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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

In this episode, we chat with Dr. Zach Pirtle, a policy analyst for NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy about NASA’s Artemis and Ethics workshop, which explored the ethical, legal, and societal implications of its Artemis and Moon to Mars missions.

Join us as Dr. Zach Pirtle delves into the ethical and societal dimensions of NASA’s Artemis and Moon to Mars missions. In this discussion, Dr. Pirtle highlights the workshop’s efforts to address key questions about how NASA should consider the ethical and societal implications of space exploration. The episode covers a wide range of topics, including sustainability on the Moon, the balance between humans and robots in space missions, and the importance of engaging underrepresented groups in these ethical discussions. We’ll explore the complex challenges and thoughtful considerations that underpin NASA’s commitment to responsible and value-driven space exploration.

In this episode you’ll learn about:

  • The critical importance of addressing the ethical and societal implications of NASA’s Artemis and Moon to Mars missions, going beyond just the technical and scientific aspects of space exploration.
  • How sustainability on the Moon is a key concern, with a focus on balancing current generational needs with the responsibility of preserving lunar environments for future generations.
  • The challenges and benefits of engaging with historically underrepresented groups, science fiction authors, artists, and experts from the humanities to enrich the dialogue on space exploration ethics.
  • The complexities of international collaborations in space exploration and how deconfliction and safety measures are crucial when multiple actors are present on the lunar surface.


Related Resources:

Remember the Space Age by Jonathan Coopersmith

New NASA Report Looks at Societal Considerations for Artemis

NASA’s Bold Decision by Kevin Wilcox

APPEL Courses:

Leading Complex Projects (APPEL-vLCP)

Human Spaceflight and Mission Design (APPEL-vHSMD)

Science Mission & Systems: Design & Operations (APPEL-vSMSDO)


Zach Pirtle Photo Credit: Zach Pirtle

Zach Pirtle
Photo Credit: Zach Pirtle

Dr. Zach Pirtle has a rich background spanning research, engineering, and science policy. He completed his Ph.D. in systems engineering at George Washington University. He is currently based at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he serves as a Program Executive (engineer) for the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration. He is also serving as a senior policy advisor to the NASA Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy.


Teresa Carey (Host): I’m Teresa Carey and welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps. This is your window into the world of knowledge and innovation at NASA. Whether you’re dreaming of becoming a NASA rocket scientist, or simply a space fanatic like me: buckle up as we take a cosmic dive into new knowledge, one step at a time.

Dr. Zach Pirtle: If you look at history and past examples where humans have moved into new areas for settlement, I think having space to be reflective and to be cautious about exactly, what we’re doing about trying to make sure that you’re balancing for scientific interests and being respectful of different cultural values is important.

Host: That’s Dr. Zach Pirtle, a policy analyst among other things here at NASA. We’ll hear more from him in a minute as we explore the Artemis and Ethics Workshop. But before we get into that, here’s a fun fact: At this time, back in 1968, NASA decided to send astronauts to orbit the Moon just four months before the big launch. Can you believe it? That was some lightning-fast planning. And it changed forever how we look at the Moon. You can read all about it in an article that Kevin Wilcox wrote for our INSIGHT online newsletter. I’ll include a link directly to that in our resources page.

Okay, so the Artemis and Ethics Workshop: In April NASA hosted a workshop about the ethical, legal and societal implications of their Artemis and Moon to Mars missions. There were about 55 participants at the workshop with expertise in fields like social sciences, humanities, and technical disciplines. And for two-and-a-half days, they brainstormed ideas all about ethics. It’s fascinating how space exploration isn’t just about the science and engineering. It’s also about the impact on society.

Well, I got to talk to Dr. Zach Pirtle about the workshop. He’s a policy analyst for NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy, and he was one of the authors who contributed to the full report on the Artemis and Ethics Workshop. And let me just say it covers a lot: topics like sustainability on the Moon, and the balance between humans and robots on space missions, and so much more. Now let’s dive into the interview with Dr. Zach Pirtle. Zach, thank you for joining us today.

Pirtle: Thank you, Teresa. I’m very excited.

Host: So, let’s talk about that Artemis and Ethics Workshop and the report. To me, the workshop and the resulting report reflects an awareness of the importance of ethics in this new era of lunar and Mars missions. So, can you provide us just with an overview of the workshop, the key themes or insights that emerge from the discussions?

Pirtle: Definitely. The Artemis and Ethics Workshop was an effort to consider two key research questions: How should NASA be thinking about the ethical and societal implications of what it’s doing as it goes from the Moon to Mars and beyond? And then, how should we think about the key societal and ethical implications that need evaluation?

I should mention, back in the 1960s with Apollo, and there’s a wonderful article by Jonathan Coopersmith on this, NASA actually funded work on how to think about the societal implications of the Apollo program going to the Moon in the first place.

If you’re trying to think about how Artemis, and the work that we’re doing, we use things like the space launch system, the Orion spacecraft, the future Gateway , and the human landing system and commercial lunar payload services as we’re doing all these activities on the Moon. It’s hard to think through what those societal implications are if you’re only coming from an engineering or scientific disciplinary track. Being able to look at it, if you’re looking for societal implications, it necessarily involves things that are beyond engineering. And for the record, my Ph.D. is in engineering. Engineering is wonderful as a way of looking at the world, but it also has certain limitations, especially when you’re thinking about how people engage with things.

So, a lot of the discussion we capture in the Artemis and Ethics Workshop report, and you’ll notice that while there’s a really nice five-page summary that I really hope a lot of my fellow engineers and scientists at NASA would enjoy reading. And there’s an important caveat to the whole effort that we’re summarizing the discussion that was held there. A lot of it represents the views of individuals and does not necessarily mean that NASA embraces something. But the workshop itself, I think it had a lot of rich discussion and had a lot of neat ideas. And I’m excited to talk about them as we get into it.

Host: Yeah. Me too. I will say, you said there’s a five-page summary of the report. The report itself is not that long and it’s totally readable. I’m going to go ahead and put the five-page summary, the full report, and this article that you mentioned by Jonathan Coopersmith in our resources page so that everybody listening can find them. And that’s going to be at We will put all the links of interest right in there so that people can find them easily.

Pirtle: Great.

Host: Let’s talk about the big picture when we’re discussing the Artemis missions and future journeys to Mars, what are some of the most significant ethical and societal implications that come to mind, especially considering these missions’ long-term impact.

Pirtle: So, an important one that we talk about is sustainability on Earth. If you use the Brundtland definition for sustainability, we’re often talking about using resources from the natural environment to balance the need of today’s generation against future generations. Well, there’s no one currently on the Moon. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how do you balance current generational needs versus future generations. Any trash that you bring to the Moon is going to remain there forever. A footstep that you leave will remain there, until the end of time unless it’s hit by an asteroid impact or the like. And so, the question of how you think about sustainability.

And there are certain parts of the Moon that are just so aesthetically beautiful that you want to try to work to protect and maintain them. Or key elements or compounds that could change state from either liquid to gas or from a solid to a liquid that you try to protect those in the natural state so that you’re able to understand what’s there. Are there things that are on the lunar surface that are trapped in these permanently shadowed regions near the poles that could be of really important interest for science? And if you start to contaminate those, either by big plume surface interactions on lunar landings, or through just chemical contamination as a result of doing increased activities on the lunar surface, that will last for a long time.

Host: The sustainability piece is really interesting. It seems like what a great opportunity we have knowing what we know now. I mean, think of what we’re doing here on the Earth, trying to backpedal with the materials that we’ve created that stay long term on the Earth, like plastics. And with the Moon, we can have some foresight with that and plan well in advance before we have this major impact on the Moon.

Pirtle: Yeah, and I think if we might be able to have a much greater reduced impact on the lunar surface than we might if we didn’t take a little bit more time to think about it. And I think we’re going to learn a heck of a lot as we have things like NASA’s Viper rover that’s going to search for volatiles in the south pole of the Moon. And then as we’re sending down future landers through commercial lunar payload services. So, we’re going to learn a lot about how big the problem is. And we’re going to learn about ways in which we can help mitigate that.

There’s a lot of other key themes that came up about how do we share the benefits of space activities. And it’s actually part of NASA’s charter in the 1958 Space Act to do work for the benefit of all humankind. But it’s very unclear. There’s no cookie cutter academic textbook that identifies how a work or activity that would take place on the Moon and on Mars leads towards benefit.

Host: I mean, but isn’t that true with all basic research? We don’t necessarily know yet how it’s going to benefit us, but oftentimes it does in the long run.

Pirtle: Yeah, and I think some of the participants at the workshop were exploring that if you’re doing this work with the hope that it will benefit things later on, what are the metrics by how you define that benefit? If you are hoping to benefit certain communities, should you be involving those people earlier on in conversation about what the goals for space activity should be, and then trying to look back later to figure out what the benefit was?

Host: To me it seems like we’re having a similar conversation right now in terms of artificial intelligence. Before we get too deep into this, what are the constraints we want to put on it? How do we want to use this?

Pirtle: Yeah, and I think that type of reflection was also evident in another key theme that came up, which was reflecting on what the core values we bring to exploration are. NASA and the United States have helped push the Artemis Accords, which has a set of principles that other countries have agreed with the United States are important, such as advocating for the peaceful use of outer space and space resource allocation. There were some other discussions about being very clear about the values on why you go that if you look at history and past examples where humans have moved into new areas for settlement, there are some behaviors and practices that are less desirable and that the values involved generally assume that there’s a right or an entitlement towards the things that you’re dealing with. I think having space to be reflective and to be cautious about exactly what we’re doing about trying to make sure that you’re balancing for scientific interests and being respectful of different cultural values is important.

Host: Yeah, definitely. Could you tell us a little bit about the experts and researchers currently dedicated to exploring these aspects, especially in the context of lunar missions and the eventual journey to Mars? Who are the key players in this field and what kind of work are they involved in?

Pirtle: Absolutely. So, some of the neat voices that were there would include Dan Hawk. He’s a member of the Oneida Tribal Nation, and he gave some really thoughtful comments about that. There could be different arguments, he claimed, for establishing a moral imperative on making sure that Native Americans can have a voice in space activities and have some capability, technical capability themselves.

Some of the other speakers included Michelle Hanlon, a lawyer who founded For All Moonkind. And she’s done a lot of visionary work and thinking about space heritage sites on the Moon, including the Apollo sites and how to figure out how to protect those and law and policy and regulatory frameworks.

Natalie Trevino is a researcher that has thought a lot about the colonial aspects of the space exploration dialogue and ways in which if you continue to use those aspects without caveat, it could lead to potential problems or challenges in the future. So, there’s a lot of different people. There’s very different backgrounds, science, technology, and society. Many of those who were in different disciplinary fields didn’t know each other. And there was a lot of interesting dialogue when you’re getting these people from across different disciplines to talk to one another.

Host: The report highlights that the communication between social scientists and space engineers during the Artemis and Ethics Workshop faced some challenges due to cultural differences. So, we know that cultural differences can significantly impact the collaboration that might be needed to address the ethical and societal implications of these missions. What are the cultural gaps between social scientists and space engineers?

Pirtle: It varies at times from first principles; what are the first things that they think about. Engineers sometimes try to think about the key equations that can derive from the laws of physics. I think that for some of the humanity scholars, different disciplines can have very different viewpoints and approaches for how to think about these things. And I think for a lot of the engineers, when they were being asked to think about the societal implications of what they’re doing and how NASA should think about these societal implications early on as we’re doing exciting things like Artemis, it’s a bit tricky. In some ways there was a little bit of a culture shock. But as people started talking about it, there began to be a little bit of progress made about having a shared language for talking about these things. And I do think being able to take the time, and I think a lot of the progress that was made there that across both sides is understanding the context of who you’re speaking to, was really important. And I think there’s were several engineer and scientist colleagues at the event that enriched their understanding and are keen on trying to make sure they have these important qualifiers as they’re thinking about these big picture issues and want to take a little bit more time to reflect.

Host: So, throughout NASA’s history, there have been moments where addressing ethical concerns significantly shaped the course of missions and public perception. We can learn a lot from these instances, whether it’s positive or negative in their outcomes, we can learn a lot about the importance of ethics in space exploration. So, with that in mind, can you share cases from past missions where addressing ethics had a significant consequence? And perhaps how has NASA dealt with these issues?

Pirtle: Yeah, and I think… and I should be clear in my own terms here, I do think the broader societal implications of what we’re doing and trying to maximize the benefit while minimizing any potential harms. There’s ways in which NASA’s existing processes have long thought about this. These questions come up a lot. I’d say that for these sorts of like ethical and societal issues that these social scientists and humanity scholars excelled at, I think some of them can range from the implicit second order effects of early design decisions.

So as the International Space Station was being developed, there were budget challenges that affected how much science could be done on the International Space Station. And we all are familiar with the famous cupola, where astronauts have taken very gorgeous photos of astronauts looking in front of the Earth. There were actually moments where it was under threat about whether the agency would be able to afford doing such a mission. To have that cupola that’s on the ISS and the long-term impact of being able to do the science that we do on the ISS and being able to have those visions, those images of astronauts in front of the cupola is important. I think that actually is an interesting case where there’s a great societal implication of being able to afford and to scar in that cupola into the design and to balance it off against other engineering considerations.

Host: It really is so iconic. I know the picture you’re talking about. We’ve all seen it.

Pirtle: Yeah, there’s been other examples of just how do you scar in cameras on deep space missions that may be less relevant to the specific scientific questions that people are looking at, but that can inspire deeply. Many people, everybody in the United States, is a taxpayer and so as such trying to think about the benefits and impacts on everybody matters.

Host: Yeah, definitely. In the world of space exploration, finding the right balance of responsibilities can be a bit like the challenges that we’ve seen, like, for example, with genetic data collection. You know, where government led genetic sequencing happened at a different pace compared to private companies. And this kind of created a scenario where private entities were collecting genetic data outside of government regulations and that raised ethical concerns for some. So, how might this complexity, especially when dealing with private missions to the Moon and commercial interests, how might that create new ethical challenges? In terms of these ethical concerns, what was discussed during the workshop about this?

Pirtle: We do have a discussion on the report about upcoming commercial missions to the lunar surface. And there’s different payloads that NASA has requested the delivery of through our commercial and lunar payload services program and initiative. And NASA is excited to do scientific activities, to get data on those things, but as we fund these Commercial Lunar Payload Services, CLPS deliveries, there’s also space on there for the private companies that are doing the delivery to send payloads of their own. In early December we’re targeting two January landings of CLPS landers, and there will be more discussion of what are those private payloads that are on board? It’s kind of like using FedEx. We don’t have a great depth of awareness about what those private payloads are, but some of those might have different levels of reputational risk to NASA. There might be concerns about what they look like, or some people might have concerns about individual specific payloads that are on the lunar surface. There’s been a lot of discussion in the news recently about proposals for how do you regulate in-space activities. It is an interesting nuance that whereas with Apollo, everything we sent down was under direct NASA control. A lot of what we’re doing now with commercial deliveries, NASA’s at a much more step removed.

Host: The same question for me comes to mind for international collaborations. One example that comes to mind of a successful international collaboration is NASA’s experience with the International Space Station. In this case, NASA collaborated with multiple international partners to build and operate the ISS. So, I’m sure that involved extensive cooperation. Were there any discussion or what topics were raised during the meeting that specifically addressed international collaborations?

Pirtle: Yeah. There’s been increased international interest in going to the Moon. China currently has a rover active on the far side of the Moon, and India just had a, it’s a huge success, a landing. But there could be, if everyone’s going towards similar regions of scientific interest, or towards the lunar south pole, there could end up being areas where multiple actors are in the same location, in the same place. And thinking carefully in advance about what do you do if you need to deconflict activities, if two people are in the same area. Does there need to be something like a safety zone, a keep out area that if you’ve got a lunar lander that potentially has hypergolic fuel, which is very toxic on board, you want to make sure, especially if we get to the point where when we get to the point that we have crew on surface that we want to make sure that safety is made paramount there. And so having more international people there, it just increases the complexity of what’s going on. And in you, right now, within the U.S., for some of these early commercial landings, most of them are government funded in some part. And it’s clear who NASA should talk to. But when it gets towards international discussions, and especially there’s commercial groups on the surface along with international, it can just become more complex, and it just needs more conversation.

Host: Yeah, definitely. One of the takeaways that I noticed in the report is the importance of engaging with the public, especially with underrepresented groups. Engaging with them in conversations about space exploration ethics. In the report, we heard about Jamie Johnson-Schwartz idea. That’s a philosopher. We heard about their idea of involving historically underrepresented voices, as well as science fiction authors, artists, and people from the humanities in these discussions. Can you share some of the suggestions from workshop participants for engaging the public and underrepresented groups in these ethics discussions?

Pirtle: Yeah, I do think trying to tease out what are the different world views, what are the different first principles and value propositions that they see when they look at space. I did mention a little bit about Dan Hawk, who viewed things from the perspective of tribal nations and that it’s not just a matter of sharing scientific knowledge that you get, but having ways for people to be actively involved and to have their own capacity and capability. For some groups, they can find that to be important and worthwhile.

I think another really exciting talk was by Sheri Wells-Jensen. She’s a linguist and was recently the astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, and she is blind. And so, some of the questions that she asked were, as you’re sending more people into space, how are you thinking about what abilities they need to have? Are you really sure that it needs to be abilities similar to what a standard human body is capable of doing? What even is a standard human body? And are there potential advantages that one might have if you are unsighted and maybe you’re in an emergency? The ability to think about that long term, for long-term lunar activities, and eventually as humanity, if we’re serious about going out into the broader solar system, I think that can be a long-term societal implication that can be affected by early decisions that we’re making today about what our spacecraft, what space habitats look like. And I do think having people with those different perspectives looking at all manner of what we’re doing with Artemis and Moon to Mars could potentially be worthwhile.

Host: Yeah, that’s definitely really interesting. Considering the grand vision of human exploration from the Moon to Mars and, beyond, what is the overarching message you’d like our listeners to take away regarding the ethical and societal dimensions of these incredible endeavors? What can we all do to ensure a future in space that aligns with our collective values?

Pirtle: I think that by trying to enrich our perspectives by talking with one another and with the broader space community in the world about it, I do think it helps us try to make the future that we’re pursuing in space to be one that we all more collectively want to have. So that’s my view as an individual. So, I think engineers and scientists in NASA, we want to do good things. And this is just a call for us to think a little bit more about how we could possibly do that.

Host: Great. Thank you, Zach, so much for talking with me. This is really interesting.

Pirtle: Cool.

Host: Thank you for tuning in to Small Steps, Giant Leaps. We’ll be taking a holiday break, and you should, too. But don’t worry, Small Steps, Giant Leaps will return in January. On behalf of the APPEL Knowledge Services team, we wish you a happy holidays.

For a transcript of the show and more information on Dr. Zach Pirtle and these topics simply head on over to our resources page at And while you’re there, if you’re curious to learn more about what APPEL Knowledge Services has to offer, don’t forget to explore our publications and courses. And check out that INSIGHT article I mentioned earlier. I’m Theresa Carey, your crewmate in the world of learning. That’s all we have for today. May your steps toward knowledge, be both small and mighty.