Health risks of Mars mission would exceed NASA limits

Apr 02, 2014
This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover released December 9, 2013 shows a series of sedimentary deposits in the Glenelg area of Gale Crater

Efforts to send humans to Mars would likely expose them to health risks beyond the limits of what NASA currently allows, an independent panel of medical experts said Wednesday.

Therefore, any long-term or missions—which are still decades off—need a special level of ethical scrutiny, said the report by the Institute of Medicine.

"These types of missions will likely expose crews to levels of known risk that are beyond those allowed by current health standards, as well as to a range of risks that are poorly characterized, uncertain, and perhaps unforeseeable," said the IOM report.

Currently, astronauts are launched into low-Earth orbit, where they spend three to six months at a time aboard the International Space Station.

But journeys to Mars could take up to 18 months. NASA has said it aims to send people to the Red Planet by the 2030s, and is working on building a heavy duty launcher and spacecraft for this purpose.

Health risks from short-term missions in space can include nausea, weakness, blurred vision, while long-term risks include radiation-induced cancer and the loss of bone mass.

Given the uncertain risks of exploring further into space than ever before, NASA asked the IOM to develop an ethics framework to guide decisions in the future of human spaceflight.

"The committee finds relaxing (or liberalizing) current health standards to allow for specific long duration and exploration missions to be ethically unacceptable," the report said.

Members also ruled out creating a separate set of safety standards for Mars missions.

Instead the group concluded that the only option was to grant an exception to existing health standards.

But the IOM cautioned, NASA still needs to determine whether such a loophole would be ethically acceptable.

"Any exceptions should be rare and occur only in extenuating circumstances," the IOM said.

Key considerations should include avoiding harm and exercising caution, allowing astronauts to make their own decisions about whether to participate, choosing missions that provide benefits to society and seeking a favorable balance of the risk of harm and benefit.

NASA should also ensure equal opportunity during crew selection, and provide lifetime health care and protection for astronauts.

"From its inception, space exploration has pushed the boundaries and risked the lives and health of astronauts," said chair of the committee Jeffrey Kahn, a professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, Baltimore.

"Determining where those boundaries lie and when to push the limits is complex."

Explore further: Second HI-SEAS Mars space analog study begins

More information: Full report: Health Standards for Long Duration and Exploration Spaceflight: Ethics Principles, Responsibilities, and Decision

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User comments : 29

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alq131pod
3 / 5 (12) Apr 02, 2014
My guess is that migrants on the oregon trail were exposed to health risks higher than NASA standards, or Columbus expedition to the "Indies", or Cook's round the world expedition, or Amundsen's polar expedition...
Any one of those meant environmental exposure could kill, running out of water could kill, and the long term effects of "mission exposure" probably affected people for the rest of their lives... Do we really need an ethical debate to explore these new worlds?
baudrunner
3.6 / 5 (10) Apr 02, 2014
Mars missions should remain in the to-do box until a viable plasma ion engine or other space faring technology is invented which will provide the capability that will enable astronauts to make the journey in a matter of days. An interplanetary craft capable of accelerating constantly at 1 G would pass Mars in about two and a half days.
adam_russell_9615
3.5 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2014
My guess is that migrants on the oregon trail were exposed to health risks higher than NASA standards, or Columbus expedition to the "Indies", or Cook's round the world expedition, or Amundsen's polar expedition...
Any one of those meant environmental exposure could kill, running out of water could kill, and the long term effects of "mission exposure" probably affected people for the rest of their lives... Do we really need an ethical debate to explore these new worlds?


You are free to build your own ship, or to look to get sponsorship like Columbus did. You do not have standing to request someone else go for you.
dtxx
4 / 5 (11) Apr 02, 2014
No one should be forced to go in my stead or forced to go at all. But, I think we both know that is very far from the case of what would actually happen. Willing explorers, fully informed of the situation, should not be denied a chance to make this journey because a panel of ethics experts feel they have the standing to decide if anyone should be allowed to go.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2014
I think it is inevitable that people will do this. Even if NASA doesn't, another country or a private company will.

As far as NASA goes, I think their suggestion of simply allowing one-time exceptions to their existing guidlines (as it says above) is a pragmatic approach. There are tons of people willing to volunteer for such a mission, regardless of the risks. As long as NASA is honest about the risks, to the best of their knowledge, and makes sure the volunteers understand what is and is not known about the risks, then their conscience should be clear.
freeiam
4.7 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2014
Ion drive, rotating and a magnetic field will fix travel time, weight loss bone loss and (most) radiation problems.
No ethical debate is needed, only sound technology.
The Singularity
3.7 / 5 (6) Apr 02, 2014
If you want to push the boundaries, your going to have to take risks.
Skepticus
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2014
" I am not going in there with the Jedi!"
" Send a droid."
That's the way to go exploring and taking risks, NASA.
Mayday
1.7 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2014
Mars is a gigantic leap. No human has ever been more than two-and-a-half days from the safety of Earth. From the moment they begin accelerating toward Mars they will be fully committed. I believe it is an enormously positive step to begin considering the potential ethical and cultural ramifications. One unfortunate outcome could have deleterious effects on more than just spaceflight, but on much of science. I believe we must go, and as soon as possible. But I also believe that more than just the travelers need appropriate preparation.
Shakescene21
3.2 / 5 (9) Apr 02, 2014
It is far cheaper and safer to send robots to Mars instead of humans. This should be obvious from the performance of the primitive robots that we have sent already. By 2030 the capabilities of robots should be so advanced that a human astronaut would do little but get in the way.
cabhanlistis
3 / 5 (2) Apr 02, 2014
Do we really need an ethical debate to explore these new worlds?

Where those migrants and explorers failed, the results did not leave an impression on future explorations beyond regular discouragement that comes with any expedition. Sending people to Mars with less caution will mark all future space missions in a way that would be injurious to its public reception and respect. And that's a basis for its funding and support.

I don't think the impetus for flying to Mars is the same as we had when Kennedy one-upped the Russians. We have no such pressure as we did back then and I doubt we can refer to that Moon trip as a similar precedent.

Let us take a closer step first, such as into local space, beyond the moon, and back. Get us out the door for some air for a while before conquering the mountain.
la7dfa
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2014
Robots are way cheaper and safer. If NASA invest 20% of the amount needed for a manned mission, they will get a lot of science done on Mars.
When more efficient engines are developed, its time for humans to take the leap.

It will be interesting to see if we will start terraforming Mars or not. Living in cages on a dustfilled planet, isnt exactly 'Pandora'.
hrfJC
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 02, 2014
An 18 months trip to Mars with numerous known and unknown risks may well become a one way trip with little chance of getting healthy astronauts back; hence it would require a kamikaze mentality and willingness to suffer and to be sacrificed on the altar of science ....reaping post humous fame. But I believe there would be no shortage of volunteers.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2014
There are tons of people willing to volunteer for such a mission, regardless of the risks. As long as NASA is honest about the risks, to the best of their knowledge, and makes sure the volunteers understand what is and is not known about the risks, then their conscience should be clear
@GSwift
too right!
heck... I would go in a heartbeat!! Young enough to be competent, old enough not to have to worry about the risks...
that and I don't really care about the risks
Sinister1812
3 / 5 (4) Apr 03, 2014
Whether they allow people and they die or they don't and it doesn't get anywhere, NASA will come under fire for this. Seems they can't really win.
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (2) Apr 03, 2014
Robots are cheaper and safer for science


Except that science is certainly not the main reason why people want to go to Mars. Main reason is pushing boundaries, spreading humanity to other planets, proving that it can be done, and simply because "it is there".

But I agree that it would be a risky mission and unrealistic with current budgets, I prefer Moon first approach.
blawo
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 03, 2014
This goes well down to a long-ago anticipated path. First, there was an "independent" expert panel which ruled out the return to moon as too costly, ill prepared, and even unnecessary. then, president openly speaks his disinterest and, instead, offers rendezvous with asteroids and perhaps Mars, all with a vague and distant schedule. Anyway, it should not come sooner as when he would be surely and happily retired. And then, as shaken public of space enthusiasts indeed switches its mind to that more risky less promising deep space voyage, an another expert panel says that this whole thing is plainly impossible. And yes, plans, architectures and schedules will be scraped, again. Powerpoint triumphs. And yes, bureaucrat will be smiling, again.
dogbert
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 03, 2014
Health risks from short-term missions in space can include nausea, weakness, blurred vision, while long-term risks include radiation-induced cancer and the loss of bone mass.


Basically, the panel is saying that any effort to make such a voyage safer is just too hard and not making the voyage safer is unacceptable.

Fiction writers over a hundred years ago showed how to overcome many of these issues. Spinning a space station and/or ship can prevent the medical problems with weightlessness.
There are ways of providing shielding from radiation.

There are technologies which, if developed, would even dramatically shorten the travel time and risks.

The timidity and lack of vision in this publication is depressing.

I notice you can buy their book for $45.00. I can't imagine why you would want to.

GSwift7
5 / 5 (3) Apr 03, 2014
Robots are way cheaper and safer. If NASA invest 20% of the amount needed for a manned mission, they will get a lot of science done on Mars


We are already doing that, at an accelerated pace, and we are getting much better at it. NASA is currently developing robot missions to explore all sorts of places. The asteroid capture mission is a good example. A robot will bring an asteroid back to the moon, and then people will go practice working on it. Slowly, but surely, we are getting ready for a deep space mission. ESA is working on radiation shielding, and bone loss on a 1 to 2 year mission isn't probably a show-stopper. You can select people who start off in top physical condition and prepare them ahead of time by building up extra muscle and bone density through exercise and nutrition. We already do this with ISS missions. As long as the people are strong enough to do their jobs at mars and survive the trip home, it's do-able.
tscati
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 03, 2014
The US government happily sends its employees to places where the risks are much higher than going to Mars (Afghanistan, Iraq...)
no fate
1.5 / 5 (4) Apr 03, 2014
No ethical debate is needed, only sound technology.


If it were this easy, we wouldn't be commenting on on THIS article. Think duration of mission....say 1 year round trip with an Ion drive.
Food and water for an astronaut for 1 year X # of Astronauts. Required medical supplies, key component inventory to enact repairs to vital systems, scientific equipment, everything required to survive the Martian surface conditions for that portion of the mission, a landing vehicle capable of carrying said equipment and astronauts that can take off for return transport as well. How do you power "mars station"?

I was at a conference in early March where Chris Hadfield addressed the question of going to mars. He flat out told an auditorium full of people we are at least 25 years away, IF we can address the medical issues. His main point: The ISS has been under construction for 16 years and is still not complete. How long to build a ship capable of going to mars and back successfully?
Sinister1812
5 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2014
The US government happily sends its employees to places where the risks are much higher than going to Mars (Afghanistan, Iraq...)


That's because of money and an agenda. They don't profit from sending people to Mars. There's no dirty work that needs to be done there.

But you can't compare many places on Earth to the conditions on Mars.
philw1776
not rated yet Apr 05, 2014
Short sighted.
NERVA technology was tested in the 60s. High ISP rockets could shorten transit times for human cargo, limiting radiation and zero gee deterioration. Plus, there are other propulsion schemes better than thermal nuclear rockets.
Let the infrastructure go via slow boat. Set up by Curiosity's descendants prior to arrival.
Genetic engineering is accelerating. By say the 2030s treatments for rad damage should be far advanced from our primitive state.
In transit shielding by water & fuel seems a wise way to reduce some rad exposure.

Does anyone here really believe that NASA is on course for a 2030s Mars mission or will be? I don't. Every 2nd decade starting in the 60s NASA has issued a paper tiger Mars "plan".
Expect a private effort from the Western world by the 2030s. China, etc. TBD.
Moebius
not rated yet Apr 05, 2014
Exploration has always been dangerous and always will be. No matter how dangerous the space flight there will be people willing to take the risk, just like they did in virtually every exploration of the past. All of which would have probably exceeded NASA limits. We are too cautious. China won't be, extrapolate.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2014
Check out Ad Astra's site. Dr Franklin Chang-Diaz has been working for many years on his VASIMR rocket. All it needs is a lightweight high energy output power source. A very large solar sail that doubles as a solar collector may just fill the bill. Failing that, within less than ten years fusion power will become feasible. A number of approaches are bearing fruit that was not possible less than a generation ago because the enabling computer tech did not yet exist.

First settlement probably best to set up in a sealed underground chamber, be it a reworked cave or whatever. Pressurize the thing. Energy can be provided by nuclear, fusion, or large solar collectors above ground tied well to the ground against wind. Even a thin atmosphere can exert force if wind is speedy. Regolith can produce water if heated, and soil will grow anything. All that is needed is energy and machines and tech....and grit and determination. Enuf infrastruct below...then venture out!
ROBTHEGOB
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2014
I have mixed feelings about this whole issue. The medical risks are very real, but it is also true that we can minimize these risks by constructing rotating, well-shielded spacecraft. The real problem is when we get to Mars, we cannot make 1/3 Earth gravity very comfortable for long periods; human biology will be adversely affected the longer we are at reduced gravity. Limited "terraforming", as it is called, is probably possible, but is unrealistic for the entire planet - the gravity of Mars is too small to retain free oxygen for very long. If humans can survive for long periods there, our bodies will change drastically; pretty soon we would no longer be "human" as we now see ourselves. That is the scariest thing to me, but perhaps not to the many enthusiasts that want to go there. I am glad that I will not be around to see the results of these foolish pipe-dreams.
freeiam
not rated yet Apr 06, 2014
...The real problem is when we get to Mars, we cannot make 1/3 Earth gravity very comfortable for long periods; human biology will be adversely affected the longer we are at reduced gravity. ...

ROB, I don't think we have a problem living in 1/3 of Earth gravity.
That's because as a child you live already with 1/3 of gravity or less for long periods of time, because you weigh 1/3 or less. It's a fact that your body develops in low gravity, and nothing suggest that that would be a problem later on especially because inertia is the same and should work out the same in low gravity (cartilage will be stimulated in a similar way).
vlaaing peerd
not rated yet Apr 07, 2014
for those who want to volunteer, accepting the risks of dying and not returning:

http://www.mars-o...stronaut

Nuts and guts are more suitable requirements for exploration than safety regulations.
philw1776
not rated yet Apr 14, 2014
"If humans can survive for long periods there, our bodies will change drastically; pretty soon we would no longer be "human" as we now see ourselves. That is the scariest thing to me, but perhaps not to the many enthusiasts that want to go there. I am glad that I will not be around to see the results of these foolish pipe-dreams."

I bet the fish are still pissed off at all the morphological changes that happened to their risk taking tetrapod cousins crawling out onto land, where they had no business going.
Evolution and species divergence, here and off-world will happen regardless.

OK, I concede that we're along a technological track to be able to modify "our bodies ourselves", too.