Thursday, April 14, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Ethics Fail

This is the final of my series of criticisms of a proposed one-way mission to Mars. They began with this introduction. The other essays detail the various ways I believe this proposal fails: as a lifeboat for humanity, as a base for scientific exploration and as a potential politically unifying force for Earth-bound humanity.

Tenuous atmosphere of Mars
visible from low orbit
My first encounter with the idea that exploration of Mars could be expedited by using a one-way mission to get people there was in an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Lawrence Krauss which ran in late August 2009. In it Krauss presents an argument for a novel approach to exploring the Red Planet: since we can't prevent the radiation injury that would be inflicted on astronaut passengers during a two-way trip, within the constraints of existing technologies and current budgets, a one-way mission offers us a practical way to accomplish many of the same mission objectives.

Although Krauss makes a reasonable technical case for this unconventional scheme, his ethical analysis it is scant, relying, more or less, on this anecdote,
"One of my peers in Arizona recently accompanied a group of scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a geological field trip. During the day, he asked how many would be willing to go on a one-way mission into space. Every member of the group raised his hand. The lure of space travel remains intoxicating for a generation brought up on Star Trek and Star Wars."
"Jackass: The Movie"
movie poster
I have to admit that I found the implication of this startling, that the ethical considerations for undertaking an interplanetary mission fraught not only with grave physical risk but also with extraordinary - and entirely undetermined - psychological peril could be reduced to the observation that there would be no shortage of eager volunteers. It was as though the moral issues involved were no more complicated than those in casting an episode of the MTV stunt and prank series Jackass; apparently a raised hand and, presumably, a signed waiver would constitute due diligence on the part of mission planners.

Don't get me wrong, I was one of the generation that Krauss mentions; intoxicated by Star Trek - although less so by Star Wars - and, for the better part of my life I, too, would have eagerly raised my hand to volunteer to become a Mars pioneer, naively confident that my exuberance at the outset of such an adventure would immunize me against any hardship I encountered, no matter its duration or its severity. But I have lived long enough to realize that even the most passionately declared vows fall victim to the realities of time and circumstance, and that we turn out to be very poor prognosticators of our own capacity to persevere, especially in the face of chronic psychological insult. I imagine that Lawrence Krauss has lived long enough to have come to this realization as well.

Taken aback by Krauss's opinion piece, I submitted the following (unpublished) letter to the Times in response.
To the Editor: 
Lawrence Krauss may have come up with a correct engineering solution for getting human beings to Mars by dispatching volunteers on a one-way trip, but he falls short as far as the analysis of the ethical implications are concerned. 
No doubt there are many who would volunteer for such a seemingly marvelous expedition. But will they in any realistic way be able to anticipate the emotional hardship that they will have to endure? And how will we feel, having exploited their naive enthusiasm, forced to watch from a distance of more than 35 million miles, as they descend into likely depression and inevitable old age, unable to offer the consoling touch of a human hand? 
Marc Merlin
First and foremost I take issue with Krauss's presumption that voluntary participation in a research study - and the one-way trip is proposed in order to conduct scientific research - relieves investigators of their ethical responsibility to protect the health and welfare, emotional and physical, of the subjects that they have recruited. I also wonder what could possibly constitute "informed consent" in deciding to expose people to, not only unprecedented circumstances of emotional hardship, but ones of unprecedented duration.

Tulips in bloom at the Atlanta
Botanical Garden
(credit: Marc Merlin)
It would be one thing to tell enthusiastic volunteers, "you are going on a one-way trip to Mars for the advancement of science" and quite another to say, "you are going on a one-trip to Mars for the advancement of science, and you will be undergoing the kind of isolation and confinement, away from sources of solace and companionship, that may very well will leave you depressed, perhaps insane or suicidal, within a matter of months; that you and at most a handful of colleagues will be confined to close quarters for years, even decades, without the possibility of  the briefest separation; that you will never again enjoy a stroll through a garden in springtime or a dinner out with friends at a favorite restaurant. "

Our experiences with other long-duration missions, such  as research tours at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station or expeditions to the International Space Station (ISS), offer a flimsy basis for estimating the psychological demands that would be placed on one-way Mars astronauts. The ISS missions, for example, are not more than a few hundred days long, and, even then, the members of the space station crew are aware of a scheduled return to a normal life on the Earth's surface and are also in frequent communication - with only a marginal time delay - with colleagues, friends and family there. (Distance and the finite speed of light makes such Mars-Earth "conversations" forever impossible.) Shamefully, perhaps the best data available with regard to the ability of highly motivated people to survive periods of severe isolation - cut off from family and friends for years - with little hope for eventual return to a normal life may come from that gathered from observations of the psychological deterioration of U.S. "War on Terror" detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. It does not paint a promising picture for our rushed one-way Martian pioneers.

Magellan's ship Victoria,
detail from a map of Ortelius (1590)
The proponents of a one-way mission to Mars see themselves as latter-day Magellans, taking up the mantle of the Age of Discovery, and they cast those that oppose their efforts as representatives of a "culture of caution" that is so preoccupied with the minimization of risk that no bold plan for exploring space ever gets off the ground. They prefer to replace it, apparently, with their own culture of caution to the winds.

Before we endorse the Mars mission they propose, we should convince ourselves that we aren't consigning noble volunteers to (short) lives suffused with sadness and torment. Their initial excitement about serving the grand interests of science cannot immunize them from these possible outcomes, no matter what they say or hope.

It may come as a surprise to readers of this series that I do not oppose the manned exploration and eventual colonization of Mars. I imagine that, barring a collapse of our global civilization, it will begin sometime in the latter half of this century or early in the next one. This will mark a wonderful turning point in human history!

What I do oppose is the manufactured urgency that surrounds the proposed one-way mission to Mars; that it is a necessary component in our scientific investigations of that planet; that it is a critical step to insure our survival as a species; that it will in any way offer a common purpose which will help to remedy political disunion and conflict here on Earth.

Empty bottle with mail
(credit: Larry Yuma)
Indeed, for the immediate future, we can better explore Mars by expanding our program of robot missions whose capabilities to work intelligently and autonomously under even the harshest conditions are growing at an exponential rate; we can better protect people here from possible devastation by asteroid strike by investing relatively small sums of money in refining our nascent surveillance programs and developing reliable deflection technologies; and we can better unify the nations of this planet by working diligently to eradicate endemic diseases and taking affordable steps to make sure that children are properly nourished and everyone has access to clean drinking water.

As a message in a digital bottle of sorts to those first unharried one-way pioneers who will become the first long-term inhabitants of the Red Planet, I want to say from decades past how much I admire you for your courage, since I know that even the most carefully planned space missions will never eliminate risks to life and limb. And I want to thank you for your willingness to endure hardship, especially the first among you to arrive, since the going will be particularly rough for you. But I take consolation in imagining that your isolation will be short lived and that you will be buoyed in your work knowing that you are preparing the ground for a larger number of compatriots who will be arriving soon after you do, allowing you to once again assume your role in the ranks of a human community large enough and vibrant enough to ensure your emotional and psychological well-being as your bold colony grows and thrives.

May you live long and prosper!

Creative Commons License
One-Way Mission to Mars - Ethics Fail by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at