Quirks & Quarks·Pathway to Mars

Is it ethical to go to the red planet?

We consider possible harm to Mars, whether it's ethical to ask astronauts to go on such a dangerous trip, and the potential moral hazards around terraforming and 'colonizing' another planet.

In the last of our series on plans for Mars, we ask the question "Should we go?"

Artist’s impression of humans exploring the Martian surface (NASA)
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This is the conclusion of Quirks & Quarks' Pathway to Mars series. Each instalment focused on one part of the huge challenge of the most ambitious journey of exploration we've ever attempted — a human mission to Mars.

In previous episodes we have presented the many difficult challenges of getting humans to Mars and back. We looked at how we'd build and launch the rocket, get the astronauts to Mars safe and healthy, and how to  build them a place to live and work.

As we wind up our series, we have left the biggest question to last: Should we go to Mars? Is it ethical for humans to travel to Mars?

Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz has spent a significant part of her career thinking about whether we should go to Mars. She's studied the issues, working on them with NASA and the US Library of Congress. 

This image called ‘Elysium Planitia’, depicts a broad plain that straddles the equator of Mars. The risk to human life should be carefully considered before we attempt a mission to the Red Planet. (Kahn & Selesnick)

She's  an astronomer based at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and co-founder of the Just Space Alliance, whose mission is to "advocate for a more inclusive and ethical future in space, and to harness visions of tomorrow for a more just and equitable world today". 

Walkowicz joined Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald to talk about the many issues surrounding human exploration of Mars.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Let's suppose that one of our robots discovers life on Mars and proves that there is still life there today. How do you think that should affect our plans to send humans there?

One of the things that is missing a lot of the time from our conversations about Mars is really the history of the way that we think about environments and environmental rights and even legal standing here on Earth.

If we look at Mars as a place that for example has its own history, whether it has life currently or not means that Mars has its own sovereignty and in some ways at least its own standing. And so when we think about the things that we might want to do out there I think you run pretty quickly into differing ideas about what environments are for and what rights non-human species have.

People may contaminate Mars. We can bring our microbes there and contaminate the indigenous life that's there. What about that issue?

Our activities in space are governed by the Outer Space Treaty that dates back to 1967 and it sets forth a number of principles of what humans can and can't do.

For example it contains phrases that space is for the peaceful use of all humankind. But it also says things like you can't put military installations on other celestial bodies you can't own other celestial bodies or parts thereof.

Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz (L. Walkowicz)

Most notably, for the question that you asked, is this question of environmental contamination.  Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty says that we can't contaminate another world in such a way as to make it unusable for others. And you also want to protect the Earth's biosphere from potential contamination from something that you might bring back.

We don't want to find the first evidence of life beyond Earth and then kill it by bringing some contaminant there or otherwise to contaminate the world in such a way that we would never be able to answer the question of whether Mars had life that was indigenous to it or not.

How is that treaty holding up, especially with plans now to send people to Mars and even build colonies there with hundreds of people living there for extended periods of time?

The things that I have learned that have been most informative for me when I think about the Outer Space Treaty have not been from space lawyers or space policy experts. It's really been from talking to historians of Indigenous history here in North America.

The United States had over 500 treaties with Native American nations and those treaties stood until resources — namely gold — were discovered by settler colonists who were making incursions into Native American land. And as soon as there was money to be made, frankly, the United States government not only didn't uphold the treaty it actually enabled the settlers to go in and occupy that land.

So if we look at the full history of things that have happened here, there are many lessons for us to learn about what space exploration might actually look like in practice.

What are the ethical issues around the idea of terraforming Mars, turning it from the cold dry desert it is today into a warm wet world like the Earth?

Terraforming is such a deeply sticky ethical issue. For example I often pick on Elon Musk in interviews like this just because he's very vocal. He gives me a lot of things to respond to. He's certainly not the only person with these ideas, but he's often a big fan of talking about  terraforming  Mars.

‘Mars Potato Fields’. Science fiction..for now. (Kahn & Selesnick)

Planets that have lost their habitability in the way that Mars has are not empty swimming pools that you can just refill and they'll go back to being habitable places. They have fundamentally lost a lot of the geological processes that make planets hospitable to life as we know it.

You also want to look at whether you even have the right to transform environments in that way. And I think the fact that we don't see space giraffes galloping across the surface of Mars often makes people forget that even if life is not existing on Mars anymore there's still a lot that we could learn in the same way that we learn from histories of life here on Earth.  For example where we came from. And that's an opportunity that we would completely lose by racing its history by changing its chemistry.

One of the justifications for going to Mars is that it could be a backup plan in case we trash the Earth. How do you feel about that concept?

I think this idea of Mars as a backup planet would be almost comical if it wasn't so sinister.

People often say that in a billion years or a few billion years the sun is going to expand and  Earth will become unlivable etc. etc.. Honestly we should be so lucky to be here in a billion years. We have a lot of problems here.

But the other aspect of this is not just the practical aspect but it's also the very idea of what it means to backup humanity. You know a lot of times I think you hear that idea from tech billionaires who are thinking of human beings as bits of data that can be backed up in the way that a hard drive can be backed up.

You see that overwhelmingly the space program often reflects all of the racism and sexism that exists here on Earth. And so when we start talking about backing up humanity you can't do that for very long before you get into who is going to make the decisions about who is worth backing up and what does that look like in the past? What does it even look like in the present?

You know we're sitting here having this conversation at a moment when the entire world is convulsing in support of a relatively simple statement in the Black Lives Matter movement. So when we talk about backing up humanity while people are also struggling to have their humanity recognized here on Earth it's not a short leap to see that that might reproduce all of the discrimination that we've had here on Earth.

So I think the idea of terraforming Mars, aside from absolving us of our responsibilities to the environment, also absolves us of our responsibilities to one another

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