NASA Experts Say They Won’t Follow Star Trek’s ‘Prime Directive’ When Exploring Other Planets

“A starship captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” – James T. Kirk

Though it is held sacred and the world of Star Trek, NASA may not adhere to the Prime Directive concerning human activity on Mars.

On a panel titled Journey to Mars at this past weekend’s Silicon Valley Comic-Con, a NASA terraforming expert explained that their mission on the planet would be in opposition to the Prime Directive, according to a recap of the event on Outer Places.

According to Memory Alpha‘s definition, the Prime Directive is “embodiment of one of Starfleet’s most important ethical principles: noninterference with other cultures and civilizations. At its core was the philosophical concept that covered personnel should refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted, development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned.”

NASA experts at Silicon Valley Comic Con
NASA experts at Silicon Valley Comic Con | Photo: Outer Places

“We should try to make [Mars] a planet that is rich and diverse in life,” the NASA representative stated. When asked by an attendee about the Prime Directive, he continued, saying that in order to accomplish this, life would need to be brought to the planet, regardless of the fact whether or not it already exists there.

Any life there, according to the expert, would only be in a microbial state, if it exists at all.

The panel explored other aspects of a potential Mars colonization effort, including the difficulties of communicating with astronauts on the planet.

The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous. – Jean-Luc Picard

According to the panelists, there would be a roughly 22 minute communication delay both ways. This would be even after signal strength issues caused by Earth’s and Mars’ orbital movement are addressed. In lieu of a faster communication method, which they aren’t entirely ruling out, NASA would have to give colonists more a greater amount of freedom to act on their own accord than current astronauts are afforded.

They later explored parts of the recent SpaceX plan to colonize Mars. While they admitted that last year’s announcement by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk “has moved us closer to Mars psychologically than anything in the past 20 years,” they advised against one aspect of his plan, which involves nuking the planet as a way to heat the it’s surface to a more habitable temperature. By NASA’s estimation, the heat of the combined arsenals of various nuclear powers, including the U.S. and Russia, would only amount to about four hours of Martian sunlight.

Though any colonization effort on Mars would be a long ways away, it’s important to start brainstorming now, so that fewer hurdles remain when that time comes.

What do you think? Should we adhere to a “Prime Directive” similar to Starfleet when exploring other planets? Tell us in the comments below.

Andrew Cardinale is from a Boston suburb where he works in IT. When he’s not doing something Star Trek related, he writes, follows local sports and listens to far too many podcasts.

You can follow Andrew on Twitter @acardi.

34 Comments Join the Conversation →


  • bearbutt

    The prime directive applies to social cultures of intelligent life. The only culture on Mars would be those grown in a petri dish. So the prime directive is totally irrelevant as dicussed here.

    • Wayne Martin

      Thank you!

    • Abigsoxfan

      Exactly, you described it better than I could. Unless we could reactivate a molten core (thereby bringing back a protective magnetic field), bring a significant atmosphere there and bring trillions of gallons of water, there never will be sustainable life on that planet let alone advanced life.

      • HavocNHell

        I don’t know about needing trillion gallons. You could bring Oxygen Converters and Scrubbers to Mars, with a Smaller amount of water. As Hydrogen is the most common of elements, it would be possible to create a water generating plant on Mars.

        • Abigsoxfan

          What you describe could make it livable for a short period of time, but but not self-sustainable. Mars lost it’s chance to be a hotbed of life when it lost it’s molten core.

    • David Novák

      Came here to say this ^^

  • Arron Ratcliff

    The Prime Directive only applies to intelligent life forms and civilizations not to microbial life.Unless you can prove it is a sentient being Then the prime directive should be applied. Interplanetary colonies and colonization ships will need much more lee way in dealing with situations then the current NASA by the book mentality. They will need command freedom like the old time sea captains and colony governors had.Total control and finial say in all aspects.

    • Techno Delic

      The episode ‘Home Soil’ (ST:TNG) belied that somewhat, with the leader of the scientific team deliberately ignoring attempts at intelligent communication by the microbiotic life there for the sake of his own project. There’s ample evidence mankind can’t even act ‘humanely’ to other humans, be it through racism, sexism or other divisions. At what point would any one of us be able to determine if a wholly different form of life, with different concepts of intelligence and society, if worthy of any ‘prime directive’ being applied or not, when the race is on for resources, land and other factors of survival? :O

      • Marco Groot

        Good point!

  • Terry Godley

    hi I’m onboard for the exploration of mars

  • The Wombat

    Maybe it’s just a particle of pre-animate matter?

    • Spock

      Maybe it’s something we can transplant.

      • FrankFarkle

        There can’t be as much as a microbe or the show’s off!

      • Christopher Marx

        “Something we can transplant’? You *know* what she’ll say.

    • Abigsoxfan

      It is impossible for life to spring up in a world without a molten core to provide a magnetic field to protect life from the harmful rays of the sun, let alone a lack of significant atmosphere and water.

  • Oddball

    Prime Directive? PRIME DIRECTIVE?!?

    “Alright you Primitive Screwheads, listen up! You see this? This… is my
    BOOMSTICK! The twelve-gauge double-barreled Remington. S-Mart’s top of
    the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That’s
    right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for
    about a hundred and nine, ninety five. It’s got a walnut stock, cobalt
    blue steel, and a hair trigger. That’s right. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart.
    You got that?”

  • R DeMichiei

    Star Trek 2 gave an impression that it applied to lower forms of life not just Intelligent life

    • John Beaulieu

      No it didn’t. That was a different set of rules unrelated to the prime directive.

      • Cap_Curmudgeon

        Let’s not get off the track.

    • Abigsoxfan

      And there are no lower forms of life on Mars and they can never develop without a protective magnetic field.

    • Slate_Fistcrunch

      I think the scientists didn’t want to kill lower forms of life in WoK.

      • Ariana Frost

        It would not have been a true test of the device. They needed a completely lifeless planet for that phase of testing

  • Bill Barkus

    Aaaaand Nobody has mentioned The Genesis Device? 😉

    • Marc Henson

      Actually R DeMichiei did. I personally do not see how that compares to nukes though.

      • Marc Henson

        Forgot to say this, although Genesis could create life and replace any that might be there, a nuke cannot.

  • Thomas Calandra

    The Prime Directive is important but we also would see if an Alien Race would ever visit US and have the same belief system

  • Barlow

    I like the Prime Directive!! It is a good ethical standard!!

  • Joanne Wood

    what ever the human race touches it destroys so other planets would be better off if we didn’t go there at all but, if we must go then yes, the prime directive should be applied.

  • Poissant

    how about learning to write before pretending to do so “which involves nuking the planet as a way to heat the it’s surface to a more habitable temperature” … hmmm.

  • Kev

    As humans at this level, we rarely have intergrated ourselves into a society. The stronger will enngulf the weaker, usually out of fear that theyd do that to us.

  • gabevee3

    Not only is the directive applicable to intelligent life, but to pre-warp civilizations. That said, even ones that are at the same level of technology ought to be left alone, as it were. Otherwise it would be tantamount to what we Europeans did to the peoples in the Americas and what Hawking fears alien cultures would do to us humans.

  • Aric Wilisch

    What their talking about isn’t quite the prime directive, although terraforming a planet with any kind of living organisms would probably be something that would skirt the edge of it. But that’s where some of the Star Trek philosophies are a tad unrealistic. I doubt there’s any planet without ANY microbes and there’s always the possibility life could exist in a way we have never seen before and just do not know it’s there.

    However in the event we run into anything that could be called intelligent(ish) life, yes I believe we should have something similar. It’s not there to keep us from interfering as much as it’s there to remind us that other cultures need to grow and thrive (or not) on their own. Everyone has a different moral code so it’s, well..logical, to have something drawn up that takes that choice away from ship Captains and tells them what the procedure is in those cases.

    Just my thought.

    • Bernd Badura

      Every life is precious, even microbiotic life. If it´s life as we know ist, there could be some DNA-segments in it, that bear the secret of how to survive on such a place. If this life has a totaly different basis, it is even more precious for humanity. Because it can tell us something about the secrets of life.

      But at least it dosn´t matter every lifeform is a wonder by itself and a precious treasure worth to protect and keep.

      So we havn´t the right to destroy life on Mars. Not in the name of sience, not for own benefit and at least not in the name of profit.

      So if there is life on Mars, and this is a big if, ´cause I doubt that there exist any lifeform, we havn´t the right to destroy it. Even here the Star Trek Prime Directive is a brilliant philosophical point to handel this situation.

  • DaBoss

    That’s Crazy! If there are li9fe forms on these planets, not following the prime directive would cause a war!