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The Bioethics of Mars One

It would be irresponsible to even attempt conception on Mars.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

May 29, 2013 - 12:29 am
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Bas Lansdorp is the Dutch engineer who proposes to send mixed-sex crews on one-way missions to the Red Planet starting in 2022. Lansdorp is funding the adventure as a reality television project, and he gave a talk on the subject at the Space Tech Expo in Long Beach, California last week.

It’s an interesting project, and inspiring to many. In fact, almost 80,000 people have reportedly paid a $75 fee and signed up for a chance to go. Three of them, including veteran SF author David Brin and an eighteen-year-old woman, explain why:

“I can say I have an ulterior motive,” said [Brin], who has written more than a dozen science-fiction novels — including “The Postman,” which was turned into a Kevin Costner movie in 1997. “I’d get a lot of writing done, and it might be memorable.”

For her part:

“Being young doesn’t make me want to do it any less because I have my whole life ahead of me,” she said. “It makes it more exciting. … I love all my friends, my guy friends, my family. It’s not that I’m trying to get away. It’s like I’m trying to strive for something more.”

She has long dreamed of going into outer space, and she figures that her future degree in materials science would come in handy for creating the first interplanetary settlement. “Going to Mars, there are so many opportunities for that,” she said.

But there’s a fly in the ointment, at least for her. Brin has already raised a family, but if part of the whole life she has ahead of her includes having children, that may be one opportunity she won’t have if she does this. And based on what we know right now about the planet Mars, it would be irresponsible to even attempt it, and not just because (as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics from four decades ago have it) it’s “cold as hell,” or because there are extremely toxic substances in the regolith of Mars.

I pointed the critical issue out to Lansdorp in a question following his presentation:

We have a few thousand hours of experience in living in weightlessness, a few tens of hours at 1/6th of a gravity on the moon, trillions of hours of experience in one gravity, but absolutely none at the 0.38 gravity of Mars. And we have no experience whatsoever of creating offspring in any gravity environment other than our own. We have absolutely no data on whether or not a mammal, let alone a primate, let alone a human, can conceive and gestate in gravity fields other than earth’s. And even if it is possible to do so, we don’t know what the implications would be for the children issued, in terms of birth deformities and resulting health problems. Are you planning to send fertile couples on this mission, with such a risk?

Over at Space.com, Rod Pyle reported on his response, which to me didn’t seem that well thought out:

Having kids on Mars would be irresponsible at this point, said Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of the Netherlands-based nonprofit Mars One, which aims to land four astronauts on the Red Planet in 2023.

“We are not in the business of telling people what to do, but astronauts are very responsible people,” Lansdorp said… “When they realize they are living in a dangerous place, they will know what to do, that it’s not right.

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Top Rated Comments   
I worked on the Space Station at NASA JSC in the early 90's. We wanted to do exactly what the author suggests - understand the effects of varying levels of gravity on the body. Is the 39% of Mars enough? How about the Moon? No one knows. But we had plenty of data on "microgravity" from Mir and Skylab - no need to do that again. A rotating structure would give us the ability to generate any level of gravity we wanted. And we could learn to build and operate such structures.

The government said no.

We also wanted to use it as a waypoint for exploration of the Moon or Mars. It could be used as a station to construct larger ships for trips to Mars for example, if it was in the right orbit.

The government said no. We had to change the orbit to a high inclination to make it easy for the Russians to get there. But useless for anything else.

Don't put all the blame on NASA. We were told how to design it. And it isn't at all what we wanted. It isn't even good for microgravity research.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" we’re agreed that it would be irresponsible"
Uh, no, not 'all' of us. The simple answer is we don't know the consequences, and we can't know the consequences until it has happened. We can guess, we can theorize, we can extrapolate, but we don't KNOW the results.

It would be wise to do small animal experiments, over several generations in low gravity environments, in micro gravity environments; mice, rats, dogs, cats, monkeys, even aquatic and amphibians. In fact, the International Space Station would be an ideal site for small animal experiments. It's a pity those experiments don't rate very highly in the schedule. It's a pity we don't have a facility on the lunar surface to preform those types of experiments.

Instead, let us just acquiesce to a few self appointed experts and let them tell us what we should do because experts are never wrong. After all, that's why they are experts.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (28)
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C.S. Lewis wrote a great short story about 'controllers' worried about male astronauts 'needs.' With hilarious result.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In all seriousness, given the risks of fertilization and the unknown effects on any offspring, the first colonies ought to be monogender and comprised of gays or lesbians. If they're looking at needing the best chance of setting something up that can be stable long-term, then this is the chance that the LGBT community has to prove that their couplings are every bit as stable as hetero ones like they claim and there would be no chance whatsoever of any unexpected pregnancies.

Then, you give them a variety of livestock along with their plants and watch what happens to the offspring of the animals for your clues as to what will happen to human offspring.

Yes, the colony will be sterile, but the people involved can bank their genetic material on Earth. The colony can also be "re-supplied" with people on a long period basis adding the opposite gender once there is a reasonable understanding of the effects on animal fertility.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I worked on the Space Station at NASA JSC in the early 90's. We wanted to do exactly what the author suggests - understand the effects of varying levels of gravity on the body. Is the 39% of Mars enough? How about the Moon? No one knows. But we had plenty of data on "microgravity" from Mir and Skylab - no need to do that again. A rotating structure would give us the ability to generate any level of gravity we wanted. And we could learn to build and operate such structures.

The government said no.

We also wanted to use it as a waypoint for exploration of the Moon or Mars. It could be used as a station to construct larger ships for trips to Mars for example, if it was in the right orbit.

The government said no. We had to change the orbit to a high inclination to make it easy for the Russians to get there. But useless for anything else.

Don't put all the blame on NASA. We were told how to design it. And it isn't at all what we wanted. It isn't even good for microgravity research.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Brittany
Do we know anything about the lack of a magnetic field, without radiation effects, on human gestation and development? I think that may be a Rumsfield 'unknown that we don't know is unknown'. Any info available?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This is probably the biggest reason that any one who says, "Oh, and of course the settlement would have to be vegan," like that's *obvious* is actually a complete idiot.

The *obvious* thing to do is to send, yes, old people... and livestock.

Send old people who are fit but past childbearing... design the settlement to be able to refine materials on Mars (energy production, air and water, building materials, etc.) so it's possible to build rather than just live in a capsule from Earth (or you're just a tourist)... the greenhouse space per person according to my "napkin" figuring is significant, the "settlement" would be acres of greenhouses just to break even...

And livestock... livestock that lays eggs like quail and chickens and ducks because embryos in eggs are easy to study and if your quail lay eggs at all you'll probably have a lot of them that can be incubated in various ways; and livestock that is placental like rabbits and small goats. Preferably animals that can be fed on stems and leftovers from greenhouses. Not a lot of point to mice because if larger animals can't make it, people are screwed anyhow.

And yes... the settlers can also eat them.

The notion of going to Mars but so *obviously* having to be vegan means that someone is subject to blind ideology rather than common sense.


1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thank you Rand for an excellent article. My views on "Mars One" are similar to yours. For my part, I think this is a suicidal scam, and will never come to fruition. At sites like "Space.com,"; there is often great enthusiasm by the naive and ill-informed, who try to counter rational concerns with stories about the "pioneering hardships" of the past. This is the 21st century, and the reisks we take must be much more calculated than was the case with, say, Jamestown, where they had a full G of gravity and air to breathe. The other reasons for being more "calculating" is the proportionately greater expense of this venture. If someone wants to do an experimental space settlement on a planetary surface, well, the Moon is right next door. But putting the very first humans to reach Mars on that lanet to stay there "permanently?" That is pure, reckless idiocy.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The place used to be very interesting, great debates. Since the new owners took over several years ago, they've turned it into the HufPo of Science.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
P.S. I want the old comment system back -- easier to edit typos and stuff. :-)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It would be unethical to not send both sexes to Mars and chances are children will be born. Indeed the hexa chromium in the regolith is problematic after Mars is Terra Formed and astronauts will walk around without protection. Ames engineer Chris McKay will advise in the matter. I wish Bas Lansdorp and prof Gerard 't Hooft all the succes however my aproach to Mars is a lot different.
I would develop SCramjet first and reanimate Nuclear Thermal Rocketry available since 1973 when Nixon killed it.
SCramjet and NTR will decrease space costs 100 to 1.000 fold.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What will be interesting is how the battle between those that want to colonize Mars and the other planets (which will necessarily mean terraforming them) and those who want them to remain "pristine" for study will pan out. Bar the Second Coming, colonizing the other planets may be the best hope for us conservatives against a 1-world government! (See the writings of Bob Zimmerman).
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I love how he says, "(which will necessarily mean terraforming them)" as if it's a given thing, trivial details to be worked out later.


This is an example of how popular science fiction has damaged real understanding of science.

Paul, there are good reasons that Mars has almost no atmosphere, no water, and has no life at all. They are fundamental reasons based on the laws of physics, and are not subject to being repealed by the imagination of sci-fi writers.

We're not going to be terraforming Mars, or any other planet.

Even if the necessary kinds of materials were available to create an atmosphere on Mars (they're not), the quantities of materials and energy required would make the project impossible, and even if you could magically arrange for the kinds and quantities of materials and energy required, it would all get undone about as fast as you could make it happen.

The laws of physics are stubborn things. We've been able to do a lot of new things down through the years as we have learned more about them, and how to work with them.

But nobody has yet had any success in repealing them.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I can see where the ethics people are coming from, but some couple produces one viable Martian, then its a whole new ballgame. The stakes are so high that it will happen.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
They will NOT produce a "viable Martian," period. The first humans on Mars will not be "viable Martians" either. And if the intent is for permanent colonization right away less than a decade from now, AND they actually succeed in getting people there, those people will die in short order, period. Mars One is utter folly.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
" we’re agreed that it would be irresponsible"
Uh, no, not 'all' of us. The simple answer is we don't know the consequences, and we can't know the consequences until it has happened. We can guess, we can theorize, we can extrapolate, but we don't KNOW the results.

It would be wise to do small animal experiments, over several generations in low gravity environments, in micro gravity environments; mice, rats, dogs, cats, monkeys, even aquatic and amphibians. In fact, the International Space Station would be an ideal site for small animal experiments. It's a pity those experiments don't rate very highly in the schedule. It's a pity we don't have a facility on the lunar surface to preform those types of experiments.

Instead, let us just acquiesce to a few self appointed experts and let them tell us what we should do because experts are never wrong. After all, that's why they are experts.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And don't forget, "The science is settled!!"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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