Opinion: Slow Down, SpaceX
Opinion: Slow Down, SpaceX

Opinion: Slow Down, SpaceX

Rockets can transport humankind to Mars, but only the scientific and medical community can ensure our survival.

Mar 15, 2019
Mohamed Kashkoush

ABOVE: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, January 14, 2017

As we face threats of extinction posed by climate change, nuclear Armageddon, and even meteorite collisions, colonizing Mars can seem quite attractive on the surface. Beyond the context of survival, becoming a multiplanetary species also fulfills humankind’s timeless desire to explore the universe and conquer the Final Frontier. For these reasons, SpaceX’s vision to send humans to Mars by 2024 should be universally welcomed and viewed as inspiration for advancing the future of humanity.

SpaceX has outlined a plausible agenda for setting up camp on Mars. The plan involves everything from reusable spaceships to self-sustaining facilities designed to produce resources such as energy, food, water, shelter, and oxygen for 1 million settlers. Notably, this is all slated to be relatively affordable, with a ticket to Mars costing approximately the median US house price.

Unfortunately, even flawless execution of the plan only addresses part of the challenge. Perhaps SpaceX will fly us to Mars, but can we inhabit it?

Until recently, I probably wouldn’t have given this question much thought. I’ve always been a space enthusiast. If I had the opportunity to travel to Mars, I would naively do it with unwavering conviction. That changed when my team of pharmacy students entered and won a competition to send an experiment to the International Space Station.

We began by dissecting NASA’s Human Research Roadmap (HRR), which deescalates safety hazards associated with space exploration by iteratively reviewing medical evidence from astronauts, identifying health risks and knowledge gaps, and defining research objectives for NASA and the scientific community at large. This framework is ultimately intended to overcome health barriers that preclude long-term spaceflight.

I was shocked by what we found in the HRR, which was a striking list of questions that NASA simply does not have the answers to—the known unknowns. For starters, NASA does not know why or to what extent spaceflight increases the incidence and complicates the management of disease, including bacterial infections, osteoporosis, renal stone formation, psychiatric disorders, ocular and vestibular disturbances, immunosuppression, muscular degeneration, and radiation carcinogenesis. Importantly, the HRR predicts that these questions will largely remain pending through 2030.

How can we send people to Mars with such an unknown medical prognosis? In my opinion, the silence signals that all talk from SpaceX about interplanetary colonization in the near future is merely marketing hype.

Another limitation is NASA’s lack of experience and clinical-grade data concerning the effects of prolonged spaceflight on human health, leaving astronauts perilously susceptible to unknown unknowns. For example, the longest consecutive time spent in outer space by an American is only 342 days. Even under the best-case travel scenario, which occurs every 26 months on orbital alignment, expected travel times to Mars approach one year. Not only can SpaceX make no safety guarantees beyond the 342-day mark, it also cannot empirically draw any conclusions beyond 248,655 miles from Earth (the distance record set when Apollo 13 travelled to the far side of the moon).

Compared to founder and CEO Elon Musk’s statements declaring that living on Mars is “the relatively easier part” of the endeavor, it appears that NASA and SpaceX are not on the same page when it comes to the dangers of long-term spaceflight. Given these dangers, SpaceX’s apparent lack of attention to these matters seems strange to say the least. How can we send people to Mars with such an unknown medical prognosis? In my opinion, the silence signals that all talk from SpaceX about interplanetary colonization in the near future is merely marketing hype.

For example, despite an abundance of speculative press, consider how promising cancer cures must ultimately face the rigor of randomized controlled clinical trials. Likewise, SpaceX’s inflation of expectations and deflation of risk serves to excite the public and investors. But before Mars colonization can move from concept to reality, similarly extensive and time-consuming investigations must be conducted to support the prospect’s viability. 

SpaceX is a trailblazing rocket company that can certainly enable early exploration missions to Mars. What SpaceX is not is a contract research organization with medical expertise and resources. Instead, in this work, international governments and academic institutions should lead the charge. However, government and academia are notoriously sluggish—if SpaceX wants to sell tickets to Mars anytime soon, it would be wise to expand strategic partnerships with these entities in which everyone shares the common vision of seeing humankind on Mars.

I believe that we will eventually overcome both the known and unknown barriers currently preventing a Martian civilization. This will require a massive effort across disciplines. Musk should be praised for getting the ball rolling, inspiring others to join the 21st century space race, and accelerating the timeline of this monumental objective. However, at this time, given the uncertainty of the effects of space travel on the human body, there is no reason to believe that the aspirational timeline proposed by SpaceX can be safely realized.

Mohamed Kashkoush is a student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy.