Mars One – The real ethical questions

If you’re at all interested in space travel you will probably have heard about Mars One by now; the non-profit foundation that aims to land four people on Mars by the middle of the next decade. To reduce technical complexity, as well as cost, these colonists won’t be coming back.

NASA Mars base concept.
NASA Mars base concept.
Image credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

Much has been made of how Mars One’s astronauts will ‘die on Mars’. ‘Suicide mission’ and ‘one-way trip’ are phrases that appear a lot in articles on Mars One’s plans. But is it really so problematic to send consenting adults to live on Mars permanently? First of all, Mars One is not a suicide mission. Barring accidents, the colonists sent to Mars will live out the remainder of their natural lives on the Red Planet. Is this so different from choosing to permanently emigrate? How many of the millions of people that migrated to the US in the 19th and 20th centuries had any thoughts of going back? How many ever did go back, even if they technically could? Mors certa, hora incerta, applies to us all. Although the place of their death will become certain for the Mars colonists, its hour will be no more or less uncertain than for us here on Earth.

`Ah, but going to Mars is a risky endeavour,’ the detractors will say, ‘can you really give informed consent when a decision is so life altering?’ This argument sounds rather like Catch-22: If you want to go to Mars you must be crazy. Therefore wanting to go to Mars automatically makes you incapable of consent. This argument ignores the fact that people can differ in the level of risk they are willing to accept. Furthermore, it could just as easily apply to any number of decisions we allow people to make every day. Can you really understand in advance the implications of consenting to a risky surgical procedure? To going on an Arctic expedition? To signing a 30-year mortgage? To having a child? If it’s possible to make an informed choice on such matters, then why not on a permanent emigration to Mars? Mars One’s colonists will receive years of training simulating the conditions they will have to live under. Unlike, say, prospective parents.

However, all of this is avoiding the really hard ethical questions. Judging the behaviour and choices of others is easy, potentially an enjoyable pass-time even (see your favourite social media or celebrity news site). But buried in Mars One’s timeline is a scenario that will force us to not judge others, but to look into a mirror and ask ourselves: In cold hard cash, what is a human life worth to me?

Imagine the following hypothetical scenario: It’s 2025. The world looked on in awe as the first humans set foot on Mars. Now, six months later, the world has spent half a year watching the daily routine of 4 high-tech subsistence farmers. Careful psychological assessment has ensured that conflict among the colonists is rare, and if it does occur gets handled in a calm and mature manner. In other words, the reality TV show that Mars One depends on for its funding is unutterably boring, and the ratings plummet. As one cable company after another declares it won’t be buying the rights to a new season, Mars One are forced to announce that they do not have the funds to send new resupply missions with spare parts to Mars. Spare parts the colonists depend on to maintain their critical systems.

How long will the Mars One reality show be interesting?
How long will the Mars One reality show be interesting?
Image credit: Flickr/mwanasimba, CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

At that point the world will have to answer the question: will we sit and watch in HD as the colonists freeze, asphyxiate, dehydrate, or starve to death, or will we mount a rescue mission? If we choose the second option, who should foot the bill? Should it be the country or countries of whom the colonists were previously citizens? What if they can’t afford to pay? Should it be the countries that have the necessary space infrastructure, even if they’re not involved in the project?

An MIT feasibility study (Ho et al, 2014) concluded that 4 colonists would need 13.5 tons of spares every two years. This corresponds to 6 rocket launches at $300 million each. In other words the cost of keeping Mars One’s colonists alive would be $225 million / astronaut / year.

That is roughly 9,000 times more than what my travel insurance would have paid out had I died on my last holiday trip. It is just over 4,750 times more than the limit for the UK national health service to consider a medical treatment cost-effective. Would we consider the Mars One colonists to be worth that much more than other humans, just because we can watch their lives in HD?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the EU agrees to pay. Then it would cost the EU’s citizens $1.80 (or €1.47) per person, per year, to keep the colonists supplied. Stated like that it’s not a huge amount. I’m sure most of us would be willing to forgo one cup of coffee or small glass of beer once a year if it meant saving a life. But this poses a new question. If the EU does manage to raise $900 million a year, should that money really be spent on keeping alive 4 astronauts, or should it be spent on Rotavirus vaccines instead, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives (Rheingans et al, 2009)?

These are the ethical questions that we will have to answer should Mars One succeed at its goal, but then turn out not to be financially sustainable. Questions that I believe are far more interesting, but also more confronting, than whether we should allow people the choice of dying on Mars. Yet that is precisely the question most coverage of Mars One seems to focus on. Is it really true that none of the reporters covering Mars One have considered the long term financial sustainability of this endeavour, or do we just find the attending ethical questions too uncomfortable to contemplate?

If Mars One cannot meet the financial obligation of maintaining its colonists, we will be forced to explicitly decide how much is the worth of a human life. Can you really not attach a value to a person’s existence, or will we collectively decide that 3 Falcon Heavy launches a year for the remainder of the colonists’ life is just too much?

Perhaps we will never be called upon to make that choice, but does that mean we shouldn’t consider it now? Perhaps we simply prefer the comfort of dismissing Mars One’s candidates as insane; of denying the mental fitness of those who would live out their lives having forever slipped the surly bonds of Earth.

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