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NASA Gets Ready To Address Tough Questions

As NASA plans to launch its first manned mission to Mars, it has taken its first shaky steps on addressing// taboo issues.

How do you get rid of the body of a dead astronaut on a three-year mission to Mars and back? When should the plug be pulled on a critically ill astronaut who is using up precious oxygen and endangering the rest of the crew? Should NASA employ DNA testing to weed out astronauts who might get a disease on a long flight? How do you deal with sexual desire between astronauts?

Deep space exploration poses more than its share of ethical and practical questions. Yet, if not at one go, NASA doctors and scientists, with help from outside bioethicists and medical experts, hope to answer many of these questions.

Says Dr. Richard Williams, NASA's chief health and medical officer: 'As you can imagine, it's a thing that people aren't really comfortable talking about. 'We're trying to develop the ethical framework to equip commanders and mission managers to make some of those difficult decisions should they arrive in the future.'

One topic is evidently too hot to handle: How do you cope with sexual desire among healthy young men and women during a mission years long? Sex is not mentioned in any documents and has long been almost a taboo topic at NASA. Williams is of the opinion that the question of sex in space is not a matter of crew health but a behavioral issue that will have to be taken up by others at NASA.

The agency will have to address the matter sooner or later, says Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who has advised NASA since 2001.

'There is a decision that is going to have to be made about mixed-sex crews, and there is going to be a lot of debate about it,' he predicts.

There are documents that spell out some health policies in detail, such as how much radiation astronauts can be exposed to from space travel (No more radiation than the amount t
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