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Mars One base
Human missions to explore and settle Mars carry with them ethical issues often overlooked in comparison to the technological challenges of such endeavors. (credit: Mars One)

How we settle Mars is more important than when

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One of the next major space frontiers is the settlement of Mars. NASA has announced plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s (depending on the budget, of course). Elon Musk has announced that SpaceX will start unmanned missions to Mars by 2018 and manned missions by 2025, and is scheduled to release more details about his plans at a conference in Mexico later this month. Dutch nonprofit Mars One, meanwhile, has begun the process of selecting a crew to inhabit the Red Planet in 2027.

In the race to put people on Mars, scientists must address myriad technological and financial challenges, which seem to leaves little bandwidth for considering the ethical and philosophical questions inherent in settling another planet. Such questions are difficult to answer, which is why it’s important to start discussing them now, before we live on other worlds. Colonizing Mars will be a huge milestone for the human race, but how we go about it, rather than how soon, exemplifies who we are as a species and may ultimately determine the enterprise’s long-term success.

Colonizing Mars will be a huge milestone for the human race, but how we go about it, rather than how soon, exemplifies who we are as a species and may ultimately determine the enterprise’s long-term success.

Stephen Hawking argues that we need to colonize space as a backup for the human race. “I think it is almost certain that a disaster, such as nuclear war or global warming, will befall the earth within a thousand years,” he says. While “the human race could become extinct,” it’s not inevitable if we colonize other planets, he argues, and Mars is the “the obvious next target.” It makes sense to brainstorm contingency plans in the event of a catastrophe, but Hawking doesn’t acknowledge that the disasters he names are human-made. Man can induce disaster anywhere. Unless Mars is populated by pacifists and environmentalists who learned their lessons well on Earth, history may very well repeat itself.

Colonization doesn’t demand ideological or environmental paradigm shifts—we’re the ones who have to galvanize that. In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, the Mars pioneers aren’t so different from people on Earth: “Biggs weaved to the rim of the Martian canal. He carried six empty bottles and dropped them one by one into the deep blue canal waters. They made empty, hollow, drowning sounds as they sank. ‘I christen thee…Biggs Canal.’” It’s fiction, but it’s also easy to imagine. Settling another planet could provide an excuse to continue destructive behaviors with few immediate consequences. If Mars or any other planet is a safety net for a race that kills itself, each other, and/or the planet that supports it, are we setting ourselves up for a long-term future of planet hopping from one ruined world to the next?

The vast quantities of resources on Mars are a compelling reason to establish a presence there, but they also might perpetuate behaviors that could negatively affect the planet. Mars Society president Robert Zubrin says, “Mars possesses veritable oceans of water frozen into its soil as permafrost, as well as vast quantities of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen… These four elements are not only the basis of food and water, but of plastics, wood, paper, clothing, and—most importantly—rocket fuel.” Certainly, those elements would support a Mars settlement, but while their presence may mean “we can eventually do just about anything we want on Mars,” as Zubrin claims, that doesn’t mean we should do anything we want on Mars, especially if it means stripping the planet bare.

Zubrin argues that a successful settlement on Mars would require humans to “go native,” or do as the Martians would do, making use of Mars’ resources to sustain colonies and power rockets back to Earth. This strategy, which he likens to that of the Eskimos who have to make do with what their environment offers, makes more sense than shuttling all necessary resources to Mars, but Eskimos are invested in the long-term sustainability of their practices, as depleting those resources would have fairly catastrophic consequences.

Given the astronomical cost of setting up a colony on Mars, Zubrin also suggests that Mars export “silver, germanium, hafnium, lanthanum, cerium, rhenium, samarium, gallium, gadolinium, gold, palladium, iridium, rubidium, platinum, rhodium, [and] europium” to Earth, as well as deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen that exists in vast quantities on Mars. But there’s a difference between mining for sustenance, which requires sustainable practices, and mining for profit, which can sucker us into acting as though such resources are infinite.

Desire to see humans thrive on Mars shouldn’t eclipse questions about contamination or ethics, nor should it dictate our treatment of the Martian ecosystem.

At the end of “Blues for a Red Planet,” the Cosmos episode devoted to Mars, Carl Sagan acknowledges that “there are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth” that the question “What shall we do with Mars?” gives him the chills. He ventures to answer: “If there is life on Mars, then I believe we should do nothing to disturb that life. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if they are microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.” Sagan’s approach reflects what he calls the “cosmic perspective,” rather than the human-centric one. He has a profound and even spiritual connection to Mars, and in his vision of the future, Mars settlers will share it:

I don’t know why you’re on Mars. Maybe you’re there because we’ve recognized we have to carefully move small asteroids around to avert the possibility of one impacting the Earth with catastrophic consequences, and, while we’re up in near-Earth space, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to Mars. Or, maybe we’re on Mars because we recognize that if there are human communities on many worlds, the chances of us being rendered extinct by some catastrophe on one world is much less. Or maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.

Sagan exemplifies the union of ethics and science, which is part of the reason he remains both relevant and beloved. His belief that life on Mars should be preserved, even if it’s microbial, flies in the face of Zubrin’s argument that “hydrothermal reservoirs may be refuges in which microbial survivors of ancient Martian life continue to persist; they would also represent oases providing abundant water supplies and geothermal power to future human pioneers.” Zubrin’s approach touts practicality to the exclusion of other considerations.

In 2000, Zubrin argued that the threat of back contamination from Mars is “not only illusory but hallucinatory” and “just plain nuts,” and that “back contamination mavens need to back off” as they “urge crimes against science.” His rationale for why Martian organisms can’t and won’t contaminate Earth is sound (among other things, this would have happened already given how much of Mars comes our way), but in addition to using incendiary language to describe those concerned about back contamination, planetary scientist David Grinspoon points out that Zubrin “does not consider the magnitude of the irreversible disaster that could be caused if we are wrong.” Possessing opinions and knowledge doesn’t preclude the possibility that we could be mistaken: “[Science’s] only sacred truth is that there are no sacred truths,” says Sagan. Dismissiveness suggests a lack of readiness more dangerous than gaps in technology or funding, as it leaves no room for acknowledgement that we don’t know everything—we may not even know what we don’t know.

Grinspoon argues against value neutrality, particularly in astrobiology, as it “can lead to an ‘it’s not our problem’ approach toward the serious societal issues created by our rapid advance in knowledge.” He argues for a marriage of science and ethics, particularly pertaining to planetary protection, which instead of being a hindrance to science “can only help, because we must somehow learn to do science that is guided by values but not distorted by wishes.”

Desire to see humans thrive on Mars shouldn’t eclipse questions about contamination or ethics, nor should it dictate our treatment of the Martian ecosystem. Theoretically, we could make Mars habitable on a grand scale by terraforming, which would help produce more oxygen, raise the atmospheric pressure, and establish an ozone layer. Even Sagan suggests releasing the Martian atmosphere from the polar ice caps by covering them with genetically engineered, heat-retaining plants. But Bradbury raises the possibility of a selfish Johnny Appleseed via a character whose struggle with the thin Martian air threatens his ability to stay: “He would plant trees and grass. That would be his job, to fight against the very thing that might prevent his staying there. He would have a private horticultural war with Mars.” Ultimately, altering a planet’s ecosystem is self-serving, whether it benefits one person or thousands. That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that part of the discussion about terraforming should include considerations of the consequences on the native environment and its microbial life. But who gets to make such decisions?

One of the more complicated logistical and ethical questions about Mars involves ownership. Let’s say we decide to settle Mars and begin mining. Who would own those resources? Who would own, or be responsible for (which may or may not be the same thing) the colonies and structures on Mars? Would the first humans on the planet stick a flag in it, and even if they did, what would that mean?

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which was ratified by 102 countries, holds that:

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all states;
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Prohibiting ownership of space by a nation seems like a solid idea, and perhaps one rooted in ethical considerations, but turning humans loose in space without a clear sense of who is responsible for them isn’t. The treaty provides a foundation, but without additional guidelines, it raises more questions than it addresses. One area it fails to address is private companies. These days, private companies are doing everything from transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station to developing rockets and spacecraft for travel to other planets. The treaty says states are responsible for the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, which likely means that the actions of private companies need to be authorized and supervised by the appropriate nation—but what exactly does that mean?

While it’s idyllic to envision Mars as belonging to no one or everyone, the buck does have to stop somewhere.

Let’s fast forward a few years. What happens if a colonist finds a jackpot of gold or iridium on Mars? It’d be nice to divide and distribute the bounty among Mars settlers, but would authorities on Earth—presumably, the government(s) responsible for the settlers who found goods—demand a share of the spoils? And if they did, wouldn’t that presume ownership? Or maybe “finders keepers” would apply, establishing trade practices between Martian colonies to meet the demands of long-term settlement. Over time, though, would that lead to the same scenario that currently exists on Earth: that uneven resource distribution causes certain areas to boom and others to languish, and their inhabitants along with them?

While it’s idyllic to envision Mars as belonging to no one or everyone, the buck does have to stop somewhere. But it’s a slippery slope, as described by Ray Bradbury:

“[A]fter everything was pinned down and neat and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the “atmosphere”; they came to study and apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to push people’s lives and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and ruled and pushed about.”

Perhaps someday Mars could be independent, but for the foreseeable future, Mars colonies will rely on Earth, which will likely subject them to ownership. The question is one we’ve faced before: will the colonists be subject to taxation (or other bureaucratic machinations) without representation?

The consideration of such questions has to be undertaken carefully, though by whom may depend on what organization sends the colonists to Mars. If NASA sends a group of astronauts, then it would seem the US government should be responsible for them. But if Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit, establishes the first settlement on Mars, what state, if any, is responsible for oversight? Would responsibility transfer to the ESA, or would the relatively new and small Netherlands Space Office assume managerial duties? More importantly, would we trust private companies with something as high stakes as establishing a settlement on another planet?

Neil deGrasse Tyson supports private enterprise in space, but doesn’t believe private enterprise will or should “lead a space frontier.” He argues that space is too dangerous, expensive, and unknown. Over history, governments have undertaken those missions, paving the way for a free market. While it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a private company will establish the first Mars settlement, it would seem that the most practical solution would be for governments to collaborate. If governments do work together to establish settlements on other planets, they’d have to figure out questions of ownership and responsibility ahead of time.

It’s not hard to imagine even the most intelligent and stable people becoming a little unhinged by a seven-month flight to Mars and the prospect of spending the rest of a lifetime on an otherwise uninhabited planet where they can’t breathe the air.

Since Mars One has the most developed timeline of any Mars colonization mission and recently narrowed down its field of applicants from several thousand to 100, it’s the first entity to attempt to answer some of the logistical and ethical questions surrounding a Mars colony. Mars One lays out its encouraging stance on planetary protection, and the actions they’ll take to prevent harm from coming to Mars. On the matter of religion, “Mars One project encourages religious freedom, religious activity and beliefs will be purely a matter of individual choice on Mars,” and when it comes to social and governmental systems, “the astronauts will be facing the task of determining how to organize themselves politically in order to ensure fair and reasonable decision-making processes…Mars One will provide training and a database of knowledge about human social organization to assist in that process as the settlement grows.” Such answers are about as detailed as they can be, but there are some aspects about daily life that need to be more carefully considered, particularly when it comes to the mental health of the astronauts.

Interpersonal conflicts will be inevitable, as will isolation, loneliness, cabin fever, anxiety, and depression. Settlers may be able to use robotic counselors to help them deal with such problems, and could email or even text their friends and relatives on Earth. Those interactions would take tens of minutes for each message, but it beats the Pony Express.

Still, Mars One’s answer to the question about the psychological issues that might trouble astronauts is problematically flippant. The people who go to Mars will be both self-selected and panel-selected and “will be very smart, skilled, mentally stable, and very healthy.” And they’ll be plenty busy surviving. Regardless, it’s not hard to imagine even the most intelligent and stable people becoming a little unhinged by a seven-month flight to Mars and the prospect of spending the rest of a lifetime on an otherwise uninhabited planet where they can’t breathe the air.

Mars One has “discussed [its] plan with experienced and respected psychologists,” but leaves it up to us to assume that those psychologists support the plan. Mars One chief medical officer Norbert Kraft assured attendees of one question-and-answer session that he “didn’t miss [the outside] at all” during a ten-day stint in an isolation chamber; thus, colonists on Mars will be fine. This kind of dismissiveness mirrors Zubrin’s dismissal of contamination concerns. Colonization is a boundary-breaking, frontier-pushing experiment, thus not everything can be known or planned ahead of time. Ethics apply not just to the planet itself, but also to the people doing the work. Riding a rocket to Mars is different than sailing to the New World. We’re talking about crews of four living in tiny pods, protected from air and radiation that would otherwise kill them. The Hi-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation) program just completed a one-year Mars simulation, which include psychological monitoring, and Mars One announced a couple years ago that it has begun work on simulation outposts, both of which will hopefully lead to more targeted and substantive planning.

The most worrisome aspect about Mars One is its funding proposal, which primarily relies on income generated from broadcasting the mission. They liken their television marketing revenue to that of the Olympics, but that raises a slew of new and troubling questions. The multi-year selection process for the mission is now also a casting process. Details haven’t been released about what that means, but it can’t be good. Reality TV shows are notorious for casting people they know won’t get along, and while the stakes of Mars colonization are too high for such antics or crew-rigging, if Mars One relies so heavily on TV-related revenue, then who knows? Will the show be edited, or even scripted? How much will be filmed? Continuous broadcasting is both unrealistic and unethical given the stresses the colonists will encounter; surely they’d just destroy the cameras if they got tired of having their travails aired like so much dirty laundry.

People will die during the colonization mission, whether from natural causes or mission-related ones. This isn’t a reason not to go to Mars, but it is a reason not to televise it. People will watch, whether it’s to witness historic and heroic actions or to witness drama on another planet. The families of the settlers will watch too. This has been true for astronauts who have flown to the Moon or the ISS, as well as for astronauts who tragically never reached their destinations. But even those of us who saw the Challenger explode not long after launch didn’t see inside the shuttle.

If we’re going to engage the ethics of settling other planets, we have to grapple with what may seem like a rhetorical or even a stupid question: is humanity’s long-term survival a worthy goal?

What Mars One is proposing is an inside look at the training, launch, flight, colonization, and daily lives of these crews. If we had possessed the technology back in the 1400s, we’d have televised Columbus’s voyage (just think of the revenues!) But think of how much we would have seen that we’d wish we hadn’t. Astronauts and explorers are heroes, partly because we generally judge them on their accomplishments. Was Columbus’s voyage brave, even heroic? Sure. Was his behavior? Far from it. The Mars colonists won’t encounter natives that they will then try to enslave, convert, or sell for gold, but if the mission is televised, we’ll inevitably see them deal poorly with the stress no matter how capable they are. Those moments (provided they’re not extreme or frequent) shouldn’t make their mission any less heroic, but they will, because we’ll talk about them around the water cooler and dissect them on the Internet, reducing their mission to entertainment. What’s worse is that they could see or internalize comments about themselves. Mars One’s reality-TV scheme may be one of the most persuasive arguments for a government-led mission, or even for waiting to colonize Mars until we can do it in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily dramatize one of most genuinely dramatic situations in human history.

If we’re going to engage the ethics of settling other planets, we have to grapple with what may seem like a rhetorical or even a stupid question: is humanity’s long-term survival a worthy goal? The obvious answer is that no goal is more worthy. But if we ruin ourselves and/or our planet, then might that suggest we’re not fit to survive? Or is the colonization of another world an attempt to prove we are fit? Some people seem to believe humans should use Earth (or any other place) for what we need: some people see it as a right, if not a destiny, which is why we’re in the position Stephen Hawking describes. If we do settle on Mars, hopefully we can demonstrate our ability to break that cycle, or humanity’s survival will come at a price—one that, in all good conscience, we perhaps shouldn’t exact.

Again, Carl Sagan puts it best:

And our small planet, at this moment, here we face a critical branch-point in the history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization, and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition, or greed, or stupidity we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But, we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet. To enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.

It’s incumbent upon us to bring not just ourselves and our intelligence, but our compassion and morality wherever we go. That’s ultimately the legacy we should create. Robert Zubrin asks, “Are we still a nation of pioneers?” “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” he says, and he’s right. Life is change versus death, progress versus stagnation. We shouldn’t remain on the ground or retreat into our caves, but our human missions to Mars should appeal not just to entitlement, greed, or security, but to the yearning that makes kids unable to tear their eyes from the sky, the desire that has inspired thousands of backyard rocket launches. It’s all those things we’ve dreamed, however silly they sound—aliens and time travel and warp speed, space stations and space colonies, the grandeur of the cosmos and the way Earth looks from space. If we can take those feelings with us to Mars, we stand a chance of creating not Earth 2.0, but a better version of what we have here.