Humility 'should be the first lesson learned' in space exploration

Ethics and theory professors delve into the philosophical responsibility humans must bear as they embark into deep space

Dr Abdullah Al Ghathami, professor of criticism and theory at King Saud University, speaking at the conference. Photo: Riyadh Philosophy Conference
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As scientists and astronauts focus on troubleshooting the tangible challenges of space exploration, experts on ethics and theoretical quandaries gathered in Saudi Arabia asserted that space explorers should not forget humility.

This year's Riyadh Philosophy Conference was the optimal venue to address this human attribute, which some say is integral to a successful space expedition by the human race.

“Glory and power have been deciding factors in nations' quests to partake in space exploration, and both are detrimental to the altruistic focus of discovering other planets and becoming an interplanetary species”, said Dr Abdullah Al Ghathami, Prof of Criticism and Theory at King Saud University in Riyadh.

“Without a mechanism in place to keep these self-serving emotions in check, humanity may falter at the first step towards migrating to other planets in the future,” he said.

During his panel, titled “Humanity in space: glory or power,” Dr Al Ghathami lamented humans' desire to achieve success without taking a hard look at how that success is achieved.

When it comes to space, the final frontier, the need to justify the means can be more detrimental than useful, when nations' glory and power are involved.

It has been more than 60 years since space exploration began, yet ethics experts worry that competition for dominance remains. Political and technical power provided by acquiring space technology still serves as enticing reasons for new actors to join the space race.

The power struggle and glory of getting to the moon first clouded the bigger picture of why the human race should embark on an interstellar journey to explore space and beyond.

The space race was a period of competition from the 1950s to 1970s between the former Soviet Union and the US over who could conquer space exploration first. Glory and power went hand-in-hand during that period.

However, when the International Space Station (ISS) Programme was established, it became a testament to human's ability to focus on the bigger picture, to prolong the existence of the human race beyond Earth and to co-ordinate and monitor the varied activities of the Programme’s many organisations, made up of space agencies of the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

This accomplishment has come under threat recently after Russia announced that it would quit the ISS after 2024 and build one of its own.

The floating science laboratory was always immune to political struggles on the ground, but relations between Roscosmos and the West have soured significantly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

“The quest to dominate space needs to circle back and recall the first time humans saw Earth from above, a planet void of any borders and alliances, and revel in the wonders that exist beyond Earth,” Dr Jacques Arnould, Ethics Adviser at Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), told The National.

Dr Jacques Arnould, Ethics Adviser at Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), speaking at the Riyadh Philosophy Conference, December 1, 2022.

“Humility is the first lesson learnt as an astronaut and in space exploration.”

In his unique position as a full-time space ethics adviser, Dr Arnould reflected on the importance of space explorers acknowledging the insignificance of Earth in the limitless cosmos.

“We have the capability to know that and to develop the knowledge needed,” he said.

“ That's what gives the human race an edge.”

Moving beyond the early years of space enterprise, driven by proactive policies, nations must now adopt more reasonable goals, Dr Arnould said.

“Goals that factor in the consequences of actions, whether short- or long-term,” he said.

Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 has been helping to boost the local space sector. It is expected to create jobs in the field, and also reduce the country’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy.

Many Arab countries are increasing investment in space, such as the UAE, having sent a mission to Mars, an astronaut to the ISS, as well as launching domestically-built satellites and a long-term lunar exploration programme.

The Arab Space Co-operation Group was formed in March 2019 to help boost the contribution of Arab countries in the sector. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Iraq and Mauritania are members.

Updated: December 02, 2022, 10:11 AM