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Space Ethics: Ethical Implications of Commercial Space Projects: May 10th Lecture by Christopher Ketcham, Ph.D.

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This post was authored by Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D., Science Reference & Research Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division of the Library of Congress.

On Wednesday, May 10, 2017, Dr. Christopher Ketcham will discuss the need to balance the economic value of commercial ventures with safety and ethical concerns for life on Earth and in space.

Date: Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Time: 11:30a.m.-12:30p.m.

Place: Pickford Theater, 3rd floor, Madison Building

Free, no reservations needed!

Since our illustrious astronauts first landed on the moon in 1969, the concept of space travel has universally generated tremendous excitement for adults and youths alike. Now in the 21st century, we are continually innovating and investigating new designs for space travel.

While our excitement is unabated, there are increasing safety and ethical concerns with space travel. For example, Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Laureate and microbiologist, who served as an adviser to NASA’s space program, and Carl Sagan, a popular astrophysicist at Cornell University who also worked with NASA, were concerned with the problem of interplanetary contaminants. There are two types of deliberate or unintentional interplanetary contamination: forward contamination and back contamination. Forward contamination occurs when a space instrument (such as a probe or spacecraft) or astronauts transfer Earth’s micro-organisms to another planet. Back contamination occurs when a space instrument or astronauts introduce unknown micro-organisms into the Earth’s biosphere, which can infect earthly organisms, including humans and human habitats. Safety and ethical concerns are particularly important as commercial space travel becomes a reality, and such expeditions are no longer limited to government-sponsored astronauts.

Considering the effects of human impact on our own planet, some individuals question whether private space travel should be encouraged at all. For instance, on Earth, concerns of pollution have been raised over the years. Meanwhile, Earth’s outer atmosphere is littered with human-generated debris. As a result, space crafts and satellites are vulnerable to collision with this debris. Moreover, the moon and other planets retain abandoned human-generated equipment. Thus, what kinds of safeguards are in place to ensure that the problem does not intensify–especially if we propose to increase space traffic? Are we prepared for the risks of accidents occurring in space?

If humans are consuming Earth’s resources at a much faster rate than expected, perhaps outer space and its resources are one solution to the potential problem of food shortages and the shortages of other resources.

References/further reading:

Blog post: “Take a Course or Two with Professor Sagan

Reference Guides

Origin of Life in the Universe

For Young Readers

Space race : an interactive space exploration adventure / by Rebecca Stefoff. North Mankato, Minnesota : Capstone Press, a Capstone imprint, [2017]

Mars exploration rovers : an interactive space exploration adventure / by Steve Kortenkamp. North Mankato, Minnesota : You Choose Books, an imprint of Capstone Press, [2017]

Past Lectures

July 26, 2007: “Origins of Life and the Universe” by Nobel Laureates: John Mather, Craig Mello

For inquiries about this program contact Dr. Tomoko Steen in the Science, Technology & Business Division at [email protected] or the division office at: 202-707-1212. Individuals requiring accommodations for this event are requested to submit a request at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

The lecture will be later broadcast on the library’s webcast page and YouTube channel “Topics in Science” playlist.


  1. Thank you for this very informative post concerning space travel and recapitulation of the important resources from LC regarding astronomy and space exploration. The overview of the safety and ethical issues associated with space travel will stimulate much needed conversations among scientists and non-scientists alike, for we all share this universe (or “multiverse” as some hypothesized). I checked out the earlier blog from “further reading”, and looked at the digitalized course materials from Carl Sagan. Reading those hand-written class notes was like a journey of time-travel, let alone it is from astronomy course!

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