Is Space for Everyone? Ethics from Earth to Space and Back

This session, from the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting, increased understanding about creating an ethical future as humanity spreads out into space, while recognizing that planning for that future affects the present, too.

Is Space for Everyone? Ethics from Earth to Space and Back

This session from the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting explored ethical space exploration and recognized how planning for that future affects the present, too.

Video Transcript:

00:00:00:00 – Rachel Kline

Welcome, everyone. We are so excited to have you here and thanks for taking the time to be here with us and with each other. I am super excited for today’s session. This is my first ever session and it’s called Is Space For Everyone: Ethics From Earth To Space And Back. We are very lucky to have three wonderful speakers with us here today, as well as a moderator who is near and dear to our DoSER heart.

So…yay! As we begin today, I want to acknowledge the land on which we gather. Land acknowledgements are important to help undo Indigenous erasure and fight against widespread complacency towards ongoing settler colonialism. Here in what’s now called Washington, D.C., we’re on the ancestral homelands of the Piscataway and the Nacotchtank or Anacostan peoples. While there are no longer any living Nacotchtank or Anacostans, there are still many Piscataway in the area. In fact, there are also many other Indigenous peoples living today here in the Chesapeake Bay region with diverse and vibrant cultures of their own. I also want to acknowledge my privilege and position as someone who benefits from the colonial forces and structures that have done and continue to do so much harm.

For those in North America, I encourage each of you after the session to visit to learn more about the Indigenous communities in your region. And we encourage you to think about ways to build relationships with those communities and to actively support them. Last, since we are all here at a science meeting, we also encourage you to think about the ways in which science has harmed and continues to harm Indigenous peoples and what you individually can do to stop and repair it, and also as a community.

So I’m going to start out by talking a little bit about DoSER, and then I’m going to turn it over to our panelists. So DoSER stands for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. And we’ve been an active program of the AAAS since 1995. And our goal is to foster communication and engagement about science between scientific and religious communities, recognizing that those often overlap. On this slide you see here some participants at a prior workshop of ours talking around the table, and we will have a workshop later this afternoon.

So the existence of our program within AAAS reflects an understanding that culture, including religion and faith, plays a central role in how many people in the U.S. and worldwide frame interests, questions, and concerns about science and technology. DoSER program activities are centered on sharing different perspectives about science, identifying areas of common interest and concern, and modeling inclusive dialogue. And since DoSER is within AAAS, a science society, our role is not about endorsing religious viewpoints or weighing in on theological questions. Our role is fostering inclusive science discourse, creating resources, and co-developing activities with faith communities.

So we have a number of different projects and some collaborations as well. I won’t describe each of them, but a number of them, including many public events like this one (which is semi-public). And we have a number of great resources on here; we really encourage you to visit that website. We have film series – we had actually a screening of one of our films yesterday here…um, event videos, profiles of scientists, articles, project reports, and so much more. As I mentioned, we have a workshop this afternoon at 2:30, and we would love to see you all at our reception at 6:30 this evening in the Renaissance Hotel. And this is our actual first DoSER event aside from the screening yesterday here at the Annual Meeting.

So with that, we’re going to start hearing from our speakers. And I want to introduce our first speaker, Dr. Pamela Conrad. Dr. Conrad is an astrobiologist and planetary scientist specializing in understanding how planets do or do not evolve into habitable environments. And she’s presently involved in the exploration of Mars with the Perseverance Rover. In her science endeavors, she’s based at the Earth and Planets Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Science. She is also an Episcopal priest and serves as interim rector at St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. As both clergy and scientist, Dr. Conrad offers a unique perspective on exploration, and she’s dedicated to encouraging people to engage both critical thinking and faith to explore all the wonders of both the material and the spiritual universe.


00:05:18:17 – Pamela Conrad

Thank you. And thank you to DoSER for inviting me. First of all, if we had more time, I’d be giving you a lot more personal context because I have to recognize that we all speak from our personal context. So I’m going to truncate that context down into one story, which I think is critical to our endeavor today.

Rewind time back to about 2007 or 8. I was involved in a research effort to explore some polar deserts as analog environments for Mars exploration. We were to test some instruments that we were going to have aboard the Curiosity Rover; not the actual instruments, but Earth-based prototypes. And at the same time see what we could learn about how organisms might make a living in “extreme” (which I say in quotes) environments. The thing about this experience that changed my life is this happenstance. We were walking, walking, walking. We were going to an outcrop of sandstone along the tundra. Our guides were in front of us, rifles half loaded in case a polar bear should come and threaten to eat us. And then we got to the outcrop. One of my colleagues said, Look, there are blueberries! Blueberries is a name given to some little concretions seen in the Martian landscape by the Mars Exploration Rovers, which were a preceding series of missions. In an instant, 30 scientists, hammers out, were at the rock, hacking away. It was like ants in my pantry just as it changes to spring when I have forgotten to remove everything that isn’t enclosed in a baggie. That really changed my thinking about nature, and it changed my approach to science. I began to think about the way I had approached science and the natural environment as something that is for me, something that is mine to explore, never mind the consequence.

So when I was asked the question, “Is space for everyone?” I glibly retorted, “Is space for anyone?” But then I began to think even more deeply. The idea that space is FOR any organism? It’s kind of abhorrent to me now. And I have to ask myself this question – Are we for space? And who is excluded from that “we”? There are a lot of things I could say more in this regard, but what I really want to do is add margin to the panel presentations so that there is optimal time for discussion. An astrobiologist is by nature an interdisciplinary person. I have a whole lot more disciplines in my life than just the spiritual and the scientific or any one specific scientific background. So let’s talk about how we can integrate our whole selves to the pursuit of decolonizing everywhere we go, so that we can follow the Prime Directive of the Starship Enterprise and not interfere. Thank you.


00:09:03:22 – Rachel Kline

Thank you, Dr. Conrad. Next, we will hear from Dr. Hilding Neilson. Dr. Neilson is Mi’kmaw from the Island of Newfoundland and an astronomy professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. His research focuses on the intersection of Western astronomy and Indigenous knowledges while also integrating Indigenous methodologies and rights into how we view the development of astronomical facilities and our future in outer space.


00:09:38:02 – Hilding Neilson

Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here on this land, the land of the Piscataway and the [sic] – I apologize – the Anacostan. This land has been Indigenous since time immemorial. Like every land in what is today Canada, the United States, Mexico…through most of the world, the land is Indigenous. And people have lived here, in this location, since time immemorial. And as was noted just an hour ago by my colleague in the audience, that…you know… that means that a relationship and a cosmology of stories have been growing and developed through that time. And those stories and cosmologies are local to the people, local to the land. And so when we ask the question, “Is space for everyone?” the answer should be yes. Is space actually for everyone? The answer is no. Because….and I’ll relay this in one very quick story I hope. I tend to go on but I’ll try to be quick.

I was at a conference in Montreal where the CEO of a major space company. Not – you probably don’t know this person because it’s major in Canada – was speaking about our future in space. He sat there in Montreal and compared our future colonization of space to how Quebec was colonized. First by visitors traveling from France, taking back new resources; then people who stayed seasonally; then settlers who built and created an economy. All the while he ignored that the land he was on was Haudenosaunee or Mohawk. This is very telling because this is how we are approaching our future in space currently. This ignores that millennia of people who lived on these lands who had a relationship with space. That relationship was important because it was familial. It was… family. For many cultures, many Indigenous peoples knew it as grandmother or grandfather. The sun is a grandparent. The planets have meaning and the sky above is a world in itself.

So when we think about our future in space, we have to ask very serious questions as to why we want to go. And for the most part, the reason we want to go is to extract, to take from space, take from the moon. Whether it’s water so we can go to Mars, rare earths so we can…you know, build more electric vehicles, or so on. But that’s not a position of relationship, of familiarity. That’s a relationship where we consider, as given in the words of Alice Gorman, that the moon and such other celestial bodies are dead. As something that we conquer and control. However, for many Indigenous…if we include Indigenous methodologies, we have to respect the right to the life of the moon, the life of space. And for all of our talk about historical significance of the Artemis Accords or the peaceful use of space in the Outer Space Treaties, those rules or regulations do not include Indigenous methodologies. And there’s no one Indigenous methodology; there’s methodologies that are Maori, there’s methodologies that are Mik’maw, there’s methodologies that are Salish, and so on. But they don’t include any of those methodologies.

For instance, the peaceful use of space, in my…my un-legal opinion, is the idea that we humans will not harm each other in space. But on Earth, strip mining is an act of violence against the land. Deforestation an act of violence against nature. Water pollution acts of violence against water. So what does that mean on the moon? Is that peaceful use? And I think we have a greater duty, as noted in the, uh, in the land acknowledgement. Indigenous Peoples have lived on these lands since time immemorial. They lived with treaties and relationships with the land. That includes a relationship with space, the sky above, the moon, the sun, and so on, even if we don’t set foot there. And if that relationship is true, and those treaties hold, that’s not just rights, it’s responsibilities. How we care for each other in the same way that Indigenous peoples have cared for nature, have cared for animals, have cared for water – those are both rights and responsibilities. And we have to both acknowledge and be inclusive of that in our future in space. We have to ask, is this is the best way going forward? Do Indigenous peoples have a right to operate here?

And I’ll close with…because I think that this comes with a very obvious question, which is should we just pack up and not go into space at all? That…the answer to that is no. Indigenous peoples across the world are explorers. You see this in traditional Western anthropology where there’s material found thousands of kilometers. Of course, we all know the Polynesians. Exploration is part of Indigenous life, just as much as it’s part of Western settler life. And so going to space is something we can and should do and it should be for everyone. But we should reevaluate the how and ask maybe one simple question: If we do go to space, instead of what are we taking from the moon and space, what are we giving to it? What are we giving to space? What are we giving to the moon? Because right now, there’s nothing in any of this for the moon other than to be used up.

Thank you.


00:15:08:12 – Rachel Kline

Thank you, Dr. Nielson. And our last speaker is Dr. Alissa Haddaji. Dr. Haddaji specializes in international space threat management, so planetary protection and planetary defense. She’s the founder and director of the Space Consortium, a grassroots community initiative for Harvard and MIT Space Affiliates and of Space Week in Boston and its Space Film Festival. Dr. Haddaji (excuse me) is also faculty advisor of the Harvard Law School Space Law Society and created and taught their space law, policy, and ethics curriculum. Prior to her planetary defense work, she coauthored the International Planetary Protection Handbook. Dr. Haddaji holds a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies, and Master’s degrees in planetary science; history and international relations; political science, law, and socio-anthropology; and is currently finishing her second Ph.D. in international space politics. Dr. Haddaji.


00:16:17:14 – Alissa Haddaji

Thank you, Rachel, and thank you to the AAAS for having me as well as the DoSER program. I will, here, talk about planetary defense and the lessons that can be learned from looking at natural space threat management, but also the legal aspects of planetary defense. And…I should click on this…Yes. Okay. So I will first look at the legal questions. Then I will talk to you about socio-anthropology, tell you a little bit more about it. And there is a “to know more” than I did not address because we have 10 minutes, just ask questions because there’s tons to learn about this.

Okay, so, first, we talked a little bit with Pamela about technically planetary protection. It is different from planetary defense, even though the two names sound very similar. Planetary protection: what to do when you send out a spacecraft and you want to decontaminate it to make sure that you do not create false positives when looking for life on other planets and what to do when you bring back samples. Planetary defense: what to do to push away an asteroid that could threaten the Earth.

There are two reports; everything I will tell you today are based on two public reports that you can find online. And both bills are very interesting; I’m sorry to only be able to focus on planetary defense today.

So…what is planetary defense? This definition is from SMPAG. It says that planetary defense refers to activities and actions to predict and mitigate the potential impact of an asteroid or a comet on Earth. And SMPAG is Space Mission Planning Advisory Group. So at the UN level, you have the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which has a technical subcommittee and this subcommittee has sub-groups, and SMPAG is the scientific one in charge of creating potential missions in case of an asteroid threat on earth. The work is to search, intercept, and track, characterize asteroids because depending on their size and their weight, pushing it away will have different methods. SMPAG will create a plan and coordinate an international mission, and then you have to mitigate and assess if the threat has been pushed away properly.

So why talking about legal questions? We’re here in an ethics panel. Because the legal questions regarding planetary defense are deeply ethical. They’re asking us what is right and what is wrong when trying to protect the Earth. Who should be involved and who shouldn’t? I’ll refrain myself from talking about Article One and Article Two of the outer space treaty. Please ask me about it afterwards. But I’ll focus on Article Four. Why am I focusing on Article Four? Because this is the article in the Outer Space Treaty that has been signed by all the [sic] United Nations on the object carrying the nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction. State parties to the treaties cannot place them in orbit; they cannot station them; you cannot put a nuclear weapon in space. That’s what international law tells you, and it tells you that space should be used for exclusively peaceful purposes. However, when you look at the field of planetary defense, there are different mitigation methods. How could you push away an asteroid? Well, the main one is. the first one, is a kinetic impactor. If you heard of the DART mission, it means that you take a probe, you send it to the object, and you push the object away. And the second method that is very much discussed in our field, is to use a nuclear device. Please note that I didn’t say a nuclear weapon; I said nuclear device. That device will explode near the asteroid, the radiation would melt part of the surface of the asteroid, it would pull out that piece, and thus the object would be pushed away. This is a technique that scientists would like to be able to use if an asteroid were to impact us. However, this is a nuclear explosion in space. So based on international law, we cannot use it.

So, this group of scientists have created an ad hoc working group of international space lawyers with 50 international lawyers from NASA, ESA, DLR, the Mexican, Italian, Austrian, and UK space agencies. And the coordinator of this group, and if there are space lawyers in the room who want to be involved, we’re starting our second report and recruiting so that our team is more representative of the world. Because as you can see, unfortunately, we do not have Asian, Russian, South American representation yet.

But, so, what have we worked on? We worked on the legality of planetary defense methods and this question of being able to use a nuclear device if we needed to. And the conclusion of that is you would need to supersede international law. And the only body that is able to do that is the U.N. Security Council. So you would need 9 out of the 15 votes of the U.N. Council, without a veto, to be able to push away an asteroid using a nuclear device. Secondly, the…one of the questions, it’s a very human question regarding the space situation, is liability for damage. Because based on international law, liability is absolute. If a country, a large country, were to try to help a smaller country that does not have the technology to push away an asteroid. So let’s say Belgium is about to be impacted by an asteroid. The United States could offer to help. But then the object, if it had any problems in which pushed away partially and impacted – I don’t know, China – then liability would be absolute. That rule pushes countries not to help each other in case of the planetary defense situation. Thus, the question and the work of this team to work on potential waivers so that countries would sign waivers ahead of time to agree to help each other. There is an obligation to inform and to act. If your country discovers an asteroid that could threaten you, you would be informed. However, there is no obligation to inform or to act if a neighboring country is in danger. And lastly, there are decision bodies. Right now we’re always turning to the U.N. Security Council regarding these questions. Should another body should be developed? That is something to work on.

So now, the socio-anthropological questions. For my personal research, I looked at the natural disasters, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and looked at how populations were mistreated in these situations to inform planetary threat management teams when they are planning for a potential end-of-the-Earth scenario. So what? What does this literature tell you? Anthropology, for those who don’t know, is from the word human, and study is the study of humans. Socio-anthropology enables the analysis of the local cultural knowledge. In the context of planetary defense, it aims to contextualize and understand better the populations that may be impacted. And a disaster will disrupt the pre-established social order that we need to be acquainted with to be able to help.

When looking at natural disasters, on most occasions, several socioeconomic problems will be perceived as more important than the natural threat. People are facing famines, war, economic hardship. So when you’re telling them that ten years from now their country may be impacted by an asteroid, this may not change at all what is going on in their region because they have more priorities, they have more urgent priorities, and that our field needs to take into account. There is a resistance to displacement. We observed it several times, again; the communities have consistently avoided being displaced because they have a cultural attachment to their land. Also, for economic reasons. And when you turn to a population and say, “Oh, you should move,” that’s not something that can be done easily and they will need to have assistance. And also, when you look at the United Nations Refugee Agency…if you look at the 17 million people that were forcibly displaced, 80% of them went to a neighboring country. If we are talking about an asteroid impacting the earth, you cannot just go to a neighboring country, that will not help you.

And we need to care for this situation of mass death management. And because there is a lack of cultural care during mass burials. When there are tsunamis, when there are volcanic eruptions, when there are those deaths, obviously we want to help the population, but we also do not want to traumatize them in the way we deal with their dead. And so death rituals are necessary to try to make sense and somehow normalize one type of situation such as an asteroid impact. So we do not want to enhance that trauma by rushing in, trying to help them by pushing them away and leaving the bodies behind.

And lastly, we observed, especially in this case in …in 1755, that in one instance during an earthquake in Portugal, a hundred thousand people died. And as a result of that, it was massive loss of faith. And we need to take that into account as well. That there will be a form of secular catastrophe where if the world was impacted by an asteroid, people would start to lose their faith.

In conclusion, those conclusions from my colleagues, Dr. James and Friedman, their recommendation is to bring people to the table, is to bring into anthropologists, is to bring psychologists, is to bring lawyers and economists and religious experts for the design phase of this crisis management solutions to be able to plan for planetary defense future. And come to the conferences. We have a planetary defense conference coming up 1st of April. Join us. It’s from the third to the seventh, and we have sessions on the social aspects of planetary defense. And we need every single sort of expertise to be able to take into account humans in our planetary defense planning. And our goal here is to build joint academic research projects to reflect on and find the most adequate ways to interact with populations and the potential asteroid impact threat. And on that note I’ll wait for your questions. Thank you.


00:26:18:21– Rachel Kline

Thank you, Dr. Haddaji. So, we are about to move into the moderator part of [laughter] no worries, you’re fine. So we have a wonderful moderator here, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. And I’m going to introduce her briefly. If I can pull up…ok, here they are. Dr. Weisman is an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where she studies the process of star and planet formation in our galaxy using radio, optical, and infrared telescopes. She serves as the senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope Mission. She is also interested in national science policy and public science engagement. She served as a congressional science fellow for the American Physical Society and is the director emeritus of DoSER from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And so, we will have some time of moderated questions and discussion with the panel, and then we will have a Q&A with the audience as well.


00:27:48:11 – Jennifer Wiseman

Okay, thank you very much. Thank you, Rachel. And I want to thank our speakers for getting us started. Pam, as Dr. Conrad prefers to be referred to, and Hilding and Alissa, thank you very much. The reason Rachel decided to run up and down is because she wants to be down there showing us those time cards so we don’t go over. I am an astronomer, an astrophysicist. And so astronomers, I think we kind of take a little bit of…pride in the sense that we view ourselves as a very peaceful enterprise, that we are simply looking deep into space and learning what’s there with telescopes that simply receive information, you know, that’s traveling across space time. And so what could be more peaceful and harmonious than that? And I think our eyes have been, are being rightly opened, as we’ve learned that some of the places that we’ve put our telescope facilities and the way that we’ve developed those facilities have not been sensitive to Indigenous peoples, or too inclusive of who should be involved in making choices about how we do that science and the benefits from the enterprise and who benefits from the science that we learn. So I think these kinds of conversations that we’re having today are incredibly important. And the question is, is really, as the session is titled, who and what is space for? Who does space exploration benefit? And can we do it in such a way that benefits everyone and that is inclusive to everyone? Um, it includes thinking about what we’re doing in space or in studying space, how we are doing it, why we are doing it, who benefits from it, and who gets to decide who gets to be in the rooms where those decisions are made.

So I’m going to start this off, but I’d like to first ask Rachel, when people are asking questions, do they just come to the mike? So let me take the moderator’s prerogative and ask the questions first and then we’re going to open it up to all of you to think of questions you might want to ask our panelists and hopefully we’ll leave this room inspired for ways when whatever, you know, facet of science we’re involved with, you can think about doing it more inclusively and more sensitively.

So, um, Hilding, I wanted to ask you, when you talked about using Indigenous methodologies, I’d like to know what that looks like kind of in a practical sense. Could you give an example of how in the current – you know – enterprises of space exploration, how do… You mentioned that Indigenous people are explorers. It’s not that Indigenous peoples have not, are not explorers, but they use a methodology that larger societies would benefit by emulating. Could you give us an example of what that might look like?


00:31:20:22 – Hilding Neilson

Thank you for the question. I think I would start by looking at the Earth. So, many of you may have read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, where she discusses about how one of the ways to give back is when you gather herbs or are gathering items in the forest, you don’t take the first plant; you move past it to the next one. So that way you’re not taking everything…thank you. Hopefully you can hear me now. So you’re not taking everything away from nature. And likewise, in space, there’s a little bit of that – because we’re going to go to space, we’re gonna mine it, we’re gonna look for water [sic] products from Mars. We’ll look for…materials to build whatever. So how…what are we taking? How much are we taking? Where or what part of the moon are we taking it from? Are we going to scratch the surface? When we tap in the Artemis Accords we have sites of historic significance – is that just one spot where Apollo landed? Is that a couple more spots? But for many people, that’s all significant. But I think…really, the methodology in my mind we should be asking is if we’re going to take from the moon, what are we returning to it? What does the moon get from us being there? And currently, all the moon is getting is, well, trash. Because we keep leaving our garbage there. So what is our… [sic] methodology that we can start with is: What do we give back?


00:32:45:20 – Jennifer Wiseman

Thanks very much. And so I’m just going to continue on this side. I’d like to ask you, Alissa, thank you for pointing out the somewhat sobering envisioning of what might happen if we’re clobbered with an asteroid. But, um, but hopefully, you know, we’re building more telescopes and things that are hopefully going to at least give us a little more advance warning if something like that is on the way. My question for you is, are there different – as you look across different cultures, are there different senses of how, you know, how much the space enterprise…be it astronomy or whatever…should be focusing on these…these threats to planet Earth, versus kind of outward-looking exploration, versus commercial interest? Do you get a sense of… do those values shift depending on which cultures you’re working with?


00:33:42:04 – Alissa Haddaji

Thank you for the question. It’s a good question. I would say that in general, looking at a massive threat, something that will not have borders; an object that would be large enough that it would just erase the population, erase the world. That brings people together, people listen and there’s no real objection. What is really interesting, and I talked with a couple of colleagues about it just last week in preparation for the Planetary Defense Conference, is that we design scenarios. And so the PDC is organized every two years and there’s always a different scenario. And you can see a really big difference in involvement when the object is more than one kilometer wide – and so it would have massive international effect. Or when it’s an object that would hit one country or one region. And that’s a little bit terrifying to… oh, if everybody is under threat, then we can try to collaborate. But if one country is impacted… we can discuss. And this year the designers – it’s NASA designers of the…of the scenario, they decided to do something a little bit original, and I am not spoiling, they decided this year to put the scenario ahead of time online so the researchers could look at it before coming to the conference and discussing it when it’s usually discovered on site. And the scenario this year is that it’s a large object and when it is detected, it’s ten years away and it may impact North America or Africa. And then some decisions have to be made. And later on in the scenario, it is discovered that it’s going to only impact the continent of Africa. And I’m really looking forward to the conversations because heads of agencies are going to be at the conference and I want to see if when it’s the continent of Africa being impacted is the dialogue going to change? Because it’s still going to be massive, if an entire continent were to be wiped out. You can see when war is at play on the other side of the world, how it impacts the whole globe. So it is an illusion to think that if your continent is not impacted, the rest of the world won’t be. So I’m looking forward to this conversation.


00:35:45:09 – Jennifer Wiseman

Thank you very much Alissa. Pam, you have such an interesting career where you are thinking both about Mars exploration, scientific studies of Mars, astrobiology, and you are a priest. So I would like to know in your interactions with both scientific communities and faith communities and your concepts of how colonialism has basically caused abusive uses in the past, perhaps, of science in some way. How do you see a more harmonious view of science? How do you see exploration as you’re part of, I mean, you’re studying Mars and so forth; how can exploration be done in a way that does not make the mistakes of colonialism in the past? And how do faith communities played a role in that? Quickly.


00:36:36:05 – Pamela Conrad

Thank you for that tiny question, Jennifer. So I think there’s a simple answer that unifies some of the things that Hilding said and some of the things that Alissa said and this question. And it has to do with breadth of perspective. I take a systems approach to everything. The moon is part of the Earth. And if something strikes one piece of this planet, we are deluding ourselves if we don’t think the whole planet is going to be affected. I look at how we, over the last three years, have treated a very tiny global threat. We haven’t handled it very well. The distribution of diagnostics and therapeutics to deal with the COVID pandemic has not been equitable.

The way that the academy – by that I mean all of academic pursuit – has approached discovery of knowledge – not gonna use the word wisdom just yet – historically, is one in which we are still colonialist. That is, we seek new stuff, we take it, and we dominate, and we hold the keys to access to that. If you’ve ever served on a review panel and the funding rate is perhaps 30% or less, that’s what it used to be for the NASA ROSES grants. You will see all kinds of things that tell you there is not equal access to funding. To the keys to the kingdom to get out there and explore. And since exploration is the archetype for survival of all living things, not just humans, we have to understand that the system is very broad and all are included. Hence the only path forward to involving the voices of all is conversation across perceived differences.

If you’ve done any 23&Me or, you know that race is an invented construct. You know that we are all humans. We all need the same stuff for our environment to be habitable, and it is key to have conversations across those differences. So just very quickly, getting to the last part of your question, what role do communities of faith have in this? Communities of faith are just subsets of people. We have to use our whole selves because once again, the body is a system. We have no use for just our left thumb if the rest of the body isn’t attached to it. And so our critical thinking skills, our embrace of science as a way of knowing, the breadth of understanding that we also have a spiritual component to the way we live, gives us a broader perspective and more conversational topics to bring to the table, to bridge across differences and recognize that we are all in this Earth’s survival together.


00:39:59:08 – Jennifer Wiseman

Wow, thank you very much. Okay. All right. I’d like to invite anyone who has a question to come to the mic and, um, and I’d ask that you make it a question. So I’d like to invite our first question.


00:40:15:00 – Question 1

One thing that I’ve noticed a lot in this discourse, when we talk about questions of ethics and space, is this tendency to talk about colonialism as a phenomenon that’s solely in the past and not an ongoing process. Dr. Nielson, how have you been thinking about responding to colonialism as a unfolding process, even as it shapes this conversation? And what would you like to see go differently in that conversation?


00:40:44:00 – Hilding Neilson

Thank you. So that’s an easy question, isn’t it? [Laughter.] Yeah…sorry. When we’re talking about the planetary defense and particularly the concept of America vs. Africa, it reminded me of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste, inevitably in North America, ends up on native lands. Whether it’s Navajo, Northern Canada, reserved lands near Ontario, and so on. Similarly, we have satellites that crash in Northern Canada with waste and nuclear waste material that’s ended up on native lands, probably never cleaned up. And so I think a lot of the discourse with the colonialization…colonization that’s ongoing is that we do have to fix a lot of these issues. We need…you know, it’s easy for me to sit in this room as a professor and talk about colonization of Indigenous peoples, but, you know, a lot of people do not have good water. A lot of people do not have access to education. A lot of people are still dealing with the consequences of Sixties Scoop residential schools and so on, both in Canada and in the U.S. And so we also have to address those issues when we think about going into space. Because, when we go to space, and we take a rocket ship to some rich dude’s new space mansion, who’s going to be the servants? Who’s going to be the serving class? And, so, if we don’t address colonization on Earth, that…that is just going to be carried out in space. And even though we are still using the same model of colonization – we talk about building “settlements” on Mars and the moon – we have to change it on Earth before we can actually change it in space. So I think we have to be…try to address what we can do today is really think about the implications on the land and our personal role. And because, you know, in the end if space is for everyone, that means it’s for every person – as well as the moon, as well as Mars, as well as space for itself. And if every person has a right to space, they have to have a right to everything else. They need to be able to access education, clean water, culture, the night sky, fresh air, healthy food, so on and so forth. So, you know, having this conversation is a little bit easier than dealing with those issues. But we do have to do it in the same breath. Thank you.


00:43:15:19 – Jennifer Wiseman

Thanks very much. We have another question.


00:43:19:15 – Question 2

Thinking about the scenario where we and other countries go into outer space and take resources from the moon. What would happen if one country decided to take more than what is deemed a “fair share?” If someone did take too much, would this cause economic and/or power issues, and could it cause wars?


00:43:49:15 – Hilding Neilson

My understanding of the Accords, which is a little bit superficial, is about peaceful use, shared maintenance, everybody playing nice. What the Artemis Accords doesn’t really do is have a situa…have a mechanism for a situation when someone isn’t playing nice. And that could be bad. But I also think that the ones that are probably not going to be playing nice in this are going to be the Western countries – Canada, the U.S., the Australians, the ones that are already benefitting from all these situations. So in the end, I half expect what will happen in the situation here, once one person takes more, everyone else is going to take more, and it’ll snowball. And guess what? We’ve been doing that for centuries… That’s why we’re basically – what – two degrees warmer now?


00:44:41:10 – Jennifer Wiseman

Okay, Next question please.


00:44:44:20 – Question 3

Recently, it seems that Indigenous science has become more mainstream; also, it seems that when we talk about Indigenous peoples and astronomy, Indigenous people are not included in that conversation. What Indigenous astronomy or physics research is out right now?


00:45:14:15 – Hilding Neilson

Sorry, I kinda shocked myself when you said Indigenous science is mainstream. Usually, in generations, when something is mainstream, it’s not cool anymore.

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of these issues and a lot of how we do research in astronomy is very much being driven by curiosity as well as questions of methodology. And, you know, like the things I’m very interested in with Indigenous knowledge is, is how…we talk about ethics of course, but also the Drake equation, how we think about the possibility of life in our galaxy? Which historically has been driven by looking for settler culture, to be honest. We look for radio signals, we look for light pollution, we look for other indications of techno-advanced technology, advanced impacts of technology. And I think that if we apply Indigenous methodologies to that, we have the possi…the idea that perhaps there’s a lot of civilizations in our galaxy that don’t do that. In the best case, maybe we’re…we’re looking in the wrong direction.

So that’s some …some of the possible [sic]. And I think there’s so many because we’re really just scratching the surface. Like I didn’t grow up in a community. I didn’t grow up around elders. So my knowledge is very…little. And I’m still learning every day. And that means really embracing not just my own biases, which is…I spent ten years in grad school and in university to get a degree, I didn’t spend ten years learning Indigenous knowledges. Trying to bring them together is to really challenge those biases that I’ve learned the last, you know, 10-15 years of university life. And to try to create space even in my own mind for Indigenous knowledges.


00:47:08:50 – Jennifer Wiseman

OK. Um.


00:47:09:23 – Question 4

What are meaningful routes for communities impacted by space exploration to voice opposition to some of these practices that will impact them and their future generations? What are the routes for them to say no in a way that will stick?


00:47:39:16 – Jennifer Wiseman

So all right. Do any of our panelists have, um, have ideas about how more voices can come into decision-making, such as, as Rob just expressed, on what is done or not done regarding space exploration?


00:47:50:09 – Alissa Haddaji

I’ll share a couple of thoughts and thank you for the question. Being involved in certain associations like the Dark Sky Preservation Association and like the SMPAG mission is meaningful. These organizations have seats at the U.N., at the committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. They have a voice. They have a time to share their…their statement and their position. But also there is this new trend, I’ll say, and I don’t know how long it is, but when you purchase washing machines, you go, you know, it’s green or it’s yellow or it’s orange or it’s red, and these sort of “green stamps” are being developed for this sector so that customers which are becoming customers of space companies to go to space or to sign up or support our government, to reinvest in some sort of space mission; citizens can position themselves and say, “No, we are not going to work with this company or we do not want this company to be the one leading this mission because they are rated…red.” It’s very customer based. It’s…it may not work, but I see this an improvement of what was before where you did not have this kind of scales. So you have these new sort of green stamps that are being developed in the…and seeing academic institutions that are pairing up with government institutions. And I see that as an improvement.


00:49:21:00 – Jennifer Wiseman

Any other thoughts?


00:49:24:00 – Pamela Conrad

The power of one voice to make change is much more significant than we imagine. It’s a matter of agency. We have to speak up early and often in conversation, in how we vote, in our various democratic processes, how we participate in the scientific community, how we participate in across many types of communities, and importantly, making sure that we understand which voices are not in those conversations and inviting them to the conversation. Each one of us can have this agency and it’s a decision. So while it feels like nothing may change, you’d be surprised how irritating it is to have one person continuously bringing up the same topics. And finally someone will listen. I tell you this from my own experience because I can be really annoying on the topic of racial injustice and reparative action. And I think that it’s my job to keep bringing it up because things don’t get better unless we decide we are going to make them better. Things will not improve about the condition of the night sky unless we speak up. And it’s not just for humans, it’s for all living things. It’s for birds. It’s for many species of beings that are on this planet. So this is a global problem. But yet, it is responsive to the agency of a single voice.


00:51:06 – Jennifer Wiseman

Thank you. Okay. We have another question.


00:51:08:04 – Question 5

I’m happy to hear these conversations are going on in government, UN, academia, etc. But these conversations are not happening in Silicon Valley or at tech companies. How do we rein in the “move fast and break things” ethos of the capitalist space exploration so we can actually have these discussions with people who are doing this work?


00:51:41:11 – Jennifer Wiseman

How do we actually have meaningful, effectual communications between very different entities who have very different goals in space? And they may all be laudable in some way, but they’re different. So any thoughts on that?


00:51:54:21 – Alissa Haddaji

I’ll try my best. Two quick things. One, how much I love Article Six of the Outer Space Treaty, because companies cannot do whatever they want. They need to have a license to launch. And to have a license to launch, who’s responsible internationally? The country where they’re launching from. So if SpaceX wants to whatever they want to do, they have to follow U.S. law. And this is one way to be protected. There is no rogue agent, they cannot launch.

The other thing is, it kind of works both ways. And I do like this orientation. More and more, private companies have wanted to be on boards, to be part of the Committee on Space Research, to have a special industry panel at the International Astronautical Federation. To have an industry panel there and an industry panel here. The original goal, obviously, was to get the private sector that is rising more involved, who have been connected with the rest of the community, and to hear their concerns regarding what they have to follow to be able to launch. And the…not the reverse, but the…a complementary element happened, which is that now they are part of the earth space organizations. They are coming to the scientific assemblies, and in those panels, they are not just the industry people. It’s the industry people mixed with the scientists who are telling them, “Great. So you want to do that kind of regulation. By the way, here are my astronomy pictures that you have ruined.” And it brought more places to have these conversations between the industry wanted to be more involved, and the scientists that really didn’t have the places to discuss with the industry. And more and more, all of those international groups like one international space group that does not have an industry panel these days. That’s a good thing.


00:53:36:00 – Jennifer Wiseman

Okay. Thank you very much. All right. We are sadly running out of time, so I would like our two people who have questions to just briefly ask you a question, both of you.


00:53:49:11 – Questions 6 & 7

We know that things like forest fires, while devastating, also have benefits for the planet. Has there been an analysis of what benefits a comet or asteroid impact might be to the planet?

Ultimately, the Outer Space Treaty has to do with ownership of items in space. From a practical perspective, where do you think the ownership question is going in the next 5-6 years?


00:54:18:08 – Jennifer Wiseman

It seems like both of those questions are for Alissa. Can you offer some brief remarks?


00:54:25:16 – Alissa Haddaji

Yes. For ownership, I…I cannot predict what will happen in five years. I know that it’s…there are those UN efforts, and you have other interagency efforts like what the Artemis Accords are doing. And these are being discussed. What I like is that it’s not only being discussed by lawyers, but it’s being discussed by all the types of social scientists, it’s discussed by scientists. So the best way to discuss ownership is not (and I teach space law) it’s not to let only the lawyers define what ownership means. And that’s the… And that would be the best approach to keep it inclusive and not to end up in a [sic] in space.

The first question, space and asteroids are fertilizing in some ways; that’s one of the beliefs is that maybe potentially some life has come from asteroids. Tons of particles are falling on earth constantly. So asteroids are not our enemy. We’re learning a lot from them. You have the Hayabusa missions. You have the OSIRIS-REx missions.

We need to think about what could happen if a large asteroid were to kill a lot of people. But obviously we do have natural events that are beneficial to the earth.


00:55:41:07 – Jennifer Wiseman

And comets brought some water here, too, right? So yeah. Okay. Um. OK, so….So we need to wrap up. I want to thank the panelists and Rachel will want to thank them as well. So… [audience clapping]


00:56:00:00 – Rachel Kline

Just to repeat Jennifer, a huge you to our speakers and also thank you, Jennifer, for being the moderator. I wanted to put up our contact info here so if you want to stay connected with us, this is how: is our AAAS website. Our resources are all on We’re on Twitter and Facebook. And you can get more DoSER! All today! We have a workshop from 2:30-3:30 and a reception this evening from 6:30-8pm.

That is all. With that, thank you again so much for sharing this time with us. Thank you to our speakers and our moderator. And have a great rest of your day.


This session was hosted as part of the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting, “Science For Humanity.”

Humans are inching closer to exploring space in person, encouraged to dream about settling on the Moon, or to imagine Mars as a backup planet. But space exploration isn’t just a dream anymore, and it raises very real, practical questions, not just about what space can give humans, but about how to explore space ethically. People need to grapple with questions like: Who gets to go into space to begin with? Should we treat space and other planets like we treat Earth? What rights do explorers and settlers get? Who has the right to decide these questions anyway? In this session, attendees will hear how planning for asteroid impacts causes reflection about ethics here on Earth; about post-colonial exploration ethics and expansion without exploitation; and about how Indigenous methodologies should be incorporated when forming approaches to space exploration. The session hopes to increase understanding about creating an ethical future as humanity spreads out into space, and recognizing that planning for that future affects the present, too.

Speakers and Moderator

A woman in a blue-and-black puffy jacket holds metal machinery. She is surrounded by grey-brown rocks and dirt.

Pamela Conrad, Carnegie Institution of Science

Dr. Pamela Conrad is an astrobiologist and planetary scientist who started her career at JPL. She developed methods of life detection and methods for characterizing the potential habitability of environments, also serving as investigation scientist for the SAM investigation on MSL’s Curiosity Rover. Later she moved to NASA and became Deputy Principal investigator of SAM. Since 2017, Dr. Conrad has focused all of her scientific efforts on Mars 2020, working with the team to map the landing elipse in Jezero Crater, and the science teams of both the SHERLOC and MEDA investigations.

Headshot of a smiling woman with long brown hair wearing a white lace shirt. The background is blurred.

Alissa Haddaji, The Space Consortium

Prof. Alissa J. Haddaji is the founder, president, and director of The Space Consortium and of Space Week at Harvard. She is a faculty researcher at Harvard University, where she created and teaches Harvard and Harvard Law School’s first Space Law, Policy and Ethics curriculum. She also launched and teaches Boston College Law School’s and Paris-Saclay University’s Space Law, Policy and Ethics courses. Prof. Haddaji specializes in International Space Threat Management (Planetary Protection/Planetary Defense). In 2014, she joined the International Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) as their Planetary Protection Project Officer, before becoming in 2017, the lead coordinator of the United Nations’ SMPAG Legal Working Group on Planetary Defense. In parallel to her Consortium, teaching and SMPAG work, she currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the International Astronautical Federation’s Near Earth Object & Planetary Defense committee and as a United Nations Space4Women mentor. She holds a PhD in Science and Technology Studies, and Master’s Degrees in Planetary Science (spe. oceanography), History/International Relations, Political Science, Law and Socio-Anthropology, from Brown University, La Sorbonne University and Bordeaux 1 University.

A man in glasses wearing a navy blue shirt stands in front of a blurred cityscape background.

Hilding Neilson, Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador

Dr. Hilding Neilson is an interdisciplinary scientist, working on astrophysics and on the intersection of science, astronomy, and Indigenous knowledge.  As a Mi’kmaw person, he strives to embrace and integrate Indigenous knowledges and methodologies to better understand the physics of stars and the Universe and our place in it.  More specifically, he probes the physics of stars, from the nuclear-burning core out to the circumstellar medium where stellar winds interact with the interstellar medium to understand connections between stars and planets; stars and cosmology; and stars and us. He exploits theoretical and numerical tools to compare with observational data sets to reveal the hidden physics of stars. Dr. Neilson enjoys teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as participating in public outreach and science communication.

Jennifer Wiseman smiling.

Jennifer Wiseman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman is the Director Emeritus of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program. She is also an astrophysicist at NASA, where she is the Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. She studies the formation of stars and planetary systems using radio, optical, and infrared telescopes. Dr. Wiseman studied physics for her bachelor’s degree at MIT, discovering comet Wiseman-Skiff in 1987, and earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1995. Dr. Wiseman has an interest in national science policy, is a public speaker and author, and enjoys giving talks on the excitement of science and astronomy to schools, youth and church groups, and civic organizations. She is a Councilor of the American Astronomical Society and a former President of the American Scientific Affiliation.

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