The first human trip to Mars will be a risky one. That’s the unsurprising conclusion of a recent audit by the inspector general for NASA.
“Long duration missions will likely expose crews to health and human performance risks for which NASA has limited effective countermeasures,” reads the report. “NASA will have to determine the level of risk that is acceptable.”
Obviously NASA should never expose astronauts to unduly dangerous situations. But launching humans out of earth’s gravitational pull and propelling them 140 million miles to as inhospitable an environment as Mars is inherently — and unavoidably — risky.
So too is exploration in general.
When the first Europeans sailed westward in search of faster trade routes, or Pacific islanders sailed into the unknown in search of new lands, or settlers ventured into the American West in search of opportunity, they took tremendous risks. Some died.
When NASA astronauts landed on the moon, they took a risk. And when humans venture far beyond earth’s pull for the first time in history, what lies before them will be similarly unknown, and full of potential perils.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth going.
Of course, NASA also has as many as 25 years to prepare in order to meet its goal of sending the first humans to Mars by the 2030s. And in that time, figuring out how best to protect the safety of the first men and women who will travel to the red planet should be a top priority.
That will require appropriate funding support from the federal government, and the reversal of the steady series of budget cuts weathered by the agency over the past few years.
NASA’s different human health departments could also work more closely together, as the inspector general’s report details.
But no matter how significant the advances in technology over the next two decades, the first people who travel to Mars will face tremendous risk. Their bravery will hopefully lead to one of mankind’s greatest achievements in exploration.
At that pinnacle of technological prowess, we will owe so much to the men and women who set off into other unknowns with so little to guide or protect them.