The Ethics Behind Mars One

I’ve been operating on the assumption that successful Mars One candidates will have signed up with the recognition that they’re basically volunteering for a one-way trip to Mars. We know we’re going to be living out our lives on a planet that makes Antarctica look inviting and plunked down the application fee anyway. This will be a case where it won’t matter whether a team member 25 years old or had reached retirement age before he or she ever applied in the first place. We’ll all have exactly the same life expectancy because there’s going to be about a thousand or more ways that Mars could kill the entire team at the exact same moment.

However, that apparently hasn’t stopped some people from complaining about whether the Mars One plan is ethical or even doable from the first moment that the nonprofit organization went public. Do individuals like Bas Lansdorp have the right to put other people at risk, however eager those people might be to sign on the dotted line? This ignores the fact that the Mars One candidates have big dreams but usually don’t have the resources to match. A freelance writer like me does not make a lot of money. Neither do taxi drivers like Melissa Ede. Hotel managers like Aaron Hamm won’t make enough money to buy rockets capable of sending everything they need to survive on Mars in their lifetime unless they get lucky and make investments that become huge in the near future. We are the people who are willing to take the risk and just need the opportunity. We are people who don’t need to sign complex legal forms when we know from seeing videos of the Challenger disaster that space travel in any form has its risks. Obviously, this isn’t for people who need warning labels on everything or think this is going to have no more impact on their lives than a long sabbatical would.

There might still be a few candidates whose motives I might reasonably question among the 705 people still in the running. I would still distrust the ones who feel the need to turn the entire Mars One Project into a political statement or a social experiment, for instance. I’m sure the ones who hang around the Aspiring Martians Group on Facebook know who I mean. These are the ones who might wreck the chances of an entire team by waiting until a month before the first four Martian settlers are announced and then quitting. In my mind, this sort of action would be much more unethical than Mars One’s idea of recruiting volunteers for a high-risk, high-reward venture in the first place simply because the quitter is throwing a wrench into the dreams and life plans of three other people. I honestly hope that these kind of people are swept aside in the Round 2 and Round 3 selections to make room for people who recognize Mars One for what it is. Mars One is not out to make any kind of a statement other than proving that people can and will live on Mars. Anyone who says otherwise is not a person I would want on my team.

What would I consider unethical? Most likely an action that would take away the free will of others who know that something is risky but want to do it anyway. Other bloggers have called Mars One a scam and a fake that is somehow hoodwinking the volunteers. I’ve answered those in articles on my other blog and, really, they didn’t do much except convince me that people still think that being a solid American middle class person with a blog is something that everybody should aspire to. It’s tough for me to argue if that’s what works for somebody else. However, it’s hard for me to empathize when I want to actually be involved in the kind of opportunity that doesn’t happen very often.

I would be very happy to see those bloggers who oppose Mars One on “ethical” grounds put up some kind of a rational argument, but I can almost see what I would write if I were one of them. Does Mars One have any kind of obligation to support us once it has sent all the people that it can afford under its current plan, or will somebody else pick up the slack? What if we change our minds and decide that we want to go home, only we can’t because we don’t have to tools to do it? What if we all die in a catastrophic failure? These are arguments that might have actually interested me as a way for me to engage in a more equal debate with the negative bloggers. In the meantime, I might write a few articles covering each issue.

Of greater concern to me would be people who have more power than maybe the ability to attract an audience. The Chinese government’s propaganda machine made an honest attempt to convince its citizens that Mars One is a fake, with “evidence” that included the fact that this organization has only a few full-time employees that share a small office somewhere in the Netherlands. It’s a lucky thing that they didn’t manage to convince the Chinese candidates who are still in the running, but I worry that nations like China might attempt to prevent these candidates from leaving. This could cost us some candidates who would have otherwise stood a reasonable chance of actually making it. As far as I’m concerned, free will is a valuable tool that allows us humans to decide how much risk we are willing to take. If I ever got the impression that Mars One is coercing people into volunteering or continuing with the program, it would lose my support real fast. So would anyone who takes away my right to volunteer for a high-risk, high-reward activity like this one. As long as it’s understood that I’m doing this with my eyes wide open and a good understanding of the risks, it should not even be an issue.

Mars One’s goals are fairly simple. Establish that it is possible to fund a private space venture without asking for any tax dollars. Establish that people can and will live on Mars. Provide an inside track on the lives and training of aspiring Martians with media events that will also raise funds for the project. Mars One is at least being honest about the fact that all kind of things could go wrong along the way. This kind of honest is not the mark of people who are going to commit a breach of ethics.