The US space agency NASA plans to send humans to an asteroid and Mars, eventually. But a group of prominent U.S. scientists says right now, any deep space mission will be too dangerous, based on NASA's minimum safety requirements. And engineering capabilities and understanding of the effects of long-term cosmic radiation exposure will not advance sufficiently within the next five years to change that assessment.
After a study of long-duration space travel, sponsored by NASA, the panel of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences says the space agency should consider ethics while designing standards for future long missions.
In an open letter, they say NASA should not send humans on trips outside low Earth orbit lasting longer than 30 days without strict adherence to the existing health standards and that the rule should be broken only in rare and extenuating circumstances.
They present six principles upon which the ethics of deep-space travel should be based.
First among them, preventing any harm to astronauts, from vision impairments, loss of bone minerals, radiation exposure and the psychological impact of extended space travel.
Also, the missions should benefit society while balancing those potential benefits with the risk of harm.
Astronauts should be able to decide whether they want to participate in the planned missions with full equality of opportunity, and NASA should take full responsibility for the astronauts' health care during missions and for the rest of their lives.
The scientists say that NASA's health standards should be based upon the most relevant and up-to-date evidence.
The National Academy of Sciences comprises four national science academies, which provide the policymakers, public and the private sector with independent and objective, evidence-based advice.