Going to Mars what if Astronauts Die

Dying to get to Mars

There are always arguments as to why some explorations should not be undertaken. One of those reasons is the risk of death. But why should this be so when exploration is a necessary part of human discovery, growth, and survival. Exploration is part of human nature, whether in the physical, psychological, or emotional realm. We humans need to know what is around us, near and far, known and unknown. There are a few intrepid few who have travelled to the ends of the Earth, to the deepest oceans, the highest mountains, and even to the moon. In each and every endeavour, along the way or at their destination travellers, adventurers, voyagers, and explorers have died. They died in their pursuit of adventure, science, faith, dreams and advancing mankind towards a destiny of greatness.

Such things may well happen on the way to Mars. Some astronauts, Mars explorers, and colonists will die, whether from accidents in training on Earth or in space, an accident on the voyage to Mars or on Mars itself, through radiation-induced cancer, spaceship malfunction, inadequate resources, some unknown factor, or just plain bad luck. But it will still be necessary to go to Mars.

We all know about the accidental deaths in Apollo I and the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia disasters under full media-glare. Much less known is the fate of Soyuz I and the fatality of a cosmonaut from parachute failures in 1967. However, the only true deaths in space occurred on June 30th, 1971 when three cosmonauts, Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov in Soyuz 11, were asphyxiated after a faulty valve opened while preparing for re-entry. They were still above the Kármán Line, the 100km marker of outer space. While the bodies were recovered upon landing, what if they had been left in orbit or drifted further into space? What if Apollo astronauts had been stranded on the moon or forced to drift past the moon and into the black yonder? Success cannot be guaranteed every time, but any failures cannot detract from the mission.

While we want to accentuate the positives of a Mars mission, we cannot be squeamish about discussing any possible deaths. It is one reason why much of the public oppose such an epic space voyage; they fear death. But in transferring their own fear of death to the strangers in the sky, the public unnecessarily hamper the political will and responsibility to undertake the journey to the red planet. We need to know what precautions and directives would be given by the various governments and space agencies of the countries involved if an astronaut died. We would also need to gauge and mollify the public’s reaction and perception of Mars Missions in the case of such a tragic incident.

Is this a cold-hearted view? Is this scare-mongering or pandering to the sensationalist? No, this is an attempt to rationalise an important and natural point of exploration. How many sailors died from scurvy and other diseases exploring the world –hundreds, thousands? If the old European governments knew then what we know now about scurvy and the deaths it would cause, would they still have sent their navies out? Well, they did anyway. The benefits of exploration out-weighed the deaths of men. It is a callous statement, but such exploration and inevitable disasters led to new territories, resources, and discoveries – scientific or otherwise- some of which helped to cure the diseases that killed so many explorers. There are many more examples of exploration/death occurrences as in yellow fever, small pox, malaria, hostile inhabitants, and extreme climatic conditions, to name but a few. But just because we sit on cosy Earth does not mean that death by exploration is a thing of the past. Those who venture to Mars for the sake of Mankind may inevitably have to face death.

Is it because there is no air to breathe in space, through which astronauts will travel and live upon a tiny, fragile spaceship, and enjoy little resources upon a cold, rusted world, which biases the public’s perception about the success and survival of astronauts on Mars? Is it down to costs? Would the public rather have a hundred astronauts travel to Mars for fifty billion dollars rather than four, six or eight astronauts? Does it come down to value for money deaths?  Would it matter if their taxes were footing the bill or if it came from private coffers? The public want assurances that astronauts will not die and that if they do, what will happen. Will they be ‘buried’ in space? Will they be interred on Mars, never to be repatriated to Earth? We will need to deal with death quickly and responsibly, especially if the death is on the probable nine-month voyage out to Mars, when a death is most likely to occur, or during an exploratory mission on Mars during a likely two-year stay.

Are there international conventions on the procedures for the death of an astronaut in space? Do NASA, Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency), ESA, or CNSA (China National Space Administration), the main contenders to send Mars missions; practice missions where a member dies?  There seems to be no unified charter on space deaths. It seems such a policy will be ad hoc in the event of a death in space. Groups and Conventions such as the United Nations Coordination of Outer Space Activities, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), Unispace III, and the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, and other groups concentrate on safety standards, space debris management, a non-nuclear space, technological discoveries, environmental benefits, and other such matters. They involve specialists in their fields and national space agencies, but there is no mention of a common agreement in the event of a death in space or another planetary body. In fact, there is no mention of any space law to deal with this issue.

If a Mars Mission went awry would the mission continue? How would the news be broken? The world’s population and the media would need to be prepared in the event that astronauts died in space or on Mars. Is this too morbid a thought; because it could be a real situation that the world will have to deal with? There is a psychological price to pay when humans leave the protection of Earth. There is already the physical isolation, the disconnect from reality, and the fragility of the surroundings. What could a death do in such confined quarters? Will the astronauts have psychological training for such an event? They would have to cope so far away and alone.

What ever happen to the “Give me liberty or give me death?” sentiment? Is that spirit dead, so to speak? Exploration of Mars is the liberty from Earth mankind seeks; a new world to discover and live on; freedom for our species doomed to die if it lingers on one world. We should not be afraid of the risks, nor of death, for if it comes we will be prepared. We will mourn, but we shall also understand and acknowledge the reason for it. A few with the Right Stuff are willing to take the risks and potentially sacrifice their lives for the greater good of mankind. Death will not be a failure. Death will not be the end. Mars awaits its new life.