Monday, April 4, 2016

And now for something completely different - musings on the ethics of communication policies relevant to manned interplanetary missions

During my defense of my final Masters degree exam, I was asked if I had learned anything unexpected or new. Of course, after 2+ years studying aerospace science I most definitely had learned new and unexpected things about space, science, engineering, and human exploration. My response, then, was of a question that had dogged my mind for months during the various courses I took on human factors and safety systems, and further developed while reading and watching The Martian (by Andy Weir): communication ethics.

A quick note on terms and topics. When I refer to communications and communication policies, I am speaking of communication between astronauts/explorers and Earth/mission control, and the rules and regulations that affect those communications.  What I am discussing below covers interpersonal communications only, and is not a question of those mission critical communications or communications that involve politically or organizationally sensitive material that fall under the purview of those in intelligence and security.

Written below was part of my response to the defense question, and a list of supporting references that I used:

Submitted for Graduate Capstone Defense in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of Master of Aeronautical Science
November, 2015

During my course of study, I began my own examination of the ethical considerations that should be incorporated into the building of communication policies for future interplanetary missions, and the repercussions such discussions could have on the building of future crews to Mars or farther.  Stress, trauma, and bereavement have been shown to affect proficiency, and increase error rates (Delespaux, 2013; Ellis, 2006; Kanas, et al., 2009).  In a way, this is the basis for suggesting that there should be a set policy on determining whether or when it is appropriate to share communications that could be traumatic in nature with crew members on interplanetary missions.  

The loss of a family member, spouse, or child, or the loss of a home or home town to natural disaster may seem extreme, but they are examples of traumatic events well within the realm of possibility.  While it seems logical that there should be some kind of policy in place overseeing communication with space crews on interplanetary missions, the ethics of withholding such information as the death of a child, weighted against the safety of an entire crew, will require serious reflection and discussion.  Ethically speaking, any policy that restricts communications in this way would have to be known and agreed to by participants well in advance of missions, but in doing so may cause some potentially excellent Mars explorers candidates to self-eliminate out of the process.  International cooperation would also be needed from any country with an astronaut on a Mars crew.

It would be possible to continue with what appears to be a method of determining how and what type of communications to share on a case by case basis, as long as such decisions were in part made by medical or psychiatric professionals.  However, despite being able to understand why it is important to overall mission safety to put serious consideration into how communications should be regulated, I can also see how such seemingly corporate or organizational decisions could be controversial.


Delespaux, E., Ryckebosch-Dayes, A-S., Heeren, A., and Zech, E. (2013). Attachment and Severity of Grief: The Mediating Role of Negative Appraisal and Inflexible Coping [On-line] Retrieved from:

Ellis, A. (2006). ‘System Breakdown: The Role of Mental Models and Transactive Memory in the Relationship Between Acute Stress and Team Performance’ Academy of Management Journal [On-line] Retrieved from:

Kanas, N., Sandal, G., Boyd, J. E., Gushin, V. I., Manzey, D., North, R., Leon, G. R., Suedfeld, P., Bishop, S., Fiedler, E. R., Inoue, N., Johannes, B., Kealy, D. J., Kraft, N., Matsuzaki, I., Musson, D., Palinkas, L. A., Salnitskiy, V. P., Sipes, W., Stuster, J., and Wang, J. (2009). ‘Psychology and culture during long-duration space missions’ Acta Astronautica Volume 66 [On-line] Retrieved from:

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