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No humans allowed on Mars? There are ways around such a ban.

How to beat the ban of humans on Mars

For NASA and Mars, it’s no humans allowed. As reported by the Mars Society and other space enthusiasts, Congress is finally clamping down on the menace of human life on Mars (see “Why ‘Save Mars’ is worth the effort”, The Space Review, November 12, 2007). The House of Representatives version of HR 3093, the bill that determines NASA’s funding for 2008, effectively bans the study of an entire planet:

Provided, That none of the funds under this heading shall be used for any research, development, or demonstration activities related exclusively to the human exploration of Mars.

The House committee report mentions the proposed prohibition:

Finally, bill language is included prohibiting funding of any research, development, or demonstration activities related exclusively to the human exploration of Mars.

In 2006, there was an attempt to implement a Mars ban by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA):

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for a manned space mission to Mars.

Frank was also arguing against humans and Mars back in 2005:

I agree about what was said about aeronautics; it is so important. I agree with space experimentation, primarily unmanned. But sending human beings to Mars, which this bill unfortunately endorses, is an extravagance…

The chief motivation behind the ban is the old, predictable anti-human-spaceflight routine. Robots are better for science, therefore we should have a robot-only space policy. The counter-arguments are ignored: that establishing human/Earth life beyond Earth is progress for humankind, and that a both-robots-and-humans policy is fair to all sides.

Mars was targeted because banning other places is not yet politically feasible. If the lunar exploration program wasn’t already established, the ban would have included all destinations outside Earth orbit. The long-term objective is to emulate the old British model and eliminate all human spaceflight, even though Britain is considering relaxing its astronaut ban.

The bill is still in Congress, and hasn’t made it into law yet, but it’s worthwhile to be prepared for a prohibition on Mars. There are ways for NASA to continue its human spaceflight research and development without technically breaking the law…

Human exploration of places very close to Mars

The Mars ban would draw a legal border between Mars and the rest of the universe. Exploring the rocky surface of Mars would certainly be illegal, and being in the Martian atmosphere would also presumably break the law, but the ban says nothing about orbiting Mars. If the Mars ban becomes law, it should be accompanied by a mysterious surge of interest in the human exploration of the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos. As long as the astronauts keep clear of the Martian atmosphere, they can explore Phobos and Deimos to their hearts’ content.

Humanoid exploration of Mars

But the exclusive nature of the law allows a human mission to Mars to take place, if the mission also does something else. If the hardware used to explore Mars was also used to explore the Moon, then that’s acceptable.

The ban permits robots to explore Mars. But the law does not specify the exact size and shape of the robot concerned. If the robot just happened to have the same physical dimensions as a human being—if it was a humanoid robot, or android—then it could be sent to Mars using the same launch vehicles and modules as the human mission. The robot could be equipped with biochemical functions to test the mission’s life support systems. And if legislators decide to lift the Mars ban, NASA could simply swap the humanoid robot with an actual human, and immediately begin a manned mission.

Inclusive exploration of Mars

The wording of the Mars ban may provide another loophole. The ban covers activities that are “related exclusively to the human exploration of Mars”. The word “exclusively” was necessary, otherwise activities ranging from the human exploration of the Moon to the robotic exploration of Mars could be linked to humans on Mars, and subsequently banned. The exclusive language helps narrow down the ban.

But the exclusive nature of the law allows a human mission to Mars to take place, if the mission also does something else. If the hardware used to explore Mars was also used to explore the Moon, then that’s acceptable. Most importantly, if the mission to Mars included both humans and robots, then that could also go ahead. A humans-and-robots mission would not violate the law because it is not exclusively human. So the law intended to enforce an anti-human, robot-only space policy may end up enforcing a both-humans-and-robots policy, which is what NASA and space enthusiasts have wanted all along.

If the anti-human-spaceflight community is serious about eliminating humans in space, it should write a better law. And no messing around this time:

Provided, That no funds shall be used for anything that has, does or will directly result in humans, human-derived beings or human-like objects existing at an altitude higher than 100 kilometers above sea level on planet Earth.

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