Space Use and Ethics - Much Ado About a Conference
Regina Hagen, Jürgen Scheffran

(Extracted from: INESAP, Issue No. 17, August 1999, Information Bulletin, International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation)

The conference "Space Use and Ethics. Criteria for the Assessment of Future Space Projects" took place at the Darmstadt University of Technology (TUD) in Germany on March 3-5, 1999. Preparations stretched over almost one year. The organizers were well aware that several space projects are being controversially discussed in the public usefulness and costs of some missions have been questioned in particular - and that space technology plays an ambivalent, i.e. civil and military, role. When planning the conference, however, they could not know just how up-to-date the conference program would be: US Congress approved a law about a National and a Theater Missile Defense system. During the war in Yugoslavia, NATO forces relied heavily on space technology. The German Minister of Education and Research had severe trouble finding the budget for space research. These were just some of the headlines in German media before, during, and immediately after the conference. The short-term cancellation of all employees from the European and the German space agencies added an extra sense of urgency to the conference.

Space Use and Ethics

"Practical everyday life has been vastly changed by space technology. Whether they are aware of it or not, every TV viewer, every Internet surfer, every telephone user, as well as every consumer of weather forecasts profits from this modern technology. ... Space technology has become a vital part of life. This is one of its sides. On the other side, it contributes to more efficient military actions, often using the same technology and equipment which serve civilian life. ... In addition, new space-based defense and attack systems are being developed at high financial stakes and with little public debate. Further: as space activity grows the question of related risks gains in importance..."1

In his welcome address, Wolfgang Bender (theology and social ethics) from the Interdisciplinary Research Group Science, Technology and Security (IANUS) at TUD touched on the basic conference topics: the benefits and risks as well as the civil and military use of space technology, the usefulness of manned space research and of future space colonies, but also the future of space research and policy were to be measured by (ethical) criteria. 2

About eighty speakers and participants travelled to Darmstadt to exchange opinions about these questions. They came from countries like the United States, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, India, and England. Their background reached from science, space research, and armed forces to the peace movement. The national diversity as well as the different discussion cultures of professional experts on one side and peace activists on the other resulted in a broad spectrum of perspectives and demanded a high level of good will, flexibility, and communication skills from all conference participants. The conference organizers envisioned that the interdisciplinary debate between natural scientists and social scientists, lay persons, and military experts in addition to political representatives would help to reduce barriers while leaving enough room for controversy.

It could not be foreseen that just prior to the conference, controversy would get undue attention caused by the conference cancellation of the European Space Agency (ESA) and German Space Agency (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt e.V., DLR) employees. They had to renounce their previous agreement to speak at and attend the conference because management did not sign their travel applications. The conference organizers assumed that controversial public discussion on principles and criteria for the assessment of space projects was thought to have a negative effect on the space budget talks which took place between ESA management and the German research ministry at that time. 3

Criteria for Space Research and Space Use

On the first evening, several speakers introduced their sets of criteria for the assessment of space projects. To start, Wolfgang Bender from IANUS at TUD introduced his Oriented Assessment of Space Technology. He pointed out, that in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union space projects were predominantly determined by political power and prestige concerns. Therefore, the discourse about space project assessment took off rather late. Keywords of his presentation were appropriateness of means and goal, functionality, security, and economy of the technology; human, social, ecological, and future orientation of space use; openness with respect to (unwanted) negative impacts; and models to come to a balanced decision in case of a conflict.

This presentation was complemented by Jürgen Scheffran (physicist and mathematician, senior researcher with IANUS). He concentrated on the technical aspects of spaceflight and focused on Peaceful and Sustainable Use of Space - Criteria for Evaluation. In order to assess the use of space technology and to en-sure its societal acceptance, costs and resources, goals and benefits, but also undesired consequences and risks should be considered. In the 21st century, space technology should contribute to solving conflicts and problems on Earth in a sustainable way. In this context, he suggested eight concrete criteria for the assessment of future space projects which can also be applied to other fields of technology:

In his presentation On the Justifiability of Space Missions, the physicist and system engineer Hartmut Sax, professor at the Ingolstadt University of Applied Sciences, concentrated on the difficulty to properly assess the ambivalence of space technology. As co-author of the so-called "Saphir Study" on the justifiability of manned space missions, he set out with introducing the concept of normative technology assessment where every action is assessed with respect to its purpose. The gap between the intended consequences and the (possibly undesired) effects as well as the gap between the intended purpose of the creating entity (e.g. the development engineer) and the actually achieved purposes of a user of the equipment should be investigated and assessed.

Although space missions could generally be justified with global, national, and cultural purposes, aspects like civil-military am-bivalence (e.g. positioning satellites) or the use of information collected by remote sensing satellites (that can also be used to the disadvantage of the observed subject) must not be neglected. Hartmut Sax pointed to possible risks with respect to health and the environment which must not be ignored when assessing space projects. He concluded that in addition to objective scientific and economic criteria an ethical (trans-utilitarian) analysis of all projects is required.

The first conference day was concluded by Ruben Apressyan, Professor at the Institute of Philosphy of the Russian Academy of Science. He acquainted the audience with his thoughts about Ethical Criteria for Space Use - A Russian Perspective. "In Moscow, near the Central Exhibition Center there is a majestic, thirty meters high monument which portrays a rocket rushing to the skies. This rocket is a model of a spacecraft designed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1887-1935) - a founder of modern, at least Russian, theory of spaceflight, a scientist and inventor. A figure of Tsiolkovsky himself is established on an extended forward monument base... The monument launches an Alley of Heroes with busts of Soviet astronauts along its sides... . However, a friend of mine, an American professor who visited Moscow in 1979, who was not acquainted with the cut-out of Tsiolkovsky's spaceship, was sure that the monument was glorifying the Soviet missile corps." He believes that there is a "certain tragic irony in such impression: most common people used to consider the break through the skies as an embodiment of the old human dream to overcome the power of gravitation and come closer to the stars."

Based on the corner stones of the global ethos postulated by the German theologian and philosopher Hans Küng (ethics of responsibility, ethics of belief, and ethics of success), he developed the concepts of perfectionism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. He then matched these concepts to space research and space projects. Space __ which in Russian is "cosmos" meaning "the universe as an ordered whole" - is "the embodied Integrity and it should be retained as a field for activities of people as representatives of the whole humankind, under whatever national banners they are engaging into these activities."

The second conference day introduced a few concrete space projects which are controversially discussed by scientists and citizens due to their inherent risks and dangers. The idea was to measure these projects by the criteria presented so far.

Use of Nuclear Power in Space

In summer and autumn 1997, several peace groups caught media attention with their protest against the launch of the Saturn mission Cassini/Huygens with 32.8 kg plutonium-238 on board to provide electrical energy for the scientific instruments. Since then - if not before - the Use of Nuclear Power in Space has also been discussed within the scientific community.

Göstar Klingelhöfer, who is involved in the ‚Mars Surveyor' program as part of a team from the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the Darmstadt University of Technology, explained in easily comprehensible steps, how and why the original decision to use plutonium generators for the Mars mission has been revised. Instead, solar technology will be used although this poses considerable technical problems.

Roland Wolff, medical physicist at the department of nuclear medicine at the district hospital Lüdenscheid, described the medical aspects of using plutonium-238. If an inadvertent re-entry of the Cassini space probe occurred, the nuclear material might be vaporized and cause a considerable health risk to the whole mankind. (Cassini will conduct a flyby manoeuvre to gain speed for the long flight to planet Saturn on August 18, 1999, in 1.170 km distance from Earth.)

In his presentation, the physicist Kai Petzke from the Berlin University of Technology investigated the advantages and disadvantages of the available power supplies for deep space missions. He conducted an extensive survey of solar technology, plutonium generators, and uranium reactors and came to the conclusion that although plutonium generators might be the optimum technical solution they bear unacceptable risks in case of an accident. Uranium reactors have a fairly high failure rate but are considerably less dangerous. Solar technology bears no dangers but a high risk of failure and cannot be used for deep space missions far away from Sun. Critics of plutonium missions point out that even though Cassini has been launched successfully in October 1997, the topic is still urgent. They refer to plans of the US space agency NASA to launch eight more plutonium missions within the next few years (Pluto-Kuiper Express, Europa Orbiter, Solar Probe, Interstellar Probe, Europa Lander, Io Volcanic Observer, Titan Organic Explorer, Neptune Orbiter.)4.

Even the new ion thruster which has been praised for its particularly innovative technology requires nuclear power at a great distance from Sun due to the high power demand of the system.5 The US Department of Energy (DoE) announced last October that the nuclear material for these space missions must either be bought from Russia or produced nationally. The latter would mean that the US re-start plutonium-238 production to the amount of 2-5 kg annually.6 In addition, development work is done on so-called AMTEC generators (alkali metal thermal to electrical conversion) which are to be used for NASA's future deep space missions.7

During the last year, the Cassini critics registered a series of failures of US space missions. Three military satellites launched by the Titan IV rocket (which is equipped with a Centaur stage) failed in a row. Titan IV is the model which carried Cassini into space in 1997. The last failure occurred in April 1999 when the Centaur stage of a Titan IV ignited too early and positioned an expensive military satellite in the wrong orbit. In August last year, a Titan IV even exploded during launch.

Missile Defense

The European Space Agency (ESA) refused their employees the travel permit to the Darmstadt conference, partly because of the supposed bias and the military context. To make up for the loss of speakers, Missile Defense was added to the conference program. There were good arguments for this decision.

On March 10, 1999, US Congress approved a law about the deployment of a missile defense system. Almost US$ 7 billion will be spent for this purpose in the next few years. The land- and sea-based missile defense systems are to be supported by space-based logistics in order to protect US territory against the threat of ballistic missiles (National Missile Defense, NMD). Comparable systems are to be deployed on other continents (Pacific, Middle East, North-East Asia) in order to protect US military stationed in these areas (Theater Missile Defense, TMD).

Like Russia, China is extremely worried about US plans to build a national missile defense and also deploy it in Taiwan and Japan. If these plans become true, China feels bound to increase the number of their nuclear weapons (which is rather small as compared to that of the US.) If the USSPACECOM Long Range Plan8 is implemented, China could feel provoked to extend their military activity to space. The German daily Frankfurter Rundschau commented the US announcement as follows: "This means huge research budgets, orders, and employment for US industry. However, we'd feel more comfortable if the leading world power would worry less about weapon orders and appropriate war theatres than about the continuation of global disarmament policy and effective conflict prevention."9

The two speakers of this session, Bernd Kubbig from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and Götz Neuneck from the Hamburg Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy gave competent presentations about the current missile defense debate 10 and the threat to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.11

Satellite Remote Sensing

In accordance with their charter, ESA justified their conference cancellation with the fact that their projects are exclusively civil. However, extending their program seems to be a viable option for ESA management. Peter Creola, head of ESA's strategy committee, recently recommended that "the Europeans should increase test activities of their own telecommunications and research satellites to determine the feasibility of military use".12 The committee recommends an increase of the ESA budget because, "as can be seen from the US example, space technology increasingly becomes an integral part of political, economic, and military leadership."13 The US Space Command saw the Yugoslavia war as an opportunity to prove the truth of this observation: "U.S. Space Command is providing substantial space support to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operation in Kosovo. A U.S. Space Command Joint Space Support Team is in theater to provide guidance to U.S. and allied warfighters in Europe and to coordinate the optimal use of U.S. space-based assets. Space operations increase the combat effectiveness of U.S. and allied air, land, and sea forces through the control of satellites that provide ballistic missile warning, communications, weather, navigation, and imagery capabilities."14 Be it fighter planes or unmanned devices, be it cruise missiles or laser-guided "precision weapons", be it reconnaissance or combat missions - NATO air forces depend on data derived from the US military GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites, from the (civil) weather satellites, and on the reconnaissance photos of the remote sensing satellites.

By staying away from the conference, ESA and DLR missed the chance to inform about the advantages and civil benefits of remote sensing satellites. Consequently, Dieter Engels from the observatory of the University of Hamburg remained largely unchallenged with his critical assessment of the civil-military dual-use of remote sensing data and the historical evaluation of this issue. He justified his opinion that Europe is wrong to follow the US on their path to the militarization of space, a path which bears unforeseeable costs and risks.

The need for an independent reconnaissance capacity for the European military forces is not justified, he argued, as the available civil remote sensing satellites and those being developed perform good enough to cover the full spectrum of crisis observation and disarmament control. He pointed out that even the most sophisticated "eyes in the sky" do not promise a miraculous solution of problems on Earth.

Within three weeks of the conference, NATO started attacking Yugoslavia and gave evidence that criticizing the "high-tech precision weapons" in space and on Earth is fully justified. Even the unchallenged military superiority of the NATO forces could not prevent the plight of the humans on earth - quite to the contrary. Although various reconnaissance systems were employed, the real events in Kosovo remained hidden, the fate of the refugees was not revealed by technology.15

Manned Space Missions

The International Space Station (ISS) was used as an example to discuss the question "Manned Space Missions - Useless or Key to the Future?" Prior to the conference, Wolfgang Engelhardt, engineer, journalist, and editor of the bi-weekly Raumfahrt-Wirtschaft, Informationsdienst für Politik, Industrie + Forschung (Spaceflight Economy, Information Service for Politics, Industryand Research), had sent in a script with the title Little Space Philosophy for Large Knowledge Gains. Rather than presenting this philosophically-minded text, he chose to read another text Man and Space. How the Space Station Will Be Built which informed about the technical ISS data.

His evaluation of the Darmstadt conference in his own magazine allows the conclusion that he might have felt frustrated about the cancellation of his colleagues of which he had obviously not been informed prior to his arrival at the conference. This left him as one of very few outspoken pro-space advocates. "In the light of the political and military detente which followed the political changes in the East, the peace fighters in our country are now looking for a new enemy, and they believe to have found it in spaceflight, particularly in the International Space Station. They generally question the necessity of man in Earth orbit and tend to assume secret military intentions behind each new satellite project."16

Sociologist and space expert Johannes Weyer, university teacher in Bielefeld, acquainted the audience with a short overview over the history of manned space stations. As early as in the 50s, Wernher von Braun "presented the concept of a military space station to the U.S. military which should be operated as a reconnaissance platform and as a launching base for nuclear missiles." And this perception is still alive: "Although it has been explicitly labelled as a civilian station, ... both superpowers reserved the right to make use of the station for 'national security purposes' when signing the space station treaty in January 1998."

Johannes Weyer described the technical and financial risks of the project and discussed the pros and cons. He quoted Reimar Lüst, "the former director general of the ESA, [who] published a devastating criticism in 1995 of the European space policy ... Now he claims that the development of the space station 'had mainly been done for political reasons' and 'would hardly break new ground in terms of technology'." In his presentation, Weyer came to the following conclusion: "Manned spaceflight is mainly undertaken because

  1. space industry knows very well how to sell their projects as a contribution to the advancement of technology and economics and
  2. politicians like to bask in the glamour of successful missions."

The research that can be done on the ISS could not justify the tremendous costs of the project, he said.

Conflict and International Control in Space

The panel discussion "Who Controls Space? Conflict and International Control in Space" marked the end of the second day. It was undoubtedly one of the conference highlights. Competently convened by Götz Neuneck, Oberst Klaus Arnhold from the German Ministry of Defense, R. Balasubramaniam from the Indian Embassy in Germany, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Duty from the European US Space Command, and Karl Grossman from the State University of New York were seated on the panel.

The Indian representative focused on the peaceful use of space which was postulated during the international debate. "The result was the five treaties and the five sets of legal principles on matters relating to the peaceful uses of outer space, which have been drawn up through the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and adopted by the General Assembly. The fundamental aspect of this regime is to establish Outer Space as a province of humankind which is not subject to national appropriation and free for exploration." He demanded guidelines to alter the current attitude towards space use which "has not been according to any guide-line that makes for equitable sharing of space resources. It has been a case of first come, first served..."

A sharp debate between the two US representatives evolved around the "space dominance" claimed by the US. While Karl Grossman strongly opposed the concept of dominance and advocated the de-militarization of space, Brad Duty stated that US space policy is a must considering the fact that the US are currently the only power which can keep order in space. Klaus Arnhold urged to stick to and fully implement the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which has recently be questioned by US politicians.

Space and International Law

In addition to the bilateral ABM Treaty, several international treaties dealing with the use of space have been agreed on since the sixties. Centerpiece of international space law is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Art. I defines that space exploration and use should be done to the advantage and in the interest of all humankind. According to Article IV, states shall not place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

In his presentation Free, Peaceful Use of Space and International Space Law, Hans-Joachim Heintze from the Institute for Peace Keeping and Humanitarian International Law at the Ruhr University in Bochum pointed out that one of the main problems with the Outer Space Treaty is the lack of a definition of the term "peaceful". Consequently, international law defines "peaceful use" as "non-aggressive rather than non-military", i.e. it excludes the use of certain devices (nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction) in Earth orbit. Therefore, according to the Outer Space Treaty "peaceful use" does explicitly not prohibit the military use of space.

In his presentation, Hans-Joachim Heintze came to a sobering conclusion: "Even after the end of east-west-confrontation the reaching of an agreement on military uses of outer space seems not possible. This is due to the complexity of the problem involved both in preventing the deployment of space weapons and in defining the kinds of military activities that might not be legitimately con-ducted in space." According to him, the unchallanged US monopoly with respect to (military) space use poses a serious problem. This leads, e.g., to the absurd situation, that in times of conflict the US have better information than the UN Security Council but refuse to share their data.

Space Research, Space Policy, And Money

In the final session, the last panel discussed "The Future of Space Research and Policy", bringing the conference back to a practical level. Interested and surprised, the audience listened to the information given by Carsten Pfeiffer, scientific staff member of Hans-Josef Fell, research spokesperson for the parliamentary group of the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen). With considerable openness, he lifted the veil on the way space is dealt with in the German government. He gave examples of the difficulties encountered by the persons in power after a political change (as it took place in Germany in autumn 1998). Not only does the new crew have to learn about new topics. At the same time, they have to co-operate with and rely on the middle and even upper level ministerial managers who had served the previous conservative government for almost twenty years.

For his presentation, Andreas Schlossarek, works council member at the high-tech research institute GSI in Darmstadt, selected a few theses defined by the Working Group "Employee Councils and Personnel Committees from Research Centers'' which have been published under the title "Social Responsibility in Research". Schlossarek, who had agreed to speak at the conference on very short notice, referred to the DLR and ESA conference cancellations and to the fact that these seem to be closely related to the space budget discussion going on at that time. He demanded that all planned space missions which will be co-sponsored by German tax-payers should be publicly discussed.

The final conference presentation was given by Regina Hagen, on the Board of Directors of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and active member of the local peace group Darmstädter Friedensforum. Taking up the demands of the previous speaker, she postulated twelve Demands to Future Space Research and Policy. She demanded that transparency and open dialogue should be established for all future space projects. Citizens, she said, had a "right for complete and understandable information" about space missions and space budget plans. This is key to reach societal consensus about space projects. This does not preclude a rich country like Germany to conduct expensive but thrilling "luxury missions" - as long as consensus can be reached.

An Unexpected Conference Outcome

Trying to understand the ESA and DLR conference cancellations, the form of which Wolfgang Bender defined as "unusual within the scientific community" in his welcome speech, the organizers learned about the following detail: ESA demanded an increase in the German ESA budget from DM 970 million in 1998 to DM 1.6 billion in 2003 - an increase of roughly 60%. Among others, the money was requested to develop a European satellite navigation system, to enhance and operate the International Space Station, to continue development of the Ariane V rocket, to finance the Earth observation program "Living Planet", to conduct microgravity research, to implement a telecommunication program, and to design a new space transporter.

Immediately after the conference, five groups followed Andreas Schlossarek's suggestion to ask the German Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn for a freeze of the German ESA budget at the current level (moratorium) in order to win time for a broad public discussion of the planned space projects. Since then, the German government decided to modestly increase the German ESA budget by only 10 million, to DM 980 million from the year 2000. Information from within the re-search ministry suggested that the demand for a moratorium was viewed as helpful to counter excessive demands for the space budget.


  1. Welcome address held by Wolfgang Bender at opening session of the conference "Space Use and Ethics" in Darmstadt on March 3, 1999. All quotations in this article are from conference scripts handed in by the speakers unless another source is given.
  2. The conference was organized by The Interdisciplinary Research Group Science, Technology and Security (IANUS) in cooperation with Institut für Theologie und Sozialethik (both TUD), NaturwissenschaftlerInnen -Initiative, INESAP, Darmstädter Friedensforum, Friedens- und Begeg-nungsstätte Mutlangen, and Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.
  3. See Wolfgang Schlupp-Hauck: "Raumfahrtexperten drücken sich vor Debatte", taz, March 5, 1999.
  4. NASA (April 1998): "Future NASA Spacecraft: Solar Arrays, Batteries, and Radioisotope Power and Heating Systems", Fact Sheet.
  5. Roland H. Knauer: "Mit geringem Schub zu den Sternen", Darmstädter Echo, February 20, 1999.
  6. Federal Register Vol. 63, No. 192 of October 5, 1998, and Federal Register Vol. 63, No. 213 of November 4, 1998.
  7. See for company information. See also Tom Henderson: "Ann Arbor firm aims for Pluto", The Detroit News, October 29, 1998.
  8. US Space Command (March 1998): "Long Range Plan. Implementing USSPACECOM Vision for 2020", Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado/USA..
  9. Wolf H. Bell: "Kein Krieg der Sterne", Frankfur-ter Rundschau, March 19, 1999; quotation translated by R.H.
  10. See Götz Neuneck, „SDI light" oder die Aushöhlung des ABM-Vertrages, Wissenschaft & Frieden 2/99.
  11. For an abridged version of the presentation see Bernd Kubbig, "Der ABM-Vertrag soll‚ auf dem Müllhaufen der Geschichte' landen", Frankfurter Rundschau, March 5, 1999.
  12. Stefan Brändle: "Die Zukunft wartet nicht auf die Langsamen", Frankfurter Rundschau, April 24, 1999; quotation translated by R.H.
  13. "Warten auf den Befreiungsschlag", VDI nachrichten, April 30, 1999; quotation translated by R.H.
  14. "US Space Command Supports Kosovo Operation", press release of US Space Command, March 24, 1999. This evaluation of the effectiveness of military US space assets was confirmed in the USSPACECOM press release "Space Role in ALLIED FORCE Extensive - Effective" dated June 17, 1999.
  15. Karl-Heinz Karisch, "NATO-Spione im Weltall", Frankfurter Rundschau, April 24, 1999.
  16. Wolfgang Engelhardt, "Raumfahrt-Kritiker irren sich", Raumfahrt-Wirtschaft Nr. 6/99, March 15, 1999.

Regina Hagen is a technical translator. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and is a member of the Darmstädter Friedensforum.
Address: Teichhausstrasse 46, D-64287 Darmstadt,
tel: +49 (6151) 47114,;

Jürgen Scheffran is senior researcher at IANUS and Editor of the INESAP Information Bulletin.
c/o IANUS, Darmstadt University of Technology, Hochschulstr. 10, 64289 Darmstadt, Germany;
Phone: +49-6151-16-3016, -4368 fax +49-6151-166039;

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