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Essays on the ethics of exploiting Earth's space environment

Beyond Spaceship Earth: Environmental Ethics and the Solar System, edited by Eugene C. Hargrove. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 336 pp. $25. Many of us have seen the view of Earth as a lovely blue and white marble afloat in the blackness of space, serene in its beauty. But what will happen to us and our home base as we begin to explore and exploit other planets? The thinkers whose essays are in this very readable volume want us to ponder this and how we will use the environment of space before we reach that point.

The book is divided into sections that address the social, political, and human dimensions, scientific and technological issues, and philosophical and environmental perspectives. Full-color reproductions of works by artists Chesley Bonestell, Michael Carroll, Kazuaki Iwasaki, and Roger Rampley offer vivid imaginings of the splendors that might be seen on other worlds.

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Among the essayists is Dean Rusk, who served as secretary of state under President Kennedy, and who argues eloquently against nuclear, military uses of space - specifically ``star wars.''

Professor John B. Cobb Jr., of Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology, comments on the biblical and other religious teachings that may give us insights into what our motives for going into space should be. Of all the essayists, he is the only one who feels strongly that we should not venture into space.

This is not to say that the other writers are all gung-ho about the space race or that they ignore earthly problems. But they point out that human activities in orbit around the Earth are already affecting the space environment. For instance, orbital pollution could endanger vehicles like the space shuttle. According to Donald J. Kessler, more than 5,000 orbiting objects were catalogued by 1984, and it is estimated that there could actually be as many as 40,000 items of 1 centimeter or more in size.

Another question: Will we recognize extraterrestrial life if it doesn't fit our presuppositions? J.Baird Callicott of the University of Wisconsin points out that we tend to view intelligent life as humanoid - with a few variations - and to consider anything nonhuman inferior. Noting the view that human bodies have carbon as their basis, he asks if extraterrestrial life with a silicon base would have radically different priorities. Would the difference in material base prevent meaningful contact?

Radford Byerly Jr. and Geoffrey A. Briggs address key issues in the commercial and industrial uses of space. Besides benefits close to Earth, such as progressively more use of satellites for communications, navigation, and weather monitoring, thought is being given to manufacturing in space. Weightlessness and the high vacuum available in space would make the production of some compounds more efficient. These facilities could be supplied by mines on the moon and asteroids, where scientists project that materials like aluminum, iron, titanium, silicon, and oxygen would be available in sufficient quantities. Assuming that the solar system is lifeless but for Earth, some feel that the other planets could also be mined by robots or could be modified using ``terraforming'' or some other method so human colonies could be established.

If these activities in space actually come to pass, who will reap the benefits? Some third-world scientists fear that the industrialized nations will not share the benefits of space technology.

A number of essayists raise in different forms the question of the role technology is playing in our desire to go into space. They ask, in effect, ``Are we going because we should or because technology is making it possible for us to do it?''

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The questions this book raises and endeavors to answer are profound. How we resolve these ethical issues will define our journeys beyond the Earth.

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