On Wednesday afternoon, the Yale Astronomy and Astrophysics Colloquium hosted Lucianne Walkowicz, the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress chair in astrobiology, for a talk on the ethics of Mars exploration.

In the talk, Walkowicz discussed topics from her current project, “Fear of a Green Planet: Inclusive Systems of Thought for Human Exploration of Mars.” Speaking to a roughly 40-person audience, she raised several potential ethical dilemmas of interplanetary exploration and argued against the ethics of humans inhabiting Mars.

“It was very fascinating to hear Lucianne talk about this activity at the border of science, policy and ethics,” said Charles Bailyn, professor of astronomy and physics and head of Benjamin Franklin College.

Walkowicz began her talk by defining astrobiology as the search for and study of life in the universe. She then discussed the human side of space exploration and argued for applying the ways in which we think about our history on earth, policies and decisions to space exploration.

For example, she discussed the issues with using the word “colonization” to refer to the idea of interplanetary human settlements due to colonialism’s controversial history.

Discussing the benefits of sending humans to Mars to explore the planet, Walkowicz cited significantly faster repairs and assessments of surveillance equipment as well as faster sample collection.

“Exploration and surveillance is extremely slow when remote. Sending humans to Mars enables real-time decision-making that ends up saving a remarkable amount of time,” Walkowicz added.

Still, Walkowicz expressed her disapproval for “terraforming” Mars, the process of transforming its environment to resemble Earth-like conditions to make the planet habitable for humans.

“As an astrobiologist, the term ‘terraforming’ represents a giant danger because it is a permanent alteration of another environment,” Walkowicz said. “In doing so, we are contaminating another environment to the extent that we will never be able to find any indigenous signs of life on that planet.”

In addition, she said, another significant problem with terraforming is that it treats Mars as a backup planet. If humanity knows that it will be able to survive and continue its legacy without the Earth, countries may reduce the intensity of their efforts to prevent climate change. Without the existential threat of humanity’s demise driving the efforts to combat climate change, humans will eventually destroy the planet, according to Walkowicz.

Walkowicz illustrated the magnitude of the ethical challenges that arise by merely simulating a trip to Mars by discussing the sixth iteration of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. When a member of the simulation team was electrocuted due to technical difficulties, the team was faced with an ethical challenge — whether or not to break the simulation to seek medical help for the injured person.

Finally, Walkowicz said that the issue of consent complicates the possibility of sending humans to permanently inhabit Mars. A person may withdraw their consent at any point during the mission and may want to return to Earth, which, in turn, would be extremely inconvenient and costly, according to Walkowicz.

“Until this talk, I had never paused to consider the ways in which we would contaminate other planets and other planets having an inherent sanctity themselves,” said attendee Mariel Pettee GRD ’21.

The Yale Astronomy and Astrophysics Colloquium will next host David Spergel, an astronomy and astrophysics professor at Princeton University, on Dec. 6.

Ishana Aggarwal | ishana.aggarwal@yale.edu