Risky Business

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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.