The Ethics of Mars Exploration: Q&A with Lucianne Walkowicz

Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz is an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. This October, she begins work as the new NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology. (Image credit: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Newscom)

Lucianne Walkowicz, a researcher at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, is setting off on a year's mission with the U.S. Library of Congress to pick apart the ethics of Mars exploration.

Walkowicz, an eloquent speaker known for her TED talk "Let's not use Mars as a backup planet," has been named the Library of Congress' Baruch S. Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology — the first woman to hold the yearlong position. While there, she will work on a project with the title "Fear of a Green Planet: Inclusive Systems of Thought for Human Exploration of Mars." talked to Walkowicz about the new project, the current state of space-exploration policy and how the big questions on colonization tie into her activism with underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and math through the nonprofit organization Urban Alliance. [Making Sense of Humanity's Impact on Earth from Outer Space How do you intend to explore space policy in order to incorporate it into your research on future Mars exploration?

Lucianne Walkowicz: I think that one of the things that most excites me about being able to carry out this research, specifically at the Library of Congress, is access to not only the history of policy that's within the library's holdings, but also to be in a place where there are a lot of policymakers … in other words, Washington, D.C.

What governs how we explore at the moment is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which is now quite an old document. It was signed on by most of the countries existing at the time, and says, for example, that you can't own a celestial body.

Back a couple of years ago, the Space Act was enacted, which said that you could actually own some of the products of a celestial body. So, for example, you might not be able to own Mars, but potentially you could own something that you had mined on Mars, and if you look at that document, it says that you can own everything that isn't biological, but you can also own water. Is this, then, a stumbling block of existing exploration policy, or is legislation like the Space Act sufficiently effective?

Walkowicz: So I think this is a nice example of where the policy sounds good on paper but doesn't actually fold in all of the things that we know about astrobiology today. Mars, for example, had once been a much more hospitable world than it is currently: It could have had a past history of life, and could even continue to host microbial life in some trace amount today. Mars is an example of a place that has its own history. And I think a lot of times, within historical narratives, you hear people recycle the talk about exploration. Often there's an assumption that because we don't see large-scale macroscopic life running across the surface of Mars today, that we don't have to worry about those things.

What I would like to do is look at the ways in which these ideas interact with the actual existing policy, and how what we know about Mars now interacts with the existing policy, because it remains a fact that Mars is a place unto its own that has its own history, and what respect do we owe to that history? What rights does that history have? [Luxembourg Adopts Space Resources Law] You mentioned that you are taking this position to research the intersection of science and policy. How would nations negotiate Mars exploration under the current laws?

Walkowicz: One of the things about this research is that we really don't know.

The Outer Space Treaty, which, as I mentioned, is a very old document, is really the closest thing we have to an idea of how — internationally — we see people existing in space. But the fact of the matter is that even things like the Space Act, which was intended to clear the way for asteroid mining, all have an air of hypothetical-ness about them. That is because nobody has tested them. Nobody has tried to interact with them in a practical way, and I think a large part of this issue is that it hasn't really been thought out very well. There are policies that exist, but the way it would actually go down in real life I think is still very much an open question. What do you think is the most important aspect of the ethics of Mars exploration?

Walkowicz: I would say that the most important aspect, what really draws me to this particular line of research, is the opportunity to closely examine our past history so that we can move forward in a way that is more inclusive for our future: I think that a lot of the ways that we currently speak about exploration draw on narratives that were very harmful in the past.

The comparisons that are so often invoked to Christopher Columbus are a good example, where we constantly recycle these narratives from history that were actually quite harmful, and were histories of exploitation. So, as we move forward to trying to explore places like Mars, I'm curious as to how we can acknowledge these harmful past events and move forward in a way that is more inclusive for everyone who might choose to explore the universe, whether by leaving Earth or by studying it here. In what ways is the scientific community vulnerable to perpetuating historically destructive patterns that stem from its surrounding social environment?

Walkowicz: I think we are at an interesting point in science right now, where truly, for many years I think — and this is still a persistent myth — people think that science sometimes exists outside of its larger societal framework, and that it is somehow purer and therefore not vulnerable to these harmful patterns that have been enacted in all aspects of society. 

But, if you look at the makeup of predominantly who becomes a scientist — particularly in physics and astronomy — the makeup of who becomes a research-level faculty scientist is still very white and very male, and I think shows that there is still a great deal of inequality in access to STEM careers for people who have not been typically represented as scientists. And that includes people of color, broadly, and women, and especially women of color. [Women of Color in Astronomy Face Greater Degree of Discrimination, Harassment You're also involved with a nonprofit organization, Urban Alliance, which serves underrepresented students in science, technology, math and engineering. Why is the organization important?

Walkowicz: My interaction with Urban Alliance started here in Chicago. They are predominantly based in the mid-Atlantic, in Virginia, D.C. and Baltimore, but their other location is actually here where I am, in Chicago. I gave a talk at Chicago Ideas Week a couple of years ago, and they had partnered with Urban Alliance, and they brought a group of their students just to hang out afterwards and talk about space. And I had a really wonderful series of questions and answers and conversations with them, and between that and the Adler Planetarium where I am, which has a very vibrant teen program, one of the things I'm always struck by is that our teens have wonderful, insightful questions about our future here on Earth and space, and I think you hear a lot of people talk in sort of the abstract about what the next generation needs or what the next generation thinks, or even people invoking, "Well, all children want to be astronauts, etc.," and you know, when you actually talk to teenagers, they have a beautiful cornucopia of opinions.

I think that working with Urban Alliance or even just more broadly with students in the D.C. area is important, because the majority of people are not asking those students what they think and are not engaging them in actually forging their own futures, and I think that their opinions are important. And I think it's particularly important to reach out to students who do come from diverse backgrounds, because you find that, when you get groups of people together who come from a variety of different places, they see things in a variety of different ways.

Our research shows that that makes for a more robust set of problem solvers, and I really think that the more people we can engage from more backgrounds to work together, the stronger we'll be and the greater our chances will be in space and on Earth. [To Get to Mars, NASA Must Convince Lawmakers]

This aerial view shows Adler Planetarium's relationship to the Chicago skyline in the background. (Image credit: Adler Planetarium) How will you present your findings from the yearlong position you begin in October 2017 as Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress?

Walkowicz: Well, I think it'll be a variety of things. I'll be organizing in this position [a] series of symposia, so a lot of those will be bringing together people who work at the intersection of not only astronomy and planetary science, but also anthropology, policy, and space policy, specifically, and social justice within the sciences. 

I'll be hoping to have those people come together at the Library and engage in conversations, so I think there will probably be some public aspect of that to be worked out over the course of this year. But also, I'm hoping to do a lot of writing on the topic. I eventually would like to be writing about this in a longer form; I've played with the idea of writing a book. For the moment, I'd like to spend the year digging into these subjects and writing about them whenever possible, because I think it's important to engage as many people in thinking about this stuff as you can, so I'd love to use this year to have some of these questions reach a wider audience and get people thinking about them more.

I think it's the beginning of a much larger, bigger conversation! [Large laugh] So I'm excited to delve into this in a deeper way.

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Doris Elin Urrutia
Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.