Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Space Exploration/Exploitation? Lead: Josef Miller


Summary by Angela Burr:


We are a curious species driven to explore and widen our knowledge till our time on this earth is finished. In this quest great things are learned, theories developed and exploitation occurs. The first listed definition of the transitive verb exploit is "to make productive use of". We often view the term exploit in a bad way, i.e. the second definition: "to make use of meanly or unjustly for one's own advantage" (both definitions according to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary at During this class discussion we addressed three basic questions: Should we explore Space, How could Space be exploited and Does Space have value/worth?

Should we explore Space?

The need to know and to understand are innate drives within us all. When we were not content with the view that the Earth was flat, we sailed to the "edge" and found it was round. These drives sent us to the farthest depths of the sea and the highest mountains. Once we conquered the sky, we set our sights on the heavens. Unfortunately, a common side effect of exploration is exploitation.

We explored the sea and found an abundant source of food. We also noticed the amazing volume of space our oceans made up. We exploited the sea by fishing aquatic species into extinction and dumping our waste into it. In our ignorance, we believed the sea was a bottomless buffet bar that we could destroy. The waste annihilated a countless number of aquatic environments all the while contaminating the very food we took from it. Through the exploration of the sea we have shown that we are not responsible enough to use our new frontier productively. We may have learned from the aftermath of exploring the sea to not exploit Space in the same manner, but how can we be sure? The Turner Thesis was brought up during our discussion on this question. It states that we need a new frontier to explore or we degenerate. So according to Turner and many others, we should explore Space. During our discussion on whether to explore we thought it necessary to describe ways Space could be exploited.

How could Space be exploited?

As a class we came up with many ways Space could be exploited such as sending our waste into the sun, lunar regolith, collecting various materials from the moon and other solid masses, terraforming and advertisements placed in Space. The difficulty with these examples was trying to decide which definition of "exploit" they filled. This leads us into the next question, but we'll hold off for a bit. Sending our waste into the sun, versus Space itself could be a solution to our lack of storage for such things as radioactive materials. This would avoid the concept of exploiting Space in a "bad" way. The problem with this is not only funding, but also the inherent risk of explosion before the materials leave our atmosphere. To complicate things further, we must "destroy" angular momentum to send the waste directly into the sun!

Lunar regolith is a valuable historic record of solar wind and cosmic rays, similar to the radiation and climate "recording" of the polar ice caps. We can mine the Moon, release O2 in the process and have a record of solar energy. This could lead to the process of strip-mining Helium 3 and other materials that could be brought back and used for energy. Once private companies found a way to use the Moon for profit, exploitation begins. This could also lead to the exploitation of certain groups within the human race as one student pointed out. Those who find a way of using materials from space and those who have the money to buy it will be exploiting the work of countless others who won't have access to these materials. The technology would not be shared with the entire world and would therefore exploit humans as well as space.

By now we all realize that unless we curb the exponential growth of our population, we are going to run out of room and/or resources on the Earth. No matter which happens first, an alternative home will be needed. This leads into the concept of terraforming. Terraforming is the transplantation of plants and organisms into a suitable planet and to modify the environmental conditions on that planet to mirror life on Earth. As our instructor pointed out, the life cycle on other planets may be out of sync with ours and by terraforming we destroy that which we want as the cost of our impatience. This is clearly exploiting the environment of a planet in Space.

A final action that could be described as an exploitation of Space comes in the form of advertising products from Space. An example given was painting the Moon as a Pepsi symbol. This lead into a debate on whether it exploited Space or us. How would we feel if upon turning to the heavens or to the Moon we saw the Pepsi symbol instead of the Man? These thoughts lead us to feel exploited, but what about Space? Can it "feel" exploited? These issues are addressed in the final question.

Does Space have value/worth?

What has value? What has worth? The great thinker Kant once did an experiment to find what had intrinsic value and came up with a single answer: good will. Some say that it is not the value of the object, but the context and our value around it. Similarly, others suggest it is the relationships between the subject and object that are valued rather than just the object itself. So does Space have intrinsic value or worth? According to Heidegger, we place value on something, but why not nothing? Some students argued that there is nothing and no one in Space that we have found to exploit. We can therefore do what we please to Space without exploiting it.

April 29, 2001