Many people when they were kids have dreamed about going to Mars and with current advances in science and exploration, that might actually be a viable reality for future generations, even this most recent generation. But instead of “boldly going,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is considering a more measured approach to space exploration, one that takes into account the toll on those bold humans in space ships. To that end, NASA asked the Institute of Medicine to draft ethics standards in order to keep the desire for knowledge from colliding when they launch new, longer term missions.
Part of the reason the experts thought that an ethics code was necessary was because of the risks involved with space travel. The health risks are possibly astronomical, including impaired vision, weakening of the bones, and radiation exposure, which is known to be fatal. But the Institute of Medicine is not just considering the physical dangers. The psychological dangers of being in a confined space for a long period, even or perhaps especially with other people around, need considerations, as do the unforeseen medical and psychological dangers of long-term space missions.
With all this in mind, the American organization’s decision to create a set of ethics to abide by seems like a good first step. Unlike other organizations, they are not taking a retroactive view on right and wrong, going back to fix a problem once it has been discovered. Instead, they are planning ahead for what might occur which is a reasonable thing to do.
The report that has been drafted includes keeping the existing rules and regulations that NASA already has and then making exceptions for special missions based on an accepted ethical framework. This framework is designed to weigh risks and benefits, so that no one takes a mission that will do harm and produce little good. They will also have to prove that long-term missions will actually yield such significant results as to make the risk worth any cost. It is enough to make one wonder whether they had such a framework when they decided to send out the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek.
However there are also more terrestrial considerations. The commission recommended that astronauts be given healthcare for the rest of their lives due to the severity of the health risks. It seems only fair that when people risk their lives in such a spectacular fashion, that they be just as spectacularly rewarded. In addition, gender equality is taking a spot in deliberations as well, especially due to the restrictions that already exist. As it stands now, women face more health risks because they are more prone to getting cancer in certain areas of their body. Thus, fewer women than men have been allowed on space missions. But with special missions in the works, this might change if women are willing to accept those risks for the greater good.
Whether or not NASA is going to put the next Captain Janeway into space depends largely on the future of the space program, its new ethics code, and to a very large extent the United States budget. Since the official end of the American space-shuttle program, astronauts have been going up in to space by hitching a ride on Russian spacecraft. If American space exploration is going to continue on a grand scale, it is going to require that American astronauts not be cosmic hitchhikers on another country’s ship. Once again, NASA and ethics collide, this time over international politics, which could potentially derail not just new missions, but normal missions as well.
The situation seems a little embarrassing for the first nation to put a man on the moon and not just because it looks bad. Political tensions are taking their toll. As the issue of Crimea has sky-rocketed, NASA suspended all contacts with Russia, except those absolutely necessary to maintain the International Space Station. Right now, if NASA’s plans to explore deep space are to go forward, one of two things has to happen: either America has to play nice with Russia or it needs to have its own means of interstellar transportation.
One possible solution (one that definitely does not involve Russia) is privately owned spacecraft. There are currently four such companies that are vying for coveted NASA contracts to fund their research. Boeing Space Exploration, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corp are all in the running for these contracts, but NASA has to actually have the money to spend.
Congress is notoriously reticent to fund non-practical scientific applications, but NASA administrator Charles Bolden has already talked about coming in under budget, not just on this project, but across the board. He says that he spends less because he is not buying things he does not need, like a space shuttle. Who knew that working cooperatively with Russia would actually save America some money?
NASA does not want to start a war in the stars or do nine things out in deep space or even start a genuine trek out into the stars – at least not right now. However the famed space program is weighing its options with all the care and consideration one could expect from a team of top scientists. There is no doubt that they will leave no stone or asteroid unturned as they look forward to exploring Mars and other faraway places and already NASA is trying to prevent a collision between progress and ethics when they decide to launch new missions. For NASA, the sky poses no limit and it wants to make sure that politics, ethics, and a budget are not limits either.
Opinion By Lydia Webb