Planetary protection—A microbial ethics approach

Cockell, Charles (2005). Planetary protection—A microbial ethics approach. Space Policy, 21(4) pp. 287–292.



Planetary protection policies designed to reduce the cross-transfer of life on spacecraft from one planet to another can either be formulated from the pragmatic instrumental needs of scientific exploration, or from ethical principles. I address planetary protection concerns by starting from a normative ethical framework for the treatment of microorganisms. This argues that they have intrinsic value at the level of the individual through to the level of the community, but at the individual level this ethic can only be theoretical. This approach yields a solution to the problem of the inevitable contamination of Mars by human explorers and suggests that in some instances the local contamination of other planets may be acceptable. An exception would be where this contamination would cause destruction of microbial ecosystems. Within the framework of such an ethic, the term ‘planetary protection’ may be normatively too narrow and ‘planetary preservation’ may better describe the activity of controlling cross-inoculation of planets. I discuss an example of a contamination event that might be ethically acceptable within the framework of ‘preservation’, but would be regarded as unacceptable under current planetary ‘protection’ guidelines.

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