SpaceX boss Elon Musk unveiled to the world the company’s shiny Starship prototype on Saturday, September 28. The fully-assembled Starship Mk.1 is the company’s first definitive step towards building a spacecraft capable of interplanetary flight. Starship, in SpaceX’s own words, will service missions to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. But there is one scientist who is concerned by SpaceX’s ambitious reach for the stars.
Astrobiologist Samantha Rolfe from the University of Hertfordshire has expressed her doubts about the Starship’s Mars-bound trajectory.
In an article penned for The Conversation, the scientist said she “can’t help having a number of moral reservations” about SpaceX’s goal of landing on Mars by 2024.
The scientist warned the trip could end up being a more of a “moral catastrophe than a bold step in space exploration”.
Dr Rolfe said: “There are many reasons to believe SpaceX will succeed.
“The company has been extremely impressive in its contribution to space, filling a gap when government agencies such as NASA could not justify the spending.
“It’s not the rocket technology that I doubt, my concern is mainly astrobiological.”
According to the scientist, sending human explorers to Mars carries many inherent risks to human safety but also the safety of the Red Planet itself.
The possibility of Mars harbouring microbial alien life has fascinated astrobiologists for decades.
But sending humans to Mars carries the risk of contaminating the planet with Earth-based organisms.
Dr Rolfe said: “There is a risk that microbe-ridden humans walking on the Red Planet could contaminate it with bugs from Earth.
“And contamination may threaten alien organisms, if they exist.
“It may also make it impossible to figure out whether any microbes found on Mars later on are Martian or terrestrial in origin.”
Another risk factor that needs to be considered is the potential for loss of life on a Mars-bound journey.
Unlike our home planet, Mars does not have a strong atmosphere and magnetosphere that protects it from solar radiation.
Astronauts flying to Mars would also be exposed to high levels of radiation during the six to eight-month-long trip through space.
Unfortunately, technology is not up to par in this area and long exposure to space radiation threatens memory impairment and brain damage.
Dr Rolfe said: “I’m not sure that it is fair or ethical to expect astronauts to be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation that could leave them with considerable health problems – or worse, imminent death.
“Add to that the environmental impact of these missions, which release a lot of carbon dioxide, if they become frequent.
“So while there is obviously a lot to gain from sending humans to Mars, the risks of contaminating Mars, injuring astronauts and damaging the environment are very real.
“I would argue that it is our moral obligation to prevent such damage. I hope SpaceX is putting as much thought into this as it has into its launch vehicles, and I would like to see this become a priority for the company.”