Astronaut bioethics (of colonizing Mars)

Written December, 2014

Plans for long-term space missions to and the colonization of Mars are already underway. On December 5, NASA launched the Orion spacecraft and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden declared it “Day One of the Mars era.” The company Mars One(along with Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology) is planning to launch a robotic mission to Mars in 2018, with humans following in 2025. 418 men and 287 women from around the world are currently vying for four spots on the first one-way human settlement mission. But as we watch with interest as this unfolds, we might ask ourselves the following:

  • Is it ethical to expose people to unknown levels of human isolation and physical danger (including exposure to radiation) for such a purpose?
  • Will these pioneers lack privacy for the rest of their lives so that we might watch what happens?
  • Is it ethical to conceive or birth a child in space or on Mars? And, if so, who protects the rights of a child not born on Earth and who did not consent to the risks?
  • If we say no to children in space, does that mean we sterilize all astronauts who volunteer for the mission?
  • Given the potential dangers of setting up a new colony severely lacking in resources, how would sick colonists be cared for?
  • Can we reasonably expect the first explorers to care for the sick while on their mission? If not, what happens to temporarily or permanently disabled crew members?
  • Is it ethical to terraform Mars to suit human beings?
  • What are the rights of any life forms already on the planet?

And beyond bioethics, we can ask questions about how such a colony would be governed and who has property rights on Mars.

Update 10/12/15: NASA announces a plan to send humans to Mars in the next few decades. Read their reportJourney to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.

Asking the question: 


Mars One Project: Is it Ethical?

Is It Ethical to Colonize Mars? (KQED)

Would It Be Ethical To Colonize Mars? (Forbes)

Is a One-way Mission to Mars Ethical? Is it Sane? (TechTime)

Failure to Launch: The Technical, Ethical, and Legal Case Against Mars One (The Space Review, 2015)

Introduction to Astronaut Bioethics: Reproducing in Space, Lifeboat problems, and Other Ethical Quandaries that Could Arise if we Travel to Mars (Slate, 2015)

Failed Ethics of Mars One Program (DL Magazine, 2013)

NASA Mulls Ethics of Sending Astronauts on Long Space Voyages (, 2014)

Mars One Has Ethical Questions to Answer about One-way Trip to Red Planet (The Guardian, 2013)

To Boldly Go? Experts Issue Ethics Guidelines for Health Standards on NASA’s Next Generation of Risky Missions (Science Daily, 2014)

Psychological issues (also addressed above):

Mars depiction

Psychological Challenges of a Manned Mission to Mars (National Geographic, 2013)

Mars One: The Psychology of Isolation, Confinement and 24-hour Big Brother (The Guardian, 2013)

The Right (Mental) Stuff: NASA Astronaut Psychology Revealed (, 2014)

Expedition to Mars: Psychological, Interpersonal, and Psychiatric Issues (Journal of Cosmology, 2010)

Terraforming and other planetary alterations: 

Mars terraforming process

The Ethics of Terraforming (Philosophy Now, 2015)

Dear Elon Musk: Are You Sure You Want to Nuke Mars? (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, 2015)

The Intrinsic Rights Of Martian Bugs (Space Daily, 2003)

Does Mars Have Rights?: An Ethical Case for Terraforming the Red Planet (, 2012)