Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One-way trip to Mars – can we, perhaps – should we, perhaps not

A rock-strewn plain on Mars

Should we allow a one-way crewed mission to Mars? Two scientists, invoking the spirit of Star Trek, contend in a scholarly article entitled To Boldly Go, that human travel to Mars could happen much more quickly and cheaply if the missions are made one-way.  The scientists are Paul Davies of Arizona State University (the main man in my book) and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University (previously unknown to me).  Their article has appeared in the Journal of Cosmology (October-November edition).

"The astronauts would go to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers of a permanent human Mars colony,"  the article says.  They argue that it would be little different from early settlers to North America, who left Europe with little expectation of return.  "The main point is to get Mars exploration moving," Schulze-Makuch told the Irish Examiner (which is where I first saw the story). 

In addition to offering humanity a "lifeboat" in the event of a mega-catastrophe, a Mars colony is attractive for scientific reasons, the article says. (I don’t like this lifeboat business, see my earlier post against preserving the human species.)

They cite these scientific benefits : That a base on Mars could be a unique opportunity to study an alien life form and a second evolutionary record.  An intensive study of ancient and modern Mars will cast important light on the origin of life on Earth. Mars conceals a wealth of geological and astronomical data that is almost impossible to access from Earth using robotic probes. The base would open the way to comparative planetology on a scale unimagined by any former generation. It would offer a springboard for human/robotic exploration of the outer solar system and the asteroid belt.

Paul Davies - main man
Finally, establishing a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence on another world would have major beneficial political and social implications for Earth, and serve as a strong unifying and uplifting theme for all humanity.  (I like the motivation, even if it’s a bit unrealistic.)

The authors note that Mars is a six-month flight away, possesses surface gravity, an atmosphere (huh? not much of one), abundant water, carbon dioxide and essential minerals. They propose the missions start by sending two 2-person teams, in separate ships. More colonists and regular supply ships would follow.  The technology already exists, or is within easy reach, they write.

The one-way mission idea has been mooted before but I'm pretty sure this is the first time it has been seriously proposed by academics.  It doesn’t find favour in official circles, with NASA or ESA. At least not yet. The Irish Examiner contacted retired Apollo 14 lunar astronaut Ed Mitchell, who was critical of the one-way idea.  "This is premature," Mitchell wrote in an e-mail. "We aren’t ready for this yet."

Davies and Schulze-Makuch deny they’re proposing a "suicide mission".  They recognise the idea is a tough sell for NASA, with its intense focus on safety.  They think the private sector might be a better place to try their plan.  "What we would need is an eccentric billionaire," Schulze-Makuch told the Examiner. "There are people who have the money to put this into reality."

Defining suicide

I've heard it said, and I'm sure it's true, that there would be plenty of volunteers for a one-way mission.  Even so, is it right? 

Would those who sent these colonists be colluding in their suicide? What's the definition of suicide?  If the probability of dying is 1 that’s suicide for sure, but say the probability is 0.9, what then?   And how soon does the death have to occur?  Say that (provided they survived the landing) there's a high probability the colonists will survive 6 months but only a small probability they will survive a year.  Would that be suicide?  And if the colonists know the risks but willingly accept them in a spirit of adventure?

Another scientific ethical dilemma for the lecture I'm working on, “Just because we can does that mean we should”. I hope to give it to Cork Astronomy Club one day. 

Update on this story August 2012.

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