What Can Philosophers Contribute to Space Exploration?

A new report from NASA considers the ethical, legal, and societal implications of its Artemis project.

According to NASA, Artemis aims to “collaborate with our commercial and international partners to establish the first long-term human-robotic presence on and around the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and at the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”

While the practical aims of the mission have been established, there is an open question about the potential ethical and social implications of the extended space mission. To address this, NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy held the Artemis and Ethics Workshop last April, led by senior policy analyst and philosopher Zachary Pirtle.

According to NASA, the key issues of the workshop were:

  • Sharing the benefits of space activities
  • Reflecting on core values for exploration
  • Defining sustainability for activities on the Moon and considering the environmental impacts of space activities on Earth
  • Shared access to key sites on the Moon
  • Addressing cultural sensitivities surrounding payloads and activities on the Moon

In late September, NASA released a report summarizing the workshop. According to the report, the two key questions of the workshop were:

  1. How should NASA consider the ethical, legal, and societal implications (ELSI) of the Artemis and Moon to Mars efforts?
  2. What are the key ethical and societal implications that need consideration?

While addressing these questions, workshop attendees highlighted some of the key ethical and societal issues associated with the Artemis project, including “defining ambiguous terms, who makes decisions and communicates with the public, differing cultural values, environmental ethics, historical values and colonialism, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility”, amongst others. Of these issues, “not repeating the mistakes of colonialism” was seen as the most significant issue according to attendees.

Additionally, the report highlights four key observations from the workshop. Those are:

  1. The key ELSI of Artemis involve sharing the benefits of space exploration, reflecting on core values for exploration, sustainability, balancing shared access, and addressing cultural sensitivities around lunar payloads and activities.
  2. Participants mapped out many cultural and practical challenges to identifying and addressing ELSI within Artemis and Moon to Mars.
  3. A community of researchers working on ELSI is interested in ongoing engagement on these topics.
  4. Participants discussed a range of policy options to address ethical implications of Artemis, some with heritage in other U.S. Government agencies and international sources.

While the NASA report highlights many important issues regarding the ethical, legal, and societal implications of Artemis and space exploration in general, it remains to be seen how NASA will implement the feedback. The report (repeatedly) makes it clear that “the views and options described in this report represent those of the participants at the workshop, and do not necessarily reflect the views of NASA or the U.S. Government.”

Still, the existence of the report itself seems like good news. It presents an occasion for philosophers to write about and discuss the ethical, legal, and social issues regarding space exploration, and it signals NASA’s apparent willingness to take such discussion into consideration.

Discussion welcome, including discussion about the central questions of NASA’s workshop about the ethical implications of space exploration, about questions NASA should be asking but isn’t, and about the kinds of contributions to space exploration philosophers can (or should) make.

Related: Philosophers On Space Exploration

Use innovative tools to teach clear and courageous thinking
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 months ago

Ian Stoner has a nice little paper on why humans shouldn’t colonize Mars that contains both a number of helpful references and is suitable for introductory courses if people want their students to think about these issues.


Marc Champagne
6 months ago

Our preoccupation with the universal conditions for the possibility of knowledge can help us determine which interstellar messages to listen to or possibly emit: https://philpapers.org/archive/CHADAA-6.pdf

Patrick Lin
6 months ago

Very happy to have Zach Pirtle embedded with NASA, which helps to inject more philosophy and ethics into their work. Samesies for Fred Kronz and Jason Borenstein at NSF.

Those are good peeps, and I wish more philosophers aspired to work in public service, since that’s so impactful. Who else can we spotlight here in gov’t?

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

I see DN had a previous post about this. Perhaps we can keep it updated somehow?


Christopher Cowie
Reply to  Patrick Lin
6 months ago

I’m part of a group led by Peter Vickers (Durham) and Sean McMahon (Edinburgh) that has published some philosophy articles over the past few years about space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life… If the list ever gets updates, please add these to it!

  • Peter Vickers. Expecting the Unexpected in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. International Journal of Astrobiology (2020).
  • Chris Cowie. The Oumuamua Controversy: A Philosophical Perspective. Nature Astronomy (2021)
  • Chris Cowie. Arguing about Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The Philosophical Quarterly (2023)
  • Chris Cowie. New Work on Biosignatures. Mind (2023).
  • Peter Vickers et al. Confidence of Life Detection: The Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. Astrobiology (2023).
  • Cat Gillen et al. The Call for a New Definition of Biosignature. Astrobiology. (forthcoming)
  • Cyrille Jeancolas et al. Breakthrough Research in Astrobiology. International Journal of Astrobiology. (forthcoming).


Aaron V Garrett
5 months ago

The political philosopher Rebecca Lowe has written on property rights in space and consults on issues connected with space exploration. Dr. Lowe has the title of “Consulting Space Philosopher” which I greatly envy.

Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
5 months ago

In a way it’s an extension of the problem which gives rise to modern moral philosophy (if you take Grotius to have originated modern moral philosophy as many do) — Can you own the sea and if so how and what legitimates ownership of the sea and what rules govern it?

Abootaleb Safdari
Abootaleb Safdari
5 months ago

I strongly believe that philosophers have the potential to assume a significantly more influential role not only in the broader industrial landscape but also within specialized sectors like the space industry. Currently, I am actively engaged in a collaborative effort with a Mars-related project at the University of Bremen in Germany, which holds partial association with the European Space Agency (ESA). Within this unique setting, I am diligently working to apply phenomenological methods and insights to enrich our understanding of space exploration and the challenges it presents.

Patrick Lin
10 days ago

New York Times, op-ed: “Earth to NASA: You Could Use Some Philosophers Up There