By Alan Regenberg
Mars One  is a Dutch non-profit foundation working towards raising the $6 billion  that they estimate will be required for the establishment of a human settlement on Mars. Their plan consists of a series of unmanned missions to deliver necessary materials and establish a “habitable settlement”. Assuming these missions are successful, they will be followed by the arrival of crews of at least four additional colonists every two years, for “permanent settlement”. This is (currently) a one-way ticket.
The Mars One website helpfully includes a FAQ: “Is this ethical?”  Good question. They present a very brief argument hinging on maximizing safety  and ‘quality of life’ (free wifi!) along with the importance of colonist autonomy. Not surprisingly, they conclude ‘we do indeed think it is ethically conscientious to allow people to emigrate to Mars’. They also note that return trips from Mars may one day become possible (using an example with Australia playing the role of Mars and ‘unbelievably low airfares’ playing the part of ‘building a rocket on mars’).
For a more carefully considered approach to answering this really important question – check out this IOM committee report “Health Standards for Long Duration and Exploration Spaceflight “. In response to a request from NASA, the IOM convened an expert panel to outline the “ethics principles and practices that should guide the agency’s decision making for future long duration or exploration missions that fail to meet existing health standards”. (The committee was chaired by our Jeffrey Kahn ). From our press release :
First, the committee says, NASA should decide whether it is acceptable to risk astronaut health and safety for missions that could exceed the health standards. If NASA decides such missions are ethically acceptable, it must then determine the process and criteria for granting exceptions.
If a mission is deemed ethically acceptable, the third decision level focuses on the selection of the crew for the mission and an astronaut’s decision to participate on that mission. NASA should ensure both “equality of opportunity” to participate in these missions, and that participation is voluntary. The report makes clear that astronauts must be fully informed of all risks as they are known – before, during and even after long duration and exploration missions.
Examples of the health risks astronauts face, covered by NASA’s current health standards, are effects of microgravity environments such as vision impairment, bone loss, behavioral changes and lifetime cancer risks due to radiation exposure. Longer and more distant spaceflight would increase these risks, as well as additional uncertain and “perhaps unforeseeable” risks, the report notes.
“From its inception, space exploration has pushed the boundaries and risked the lives and health of astronauts,” Kahn says. “Determining where those boundaries lie and when to push the limits is complex. NASA will continue to face decisions as technologies improve and longer and farther spaceflights become feasible. Our report builds upon NASA’s work and compiles the ethics principles and decision-making framework that should be an integral part of discussions and decisions regarding health standards for long duration and exploration spaceflight.”
Mars One is currently in the process recruiting their initial crew of astronauts. Courtesy of a set of interviews from The Guardian , we can hear directly from three volunteers, from among the 663 who have made it through the first cut from the over 200,000 initial international applicants , and give some initial thoughts to how well informed they are about the risks of the endeavor that they are so actively pursuing:
Alan Regen berg , MBe, is the Director of Outreach and Research Support at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is currently developing and implementing strategies to use social media as a tool for broad public engagement around issues in bioethics. You can follow him: @aregenberg , and he curates the twitter feed: @bermaninstitute