When is a Risky Space Mission Too Dangerous To Attempt?

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If you saw Gravity, you have an idea of what a disaster in space might feel like to an astronaut: terrifying, alienating, and utterly overwhelming. But as NASA ponders the future of its space program, which will probably include high-risk missions and long-duration flights (like, oh, say, a trip to Mars!?), how can they determine when a risky mission is too dangerous? To help answer that tricky ethical question, they turned to an Institute of Medicine committee, chaired by  Johns Hopkins bioethics professor Jeffrey Kahn.

“From its inception, space exploration has pushed the boundaries and risked the lives and health of astronauts,” Kahn said. “Determining where those boundaries lie and when to push the limits is complex.”

According to Kahn, the IOM report lets NASA know in no uncertain terms that if the agency attempted to relax its health and safety standards for long-duration flights, that would be “ethically unacceptable.”

“Astronauts put their lives and health at great risk for their country and humankind,” Kahn said, noting that the agency had an “ethical imperative to protect astronauts’ health” while also fulfilling its mission of exploration.

In other words, just because a mission is really cool and exciting (Mars!!!) doesn’t mean ethical standards are thrown out the window. NASA needs to take into account the health risks astronauts face–which include vision impairment, bone loss, behavioral changes, increased cancer risk, and being really sad because you miss George Clooney.



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