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NASA Can't Ethically Send Astronauts On One-Way Missions To Deep Space 402

Daniel_Stuckey (2647775) writes "If NASA is serious about deep space missions, it's going to have to change its safety guidelines, because there's no conceivable way that, within the next few years, our engineering capabilities or understanding of things like radiation exposure in space are going to advance far enough for a mission to Mars to be acceptably "safe" for NASA. So, instead, the agency commissioned the National Academies Institute of Medicine to take a look at how it can ethically go about changing those standards. The answer? It likely can't.

In a report released today, the National Academies said that there are essentially three ways NASA can go about doing this, besides completely abandoning deep space forever: It can completely liberalize its health standards, it can establish more permissive "long duration and exploration health standards," or it can create a process by which certain missions are exempt from its safety standards. The team, led by Johns Hopkins University professor Jeffrey Kahn, concluded that only the third option is remotely acceptable."
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NASA Can't Ethically Send Astronauts On One-Way Missions To Deep Space

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @07:44PM (#46644625)

    We've lost all tolerance for risk or voluntary harm in the pursuit of a larger objective.

    But no worries. China is picking up where the USA left off on a lot of fronts.

  • by Darth Muffin ( 781947 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @07:45PM (#46644637) Homepage
    Whether sending a willing astronaut, who understands and chose to do this of his own free will, on a dangerous or even one-way mission is ethical is not a question for anyone except the astronaut. It's like trying to decide if gay marriage is "ethical". Unless you're one of the ones involved, nonya business trying to define ethics.
  • Realistically (Score:5, Insightful)

    by painandgreed ( 692585 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:01PM (#46644759)

    There's no conceivable way that, within the next few years, our engineering capabilities or understanding of things will be able to do a manned deep space mission to Mars, safe or not. We could try to just put a bunch of guys in a box and send it that way. I doubt we could design, build, orbit, and then get the box on it's way in the "next few years". Let's be serious. Nobody with space capability is looking at a Mars mission any time soon (next few decades*). The level of complexity needed will take time, research, and money. We didn't go to the moon till Apollo 11. Once you start seeing your Mars missions planned, let alone counting up, then we can start being serious about going to Mars. Seriously, we need to test deep space habitats. Long term independent space habitats. Long range movement of large structural objects in space. I bet we will have a deep space station and have sent something similar in a long trip around the moon long before we attempt Mars.

    *Elon Musk said it's possible in the next 10-12 years. I think he is just being overly optimistic, and that is overly optimistic, to get in the papers.

  • Ethics? Bullshit. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:05PM (#46644791) Homepage Journal
    The hell you can't. What that's saying is "we refuse to honor the wishes of educated, rational adults to make decisions we wouldn't". I guarantee that all of the Mercury astronauts knew there was a good chance they were going to die during each mission. They knew the failure modes, the risks, the potential ways they might get splattered across our planet in fiery ashes. And they still wanted to go! I cannot understand how it could possibly be unethical to explain the dangers and still give candidates the right to say, "yeah, I know I'm not coming back. For personal pride, for adventure, for my country, and for humanity I choose to go anyway. Now step aside and light this candle."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:10PM (#46644829)

    How many soldiers do we send every year on possibly one way missions?

  • I Volunteer. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ASDFnz ( 472824 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:17PM (#46644871)

    I have a chronic disease that can be controlled through medication that already limits my lifespan.

    Because of this I deliberately have no children or spouse and I avoid developing long term relationships.

    My Parents are old and are unlikely to outlive me anyway.

    I am aware of the implications of a one way trip to Mars and realise I wont be coming back and wont have any new companions for at least 10 years... if ever.

    Send me.

  • by aardvarkjoe ( 156801 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:21PM (#46644903)

    Particularly, those with a number of years left of health, but for which eventually, will die anyways.

    Good news! That already describes all of our astronauts.

  • Re:Realistically (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:27PM (#46644963)

    We didn't go to the moon till Apollo 11.

    Which was, it must be noted, only eight years after the first American went into space.

    It's now been 40+ years since a human went beyond LEO...which is sad.

  • by VortexCortex ( 1117377 ) <VortexCortex.project-retrograde@com> on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @08:46PM (#46645157)

    If I decide I want to die and I hand you a gun and ask you to shoot me, is it ethical for you to do so?

    Yes. Of course. Wouldn't it be ethical for me to inject your life-ending serum were you in terrible pain and wanted to die? OK, what if the pain is mental? What if there is no pain and you're sacrificing yourself for science? Look, just because some folks have a problem with killing people that want to die doesn't mean it's unethical to end people's lives when they really do want to die. That's their life, it's their choice.

    You had better wise up quick. Our technological progress may eventually render us immortal. We already have stem-cell brain injections and neuroplasticity drugs to help repair and improve brain function. We'll probably have lab grown 3D printed replacement organs in a decade or so (12 years was the time-line I last saw). Our machine complexity is increasing at an exponential rate. Machines have gained capabilities in a few short decades that took us organic lifeforms billions of years to achieve. So, what happen when you're an immortal? Everyone lives forever whether they want to or not? Fuck. That. Hard.

    I've got a game plot I'm working on where we deal with some of these ethical issues. Perhaps in a post-death world old timers will be the ones doing the really risky jobs that machines still can't do because they've been everywhere, done everything, and they aren't all geniuses constantly contributing to science. The ones who want to benefit their society best may decide to do so by taking really dangerous jobs or even suicide missions, boldly going where no man has gone before instead of just wasting resources thinking the same old thoughts and seeing the same old things. Whereas others explore the limits of understanding, they may choose to become daredevils exploring the limits of reality and life itself. In death they can become heroes and die knowing they have sacrificed themselves for the greater good of all.

    We don't have to wait for immortality to realize these are noble causes. It's not like we have a shortage of humans that it would cripple us if a few decided to give their lives in the name of science.

    If you don't have the freedom to peacefully sacrifice yourself for your species, planet, country, family, etc... then you don't have free will. No one is obliged to help you off yourself, but if they do it's not unethical. Are you even aware of the history of space exploration, or exploration in general? You sound like one of those brain-washed fools who advocate against free will of the terminally ill just to make the medical establishment a huge fortune, profiting via human suffering; Meanwhile staving kids fight wars over diamonds, electronics scraps, or food, with AK47s in Africa and you're not lobbying congress to do jack shit about it. I sure hope I'm wrong about you. Someday you might be one who's begging for death. If you keep that bullshit opinion of yours now, I hope that happens and your kids say, "Sorry gramps, looks like another 8-10 years of excruciating pain. You're not in control of your own life anymore because Pfizer has to make a buck somehow!"

    Seriously. How the fuck did this moron get rated so highly is beyond me. Dying for piddling oil wars is somehow acceptable, but to advance the human space frontier is questionably not ethical?! Fuck all those mods, apparently you're not the same species as me after all.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @09:05PM (#46645323)

    Seriously. How the fuck did this moron get rated so highly is beyond me.

    Perhaps because instead of being a self righteous prick he expressed a valid point very clearly and simply. You on the other hand....

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @09:39PM (#46645555)

    Can we send politicians instead? I like the soldiers.

  • by TrollstonButterbeans ( 2914995 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @10:02PM (#46645683)
    Protip: Everyone dies. Was it ethical for your dad and mom to love you and teach you to walk and talk and make you smile with ice cream knowing the inevitable result is your death?

    Death is part of life, a meaningful death is worth living for and the pinnacle of what it means to live.
  • by AudioEfex ( 637163 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @10:21PM (#46645801)

    Hell yeah. It's OK to send 18 year old barely-not-children-anymore to the hell hole Middle East with a pretty decent chance of dying - and usually for something shitty like a roadside bomb on top of it - not even in direct combat defending something - just in hopes that if they survive their education will be paid for - yet it's not ethical for someone to go to freaking Mars voluntarily if they want?

    To quote you - Fuck. That. Hard.

    Our priorities here are beyond fucked - but you only have to look at the war budget vs the NASA budget to know that. I'm sure someone has the statistics, but I'm pretty sure that what we spend on NASA in a year is equivalent to what - hours, days in war funding for the Middle East?

  • Re:robots (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @10:28PM (#46645835) Homepage

    And you know this how? It's not like we've ever experimented with living on another planet or anything.

    Sure we have (by approximation, anyway):

    1. Astronauts living in the Space Station start losing bone [wikipedia.org] and muscle [nasa.gov] mass after a few weeks.
    2. Researchers living in isolated conditions in Antarctica start suffering depression and other mental problems [dtic.mil] after a few months.
    3. Volunteers living in BioSphere 2 [wikipedia.org] found that their biological life support systems failed and they had to 'abandon ship' after 24 months.

    Note that all three of the above represent "easy" scenarios, where help and/or an emergency return to Earth is always minutes, hours, or days away. On Mars (or en route to Mars), help from or escape to Earth would not be a likely option.

  • by pepty ( 1976012 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @11:11PM (#46646059)
    The justification for sending 18 year olds to hell holes has always been that the consequences of not doing so would be much much worse. I won't comment on how often that justification was valid (cause it would get depressing) but in this case we don't even have that justification/rationalization. The only reason is the chance of a "Hey look! I'm on Mars!" tweet/selfie, and the research that could have been done cheaper by robots.
  • Re:robots (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DutchUncle ( 826473 ) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @11:19PM (#46646111)
    Obligatory Babylon 5 quote:

    Reporter: I have to ask you the same question people back home are asking about space these days. Is it worth it? Should we just pull back? Forget the whole thing as a bad idea, and take care of our own problems, at home.

    Cmdr. Jeffrey Sinclair: No. We have to stay here. And there's a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you'll get ten different answers, but there's one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won't just take us. It'll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes, and - all of this - all of this - was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.
  • by kenwd0elq ( 985465 ) <kenwd0elq@engineer.com> on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @11:47PM (#46646231)

    By your standard, the Plymouth and Jamestown colonies were "suicide missions"; the people who boarded the Mayflower never expected to come back. The first colonists to Mars will never return, and probably wouldn't want to.

    But the difference will be, the Martians can phone home pretty easily - where a letter back to England was a rare event in the 1630's.

    A "one way" trip isn't necessarily a "suicide mission".

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @12:35AM (#46646377)

    A "one way" trip isn't necessarily a "suicide mission".

    Morally, ethically, and even legally (hence the discussion), there's only a thin veneer of bullshit that separates the two, so let's not pretend there's not a elephant in this room when we're both staring at the thing, especially in this particular case.

    Trips hundreds of years ago were at least granted the chance of success because the outcome was truly unknown. We know damn well the fate of those we're sending on a one-way trip to Mars, even with the best of results. So do they, and they accept it.

    Call that whatever you want, but we both know what most would call it, including life insurance underwriters. An elephant.

  • by Nemyst ( 1383049 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @01:05AM (#46646509) Homepage
    Flip side, those colonies were a helluva lot more habitable than Mars. People already lived there well before the colonists arrived, but I don't see too many indigenous species when CO2 freezes on the surface of the planet. The people you send there are basically stranded in the middle of the ocean, not sent to a lush and fertile continent.

    This isn't to say the conditions weren't hard back then, but there's a wide gap between the two.
  • by kenwd0elq ( 985465 ) <kenwd0elq@engineer.com> on Thursday April 03, 2014 @01:17AM (#46646553)

    Sorry; my crystal ball is in the shop, so I truly do NOT know what the outcome will be. If yours is in good working order, then visit your stockbroker, and your certainties will carry somewhat more weight. Or at least, your bling will.

    Oh, yeah, we're all going to die eventually; that much is certain. But nobody is proposing to send humans as sacrifices to the God of War, or that we're just going there to fertilize the Martian dust. There's a CHANCE of survival beyond the first 72 hours, and probably much longer.

    You object? Don't go. It's just that simple. Had an opportunity like this come up 40 years ago, I'd have jumped on it. But they won't be ready to go for several years yet, and I'll be 70 by then; they wouldn't take me.

  • by oobayly ( 1056050 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @04:37AM (#46647047)

    You're seriously comparing the Eastern seaboard of North America with Mars? Lets see:
    1. People new a lot about the location before colonising (like we do now about Mars), so we're off to a good start
    2. They knew the Americas had a breathable atmosphere (Mars doesn't - .145% O2), a minor setback
    3. They knew the Americas had a habitable climate (Mars doesn't - average -55 celsius), not looking too good for Mars
    4. They knew the Americas had native edible flora and fauna (Mars doesn't - we're still trying to find bacteria), survivability on Mars is decreasing
    5. They knew the Americas had an ample water supply (Mars does - it'll have to be dug up and melted), well at least they can have a drink as they freeze death

    Not detracting from what the colonists did, but they knew that they only needed to pack enough food and water for the voyage and the settlement time, plus the knowledge they could breath was an additional bonus.

  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @06:19AM (#46647337) Homepage

    We all die.

    It's about time that modern society realized that choosing when/where/how to die should be every individual's right.

    (just like a lot of those more "primitive" cultures do)

  • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:11AM (#46648219)

    There most certainly are plenty of healthy people who could go. However, I disagree that younger people could perform better than older people. Okay, the terminally ill would be a poor choice.

    In a low (1/6G on the moon, for example), older folks would be just as capable as younger ones to perform low G construction, scientific testing, spaceport management, all kinds of stuff. In fact, many of the jobs necessary in low gravity/free fall would be just fine for those in their late fifties and sixties.

    In fact, they would be a wonderful resource for long-term missions to the outer planets as well as helping to engineer space habitats, moon facilities and even martian exploration.

    As long as the worker is healthy enough to survive the trip to LEO, they should be perfectly able to perform tasks for which they are trained (how many engineers, scientists and the myriad of other specialties required for space exploration, development and colonization are in that age range? A whole lot). Unless, of course, you think that somehow being older makes you less intellectually capable. The average lifespan of an American is somewhere around 75 years. I ask again, why waste a valuable resource?

    What is more, this would obviate many of the evolutionary and ethical issues seen with younger participants.

    I'm approaching 50, and I'll let you in on a little secret, we're not as tough as we act at this age. I had better senses, attention span, cognitive speed, reflexes, learning speed, joint mobility, stamina and a host of other useful, animal skills when I was 25 to 35 years old. Of course, I'm still "better with age" but that's basically experience at work, and 99% of what makes me better today than I was 20 years ago can be replaced by a team of experts at the other end of a radio link.

    If I were the mission planner and I could have a ground crew of 200, but only 12 on the mission, I'd keep the grey hair down with their families, let 'em work ordinary 8 hour shifts and take normal vacations - you get better people that way, and you want the best people you can get. If you take the brightest, most talented and experienced person and caffeine fuel them for 18 hour shifts, you're still not getting better performance than you would from a team of 3 people who have figured out what's important to them in life and also happen to be experts in their field.

    So, I'm saying, put the wunder-kind on the mission vehicle, support them with experienced ground crew. When the pioneers have established a reliable shirt-sleeve living and working environment that doesn't demand too much of the residents, then think about sending the old folks - they'll be able to contribute in great ways; but for pioneers you're better off working with people that don't have heavy family ties, arthritis, kidney stones and the occasional cancer that needs treatment.

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