NASA has begun research on a 100-year starship, which would take astronauts on a one-way mission, to live their lives in space, and perhaps make it to Mars.
Because of the huge weight of the fuel required to get there, they would have to expect that they would never return.
The starship would be a space colony, but coming back to earth wouldn’t be part of the lives of the colonists.
The idea of astronauts volunteering for a one-way mission brings up many psychological questions. What are the characteristics of a person willing to cut ties—forever—with touching the faces of those they love, attending (in person) the events that are meaningful to them and touching the possessions they hold dear? What psychological challenges should we anticipate in those who volunteer in good faith and with great courage, yet find themselves confronting misgivings or loneliness or feelings of rage or beset with mental illness?
From a psychological standpoint, I believe there will be many volunteers for a one-way mission. After all, courage and patriotrism and a love of invention and adventure are not in short supply in America. Soldiers have stormed beaches knowing full well that they were facing mortality.
Patriots like Senator John McCain have elected to stay in foreign prisons, risking death every day, to honor this country and their countrymen. It will be harder to ferret out those who are volunteering, but too vulnerable, to go. And it will be essential to weed out those who are hoping to escape the earth and the complexities of their relationships, rather than to embrace the future and its possibilities.
We would, in my opinion, have to select for such a mission only those who have no children, because volunteering to leave Earth is a solitary decision, the ripples of which must not drown children whose psyches are still exquisitely vulnerable.
The best philosophical and scientific and religious minds in the world should be called upon to try to understand whether it is best that those colonizing space remain in touch with loved ones via communications links or not, whether they should mate with other colonizers or be sterilized prior to their adventure, whether they can have cyber-relationships involving “virtual sex” or be forbidden from doing so.
If the 100-year starship continues to be researched, developed and covered by the media, there will also be psychological reverberations in the general public—perhaps even starting now. Americans will question why colonizing space is necessary.
Do leaders believe the planet is doomed? Do leaders believe a competitive military advantage involving space colonization must be achieved to face a known or anticipated future threat?
Should those in space be armed with space “weapons?” Why? For what? Will they communicate with the American public via broadcasts from time-to-time? What will we as Americans feel if the experiment fails? And, at least as important: What will we as Americans feel if the experiment begins to succeed?
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.