Skip to content

Contemporary space exploration, spectacles, and the creation of role models

Desire for space exploration and fantasies about what life will be like once the human race breaks free from the chains that bind us to this planet have been along for a long time. Some have envisioned a bright future without scarcity as we know it in which man is no longer driven by base desires for material well-being. Some envision the opposite, a known universe taken over by more or less vicious corporations. Yet others solemnly contemplate man and man’s condition aboard a spaceship that lost its course and is doomed to for eternity drift away into unknown space.

Today, space colonisation seems (at least according to some) for the first time feasible. Yet, the form that it takes is very different from what sci-fi writers of different kinds have imagined. A Dutch non-profit organisation, Mars One, has set out to set up the first human settlement on Mars. They will first build a settlement, and in 2024 the first humans will depart toward it. Two aspects are especially interesting with this idea. First, a core part of the business model is that they plan to raise money by selling broadcasting rights. By comparing their venture with the Olympics and with the marketing revenues of recent Olympic games, they have concluded that it should be feasible to raise enough money to cover their costs (they estimate some 4 billion viewers). Second, the idea is to first send a team of four volunteering civilians on a one-way journey to the red planet, and two years later to send a second team of four civilians. There are no plans for bringing these volunteers back. In other words, we are about to send four volunteers on a one-way journey to a different planet, and the only planned physical contact we will get with these four volunteers will occur two years later, when we send another four volunteers on a similar one-way journey to the same settlement. All of this will be broadcasted and (at least partly) financed by man’s, sometimes dubious, media consumption preferences.


Mars One raises a vast range of ethical questions: what basis should one use for selecting who we send on a one-way trip to another planet? How do we establish autonomy and decision competence of those volunteering? What resources should be prioritised in the cargo? Is it ethically permissible to join this type of project? And so on.


I would like to address a different issue. I wonder what happens when the first crime is committed. We are going to put four persons inside a spaceship. They will travel with this spaceship for a year. As they arrive to Mars, they will live together in a confined space for the foreseeable future. I wonder what happens when property rights for the first time are violated. What happens when Ann cheats Charlie and jumps out of the vessel before him, thus becoming the first man on Mars, even though they had an agreement that Charlie would be the first? What happens when the first punch is thrown? What happens when the first rape occurs, when the first murder is committed? There will be no law enforcement in any conventional sense. One wonders: will there even be laws? But perhaps more important: since the crew will not return to earth, there will be no consequences of these people’s actions beyond those that they inflict upon each other. And all of this will be broadcasted. We are about to put four volunteers from around the world in a small capsule, give them resources enough to survive for a very long time, and send them to a different planet on which they will live their lives, and we broadcast all this for the world to see. I wonder if this will not so much be a giant leap for mankind, as it will be the materialisation of Lord of the Flies in the arenaTM. Will this be a giant leap backward, where we turn space into a postmodern amphitheatre, and gather gladiators from around the world to meet there?


Less cynic commentators will object and stress that these explorers will go through an abundance of psychological assessments, selection processes and that they will be very well-trained. To those with such more optimistic attitudes, I would like to point out two things. First, also soldiers are well-trained and go through psychological evaluations. This doesn’t seem to secure us against unwanted, violent behaviour from them. Second, an implicit selection criterion in the case of the crew of Mars One will be popularity. How good TV will Ann make? This does not seem to be a criterion that is ideal for identifying peaceful, collaborating individuals who will refrain from breaking norms.


Yet, there is of course also the possibility that these individuals will develop into role models. Perhaps they will grow into beacons of light, uniting a humanity that seems obsessed with petty problems on a small planet in the outskirts of an insignificant galaxy.


To Mars One, I would like to say that you should take these issues seriously. Whatever selection criteria you plan to use, your venture might well turn into a moral abyss (although potentially a financially very successful one) if your crew cannot constrain itself to a specific set of norms (which you might have to also figure out the details of). You might, thus, want to consider evaluating your candidates based on their propensity to compliance, passivity, and peacefulness rather than searching for testosterone-filled thrill-seekers, or conventional adventurers. Furthermore, you ought to in your training give significant attention to moral education. It seems to me likely that the crew will develop its own norms and ways of living if they manage to survive for a longer period of time. It is worthwhile thinking about how to prepare them for this. Your crew’s behaviour will have an influence on life also on our planet, and you might want to think about what you can do in order to secure that they will constitute positive role models rather than bringing to life the lower instincts and thirst for blood that we all seem doomed to carry.

Share on