02/25/2014 02:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Extended Stay or Suicide Mission?


A fatwa is a big Islamic no-no.

Going to Mars, says a fatwa issued this week by religious clerics in the UAE, would be tantamount to suicide, which is forbidden under Islamic law. Most everybody thinks the ruling is aimed specifically at the Mars One mission.

"There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death," the clerics said.

Duh. Well, hmm. Life is fragile, even on Earth, and risks abound.

It's true that the red planet has some serious (some might say deadly) problems, but the logic behind the interplanetary fatwa does not rely on ever-present dangers like radiation, poisonous atmosphere, below-freezing temperatures most times and most places, and that icky thing that can happen to the liquids inside your body if you get exposed to the near-vacuum barometric pressure outside.

Or the asteroids. A recent photo of a major meteor impact on Mars, and the news that space rocks large enough to blast craters on Mars occur more than 200 times each year (recalculated upward from the previous assumed rate of three to 10 yearly impacts) raise serious concerns about how safe it will be to live on a planet so close to the asteroid belt (where rogue space debris are spawned).


"Mars now has the best-known current rate of cratering in the solar system," said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen.

The fatwa rests its argument primarily on the fact that if you go to Mars, there's no way home: "Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life."

No one can dispute that Mars One intends to send the first humans to Mars, or that these humans will die there, because there are no plans to bring them back to Earth. But does a one-way mission to a planet where we might actually be able to survive constitute a suicide mission?

"The caveat of never coming back is extraordinary," says Mars One psychologist Raye Kass, who helped pick the applicants who have advanced to Round Two and will help prepare those who eventually make the first trek in 2025.

While I assume the first Mars colonists will need counseling, and lots of it, and while I hope Dr. Kass hangs around to help out, the idea of not coming back is far from the worst that could happen.

Some even claim that a one-way trip would be safer than a round trip:

"The riskiest part of space exploration is takeoff and landing, followed by the exposure to space conditions," Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies point out in a theoretical paper some consider the precursor to Mars One. "Both risk factors would be halved in a one-way mission," the scientists argue.

For most of our history as humans, putting oneself in possible harm's way, especially on a journey of discovery involving great unknowns, is a long, long way away from a suicide mission. The risks involved are balanced by the benefits to be gained.

Magellan didn't make it all the way around the Earth. Amelia Earhart and her airplane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Chinese adventurer Peng Jiamu vanished during a expedition through northwestern China's Lop Nor desert in 1980 when he went out for a drink of water and never returned.

Russian space doctor Oleg Gazenko did not die exploring the unknown, but he did train the first living creature to travel into space and also the first to perish there: Laika the space dog. No doubt about it: Sputnik 2 was a suicide mission.

In a fictional version of the Laika story, Gazenko explains the value of the mission to Laika:

In every challenging situation, there exists a divide between life and death, but the exact location of that boundary cannot be established unless some brave soul approaches, and then crosses it. If that individual crosses and is still alive, then we have established living souls can bear that much more, and we plan another test for a more distant boundary.

Mars is a boundary we will approach and possibly cross during the next decade. There are risks involved, and benefits to be gained.

The fatwa is an interpretation based on the Quran, not a quote from the Quran itself, and the Mars One candidates who are Muslim will have to decide for themselves if participating in the mission violates their values or beliefs, then act accordingly.

Many humans move away from home, never to return. When someone asks me where I'm from, I'm more inclined to say San Francisco, where I've lived for 26 years, than I am to say North Carolina, where I was born. Calling Mars "home" is actually the goal of the Mars One mission: to establish a permanent human settlement, to build and sustain a new home.

Mars One advisor Brian Enke prefers "extended stay" to "one-way trip."

Glass half-full: Before you die on Mars, you actually get to live there.