavily
inuenced by Buddhism, such as Japan, eating of meat is not
necessarily prohibited .
ates in Abrahamic cultures: Time is linear. e past is gone. e
future is coming. Resources are to be exploited for the purposes
of present and future humans. is perspective also underlies
basic assumptions of progress that inuence how Western so-
cieties have viewed things like social evolution.
Most importantly, these assumptions can (and perhaps
should) be challenged , leaving open the possibility that
some other worldview or value system might provide the basis
for a more measured approach to space settlement. We will dis-
cuss the Buddhist value system as one example of an alternative
to the GSM, though it is by no means the only alternative.6
Buddhism works from a basic perspective that humans
are not particularly special, although they are unusual in the
fact that they are able to be aware of the basic structure of the
universe and, thus, decide to live in such a way that will al-
low for the attainment of enlightenment. Within Buddhist
ideology, everything is viewed as having the Buddha-nature,
which necessitates an ethic of no-harm directed toward other
living things . All parts of the universe are considered in-
terrelated and interdependent, thus, harming one thing harms
everything, including oneself.7
ere are some interesting consequences of this perspec-
tive. First, the assumption that everything is interrelated and
interdependent and that at some level all of the seemingly dis-
crete elements of the universe form an undierentiated whole
can lead to a basic idea that living in harmony with one’s en-
vironment, rather than trying to exploit that environment, is
viewed as good for everything in the environment . Al-
though humans and other animals consume resources in or-
der to survive, there is no sense that humans have any special
right or privilege in terms of consumption and, in fact, there is
a sense in which humans should actually restrain themselves
from consuming other animals, at least, due to the fact that the
Buddha nature is universal and, thus, we have an obligation
not to harm other beings.
Within this worldview, there is also a dierent understand-
ing of time. Rather than being linear, time in the Buddhist
perspective is cyclical, endlessly revolving around the wheel
of samsara or the ongoing circle of birth, death, and rebirth.
As the Japanese monk Dōgen explains: “So-called today ows
into tomorrow, today ows into yesterday, yesterday ows
into today” . ere is no goal nor direction to life, nor is
there a sense that living well will lead to a happy ending, such
as an eternal aerlife of happiness in someplace like Heaven.
Instead, while karmic accrual of good can lead to better re-
births, this simply allows one—if born as a human—to recog-
nize the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and, if one
chooses to do so, makes it possible to exit that cycle through
activities that lead to enlightenment or the eradication of self
. In short, the Buddhist worldview constructs time hori-
zontally rather than vertically and posits a universe in which
progress does not exist—the only thing that is real is change.
Time, then, is not like an arrow, but like a kaleidoscope in
which the ongoing turning simply rearranges the pieces that
can be seen.8
Our intention is not to endorse the GSM, nor the Buddhist,
nor any other worldview. Rather, we wish to point out that the
dominant Western/Abrahamic worldview, in which progress
and consumption are assumed to be inevitable, and in which
an anthropocentric concept of how consumption should occur
and guide human behavior is considered natural, is anything
but natural or inevitable. Before moving to settle or colonize
other worlds, then, we should pause to take stock of our varied
ideas about the relationship between humanity and the world in
which we live and consciously ask: Which values should guide
our expansion into the solar system and beyond? e current
enthusiasm behind the settlement of planets such as Mars is
clearly organized around the Western/Abrahamic model that
progress, growth, and exploitation of the world is both natural
and is the right of humans. But is the current, dominant, con-
sumption and linear model of human social behavior a moral-
ly tenable guide for settlement? It would be myopic, to say the
least, if we determined our worldview based solely on a prefer-
ence to realize space settlement as soon as possible. On these
matters, dogmatism should be eschewed to the greatest extent
2.3 For Science
Space settlement might be pursued in full or part as an oppor-
tunity to further our scientic examination of the solar system
[33, 34, 36]. Indeed, it seems incredibly likely that the next
crewed missions to the Moon, and the rst battery of crewed
missions to Mars and elsewhere, will be science missions. As
has been noted in other places, the eectiveness of science
missions, as well as the depth of scientic understanding at-
tainable, usually increases signicantly with the presence of
a human crew [30—32], at least in comparison to missions
employing the current generation of robotic explorers. is is
because, while orbiters, landers, and rovers may conduct eec-
tive reconnaissance of the space environment (that is, a basic
cataloguing of what exists and where), these devices are not
(yet) particularly adept at eld study, which enables a genuinely
substantive understanding of space environments:
e fundamental requirement of eld study is the guiding
presence of human intelligence during the work. Field study is
complicated, interpretive, and protracted. Moreover, the plan
of the problem solution is not immediately apparent before,
and sometimes during, the eld work but must be formulated,
applied, and signicantly modied in real time. Most impor-
tantly, eld work nearly always involves uncovering the unex-
pected and in this type of work, discoveries can be exploited
to a degree not possible during simple reconnaissance. Some-
times such exploitation calls for exploration methods and tech-
niques completely dierent from those originally envisioned.
[31, p. 164]
e presence of space settlements staed by scientists will
yield considerable gains in our understanding of whichever
space environments are home to such settlements – at least
8It is important to note that Buddhism is a complex and diverse
framework in which there are some approaches that at least in practice
have ideas similar to the Abrahamic emphasis on linearity and
salvation, such as Pure Land forms of Buddhism .
WHAT DO WE NEED TO ASK BEFORE SETTLING SPACE?
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provided that we avoid settling in places or by means that
would disrupt or interfere with our attempts to scientical-
ly understand these environments . ese science bases
would, in contrast to transient missions (such as those of the
Apollo program), permit repeated and sustained study of space
environments. is is particularly important for geological
and astrobiological studies, which to date have been limited
to temporary, brief encounters with their objects of study. As
Spudis notes, “some eld sites on the Earth have been stud-
ied continuously for over a hundred years and still continue
to yield new and important insights” [31, p. 163], and we can
expect the same owering of scientic understanding from the
continuous, long-term study of eld sites in space. Astronomy
and astrophysics research can be advanced through the con-
struction and operation of exceptionally large and sensitive
telescopes [33,34], including the use of the radio-quiet lunar
farside – endeavors that would benet signicantly from a hu-
man presence to oversee the construction and operation of the
If we are to pursue space settlement for scientic reasons,
then we need to ask what we plan to study when we go, what
we expect or hope to learn, and how likely it is that this new
knowledge and understanding will produce wider societal
benets. Of course, advances in scientic understanding are
generally unpredictable and connect in serendipitous ways
to improvements in total human well-being [35,36]. So, we
cannot hope to legislate entirely in advance which research
will result in which benets that will reach which constitu-
encies. But we are not entirely powerless here either. We may,
on occasion, have good reasons to suspect that certain space
science investigations are more likely than others to shed
light on, e.g., humanitarian issues, including health technol-
ogies and food preservation . If such investigations are
of similar scientic merit to their alternatives, then their po-
tential to address humanitarian issues should increase their
It should also be noted that settlements geared toward re-
search could function as enablers and proving grounds for oth-
er kinds of settlements and uses of the space environment. Af-
ter all, the primary initial challenge facing any settlement will
be its ability to survive and thrive, which in turn depends on
its ability to exploit sustainably all of the resources it requires
from its physical environment. No settlement could have such
an assurance in advance of an extensive scientic examination
of prospective settlement locations.9 If a scientic settlement
is to be used as a precursor for a more permanent home for
humanity, then we should clearly also take steps to ensure that
it performs all necessary precursor research. While this kind
of precursor research is already recognized as a major Mars re-
search goal , we raise the point simply as a reminder that
this won’t be something that happens by accident but that we
must deliberately choose to do.
2.4 For Adventure
Space settlement is likely to be one of the most grand and
challenging adventures any human will ever undertake, and
it seems impossible (not to mention unwise) to ignore adven-
ture as an experiential aspect of the endeavor. is broaches
a dierent way of thinking about what questions we need to
9at is to not to say that science goals and other goals are always
compatible; see [36,37] for discussion.
ask before settling space. is involves not questions about cul-
tural, social, or political representation, but instead questions
about what we should expect of the individual persons we ask
to join in on the adventure. Is there a need to reconceive how
we search for potential space emigres? If we are expecting a
challenging adventure in space, then who qualies as “up for
Humans have been “adventuring” long before recorded his-
tory – as exemplied by the early Austronesians who launched
their outriggers toward the islands of the Indian and Pacic
oceans. We are a restless and curious species: constantly turn-
ing over rocks, climbing up mountains, and risking everything
we have for adventure or knowledge or prot. Space is more
of the same, even if our modern vessels sport hulls of alumi-
num rather than tree trunks. Adventuring is part of our human
make-up; we are extremely adaptable, and like other very ad-
aptable animals (e.g., rats and cockroaches), we quickly adjust
to changing circumstances and learn to thrive [64-66]. Part of
that adaptability comes from a willingness to go beyond what
is comfortable for the sake of excitement, and few experiences
can compare to the novelty and strangeness of attempting to
populate space. For those especially susceptible to these urges,
adventure could be one of the strongest motivations for partic-
ipating in space settlement.
An interest in adventure was well-documented among the
rst cosmonauts and astronauts, as noted in memoirs such as
John Glenn’s . But a similar sense of adventure exists in
other minds, including the minds of space tourists. As Laing
and Frost argue, “rill-seeking, Excitement, and Risk” is one
of the nine main categories of motivation found among space
tourists . e participants of this study “spoke openly
about the potential space tourism oered for hedonic thrills.”
One of their respondents, Evan, said “I think I’ve always been
adventurous since a very young age” [40, p. 149]. Mark Shut-
tleworth, who ew as a space tourist or spaceight partici-
pant with the Russians in 2002, is quoted as saying before his
ight, “Whatever happens, at least I know I’m choosing to
be ALIVE, which I think is more interesting than trying to
choose not to get dead at all costs.” [40, p. 150]. Other moti-
vations strongly linked to adventure identied by Laing and
Frost include “Freedom and Escapism,” “ Novelty,” “Curiosity,”
and “Challenging Oneself.”
While tradition argues that certain types of people should be
given priority—such as the strong, the intelligent, those skilled
in operating airplanes, or even those whose genetic traits let
them use oxygen more eciently—people who have those
qualities but who are not adventurous would be ultimately un-
suitable. Adventurous space explorers should not be reckless,
however, but individuals whose sense of adventure is tempered
with insight and patience. ose who go into space will need to
have a good balance between thrill-seeking, problem-solving
and self-suciency. is is because their experiences are likely
to be, like the famous quotation about war, “long periods of
boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” Although
analog missions have been established to study the psycholog-
ical and interpersonal eects of the prolonged isolation and
tedium associated with long-duration space missions , the
extremities of risk and isolation in a space settlement are be-
yond anything we have encountered so far as a species. us,
in nding prospective space settlers, we should look beyond
the test pilots, academics, and military personnel historically
favored by NASA, and instead look for these qualities across
a wider range of human beings. Aer all, a healthy variety of
JAMES SCHWARTZ ET AL
JBIS Vol 74 No.5 May 2021 7
humans and skill sets will be crucial for ensuring that any space
settlement can adapt to the challenges it is likely to face, which
will be dierent from the challenges faced by early space trav-
elers (and their governments who wished to project images of
prestige or superiority).
Where else might we nd the wisely adventurous? Perhaps
we will nd them in pastures protecting livestock from preda-
tors; or working as nurses and healers who face deadly illnesses
to treat the sick; or driving taxis; or climbing rooops to install
tile or equipment, ghting res, and heading out in boats in
search of sh. e people living such lives are people who min-
imize risks, react quickly, and make sensible decisions every
day—precisely the qualities space settlers will need to have. We
might recruit from among the TukTuk drivers in Nepal, the
health workers in Sierra Leone, Mexican oil riggers, Alaskan
crab shers, and Nigerian schoolteachers. By reaching out to
the world’s most adventurous yet responsible people, we will
ensure that the settlers in our rst permanent bases away from
Earth will have the qualities and survival skills they will need
to adapt and thrive.
Our search for the wisely adventurous would be glaringly
incomplete if we omitted disabled persons. In the space envi-
ronment, where the work force will be limited, and where the
dangerous environment will make accidents and serious injury
permanent and illness inevitable, the risk of disability will be
high . If signicant rates of disability occur, the settlement
will be le with the ongoing ethical, practical, and economic
question of what to do with mounting numbers of disabled citi-
zens. Still, a space settlement could not aord to maintain large
numbers of people who are not contributing labor to the com-
munity.10 e settlement will perforce need to welcome and
fully accommodate the blind captain, the deaf medical ocer,
the engineer with a depression diagnosis, and any number of
other eventualities. Newly disabled colonists may sometimes
need to change jobs, but the colony cannot aord for them to
be idle. Fortunately, an innovative alternative is available: to de-
sign accessible space settlements.
An accessible settlement would be one in which disabled
persons are able to live and work. It would be one in which
disabled persons use their talents and training for the good of
the whole. To make this possible, control systems for the col-
ony, as well as vehicles moving citizens between colonies and
environmental controls in place to regulate the environment,
must all be made accessible to those with visual, auditory,
physical and other disabilities . Pleas for tolerance and ac-
ceptance aside, the harsh realities of living in space are what
necessitate a careful and thorough reimagining of the physical
spaces and machines and control systems used in space. On
Earth, the principle used in making environments accessible to
everybody is called Universal Design, and it has the net eect
of making places and technology more convenient, safer and
easier for everyone . For example, a control panel modi-
ed so that a blind person can use it is also more accessible
to the sighted crewmember in the event of an emergency in-
volving a failure of the lighting system. Living compartments
with entrance mechanisms designed for the use of people with
limited mobility are generally more convenient for everyone.
10It will most likely be economically or physically dicult to
evacuate them, and absent extended utilitarian "solutions" ,
senicide, or a Nazi-style extermination plan would founder on
ethical grounds [44,45].
ese changes will be essential in an environment where many
disabled settlers are living.
A potential “spino ” of this could be the diminution of
ableist discrimination and the stigma surrounding disability.
In a settlement in which disabled persons perform visible and
vital societal functions, systematic discrimination and uneasi-
ness about disability will be more dicult to sustain . us,
if the decision is made to create a more inclusive and accessi-
ble human future in space, the existing comprehensive ban on
disabled people as astronauts will have to become a thing of
the past. Currently, potential astronauts pass through an ex-
cruciatingly rigorous vetting system based on physical tness,
and this has the eect of eliminating otherwise well-qualied
crewmembers. If crews are recruited based on their knowledge
and qualications—rather than on an articially rigorous set
of physical criteria—the settlement will be able to employ the
very best candidate for a particular job rather than the best
candidate for the job who also happens to meet the health re-
2.5 For Spiritual Insight
Scientists are not the only people who wonder about the uni-
verse and the unknown, and the questions we would like to
have answered through living in space are not limited to those
asked by space scientists. Space is a deeply spiritual domain
for many persons, and so another possible rationale for space
settlement is to enable humans to search for new spiritual in-
sights. What must we consider if we believe that (at least part
of) the reason to settle space is to explore human spirituality?
Since homo sapiens rst stood up and looked at the sky, the
heavens have been mysterious and unknowable. Unfathomable
lights would ash and beam and glitter, inspiring curiosity and
a sense of wonder. In time, humans developed the ability to
predict the movements of some of these lights, though we still
did not know what they were. When writing was developed
and human thoughts were rst recorded, people wrote of the
lights as gods, as wandering and xed stars, and as mechanisms
put into the sky to help us count the days and monitor the sea-
sons . Although we have a better understanding now of
what stars and planets are, the relationships between dierent
celestial bodies, and how our own planet moves through space,
the universe beyond the Earth is largely terra incognita. ere
is much we still do not know about what we see in the sky that
surrounds our planet, least of all whether there is a reason why
it exists and whether there is life beyond Earth.
While these questions are of clear scientic interest, they are
also of abiding interest to religion. In a very real way, both sci-
ence and religion seek to explain the large questions relating
to everything that exists beyond the Earth. When a theologian
writes about ideas and beings that are otherworldly, celestial
or ethereal, they are likely to be talking about spiritual things.
When NASA publishes pictures described as otherworldly, ce-
lestial or ethereal, these terms are meant to convey something
not spiritual, but merely distant from our planet and unfamil-
iar. Despite this, the terms overlap. Space and the spiritual are
both largely unknown to us, and the terms we use for both
emphasize how non-Earthly they are. Earthly things are famil-
iar, known, and (literally) mundane. Outer space is terrifying,
largely unknowable, and awe-inspiring, the qualities many reli-
gions associate with spiritual gures or gods.
Religious ideas seek to answer larger questions about what
WHAT DO WE NEED TO ASK BEFORE SETTLING SPACE?
8 Vol 74 No.5 May 2021 JBIS
we are, how we got here, and what will happen in the future.
Astronomers, too, seek these answers. One of the author’s
ethnographic research with Jesuit scientists at the Vatican
Observatory  revealed a fascinating group for whom both
ways of getting at the “big questions” were sometimes used
simultaneously. A priest-astronomer referred to as “Giorgio,”
for instance, conducts deeply theoretical work pertaining to
the shape of space-time using abstract mathematics. He ex-
plained that this research was a “religious experience” because
it increased his faith. While his research led to peer-reviewed
scientic publications and he was very respected in his scien-
tic eld, he explained that in many ways “It’s something that
goes beyond the scientic method.” He continued, “I think
there is a component of religious experience in the study of
science. When you pray, you feel the presence of God. When
you do science, I get the impression that I feel the presence
o f Go d .”
For the religious (and even for the religious “nones” or the
secular humanists or the spiritual-but-not-religious) then,
learning more about the universe means learning more about
our context as beings, lling in unknown information and, in
many cases, heightening spirituality. Our ndings about out-
er space may cause certain religious ideas to be abandoned
(not many Christians believe in the celestial spheres anymore)
but might also validate the sense that there is something “Out
ere” more powerful than we are: incomprehensible, majestic
Nevertheless, there is no particular need to send people of
a specic religious bent (or people with no religious bent) into
outer space. Atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Buddhists and Hindus have all gone into space and their ex-
periences have sometimes validated their religious views and
have sometimes validated their lack of religiosity [50,51]. For
those who are religious, space certainly seems to have the pow-
er to transform. Edgar Mitchell had something of a conversion
experience during his Apollo 14 mission, feeling a spontaneous
conviction that he understood the oneness of the universe .
Other astronauts have described communicating with God in
space, losing sense of one’s body in zero-gravity meditation,
and having no religious or spiritual feelings at all, even when
looking at the Earth from space (which induces, for many, what
Frank White has termed the Overview Eect ) . ese
experiences, though unlikely to be predictive when it comes
to specics, nonetheless point to the transformative, spiritual
potential of living in space.
Humans are oen, though not always, religious, and as hu-
mans go into space their religiosity or lack thereof will travel
with them. e only certain thing is that if humans succeed
in creating permanent settlements in space, the religions they
start out with will not remain static. Religion is constantly
changing, subject to the inuence of economics, subsistence
strategies, gender roles, language, and all other aspects of
culture, and whatever belief systems are sent into space will
change and adjust to t the individuals or communities who
What does this mean for our preparations to settle space?
One consequence is that settlers must be provided with oppor-
tunities for having, communicating, and sharing spiritual in-
sights and experiences. Time, in addition to leisure time, must
be reserved for settlers to reect on their experiences and their
values, and how living in space has shaped those values. Phys-
ical spaces should be designed to permit religious assemblies,
11For discussion of this and other implicit conceptual commitments
that impact of thinking about social and ethical issues in
astrobiology, see .
but also to permit both individual and communal experiences
of and excursions into the space environment. Unless settlers
are encouraged to nd Beauty, the Divine, and the Sublime, in
the world around them, their spiritual lives will be incomplete.
Without the emergence of a rich spiritual perspective, settlers
might never come to regard their space settlement as a “home”
in the ways that are critical for creating human communities
built around shared human values .
A second consequence is that we must prepare for the pos-
sibility that settlers’ religious insights might lead them to adopt
practices, beliefs, and values quite dierent from the beliefs
and values that inspired the creation of the settlement. While
we should, to the greatest extent possible, plan for the likely
spiritual needs of settlers, we should not attempt to dictate in
advance which particular spiritual insights or experiences they
3 SOME CRITICAL CONSIDERATIONS
us far, we have mainly made a case for thinking more deeply
about our reasons and plans for space settlement, and along
the way, we have raised possible objections to some of the tra-
ditional justications for space settlement. In the interests of
fairness, however, we wish to take a moment to consider how
our framing of these issues might be questioned.
It is important to acknowledge that projects in space are al-
ways extremely dicult, pushing the limits of what is possible
with existing technology. As such, these projects will unavoid-
ably involve hard practical constraints that can make it incred-
ibly dicult (if not impossible in some cases) to accommodate
the concerns we raise, at least in the short term. As academics
from the humanities and social sciences, we confess to a ten-
dency to focus on norms and ideals, sometimes at the exclusion
of practical or more pragmatic considerations, which may be
evident in several places above.11 Nevertheless, we need peo-
ple who are able to think beyond short-term practical limita-
tions, and who do so in studious and principled ways, since a
failure to consider, anticipate, or work toward solving longer-
term problems (all too oen dismissed or completely ignored
by more pragmatically-focused thinkers) will help us to avoid
the tragic outcomes that sometimes befall major endeavors,
especially those conceived and conducted in relative haste. As
much is proof enough that a professional ethicist might not be
the best choice for mission leader of an initial settlement eort.
at said, how might our more idealistic take have inuenced
First, it is hard to be completely fair to an opponent, and
some of our discussion of the justications for space settle-
ments might be overly narrow in a way that facilitates their cri-
tique. For example:
1) It could be argued that, while it is clearly true that dis-
cussions of why we should pursue human interests in
space have adopted an unfortunate anthropocentric and
Abrahamic slant, this need not be the case. It is perfectly
possible to argue that humans have an extremely high
(if perhaps not unique) moral value because they pos-
sess essential characteristics – for example, rationality
JAMES SCHWARTZ ET AL
JBIS Vol 74 No.5 May 2021 9
 or even more specically, the capacity for moral
reasoning . at would make such arguments an-
thropocentric in a weak sense (humans are the only be-
ings we know of with such high moral value) rather than
the much more problematic strong sense (humans have
high moral value simply because they are human). To be
sure, this weak sense is perhaps not the way most have
thought about it historically, but the fact that an idea has
been justied with a bad theory does not make the idea
itself wrong – most of Ptolemy’s predictions were cor-
rect, despite his wrongheaded justication.
2) While it is undeniably true that an oworld settlement
which survived some existential threat to Earth would
not do much good for unfortunate humans on Earth,
this may not be the point. If there is an extremely high
moral value for humanity as a whole – a concept that has
not yet been worked out in detail, but with obvious intu-
itive appeal – then this could be a suciently compelling
justication for space settlement on its own, irrespective
of what happens (or does not happen) to any humans
who remain on Earth.
3) ose enamored of the GSM model view resources as
means to satisfy human needs, but there are a great
many types of needs this could encompass. In particu-
lar, one perfectly legitimate need that could be met is
aesthetic appreciation – many humans derive great
pleasure from the contemplation of untrammeled wil-
derness even if they will never utilize it in any direct
way. Indeed, many of those who argue for the impor-
tance of protecting our environment likely have implicit
human-directed justications, even if they are implicit
and indirect ones.
4) It may be that the value of thrill-seeking is not about sat-
isfying a need some humans have per se, but rather about
the reason humans have this need in the rst place. An
adventurous spirit is likely an evolutionary adaptation
that has served humanity well in the past, even when it
results in unfortunate impacts on particular individuals.
For all we know, this dynamic could play out in space set-
tlement as well, with species who seek to colonize other
worlds early in their development having better long-
term prospects than more home-bound civilizations.12
Secondly, it could be argued that we put forward theoretical
alternatives too optimistically, as if they were practical alterna-
tives. For example:
1) While there is no doubt that the GSM model of econom-
ics is suboptimal in many ways, it’s not clear what alter-
native would fare better, bringing up the Churchillian
possibility that GSM is the worst economy, save all others
that have been tried. If the GSM is inescapable in practice,
then its evils will taint most, if not all, large-scale human
endeavors, regardless of whether space settlement is in-
cluded among these.
2) Alternatives to a linear view of time are clearly possible,
as evidenced by Buddhist thought. However, it is unclear
what impact widespread adoption of such a perspective
would have on science and society in general, and it is
entirely possible that adopting such a view of time would
radically change everything we know. Without a clear
idea of what impact a non-linear view of time might have,
it’s hard to recommend it in a strong sense. Even if we
were willing to do this, it’s not clear how many of our fel-
low humans would share that sentiment.
Finally, an opponent might accuse us of taking some per-
fectly good points just a bit too far. For instance, while there are
excellent reasons to think the specic rigorous physical tests
we currently require space travelers to undergo are unduly in-
uenced by tradition, it does not follow that there shouldn’t be
rigorous physical testing of some kind. While some disabilities
(e.g., being blind) might pose no problem in space (or even
prove an advantage), others are almost certain to pose massive
practical hurdles, especially in smaller space missions where
every single individual is mission critical.
However, even the most ardent critic would likely allow that
our discussion has highlighted legitimate ideals. If these can-
not be met at present, we may have to take a deep breath and
compromise – but not without regret. What may not be pos-
sible in the initial stages of an o-world settlement might well
become possible, even vital, as that settlement moves past the
harsh necessities of survival and takes on a life of its own. We
remind the reader that realization of various ideals by space
settlements will not be an automatic aair; rather, it will come
only as a result of deliberate choices made along the way.
As the preceding discussions demonstrate, there are challeng-
ing ethical and cultural questions we must address in advance
of, as well as in the process of, settling space. e point of con-
ducting such a “humanitarian review” is not to delay or den-
igrate space settlement as an unimportant and unnecessary
human endeavor. Rather, the entire point is to facilitate space
settlement by identifying what remains to be done to ensure
that it lives up to the promises that have long been made of it:
at settling space will provide all of humanity with incredible
benets and tantalizing experiences and opportunities. Far too
oen such promises are taken on faith – whether it is faith in
the futurism of astronauts or astrophysicists, faith in neoliberal
economic principles and conceptions of progress, or faith in
technology to solve humanity’s problems. But faith is a poor
foundation for humanity’s future in space. Faith in these things
has led to 70+ years of failed, mistaken, and misguided predic-
tions about the pace and scope of space exploration. Settling
space the right way will be very dicult and may take longer
than we have been promised, but the result will be a stabler,
happier, more secure human future in space.
is paper is based on the “What Are e Ethical Roadblocks
to Space Settlement?” Sagan Meeting that took place in No-
vember of 2019 at Wichita, KS, as part of the Sixth Interstel-
lar Symposium and Interstellar Propulsion Workshop, hosted
jointly by Wichita State University, NASA, and Tennessee Val-
ley Interstellar Workshop (now Interstellar Research Group).
James S.J. Schwartz moderated the panel discussion, which
featured presentations from Sheri Wells-Jensen, John Trapha-
gan, Deana Weibel, and Kelly Smith. We thank the organiz-
ers of the workshop as well as those who attended the Sagan
Meeting. We also thank two anonymous referees at JBIS for
their helpful comments.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO ASK BEFORE SETTLING SPACE?
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Received 11 November 2020 Approved 26 January 2021
WHAT DO WE NEED TO ASK BEFORE SETTLING SPACE?