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Risky Business
Joe Mascaro is shocked -- shocked! -- by news that a manned mission to Mars would be dangerous.

By Joe Mascaro

An article published in Science Magazine recently said that, according to NASA, radiation levels on the planet Mars are dangerous to humans.

So, it turns out that if you board a spacecraft on top of a rocket and blast off toward a destination more than 50 million miles away, you may be at risk of death.

Bummer. I guess we won't ever be able to go.

It's too bad. Going to Mars would mean a scientific revolution. We could learn whether life was endemic on another world in our solar system. We could learn how to build closed-loop ecosystems that sustain our resources. We could even guard ourselves against extinction if a planet-killing asteroid hit.

But I guess, you know, there's radiation. So we can't go.

NASA says that the radiation levels on a single 500-day trip to Mars exceed their lifetime limits for astronauts. All told, the trip would entail about a 3-percentage-point increase in terminal cancer risk.

Here's another safety tip: If you set sail from Europe under Magellan, Cartier or Jones, your odds of dying of scurvy were probably no better than a coin flip.

Here's another: If you picked up the flag of the United States of America and carried it into battle in 1941, you had a 1 in 50 chance of not ever having children. Of not ever growing old.

But it gets worse: If you stepped onboard a Space Shuttle in the 1980s, your odds of losing consciousness in a massive inferno of solid rocket fuel and jagged metal, and then crashing into the Atlantic Ocean were about 1 in 24. If you were a school teacher, your odds of death were 100 percent.

So let me get this straight, NASA. You're telling me that the greatest adventure in the history of the human species -- the most awesome voyage ever embarked upon by humankind -- you're saying that that's dangerous?

Well gosh, NASA, isn't that what we signed up for?

With a Perspective, I'm Joe Mascaro.

Joe Mascaro is a tropical ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. He lives on Potrero Hill in San Francisco.

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