Humans to Mars: a deeply disturbing idea, Linda Billings
"I have deep moral qualms about this idea, as it appeals to a small fraction of humankind and proposes what would inevitably be an elitist enterprise. Would it be ethical to enable people with enough money to buy a ticket to leave our troubled Earth behind? Would it be ethical for government(s) to subsidize such an enterprise? In Musk's disturbing "vision" - a nightmare in my mind - how many poverty-stricken Bangladeshis or Congolese, how many permanently displaced Syrian refugees, will come up with $200,000 - or $2,000, for that matter - to "start anew," as the colonization zealots say they want to do? I participated in a conference this past weekend about "social and conceptual issues in astrobiology." Among the questions we 30 attendees were asked to consider in our discussions were: "Should humans seek to exploit and/or colonize space? If so, how should this be done? Are there truly universal principals of biology, psychology, morality, etc. that would apply to extraterrestrial life?" My views on these questions are: No. We should not do it. No."
Keith's note: I have known Linda for 30 years and have a lot of respect for her work. But I thought this whole "but people are starving in [fill in the blank]" or "why spend money in space when we should spend it on Earth" mindset was a thing of the 1960 and 1970s. If you want to go after budgets to fix social inequalities then NASA is not the place to start - there is much more low hanging fruit elsewhere.
Decades of public opinion polls, popular media, and other cultural phenomena strongly point to a public viewpoint on space that is exactly opposite of what Linda claims. Moreover her viewpoint flies in the face of human history. People explore. Then they colonize. Then they move on to explore some more because that is what people do. In particular I am not certain why this tiny group of 30 space people (no doubt the usual suspects at meetings like this) meeting in their little echo chamber is in any way representative of what America's 300+ million - or the billions who live elsewhere think about exploring space.
Look at China and India - countries with vast, pressing social issues - issues that surely could use more money. Yet these countries are dedicating large resources toward exploring space - often times repeating what other countries did decades ago. What is it that they have discovered about exploring space that space people in America seem to have forgotten? Meanwhile, as NASA runs in circles with inadequate budgets driven by plans that they were never going to be capable of implementing, the private sector has amassed the resources to do things on their own in space - for their own reasons.
NASA has been 20 years away from sending humans to Mars for over 40 years. Clearly the NASA approach to sending humans on Mars no longer works. Its time for someone else to do it. If not Elon Musk then some other billionaire(s) will certainly step up to the plate. And if not the U.S. then other countries will.
Keith's personal note: I am eternally fond of Linda. We worked together at NASA Life Science Division in the 80s. She knows her Astrobiology. Much of NASA's Planetary Protection policies are the result of her hard work. That said, I do not agree with her opinions about humans on Mars. That said, she's still a true believer in the exploration of space.