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"Elon Musk, Mars, and bioethics: is ending astronauts into space ethical?" by Konrad Szocik on the OUP blog

Elon Musk, Mars, and bioethics: is sending astronauts into space ethical?

The recent crash of the largest-ever space rocket, Starship, developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has certainly somewhat disrupted optimism about the human mission to Mars that is being prepared for the next few years. It is worth raising the issue of the safety of future participants in long-term space missions, especially missions to Mars, on the background of this disaster. And it is not just about safety from disasters like the one that happened to Musk. Protection from the negative effects of prolonged flight in zero gravity, protection from cosmic radiation, as well as guaranteeing sufficiently high crew productivity over the course of a multi-year mission also play an important role.

Fortunately, no one was killed in the aforementioned crash, as it was a test rocket alone without a crew. However, past disasters in which astronauts died, such as the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia disasters, remind us that it is the seemingly very small details that determine life and death. So far, 15 astronauts and 4 cosmonauts have died in space flights. 11 more have died during testing and training on Earth. It is worth mentioning that space flights are peacekeeping missions, not military operations. They are carried out relatively infrequently and by a relatively small number of people. 

It is also worth noting the upcoming longer and more complex human missions in the near future, such as the mission to Mars. The flight itself, which is expected to last several months, is quite a challenge, and disaster can happen both during takeoff on Earth, landing on Mars, and then on the way back to Earth. And then there are further risks that await astronauts in space. 

The first is exposure to galactic cosmic radiation and solar energetic particles events, especially during interplanetary flight, when the crew is no longer protected by both Earth’s magnetic field and a possible shelter on Mars. Protection from cosmic radiation for travel to Mars is a major challenge, and 100% effective protective measures are still lacking. Another challenge remains being in long-term zero-gravity conditions during the flight, followed by altered gravity on Mars. Bone loss and muscle atrophy are the main, but not only, negative effects of being in these states. Finally, it is impossible to ignore the importance of psychological factors related to stress, isolation, being in an enclosed small space, distance from Earth.

A human mission to Mars, which could take about three years, brings with it a new type of danger not known from the previous history of human space exploration. In addition to the aforementioned amplified impact of factors already known—namely microgravity, cosmic radiation, and isolation—entirely new risk factors are emerging. One of them is the impossibility of evacuating astronauts in need back to Earth, which is possible in missions carried out at the International Space Station. It seems that even the best-equipped and trained crew may not be able to guarantee adequate assistance to an injured or ill astronaut, which could lead to her death—assuming that care on Earth would guarantee her survival and recovery. Another problem is the delay in communication, which will reach tens of minutes between Earth and Mars. This situation will affect the degree of autonomy of the crew, but also their responsibility. Wrong decisions, made under conditions of uncertainty, can have not only negative consequences for health and life, but also for the entire mission.

“It is worth raising the question of the ethicality of the decision to send humans into such a dangerous environment.”

Thus, we can see that a future human mission to Mars will be very dangerous, both as a result of factors already known but intensified, as well as new risk factors. It is worth raising the question of the ethicality of the decision to send humans into such a dangerous environment. The ethical assessment will depend both on the effectiveness of available countermeasures against harmful factors in space and also on the desirability and justification for the space missions themselves. 

Military ethics and bioethics may provide some analogy here. In civilian ethics and bioethics, we do not accept a way of thinking and acting that would mandate the subordination of the welfare, rights, and health of the individual to the interests of the group. In military ethics, however, this way of thinking is accepted, formally in the name of the higher good. Thus, if the mission to Mars is a civilian mission, carried out on the basis of values inherent in civilian ethics and bioethics rather than military ethics, it may be difficult to justify exposing astronauts to serious risks of death, accident, and disease.

One alternative may be to significantly postpone the mission until breakthrough advances in space technology and medicine can eliminate or significantly reduce the aforementioned risk factors. Another alternative may be to try to improve astronauts through biomedical human enhancements. Just as in the army there are known methods of improving the performance of soldiers through pharmacological means, analogous methods could be applied to future participants in a mission to Mars. Perhaps more radical, and thus controversial, methods such as gene editing would be effective, assuming that gene editing of selected genes can enhance resistance to selected risk factors in space. 

But the idea of genetically modifying astronauts, otherwise quite commonsensical, given also the cost of such a mission, as well as the fact that future astronauts sent to Mars would likely be considered representative of the great effort of all humanity, raises questions about the justification for such a mission. What do the organizers of a mission to Mars expect to achieve? Among the goals traditionally mentioned are the scientific merits of such a mission, followed by possible commercial applications for the future. Philosophers, as well as researchers of global and existential catastrophes, often discuss the concept of space refuge, in which the salvation of the human species in the event of a global catastrophe on Earth would be possible only by settling somewhere beyond Earth. However, it seems that the real goals in our non-ideal society will be political and military.

Recent Comments

  1. Dr John Fannon

    “We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. But if we have been willing to give our lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country, I appeal to our countrymen to see that those who depend on us are properly cared for”

    Captain Robert Scott

  2. Andrei Alexandroae

    The crash of SpaceX’s Starship indeed serves as a sobering reminder of the inherent risks involved in space travel. The long-term challenges faced by potential Mars missions, from radiation to zero gravity health effects, psychological stress, and the impossibility of quick evacuation, add a new layer of complexity to our endeavors. However, I believe that these are problems to be solved, not obstacles that should deter us. The ethical questions raised are thought-provoking and must be considered, but let’s remember that humanity has always striven to push boundaries, often in the face of great danger. Should we pause until technology and medicine advance further, or should we continue, learning and adapting along the way? This is a conversation worth having.

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