Ep. 569: Ethics of Commercial and Military Space, Part 1: Private Space Flight

Posted on May 11, 2020 in podcast, Space Flight | 1 comment


Every year, more and more people are making their way to space. Some private citizens have already gotten their astronaut wings, paying for a trip to space out of their own pocket. What are the ethical implications of this as the costs of spaceflight come down?

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Fraser:                         Astronomy Cast, episode 569: Ethics of Commercial Military Space, Part 1: Private Space Flight. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We’re gonna help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of CosmoQuest. Hey Pamela, how you doing?

Pamela:                        I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?

Fraser:                         Great. Once again, the weather’s just getting better and better. The Apocalypse has never looked so lovely. My garden is getting outta control. It’s achieved sentience. It is now in control and we’ve gotta cut it back. There’s just too many plants, too much grass, too much weeds. I got many weeks ahead of me, at this point, out in the garden.

Pamela:                        The Day of the Triffids is trying be upon you.

Fraser:                         Yeah, exactly. Every year, more and more people are making their way to space. Some private citizens have already gotten their astronaut wings, paying for a trip to space out of their own pocket. What are the ethical implications of this? Has the cost of space flight come down? So, we’ve got a new series. We’re gonna do at least a two-part series… maybe at most a two-part series. But this week, we’re gonna talk about private space flight and just what are the ethical issues with this. Next week, we will talk about military space flight. We’re gonna talk about Space Force. Although I think if we got our timing a little better, we could do the episode after Space Force comes out – the new TV show.

Pamela:                        Oh. Yeah, we can pull that off.

Fraser:                         Yeah, can we? May 31st?

Pamela:                        So, let’s talk about today. We will talk about space tourism, the new movie that is planned. Next week, we’ll look at the tradeoff between commercial space and scientific exploration from the ground; so, issues like the Iridium satellite and otherwise abuse of space resources for economic purposes. And then, we’ll go to Space Force?

Fraser:                         Okay. Now, we’ve done two episodes about space tourism, 214 and 451, so we don’t wanna cover too much of that ground. But I think the thing that I found very interesting was just the way you had proposed it, which was like, “Let’s deal with the commercial and the ethics of this situation and we’ll sorta see where that gets us.” First, let’s just talk about, how do you do define private space flight.

Pamela:                        When the purpose is the economic benefit of the parent company and its shareholders over the advancement of science and exploration causes that benefit mankind rather than stakeholders.

Fraser:                         And one version of that could very well be space tourism; that you got a space tourism company that is sending people on flights and they’re having fun and going to the Zero-G hotel and enjoying themselves, or flying to the moon and prancing about on the moon in that low gravity. But that is really just a subset of what private space flight could look like. So, when you sort of think about that large umbrella, what are some examples of the kinds of missions that would be run privately?

Pamela:                        Well, this is where we start looking at – and this is what triggered this for me – sending people to space to film adventure movies rather than to do the normal peacekeeping, educational, and scientific endeavors that take place on the space station. Even space tourists, up until now have pretty much been tasked with, “We’re gonna train you like an astronaut. You’re gonna do education stuff while you’re up there to, and hey, we may throw you a bone and give you a little bit of science to do.”

Fraser:                         Right.

Pamela:                        But right now, Tom Cruise is looking to partner with SpaceX to partner with NASA, and this has been tweeted out by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. They’re gonna film a not Mission Impossible but certainly an impossible mission on the International Space Station.

Fraser:                         Yeah. I can’t even imagine how awful and difficult that process is gonna be. I think I got a chance to interview someone who took the IMAX – the 70-millimeter IMAX cameras up onto the Space Station and tried to make a documentary. Well, they gave the astronauts – they taught them how to use these cameras. Then, they had to fly up with these cameras and try to shoot what they were doing while they were up there and then send the footage back to – it was on the space shuttle. Anyway, it was tough because it’s a great big bulky professional camera that shoots an enormous amount of film with this huge aspect ratio, and it’s a real challenge.

                                    And so, same thing, right? Does he do his own shooting? Do you send up another person who does – handles camera, sound? Hair, makeup? Right? Do the astronauts get involved? So, I – just the details of this are blowing my mind. But I think when we look at just all of human existence today, and we think about what all of the trips that human beings take, the vast majority of them are private, right? When you fly in an airplane 99.999% of the airplane flights are for private purposes. You are on a trip. You are carrying cargo. You are doing this. And then, every now and then, someone flies an airplane into a hurricane or takes some aerial footage of a drought, and that’s the scientific purpose. But the vast majority – and so, why wouldn’t it be that into the future?

Pamela:                        This is where it starts to be a, how do the numbers work out and what is the ethics of this kind of question. And in the frame of reference that I’m using in this is, when I was a graduate student at McDonald Observatory, we’d periodically get VIPs coming through the telescope. And no matter what we were observing for sciences that moment, we had to kind of put it on the backburner. And yeah, we’d bang the keys that we needed to keep things more or less going in a timely fashion, but we had to pay attention to these guests who might be funders, who might potentially help keep our science going one more year with the money they might give to the observatory and this – okay, we are a not-for-profit enterprise.

                                    We exist thanks to the generosity of our donors, thanks to our competitiveness and peer-reviewed science funding opportunities, and thanks to our benefactors in the state government who give us line-item budgets. We know that we exist by the grace of all of these different humans, and so we have to dance like the dancing monkey when they appear to keep them happy; that is part of the job that we are all aware of. And astronauts are fully aware that that is also part of their job. They are all given massive amounts of media training.

                                    They are given massive amounts of, “Here are effective ways to communicate complex ideas,” how to work to work a crowd, how to be this STEM educator, even though they may be by training a pilot, an engineer, a doctor, a myriad of other different things – a geophysicist. But they’re all trained to be educators in their role of astronauts. And when they’re on the International Space Station, they know part of their job is gonna be on videocons with Girl Scouts to judge science fair from outer space; to do all these different feel good tasks that remind everyone, “Hey, we have astronauts” so that the funding keeps flowing.

                                    We know that’s part of the job. But that’s a few moments, a few hours out of your day, and what we’re looking at here is filming a movie in outer space. We don’t know how long Tom Cruise and whoever else might be on the International Space Station… but what we do know is while they’re up there, they’re – it’s a 24-hour gig, in a large way. And so now instead of being there as STEM professionals benefiting mankind, inspiring, engaging, educating… they’re crew on a movie… that – the movie’s primary goal is to have a great storyline and earn a whole lot of profit.

                                    And so, where is the ethics in having our astronauts, instead of engaging people in ways that will educate them about space, having them work crew on a film.

Fraser:                         Right. And I think that is just the beginning; that’s the tip of the ethical iceberg. We have to sort of think about the risks involved. It’s one thing to – for a test pilot professional astronaut, who has been taking risks all their life, who is going to space for the betterment of all humankind, to make incredible discoveries that will push our STEM and science and technology all ahead. And it’s another thing for them to take those risks, as you say, so that they act as crew on a movie, or for them to babysit some… property magnate who is vomiting in their space suit. Of course, the other quite public issue was this private space flight that was purchased by a Japanese businessman to fly around the moon on a SpaceX capsule.

                                    Now, I’m not sure how far that mission has stalled.

Pamela:                        It’s still scheduled.

Fraser:                         It’s still scheduled, yeah, but who knows? Again, we live in Musk time.

Pamela:                        Starship, we don’t know when its schedule is.

Fraser:                         Who knows, yeah, whether it will be on a Starship, whether it will be on the Falcon Heavy? Who knows whether it’s gonna fly or if they’re gonna be able to have a capsule that’s capable of doing it? You can sorta see some benefit, like… SpaceX will need to make their Crew Dragon capsule capable of handling someone for a week and a half on a long duration mission maybe. So, you can sorta imagine some benefits, and so you get some willing test subject to take that flight. But essentially, you are looking at this bifurcation of funding into something that is a distraction from the main purpose, and yet it is inevitable.

                                    As I said, airlines, it’s completely flipped around the other way. NASA wants to fly some astronauts out to… Hawaii for a test mission. They hop on a commercial flight and they fly out to Hawaii, right?

Pamela:                        And this is where context – ethics aren’t black and white. There’s a whole lot of gray where context determines the right or wrong of the situation. Grabbing someone, squeezing them as hard as you can and hitting them in the back as hard as you can is generally considered to be something you shouldn’t do. But if someone’s choking on an almond… that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. And so, that’s an extreme example, but… when I look at SpaceX saying, “We as a private corporation are going to fund from our private coffers,” it’s now muddier because SpaceX now has Artemis as part of its timeline with Starship.

                                    When they say, “We’re gonna fund out of our private coffers this amazing art project to send under the leadership of this one artist, who’s already well known, a group of people on a journey around the moon as proof of concept for our mission,” everyone kind of goes, “Are you going to kill them? Please don’t kill them.” Okay, that, at least, we’re all acknowledging it. But when a private corporation does that, it kind of falls into the same category as when Red Bull has someone jump from a great altitude and parachute. It’s the same thing as when a movie does special effects that risk the lives of everyone on this set for the sake of getting a good seat.

                                    These are private endeavors that have private insurance and we’re not risking the taxpayers’ dollars the same way. But I know Harvard University a number of years ago decided they weren’t going to allow their campus to be used to shoot movies any longer because it was too much of a distraction to the education of the students. And… with spacecraft, it’s not just the distractions that you have at issue; it also is, when something goes terribly sideways that something tends to be looked at poorly. We have seen this happen with Boeing with their 737 MAX.

                                    The entire Boeing fleet has seen decreases in orders prior to Covid coming in. And post-Covid nothing counts any longer. And that is simply due to the risk assessment now tied to Boeing. “Well, Boeing… had that go sideways. What else is gonna break?” With the space shuttle program, NASA made the decision not to allow space tourists on the space shuttle, full stop. And part of that was informed by just how hard it was for everyone to recover from the loss of Christa McAuliffe.

Fraser:                         Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah because that was a teacher who…

Pamela:                        Was not trained as an astronaut. There has since then been astronauts who were formerly teachers. She was a teacher who was kind of trained as an astronaut not an astronaut.

Fraser:                         Right, right, right. Back in the Apollo era all of the astronauts were test pilots. And then, as they moved into the Space Shuttle era, then they would have the mission specialists who had – they didn’t necessarily have the same kind of test pilot capability. Not every one of them could pilot and F-15, but they do have other specializations. And as you said, some do include teacher, but a lot of them, they mostly will include PhD and about five different things as well as engineer.

Pamela:                        It’s true.

Fraser:                         And so, that is still a professional; that is still someone who is –they have made the career change from whatever it was they were doing before to professional astronaut with all of the risks that that implies and the understanding of that and all of those requirements. And so now, we’re moving to – and again, this has already happened. There have been a half-dozen people who have already flown to space, paid their $20 million, flown to the International Space Station, floated around. Some people that I really respect as well.

Pamela:                        Yeah, and there was one vague plan to film a music video in space. Lance Bass tried really hard. He completed at the age of 23 all of the U.S. and Russian certifications to be a tourist astronaut. He just couldn’t raise the final tens of millions of dollars to make it into space and do his reality bit.

Fraser:                         Yeah. So, we’re looking at the risks. Do you see this though as sort of the beginning of an inevitable conversion from a – very much a public scientific endeavor to some kind of public-private sort of crossing where – it happens in so many other fields. You sorta see this privatization of the International Space Station, privatization of parts of NASA. Is this where we’re going?

Pamela:                        I don’t know and I’m really torn on this part. There is a long history of various movies negotiating to film navy airplane carriers; there have been bases opened up for filming. And in every case, there’s been a very careful accounting of what is necessary to keep everyone safe and to make sure that the military doesn’t lose funding in the process. You’re gonna pay your own costs. And so, that combination of long term, this has been happening since the earliest days of Hollywood, gearing up towards today… they know how to do it. Space is slightly different… category but we don’t know how different, right? A weird transitionary point.

Fraser:                         You’re really fixated on movies, but they’ve got a new segment they’re adding to the International Space Station that’s probably going to be a commercial operation; that you can rent out space on that module and use it for commercial operations. There are racks that are attached on the exterior of the space station that people can go and get their experiments installed onto the International Space Station. So, you can just pay, and you can imagine that you send up your specialist. Your specialist goes up – you work for some company. You’re doing protein folding.

                                    You send one of your biologists up to the International Space Station to watch over the experiment while you carry out your protein folding, and then the person comes back down. And same thing; not a trained astronaut, not a career astronaut, but they need to be there to watch these proteins fold in whatever ways is necessary. And again, if the space station needs more money, more and more of it gets converted over to these commercial aspects.

Pamela:                        And this is where the budgeting of how they do it really matters. NASA and Roscosmos and Jaxa and all the partners in the International Space Station have put a lot of effort into figuring out, “Okay, so what does it actually cost to have our scientists on the ISS,” by which I mean the astronauts trained as scientists and engineers, “run the experiments and have this as a commercial R&D platform?” And they figured that out so that they can do the commercial R&D without craziness occurring. Now, so far the choice has always been, “Let’s train the astronauts who are actual astronauts to run those experiments unless there happens to be a space tourist that we’re just gonna decide we trust” and they’ve paid stupid amounts of money.

                                    Companies so far have decided that they don’t really like the risk assessment of sending their own people into space just to run a rack of labs, and so training astronauts is something that is just how it’s been done. And here, I think, it falls into the category of, “This is what astronauts are trained to do. This is what they have chosen to risk their life about.” They’re trying to figure out what research and development in space can be used for. Where it, again, gets trickier is when you’re asking them to risk their lives for something… that doesn’t fall into that research and development and STEM category.

                                    And I don’t know all the answers here. I’m just gonna flat out say I don’t know all… the answers. I simply know… where we need to start looking for the questions. We need to start looking at what actually fits in somebody’s job description.

Fraser:                         If we just assume that space flight will continue on the growth curve that it already has, that prices will come down, that more – then more people will go to space; as the prices come down, what gets done in space will change as now… different businesses are actually accessible to – it could use space, it could afford various things in space, then it’s gonna be more and more. And so, it will eventually look like a – 200 years from now space flight will be as regular as… airline travel is today. And we don’t have these ethical questions anymore, but what is… airline flights that are done for space and what are airline flights that are done for commercial purposes?

                                    And somehow we will get there from here; it’s just, we will have to face each one of these ethical challenges like they did with air travel in the first place.

Pamela:                        And, at a certain point, it also comes down to – this is gonna sound terrible, but it comes down to how do you figure out the pricing of things. Because if we do the accounting and realize that all these folks at NASA, who otherwise would have been spending their time dedicated to reviewing grant proposals, to making sure that the pace of science continues on, that our missions continue on, going up on the Hill, fighting for funding for this mission or that with Congress, all of these people have full-time jobs that are at the administrative level. So, they don’t have to necessarily account for their hours on this program or that.

                                    If these humans are instead spending all of their time on the phone to Hollywood, that can get lost in the accounting, but it has an effect that reverberates throughout the entirety of NASA. Now, when our communications people start being asked to start showcasing this commercial-private partnership with a space company that is getting funded through NASA, that’s like, “Okay, so you’re not sharing science. You’re promoting SpaceX with your announcement of the Artemis mission.” Well, that still is advancing the Artemis mission.

                                    When Andy Weir’s The Martian book came out and when the movie came out, there was a lot of NASA engagement in the movie, making sure the movie was done right, and this included training folks like me what the NASA messaging was. And here, I start to have trouble with, “Shit, I have to budget the time I spent getting that training against my grant to do citizen science.” So, essentially, that movie, which I adore, was a tax on my grant funding because I had to sit through training on how to communicate the right [inaudible] [00:22:24].

Fraser:                         Right, and when you think about saving – the overall cost of the International Space Station to the international taxpayer, there’s some – we bought some arms for that place. Let’s say it’s in the hundreds of billions of dollars. How do you justify a $20 million flight to the International Space Station when the true costs involved are far great on a per person basis? You can’t make your money back and it’s sort – again, it’s that same idea about, do you rent out an hour of time on the flight deck of one of the United States’ supercarriers? What do those cost per hour, right?

Pamela:                        Those, they know what they cost per hour, or at least.

Fraser:                         Well, maybe they do, but do they? If they have to clear off the flight deck and have a bunch of Top Gun scenes filmed with people walking around on the flight deck, are they paying the tens of millions of dollars per hour to cost to keep that flight deck clear? And maybe they are. Maybe that’s what you’re saying. So, it’s a very challenging – as we make this shift, and this is a conversation that’s – it’s called privatization. It has been argued about, wrestled with. It is a challenging ethical issue, every single time it happens: how do you turn a public institution into a private institution? Should you? What is the damage to the public institutions in the long-term? And yet, in many cases, technology moves ever forward, and these things are inevitable.

Pamela:                        And this is where being at a turning point makes everything more difficult. When the movie Top Gun came out when we were, I think, late elementary school, middle school a million years ago, same actor involved – when the movie Top Gun came out, the navy saw a recruitment increase, with a decrease in their own having to do promotion like nothing they could ever have imagined that has continued on. So, that movie turned out to be one heck of an amazing recruiting tool. So, the question is, what is the gamble that NASA is now making with allowing Big Lowe to have advertisements? To allow Tom Cruise to film a new movie? To allow commercial engagements where you know the company is sure making out but what is the return on investment of time for NASA?

Fraser:                         And I think that you and a lot of your STEM colleagues feel this sad nervousness at the lack of interest in STEM and going into these fields. And so, isn’t that inspiring – aren’t these kinds of activities inspiring for the next generation of scientists and engineers and technology people? So, we have no answers today.

Pamela:                        We don’t.

Fraser:                         We just have a series of ethical dilemmas that we will just keep throwing at you until your head explodes.

Pamela:                        But now you know. Now, you know.

Fraser:                         Now, you know. And I think we will continue this conversation in other directions next week. Pamela, do you have some names for us this week?

Pamela:                        I do. As always, we here at Astronomy Cast are here only because of you guys. You let us pay our staff a fair wage to produce all of our episodes and keep things going behind the scenes, and I can’t tell you how grateful we are that you do this so that we don’t have to do all of that. We love our humans. Thank you. And this week, we would like to give a special thanks to Mathew Horstman, Jessica Felts, Dustin Rauff, Marco Arassi, Brian Kilby, Jay Alex Alexandersen, Brian Letz, Michelle Cullen, Mark Grundy, Joe Wilkinson, Jeremy Kerwin, Tim Garrish, William Lauer, Mark Steven Reznak, Jack, Omar del Riviero, and Nuderdude.

Fraser:                         Thank you everybody.

Pamela:                        Thank you.

Fraser:                         And thank you, Pamela. We’ll see you next week.

                                    Pamela:            Bye-bye.

Announcer:                 Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. This episode was edited by Chad Weber. Astronomy Cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website, astronomycast.com. This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep this show going, please consider joining our community at patreon.com/astronomycast.

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1 Comment

  1. You cant help but wonder how to fit “ethics” together with “military”, “commercial” and “private” in the same sentence.

    Oxymoron, anyone?

    Well, out in space, away from any prying eyes, expect the worst from humanity in the name of profit maximizing and power grab.

    Sorry for being such a pessimistic. Hardly original, informative or intersting in any way, just my qualified opinion

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