The Bioethics of Mars One


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, 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.