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Mars Mission Bioethics 101

By Michael Cook

A one-way trip to Mars, funded from the rights to a reality TV show, raises many bioethical issues.

All Trekkies are familiar with unavoidable ethical dilemmas in deep space. Now a Dutch group called Mars One is seeking to create them by sending four volunteers to establish a settlement on Mars in April 2023. It will be a one-way trip.

A number of big technology companies are interested in contributing to Mars One, and some big names are publicising it. Gerard ‘t Hooft, a Dutch Nobel laureate in physics, says: “This project seems to me to be the only way to fulfill dreams of mankind’s expansion into space”.

The latest plan is for a crew of four to leave in 2024 and to land in 2025. Thereafter crews will leave every 2 years to build the colony. The first mission will cost an estimated US$6 billion; later missions only $4 billion.

How will such an expensive and risky project be financed? With revenues from reality TV. Paul Römer, the Dutch inventor of Big Brother, is a fan: “This mission to Mars can be the biggest media event in the world. Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching.”

The TV series will begin with the selection of the astronauts. “Because this mission is humankind’s mission, Mars One has the intention to make this a democratic decision,” says the company. “The whole world will have a vote which group of four will be the first humans on Mars.”

The list of bioethical issues with this project is very long. The first is whether it is ethical to send people on a one-way trip. Is it exploration or suicide?

The Mars One website invokes Australian history to defend the idea: “thousands of Europeans agreed to do just that – they took all they owned and moved to Australia, for example. That agreement did not come with a return ticket.”

But there are many other issues as well.

Lifeboat dilemmas. What happens if an accident reduces the amount of air or other resources for a four-man flight to two or three? Should the astronauts draw straws to decide which one should die? Should they kill the astronaut who adds the least value to the mission?

Pregnancies in space. Sexual tension makes for good TV, so the “whole world” might vote to send two men and two women into space. The company advises its astronauts not to have children for the time being until some of the technical issues are solved, but it says nothing about sex. A space child could be seriously handicapped because of space radiation and microgravity during the flight and on Mars. Will abortions be performed in space? Will astronauts be sterilised before leaving?

Privacy. The astronauts’ every action will be monitored for their whole lives. It’s impossible to test the psychological pressure on the astronauts here on Earth.

Bad technical planning. Researchers at MIT released a scathing feasibility study of Mars One in September. They claimed that if all food is grown inside the settlement, the vegetation would produce so much oxygen that the colonists would suffocate. And with today’s technology they could not produce enough water from the Martian soil.

Bad financial planning. What if the company backing the trip runs out of money and cannot afford to resupply the station or bring the astronauts back home? As engineering ethicist Karl D. Stephan commented: “Even the most debauched reality-TV shows up to now have not proposed to show us live scenes of slow starvation, but that’s what we’d be dealing with. What would the dying colonists be thinking?”

Bad marketing planning. The day-to-day experience of a trip to Mars and life on Mars will be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Will reality TV fans tune in? There was a great surge of interest after Apollo 11’s crew walked on the Moon in 1969, but who remembers Apollo 12? Ominously, the other mission that kept people glued to their TV sets was Apollo 13, the near miss. Mars One’s ratings will soar if the colonists are dying – but is it ethical to subject them to such risks?

A German astronaut who worked on the Space Shuttle, Ulrich Walter, believes that the project is too dangerous. “They make their money with that [TV] show,” he told German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “They don’t care what happens to those people in space.”

Notwithstanding these problems – most of them quite obvious after a moment’s reflection – 200,000 people applied for Mars One.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.