The ethics of interplanetary exploration

the word on everyone’s lips is Curiosity.

If you don’t know what that (meaning Curiosity) is (as opposed to means), I suppose that you haven’t been near or watching a television set for a few days. That’s perfectly reasonable. many people either don’t watch or don’t own a TV. So, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, Curiosity (spelled with a capital “C” so as to distinguish the thing curiosity from the word meaning inquisitive) is the NASA-built machine that ended its eight-month journey to the planet Mars and is currently surveying the planet’s surface.

It landed last Sunday.

Curiosity’s mission is to find any evidence of past or present life on Mars.

this is the NASA Mars rover Curiosity

this is what NASA expects to see on Mars

this is NOT what NASA wants to see on Mars

Now, I hate to sound like some kind of Debbie Downer, but in all our excitement over the prospect of discovering evidence of life on the Red Planet, shouldn’t we think about what could happen?

Bad things could happen.

Didn’t anybody see the movie Red Planet???

Oh wait, that’s right. No one did.

Still, before we boldly go where no one has gone before, we should consider whether we, human beings, are truly ready for confirmation that we are not alone in the universe — and I not just talking about the possibility that our alien encounter will end up less like a flight across the moon with a friendly E.T.  and more like John Hurt’s last meal in Alien.

Let me remind you how that meal ended:

All kidding aside, we really need to think about this: Given our (mankind) history on Earth, we might want to seriously consider the ethics of interplanetary exploration.

What do we do if we find evidence that Mars once supported life or that Mars is indeed inhabited by non-human lifeforms (like single-celled organisms)? Are we obligated to leave these lifeforms in peace or can we continue to study the planet? If our intent is to eventually colonize Mars, must we consider the welfare of microscopic organisms? Are other planets in the solar system here for humans to do whatever we please? We know that we owe moral consideration to our fellow human and non-human Earthlings, but are we also morally obligated to consider the welfare of a planet that seems to have no current occupants or owner?

None that can verbally object to our presence on their home world, anyway.

I suppose only time will tell what our course of action will be when the we inevitably find life on other planets (or life on other planets finds us). I hope that by then we will have seriously thought about  what to do.

Or else our first encounter with an extra-terrestrial life form might end up like this:


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