Exploration: The Obligation

During my time at the International Space University, I had the pleasure of meeting intriguing individuals who often held unique and unexpected roles in the space industry. One of those people were Jacques-Arnould, the lead ethicist for the European Space Agency (ESA).

Why would a space agency need an ethicist? Well, ethical considerations are essential in space exploration missions, even robotic ones. Ethics covers topics such as planetary protection and being careful not to send bacteria that could threaten potential life on other planets. Such considerations become more complex in the context of human spaceflight when discussing who to send, what age is acceptable, and living permanently on another planet. As a theologist, Jacques-Arnould considers these questions carefully for the space agency.

I was lucky to have this philosopher as an advisor while working on a project about multigenerational worldships. The project itself was thought-exercise into a future spaceship for traveling to another star system. Citizens would live and die on this ship over multiple generations until it reached its destination, so that the people who left Earth would not be the ones who arrived at their destination.

As you can imagine, there are many considerations to make in such a scenario, both technical and societal. We considered economies, religion, culture, and ethics in addition to technical and funding aspects of making such a mission possible.

Here, however, I’d like to focus on one challenge that this ethicist made me realize went far beyond the technical concerns we were addressing: communication.

We expressed to him that in our scenario, it’s likely a direct communication link would not be established back to Earth. The further this ship traveled, the longer data transmissions would take due to physical limitations, and at some point, contact at all would be infeasible with our current understanding.

His response focused not on technology, but what such a scenario would mean for exploration. Exploration, he noted, has traditionally been about going out to somewhere new or dangerous, learning about that environment, and bringing that information back to the people at home. Without the relaying of information for the improvement of life or enlightenment, then it’s no longer exploration. You may be adventuring, or doing something worthy, but you are no longer considered an explorer, simply because exploration itself suggests that link.

We’re all on journeys of some sort. Perhaps you’re traveling to a new place, or having your first child. Maybe you’re learning what it’s like to be in grad school, or trying to learn an instrument as an adult. If you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, then you’re going into uncharted territory and will have something to learn and share with groups of people who haven’t yet taken that leap.

Whatever your journey, that bridge between simply doing something and being explorative is in communication. It’s in passing on that information. So, if you are willing and able, share your story. Tell us your lessons learned, of the moments that struck you or made you laugh, the struggles that seemed too great, and the growth that ultimately came from them. Show us what it’s like because sharing your observations allows the rest of us to transport ourselves to places that you have trekked, but we have yet to experience.


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