Moral Dilemma: The One-Way Ticket to Mars


Would it bother you to know that a colony’s worth of bold adventurers set off from Earth to Mars with zero hope of returning? Could you rally behind a suicide mission, even with so grand a purpose?

Those are the questions, among many others, being asked about a privately-organized mission to colonize Mars which, if it goes ahead, could put man on the Red Planet as soon as 20 years from now. Doing much of the asking is Albert Harrison, a psychologist who’s dedicated himself to astronaut psychology (a specialty I wasn’t even aware existed, but one that makes perfect sense) since the 1970s.

Before we address the moral dilemma at hand, let’s back track and talk a bit about the mission itself. Proposed in the October – November, 2010 volume of the peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmology, Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet is a weighty and meaty tome addressing in deep detail all aspects of a mission to colonize Mars. Harrison himself contributed to a section on human factors and behavioral health.

According to the Journal the mission could put man on Mars in as few as ten months. Unfortunately for a number of reasons, but primarily related to budget, the mission would come with a one-way ticket. The colonists wouldn’t be abandoned to their fates; regular shipments of supplies would be sent, until such a time that the colonists became self-sufficient enough to live off their own resources and ingenuity. One thing conspicuously absent from the routine supply drops is a way home. The cost of bringing the colonists back would simply be too high for such a privately-funded endeavour.

Human Mission to Mars inspired so many readers that some 400 individuals volunteered to be the first colonists, despite the fact that the mission cuts them off from everything and everyone they’ve known here on Earth, for the rest of their lives – and ends, ultimately, in suicide. People from all walks of life have anticipated needs for an initial team, from mechanics to clergymen.

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Of course, not all of the 400 volunteers would meet NASA’s rigorous standards for astronauts. In fact, it seems as though very few would. But such standards wouldn’t necessarily apply to a private operation. So you could very well see your parish’s pastor or your local Jiffy Lube mechanic depart for a new life on a new planet.

Which brings us back to the crux of the issue. Could you witness people you know leave for a mission to Mars, knowing they’ll never be back again? And even leaving out of the equation the acquaintance factor, and looking at it simply from a case of humanity, would you get behind a mission that essentially strands fellow human beings in a rather inhospitable environment with significant physical and emotional risk? Could you cheerfully wave goodbye knowing their fates are sealed?

One could argue this is not so different from sending a soldier off to a perilous war, or even sending manned flights into space as we do with such regularity. Every goodbye comes with a chance of no further hellos. The main difference is there’s at least a chance of survival in those examples, something completely missing from the mission discussed in the Journal.

But we’re not talking an immediate, violent death – unless something goes horribly wrong. We’re talking about, in a best case scenario, living out the rest of their natural lives on Mars. To some, that’s clearly an attractive prospect. It’s exciting, it’s new and it’s adventurous. So are we condemning them to doom, or simply seeing them off on a journey, much as we might any loved one who relocates far away?

Harrison argues that it will be difficult to get the public, and politicians, to support a suicide mission. Considering all sides, could you support the one-way ticket to Mars? [via The Escapist]

More Mars goodness: Radiation Could Delay Human Mars Landing, Sun Cycles To Blame

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