NASA Can't Ethically Send Astronauts on One-Way Missions to Deep Space

NASA can't arbitrarily change its health standards just because it wants to.

Image: NASA

It goes pretty much without saying that flying to Mars is a dangerous proposition. In fact, right now, any deep space mission easily fails NASA’s minimum safety requirements. Regardless, the agency is planning (eventually) to send humans out to an asteroid and to Mars, so something has gotta give. 

If the agency 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.

Liberalizing health standards across the board would completely undermine the standards in general, which are “based on the best available scientific and clinical evidence, as well as operational experience.” Kahn concluded that “modifying health standards outside of this established process merely to permit long duration and exploration missions would be arbitrary.” Creating a second set of standards is also problematic, because the committee found that NASA is “lacking a clear and compelling justification for why acceptable risks and levels of uncertainty should be greater for longer duration and exploration missions than other human spaceflight missions.”

That leaves us with the third option—creating exemptions, partly based on an astronaut’s willingness to hang out in unknown conditions for, potentially, years at a time. 

“In those exceptional cases, there should be some discussion inside NASA about why it’s acceptable to exceed those existing standards and they should think about why an exception makes sense,” Kahn told me.

Any mission that would be important enough to throw caution into the wind should meet some minimum standards, the report suggests. Here are the criteria NASA should look at. A deep space mission, in order to be eligible for a waiver, should:

  • be expected to have exceptionally great social value; 
  • have great time urgency; 
  • have expected benefits that would be widely shared; 
  • be justified over alternate approaches to meeting the mission’s
  • establish that existing health and safety standards cannot be met; 
  • be committed to minimizing harm and continuous learning; 
  • have a rigorous consent process to ensure that astronauts are fully informed about risks and unknowns, meet standards of in- formed decision making, and are making a voluntary decision, and 
  • provide health care and health monitoring for astronauts before, during, and after flight and for the astronaut’s lifetime.

All of this is to say that NASA needs a damn good reason to risk its astronauts' lives, and even then, it's going to have to willfully ignore its established safety guidelines to do so. The report's suggestions (and they are voluntary, though NASA is likely to follow its recommendations) aren't a death blow to deep space missions, but justifying one is going to be difficult. Any deep space mission is going to carry with it a level of uncertainty that can't be simulated on Earth, regardless of how many arctic capsules we make.

"Scientists are huffing and puffing and saying that deep space travel isn't as risky as NASA seems to think," Kahn said. "But you can't say that when we don't even know what the risks are. There's still a huge amount of uncertainty."

These decisions, while still far off, are quickly coming up. NASA has plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and wants to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s

Of course, astronauts have died before, and any future exploration missions are arguably more dangerous than anything the agency has done before. NASA’s reticence to lose astronauts hasn’t won it many admirers among the more gung-ho proponents of space exploration, as many have criticized the agency for being far too cautious in recent years. That’s how you end up with commercial companies that propose sending people to Mars to die, while NASA, the agency most likely to actually be able to pull off any deep space mission, sits around without a clear human spaceflight program. 

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, says that NASA has long since lost its edge and sense of adventure.

“It’s fear holding NASA back,” Zubrin told me last year. “These are risky missions. If you want to be safe, stay on the ground.”

But Kahn says that the agency has an obligation, as a government agency, to do any deep space mission in a responsible manner. If Mars One signups are any indication, there are plenty of people willing to hop on a spaceship to Mars, risks be damned. Kahn says NASA has the responsibility to not let an astronaut’s willingness to die to be an excuse to send them on a suicide mission.

It’s a government entity, astronauts are workers, they’re government employees, citizens of the United States, and they’re doing work on behalf of the country. We need to think about that,” he said. “When we’re doing heart surgery research we don’t send people to give their heart while they’re still alive. Even if the agency’s goal is to explore, it doesn’t mean that people should just accept whatever risk might be envisioned by the mission.”