As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’ve recently been accepted to the University of Twente’s to start a Masters in September 2018 on the Philosophy of Science Technology and Society (PSTS). However because it’s been nearly a decade since I finished my Bachelors in Applied Physics, the Admissions Committee needed some proof that I still knew how to write a formal academic paper on a research topic I hadn’t picked myself.
So before I could be accepted to the PSTS program, they set me a challenge – write an essay of no more than 2,000 words analysing a concrete technological development using one of the four ethical frameworks they provided me with. I knew I wanted to talk about the ethics of rocket technology, especially given their “dual-use” nature (being used for both space exploration AND weapons delivery).
After a quick scan through the four ethical frameworks it was crystal clear that I should write about the ethics of rocket engines using P.A.E. Brey’s “Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies”. My main argument is that rocket engine technology itself has no ethical concerns, and even rocket engines themselves (the “artefacts” of the technology) only have limited ethical issues from the pollution some generate… however the applications of rocket engines is where the main ethical issues come from.
Anyway, the essay below was obviously good enough that I could start the program without needing to do a “pre-masters” beforehand, so now I just need to show up in late August and start my masters! In the meantime I’ll keep writing Cosmic Nomad between sorting out my visa, applying for scholarships, working out where I’m going to live while I’m studying, and continuing to see what Mars One has in store for us in 2018!
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PSTS Masters Essay
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The first recorded examples of rocket engine technology can be traced back to the first gunpowder propelled fire arrows invented in 969 by two Generals during China’s Song Dynasty (Liang 2006). For the next millennia Chinese and European militaries would utilise black powder to propel weapons against their enemies with gradually increasing sophistication, however the underlying science and technology of rocket engines saw little change until the first proposal of liquid rockets by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903 and the first successful launch of a liquid rocket by Robert Goddard in 1926 (NASA, 2003). Over the last century since then rocket engine technology has evolved significantly, bringing with it new ethical concerns that often carry global implications.
In this essay I will discuss the ethical concerns of rocket engines using the ethical framework laid out in Phillip A.E. Brey’s “Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies” (2012). I will firstly argue that under Brey’s Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach rocket engine technology has no inherent ethical concerns, however some rocket engine artifacts and many rocket engine applications present extensive ethical issues. This will be followed by a limited discussion of expected rocket engine technology development and some forecast ethical concerns for future rocket engine artifacts and applications.
Brey (2012) defines three levels of ethical analysis: technology, artifact, and application. The first technology level is defined as “the level at which a particular technology is defined, independently of any artifacts or applications that may result from it.” (p. 7). With this in mind it is critical to initially establish a definition for rocket engines. “Rocket engine” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as “A reaction engine that contains all the substances necessary for its operation and is not dependent on substances such as atmospheric oxygen, drawn from the surrounding medium, and thus is capable of operating in outer space. Also called rocket motor”. While chemical rocket engines burning a fuel and oxidiser to generate thrust may be familiar to many, a definition for “rocket engine” that references “burning” or “combustion” inherently excludes many modern self-contained rocket propulsion systems such thermal and monopropellant rockets, or more exotic systems designed specifically for use in outer space such as ion drives, Hall thrusters and nuclear propulsion. This broad definition of a rocket engine has been used to apply the Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach to rocket engine technology generally, rather than focusing specifically on the most familiar combustion-based chemical rocket subclass.
As rocket engines have been broadly defined above, there are no ethical issues inherent to their development at the technology level. Unlike genetic engineering or nuclear power production, which inherently raise ethical concerns through DNA manipulation and nuclear waste by-products respectively, from a technological standpoint rocket engines operate by directing an energetic mass out an exhaust to produce an equal thrust in the opposite direction according to Newton’s Third Law. At the most basic level rocket engines direct the movement of mass in a desired direction, and thus there can be no ethical concerns about rocket engines at the technology level of the Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach.
Similarities between a nuclear reactor’s waste and a rocket engine’s exhaust might be drawn, however ethical issues surrounding rocket engine exhausts are not inherent to the technology but are more accurately associated with specific rocket engine artifacts. Brey (2012) defines an artifact as “a physical configuration that, when operated in the proper manner and in the proper environment, produces a desired result” (pg. 7-8). Liquid bi-propellant rocket engines such as the European Space Agency’s “Vulcain II” (powering the Ariane 5), Aerojet Rocketdyne’s “RS-68A” (powering the Delta IV Heavy), and China’s “YF-77” (powering the Long March 5) all avoid ethical concerns over the toxicity of exhaust gases by blending liquid oxygen and hydrogen to produce an exhaust of pure steam water. This is certainly not the case with many other rocket engines however. From the Rocketdyne “F1” (powering the Apollo program’s Saturn V) and SpaceX’s “Merlin” (powering the Falcon 9) burning liquid oxygen and refined kerosene; right through to the use of the highly toxic, volatile and carcinogenic unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) on rocket engines powering the US Space Shuttle, Chinese Long March 2F, and Russian Proton; a vast majority of rocket engine exhausts contain by-products that are either greenhouse gases or directly toxic to human, animal and plant life.
The environmental noise impact of a rocket engine is also closely related to the physical configuration of the artifact rather than being inherent to the technology. While the US Space Shuttle required hundreds of thousands of litres of water to suppress the noise of a launch from a building-damaging 215dB to a still-deafening 142dB, Hall thrusters produce no sound besides the electrical hum of the transformers powering them. Of course the primary difference for the development of these two rocket engine artifacts comes from different thrust profile requirements. Hall thrusters are designed for long duration use at low-thrust to stabilise satellites, with three experimental Hall thrusters setting a new record in 2017 of 5.4 Newtons combined thrust. Comparatively the three RS-25 rocket engines on the now retired Space Shuttle were designed for short duration and high-thrust, producing 5.6 million Newtons combined thrust during a launch. Thus with air and noise pollution from rocket engine exhaust being specific to the physical configuration of the technology – notably the fuel/oxidiser used and the thrust profile required – these ethical concerns for rocket engine technology can be easily catagorised under the artifact level of Brey’s Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach.
An application as defined by Brey is “a way of using or configuring an artifact or procedure”, and it is at this third and final level of the Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach that we find the greatest ethical issues with rocket engine technology. The very earliest application of rocket engines was for warfare, with gunpowder rockets being attached to arrows to extend their range and striking power by the Chinese Song Dynasty during the Ninth century. While Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first proposed liquid rocket engines for the peaceful exploration of outer space in 1903 and Robert Goddard launched the first liquid rocket in 1926, it was Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht that would first apply Goddard’s research into liquid rocket engine technology in order to deliver 1 ton of Amatol high explosive aboard the V2-rocket (German: Vergeltungswaffe-2) during the final year of World War II.
Most notably from an ethical standpoint was the concurrent advances in nuclear weapons technology with the development of rocket engines capable of intercontinental ballistic flight during the 1950’s and 1960’s. While an R-7 Semyorka rocket was used to launch Sputnik as Earth’s first artificial satellite on October 7th 1957 and usher in the start of the space race, the same rocket system has also been used several weeks earlier to successfully deliver a dummy 3MT nuclear warhead over 6000 kilometers (Logsdon 2009). The simultaneous improvement of rocket engine technology, the refinement and miniaturisation of multi-stage nuclear weapons, and the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union raises questions of what impact the threat of nuclear war and the civil defence programs designed to prepare the public for it had on the American and Soviet society.
The application of rocket engine technology in warfare has also not been limited to explosive delivery systems on Earth. While the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in Earth orbit, the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test not only demonstrated an application of rocket engine technology to destroy orbital satellites using kinetic energy, but it’s 8km/sec head-on approach also resulted in the largest single space debris creating event in history. With an estimated 36,000 pieces of new space debris produced at a mean altitude of 850 kilometers, this space debris will take centuries to decay while threatening satellites at equivalent or lower altitudes including the International Space Station (Wheedon 2010).
The delivery of military reconnaissance satellites (often referred to as “spy” satellites) to exotic or especially high orbits has only become possible due to advancements in rocket engine technology, and serves as a particularly interesting example of the “dual-use” nature of many rocket engine applications. While reconnaissance satellites are primarily intended to provide intelligence for making military and national security decisions, commercial Earth observation satellite imagery is also used for weather forecasting, directing natural disaster response, humanitarian missions and validating compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty on nuclear weapons. In this case rocket engines are a facilitating technology for the deployment of Earth observation satellite technology, which itself only develops ethical concerns at it’s own application level.
A full forecasting analysis using Brey’s Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach is well beyond the scope of this essay, however two examples of forecast developments in the artifacts and applications of rocket engine technology are briefly identified and evaluated.
The efforts of private companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin to provide sub-orbital flights beyond 100km altitude for paying customers in the next two years is opening the door to an entirely new industry of “Space Tourism”. With an expected price of $250,000 per seat this experience may be restricted to only the world’s wealthiest however, presenting ethical issues in the realm of social inclusion at the application level. While Blue Origin’s “BE-3” rocket engine operates on liquid oxygen and hydrogen to produce a steam water exhaust, the hybrid rocket engine used by Virgin Galactic burns a solid polyamide (nylon) fuel using nitrous oxide as an oxidiser (Norris, 2014). The delivery of toxic polyamide-combustion products and ozone-destroying nitrous oxide directly into the Earth’s upper atmosphere may become a significant environmental issue at the artifact level as flights using these hybrid rocket engines become more common through a growing space tourism industry.
As the cost of access to low-Earth orbit decreases through the improvement and proliferation of rocket engine technology, concerns over the tracking, mitigation and removal of space debris created through spaceflight activities increase. Space-faring nations have an ethical responsibility to avoid contributing further to the space debris already in orbit to avoid eventually starting an ever-increasing cascade of space debris, striking more debris to create yet more debris through the theorised “Kessler Syndrome”. However applying emerging rocket engine technology to remove space debris presents a new range of ethical issues. The “Neumann Drive” thruster is an example of a rocket engine that could be fed the wide range of metals found in still orbiting but defunct satellites and other space debris, thrusting itself around powered by collected space debris to collect more space debris (Neumann 2017). However there is also nothing to stop this same thruster being used to collect and consume functioning satellites as an act of space warfare. Some defunct satellites still in orbit also hold considerable cultural significance. Telstar-1 stopped functioning in early 1963 and remains in Earth orbit as “space debris”, however it has been argued that Telstar-1’s role as the first space-based communications relay for television, telephone and telegram images is culturally significant and (along with other culturally significant objects in orbit) deserves preservation in the face of future efforts to remove space debris (Gorman, 2017)
In conclusion, I have used the ethical framework laid out in Phillip A.E. Brey’s “Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies” to discuss rocket engine technology through the three levels of technology, artifacts, and applications. Using a definition of “rocket engine” that includes exotic rocketry beyond the most familiar chemical bipropellant types, I have argued that under Brey’s Anticipatory Technology Ethics approach rocket engine technology itself has no inherent ethical concerns, that specific rocket engine artifacts create ethical issues in the realm of air and noise pollution, while the dual-use nature of many rocket engine applications present extensive ethical issues. Finally two examples of near-future rocket engine applications were identified – space tourism and space junk removal – with potential ethical issues evaluated on a limited basis.
References
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