You can’t boil an astronaut

Our correspondent Anthony Barreiro has a letter in the current (August) issue of Sky & Telescope, objecting to the assumption that we must send humans to Mars.  Doing so would be orders of magnitude more costly, and risky, than sending a fleet of investigating robots; and it is far more urgent to protect the garden of life we know we have here on Earth than to find possible microbes on Mars.

There is a further point to be made.  Jim Loudon, who until he died contributed the section on space exploration in my Astronomical Calendar, wrote a lively opinion piece for Sky & Telescope (September 1987), countering the drive toward an early manned probe to Mars:  “There might be life on Mars,” and we would never know, if we went there taking even one microbe that could escape and flood the planet.  Hardware could be ruthlessly sterilized, but “You can’t boil an astronaut – union rules!”  The possibility of any kind of life on Mars should be ruled out before any possible contamination be allowed there.

The general assumption in favor of Mars exploration continued, and once I wrote a letter to S&T myself, trying to point attention back to Jim’s well-argued essay.

I imagine that human presence at other planets will eventually come about, but far ahead, after more important problems have been solved, after it has become technically easier, and after it has been determined either that no alien life exists on them or we can be peacefully compatible with it.


20 thoughts on “You can’t boil an astronaut”

  1. I disagree with the theory that foreign explorers would cause devastation of native life forms. The definition of life is adaptation. All living organisms develop immunity to foreign invaders as a way of survival. It seems to me that Mars life forms would have this same adaptive quality.

    The theory may be based on the fact that European explorers brought smallpox to American natives. But while smallpox did kill many Native Americans most survived. Further, I never hear of diseases of the explorers caused by unfamiliar microbes carried by the natives.

    If the theory is correct, it would be feasible that the Martian microbes could kill the astronauts, rather than the other way around.

    1. I think what was expressed by Jim Loudon is only partly that organisms introduced from Earth to Mars might wipe out Martian organisms: the other part is that we might never know whether there had been native life on Mars or not, and what it was. The organisms from each source could rapidly become inextricably mixed. That is why science needs to determine first whether there is life, before we go there, as our technology now has or soon will have the ability to do.

      We certainly do hear of explorers coming down with the unfamiliar diseases of the places they go to. And the Black Death, caused by a bacterium encountered in Asia, killed up to 60 percent of the population of Europe.

      1. It does make sense to have thorough knowledge of an issue before meddling with it.

        By the way , I hope you had a happy birthday.

    2. Rick, I believe you are wrong about the facts. _1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created_ by Charles C. Mann documents compelling evidence that up to 90% of American Indians died of epidemic European diseases, often before any Europeans arrived in their areas. When European explorers arrived in a new area, they found empty villages and a few traumatized “savages”.

      1. I referenced Frank Ferner’s article, “Smallpox and its eradication…
        You can find it as Reference 24 in Wikipedia under the topic “smallpox”.

        In Cuba and Bahia, Mexico, it did have a greater than 50% mortality rate.

        Half of the Aztecs who caught smallpox died. But not everyone caught it so the death rate had to be less than 50%

        Only 200,000 of 6 million Incas died from smallpox.

        My views are influenced by my pet peeve of people thinking they are unfortunate victims of disease or cancer. Most diseases are easily preventable with diet, rest, chiropractic, exercise, and a positive attitude.

        As a vitalist, as opposed to being an allopath, I believe it’s not the seed that causes illness but the soil. In other words, it’s not the smallpox (the seed) that causes disease, rather it’s the weakness of some people’s bodies (the soil) that allows pathogens and cancer cells to thrive.

        1. Rick, a plethora of infectious diseases exterminated the native peoples of the Americas, not just smallpox.

          It’s a shame that a cadre of vitalist chiropractors didn’t precede the conquistadores. A genocide could have been prevented.

          1. Unfortunately chiropractic wasn’t discovered until 1896.

            What’s interesting is that humanity spread east and west from the Middle East / Africa.
            When they met again on the other side of the world there was a rash of infectious disorders.

            I’m not disputing the catastrophic proportions of this meeting. But I do not think inhabitants of North and South America who are of European descent should feel guilty about the native Americans. Columbus did not set sail with the intent to cause genocide. He just wanted to find a better trade route to Asia. He should not be demonized.

          2. Rick wrote: “I’m not disputing the catastrophic proportions of this meeting. But I do not think inhabitants of North and South America who are of European descent should feel guilty about the native Americans. Columbus did not set sail with the intent to cause genocide. He just wanted to find a better trade route to Asia. He should not be demonized.”

            The initial epidemics of the late 15th and early 16th century were unintentional. But biological warfare was later waged against Native Americans, e.g. the US Army gave Indians blankets infected with smallpox.

            Christopher Columbus was a skilled mariner and a courageous explorer. He was also a greedy, sadistic tyrant. He enslaved the indigenous people of the West Indies, worked them literally to death, and responded to any resistance with torture and mass public executions.

            I don’t think that we European-Americans need to feel guilty about the actions of our forebears. But justice demands that we remember history accurately, make amends as we are able, and respect the sovereignty and human rights of the surviving native peoples.

            Again, I highly recommend Charles Mann’s books _1491_ and _1493_.

        2. Only 200,000? A trivially small number, unless you and your family happen to be among them.

          1. My choice of words could have been better.

            I didn’t mean to trivialize the 200,000 Incas. My use of “only” referred to the fact that the mortality rate was way below 50%, in support of my contention that most survived.

        3. Wow. I’m so glad to hear your opinion that my Crohn’s disease and the liver/colon/kidney cancer that killed my father at 45 (a man who never drank or smoked in his life) have really at heart been our own faults. I’ve already got the diet, rest, and exercise in line, so guess I shall endeavor to work on my positive attitude–I’m sure my ailments will just fade away…….

          1. Sorry about your loss. I miss my father too.

            Chiropractic care, exercise, etc. can lower your your risk, but you can do everything right and still get disease. Some risk factors are beyond our control, such as pollution, genetics, or God’s will.

            If Chiropractic care didn’t help your colon, try taking classes from a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. You can locate one at and click on teachers. There are poses to help every system in the body: circulatory system, digestive system, nervous system, etc.

            As for diet, I would try the macrobiotic diet.

    3. “All living organisms develop immunity to foreign invaders as a way of survival.”

      Not true. Also, your example of smallpox is wrong. European settlers decimated the Native American population (see and because of their more robust immune systems, failed to have a similar amount of deaths from Native American borne pathogens.

      Not every organism is capable of adapting. If it is not, it will be killed or displaced from its ecological niche by one that was naturally (or unnaturally) selected for better survival traits. Sure, Martian microbes may kill all the astronauts, but the astronauts will be in suits. The microbes will not.

      Likely, if anything is killing anything, the microbes on the outside of the ship, the suits, the tools, the hoses, clamps, oxygen tanks, heaters, power supplies, solar panels, building material, human waste, and other things that we’d bring (or create) on Mars would devastate any living organism that was already there.

      NASA intentionally destroys orbiters by burning them in atmospheres for this very reason. Yes, you can irradiate (and boil, I suppose) a probe and do your best to stop it from having any microbial life on it, but you can never be 100% sure, can you? So rather burn it up in a fireball than have it crash, smash open the titanium computer housing, crack open a power capacitor, and have the paper that was used as insulation (see spew forth a few hundred thousand microbes that no one thought to kill first demolish Martian life because the new ones love them some ultraviolet radiation.

      Safe, not sorry.

  2. You can’t boil an astronaut? Oh yes you can, you just need a very large kettle, and I recommend some onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, and herbs and seasonings to taste

      1. Mark Watney grows potatos on Mars, using Martian regolith, human waste, and his habitat, modified to increase the concentrations of water and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When the habitat ruptures the plants die, but the tubers are freeze dried.

        1. By the way, Watney spews human-borne microbes all over Mars, but author Andy Weir never addresses this.

          1. I’m glad you guy’s got senses of humor as outre as mine. I’ve been told not to lose my sense of humor. I replied that if I lose my sense of humor I’d have no sense at all. Bon appetit!

  3. It is so important that we pay attention to the possibilities of our contaminating the areas we try to explore. We are very ignorant about our Cosmic position relating to
    life in ANY condition whatsoever. We do not actually KNOW what causes life. We find it in very unlikely places right here on our planet. Guy has added his doubts that we can land something on a body in the Universe without contamination.
    “You cannot boil an Astronaut!”

  4. Thanks Guy. My letter to Sky and Telescope was shortened (“edited for length”) and a few words were changed by the editor, but the gist came through, and I’m grateful they printed it.

    I hadn’t thought about the problem of human-carried microbes, although after reading _The Martian_ (a very poorly written novel) I should have.

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