Metallic shrapnel flying faster than bullets; the Space Shuttle smashed to pieces; astronauts killed or ejected into space. The culprit? Space debris – remnants of a Russian satellite blown up by a Russian missile. The one survivor, Ryan Stone, has to find her way back to Earth with oxygen supplies failing and the nearest viable spacecraft hundreds of miles away.
Over on Mars, 20 years in the future, an exploration mission from Earth is going wrong. An epic dust storm forces the crew to abandon the planet, leaving behind an astronaut, Mark Watney, who is presumed dead. He has to figure out how to grow food while awaiting rescue. science space earth science outer science
Hollywood knows how to terrify and inspire us about outer space. Movies like Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015), present space as hostile and unpredictable – spelling danger for any intrepid human who dares to venture outside Earth’s hospitable confines. science space earth science outer science
This is only part of the story, however – the bit with people centre stage. Sure, no one wants to see astronauts killed or stranded in space. And we all want to enjoy the fruits of successful planetary science, like determining which planets could host human life or simply whether we’re alone in the universe. science space earth science outer science
But should we care about the universe beyond how it affects us as humans? That is the big question – call it question #1 of extraterrestrial environmental ethics, a field too many people have ignored for too long. I’m one of a group of researchers at the University of St Andrews trying to change that. How we ought to value the universe depends on two other intriguing philosophical questions: science space earth science outer science
Question #2: the kind of life we are most likely to discover elsewhere is microbial – so how should we view this lifeform? Most people would accept that all humans have intrinsic value, and matter not only in relation to their usefulness to someone else. Accept this and it follows that ethics places limits on how we may treat them and their living spaces. science space earth science outer science
People are starting to accept that the same is true of mammals, birds and other animals. So what about microbial beings? Some philosophers like Albert Schweitzer and Paul Taylor have previously argued that all living things have a value in themselves, which would obviously include microbes. Philosophy as a whole has not reached a consensus, however, on whether it agrees with this so-called biocentrism. science space earth science outer science