The Fate of Humanity

Is it possible for a government to promote morality? How much trust should the public have in their government?

Leela Fredlund, a senior studying political science and physics, is deeply interested in these essential questions of political philosophy and ethics. She has explored these subjects in ancient Greek texts, debated them in classroom discussions, and discussed them casually with friends. However, Fredlund believes that space provides an ideal platform for delving into these timeless issues.

“I realized that I could raise very interesting questions at the intersection of astronomy and political science,” Fredlund explains. Through her undergraduate projects at MIT and other institutions like NASA, she has focused on the ways in which governments are shaping humanity’s expansion into space.

“Do we believe that governments truly have our best interests at heart?” she asks. “Space feels like an obvious frontier to test that question.”

Ethics regulations

When Fredlund came to MIT from her California hometown near the beach, she had already made up her mind to double major in science (specifically chemistry at that time) and philosophy. “In high school, I was very interested in critically examining my own political beliefs,” she recalls. “I was concerned that at a STEM-focused school like MIT, I wouldn’t have a platform for discussing the topics that I found significant.”

However, she found a home in Concourse, a first-year learning community. “Concourse requires a course called Becoming Human: Ancient Greek Perspectives on the Good Life (CC.110), where we study ancient Greek political philosophy through introductory ethics texts by Aristotle and Plato,” Fredlund explains. “We had incredible debates about how to apply the concepts we were learning to our everyday lives and modern political issues. As a result of the class, my moral code shifted and I felt that I personally benefitted from it.”

Becoming Human played a crucial role in Fredlund’s academic journey. She became a teaching assistant for the class, a position she maintained until her senior year, and found a mentor in the course instructor, Senior Lecturer Linda R. Rabieh. By the end of her freshman year, Fredlund had already decided to major in political science. “I was drawn to the idea of being part of a smaller department that would be similar to the Concourse community,” she explains. “I believed that political science would offer a community that passionately cares about ethical questions and would provide a space where I could have my beliefs challenged, contemplate issues that I hadn’t previously given much thought to, potentially change my stance on significant questions, and broaden my horizons in general.”

Firmly rooted in political science, Fredlund sought a way to connect it with her other major, which had switched to physics. The answer presented itself during her sophomore year in class 17.801 (Political Science Scope and Methods). “I remembered that when I was younger, I aspired to become an astronaut and developed a keen interest in astronomy and space travel,” she says. “It was easy for me to delve back into those subjects, and so I began to explore questions related to space policy, space tourism, and the utilization of resources on other planets.”

For her year-long project in 17.801, Fredlund conducted a survey experiment with 600 participants to gauge public perspectives on space exploration, particularly attitudes towards government-led initiatives versus private endeavors. Her study produced several intriguing findings. Fredlund remarks, “Respondents overwhelmingly supported a significant expansion of ambitious, government-backed space missions, such as Mars exploration, in order to push the boundaries of human capability. It felt akin to the sentiment of a space race.” Her survey also revealed a preference for NASA collaborations with friendly nations like the U.K. instead of private companies.

“We hold governments to a different moral standard than individuals, so it is possible that a private-sector space company directing exploration or resource extraction missions may prioritize its commercial ambitions and goals over other concerns,” Fredlund explains.

Facilitating access to Mars

Fredlund finds the ethical dilemmas surrounding space development endlessly fascinating. To enhance her technical understanding of the subject, she enrolled in as many astronomy and astrophysics classes as her schedule would permit. She also secured a series of internships that aligned with her interests.

In the summer of 2022, she conducted research at NASA on the types and locations of facilities required to handle Mars samples upon their planned return to Earth in the 2030s. Fredlund found herself contemplating profound questions that intrigued her.

“I was collaborating with the European Space Agency to determine the legal ownership of the samples we retrieve from Mars, which is an extremely interesting question due to the lack of precedent,” she explains. “The Outer Space Treaty, formulated in the 1960s, did not anticipate an international collaboration that would bring back treasures from another planet.”

During the previous summer and throughout her senior year, Fredlund interned at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, focusing on issues of accessibility in the space sector. She sought out promising new technologies that might enable individuals with physical or mental disabilities to participate in space-related activities. “I met scientists who are working to make the International Space Station accessible to individuals with hearing and vision impairments,” she says. This cause resonates with Fredlund, who is highly involved in the MIT Panhellenic Council’s efforts to foster more inclusivity in campus Greek life.

International space law

Fredlund’s post-MIT plans are quickly taking shape. “I spent a lot of time speaking with NASA’s legal and international relations teams, who serve as diplomatic liaisons to the European Space Agency,” she shares. “They possess valuable expertise in collaborating with other countries on space development initiatives.” Through these interactions, Fredlund developed a keen interest in the international law aspect of space-related questions. “I would like to contribute to ensuring that we continue to engage in good faith and that the scientific aspects remain the focus of international collaborations,” she states.

In the next two years, Fredlund intends to solidify her technical background by pursuing a master’s degree in astronomy or astrophysics. Afterward, she plans to attend Harvard Law School. Eventually, she envisions herself working at the United Nations or NASA, interpreting international law and striving to maintain the space sector as a fair and truly cooperative arena.

“The space sector is evolving so rapidly that I’m not entirely certain what the significant questions will be six years from now,” Fredlund muses. “There is a great deal of uncertainty, and I find that exhilarating.”

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