|Posted by:||Erdal Hadise (erdalhadi…@gmail.com)|
|Date:||Thu, 14 Apr 2016|
Should we be putting humans on Mars? A panel of space experts brings up the=
big questions we need to ask before we blast off.
Mars! It's a planet we humans have been eyeing with intent since we first l=
ooked upward. Someday, the Red Planet might become a place to house Earth's=
expanding population ... it could be a lucrative place to mine natural res=
ources ... or it could be humanity's last refuge.
Our current fascination to colonize Mars was kicked off by the Mars One pro=
ject a couple of years ago; it got a boost of seriousness when Elon Musk de=
cided that a Mars colony was a makeable goal, and soon. But just because it=
's do-able ... is it something we should do?
A group of TED Fellows -- astronomers, artists, scientists and communicator=
s -- got together to call out four issues we should think about before we t=
ake our first small step onto the red surface of our neighbor planet. An ed=
ited version of their conversation follows.
1. What's behind the aggressive timeline?
The Mars One project promised to put a human colony on Mars by 2027 -- elev=
en years from now. It was a splashy, PR-driven goal that even its (former) =
chief scientist is now backing away from. But Elon Musk's timeline is just =
as tight. We should ask why this colony timeline is so much shorter than na=
tional and international science groups predict, and why it involves trying=
to move so many people so quickly -- up to 10,000 within one decade.
Danielle Lee, evolutionary biologist: Hands-up/hands-down: Colonization at =
this timescale, do you think it's feasible at this point?
Angelo VermeulenAngelo Vermeulen, artist and a crew commander of the NASA-f=
unded HI-SEAS Mars mission simulation in Hawaii (TED Talk: How to go to spa=
ce, without having to go to space): Realistically, the first settlement on =
Mars will be more like a polar base at the start. Hopefully we can build a =
long-term settlement, but thousands of people? That's still far, far away.
Lucianne WalkowiczLucianne Walkowicz, who studies how stars affect the habi=
tability of planets (TED Talk: Let's not use Mars as a backup planet): I do=
n't think it's a proper proposal. It's a shorter timescale, [in order to se=
em] forward-thinking. If you wanted to do this on any kind of timescale, in=
cluding the more conservative one from NASA, I think you would have had to =
start sooner than now.
Jedidah IslerJedidah Isler, who studies supermassive black holes like quasa=
rs and blazars (TED Talk: How I fell in love with quasars, blazars and our =
incredible universe): I don't think the current timeline of around 2027 ali=
gns with the idea of transporting many hundreds of people, especially at th=
e beginning. We'll likely still be in primary exploration phase, not perman=
LW: McMurdo [the main station for the United States' Antarctic Program] is =
a considerably easier feat than a Mars base, and we don't really have a goo=
d plan of how to do that. I mean, where are the thousands of people living =
AV: The realistic plan we have right now is a fly-by. It's what we did firs=
t with the moon. And that's already going to be a massive challenge: radiat=
ion, life support, the psychology of it all. Just flying around and then co=
ming back to Earth will teach us so much.
JI: Look at the Rosetta mission, that was a good counterpoint. Not only did=
they do a flyby, not only did they plan ahead, they were still surprised w=
hen they got there! "We thought it was going to be smooth; it was rocky."
DL: That's something that does not get celebrated enough when we have these=
science events -- all the hiccups. Truly, and I'm using my own science exp=
eriences, especially when you're doing some new-wave stuff like this it's a=
Lemony Snicket Adventure; it's going to be one unfortunate event after ano=
ther. I find it problematic that [a fast timeline] smoothes out the edges, =
the real life-and-death risk of doing this.
Renee HlozekRenee Hlozek, a cosmologist who studies what the universe is ma=
de of and how it came to be as it is today: For the five scientists in this=
room, our goal is learning about Mars, learning about cool things in the s=
olar system. It's all knowledge. We don't care if it's smooth or rocky. But=
if you just want to take over the universe, you want it to be plain sailin=
2. Is the science there yet to support human life?
We've landed an object on Mars seven times in more than 40 years of trying.=
(In March 2016, NASA and France's space agency postponed their next landin=
g, the InSight mission, for two years, pushing it until 2018.) Meanwhile, w=
hat rich information, perhaps even the keys to the origin of life, might we=
lose when we modify a planet's surface to suit human needs?
RH: Let's think about how we've terraformed earth. Look at the Hoover Dam; =
that hasn't worked so well for Californians. We haven't done a great job so=
rting that out; desertification is happening all over the world. And yet th=
e plan is we're going to put a fan or a shield in space and melt the polar =
DL: Is that the plan, that we put a big Jiffy-Pop over the ice caps at the =
LW: None of this is a plan!
AV: I think we all agree that the terraforming part is completely unscienti=
fic. But then there's actually your question: is it possible to build biolo=
gical life support on Mars for thousands of people? At this point it is not=
possible. At all.
AV: Of course not. We don't have that. There's one system that is quite fun=
ctional here on earth, and that's the MELiSSA regenerative ecosystem, of th=
e European Space Agency. It's probably the closest to a regenerative ecosys=
tem that we have, and it's not finished.
JI: Well, it's a little bit unfair to say the technology doesn't exist yet,=
because all of this is in the realm of next-gen technology because we have=
to create all of it. But the question is, when we do create it, have we ev=
olved enough as humans to be able to do it right? There's no historical ind=
ication that we would act in the best interests of humankind, especially if=
commercial interests are given priority.
DL: As an evolutionary biologist, I find the vision of humans working toget=
her under stochastic, unpredictable conditions unrealistic. I have a more d=
espotic vision of humanity under stressful, unpredictable conditions, with =
limited resources and the risk of things breaking and you just can't replac=
e it. How will people act if they know they're not going home?
AV: Well, through good leadership and governance you can handle things. The=
first colonizers will have a tough time, but we'll gradually humanize the =
place, and it will become almost like another city on Earth. Technically sp=
eaking, that could be an option, but I don't think a short timeline is real=
istic at all.
Look at the first and longest Biosphere 2 experiment; the crew split up int=
o two camps waging psychological war. An important point here is that the B=
iosphere 2 experts mostly selected themselves. For NASA's HI-SEAS simulatio=
n, psychologically compatible people are selected to carry out the missions=
JI: When you travel to space with NASA, they do extensive psychological tes=
ts, but you're not going to be able to do that for 10,000 people. There's n=
o analog on Earth for the experience of Mars, so culture and society must b=
e primed and then deployed on the spot. Make no mistake, though, there will=
be cultural and societal norms; the question is what they will be.
AV: I do think things are manageable. It's when military structures are put=
in place, or when corporate structures are put in place, that is when thin=
gs might go in a different direction.
3. What have we learned from the complicated history of building colonies?
Do we actually have the moral right to take over another planet? What have =
we learned from past colonization? And a vital class issue comes up here: T=
he most prominent early Mars-nauts are likely very wealthy people who pay t=
o go ... and, presumably, these people won't want to be maids and janitors.=
So who will do the hard labor required to build a new society?
DL: I am hearing terms like "expansion of manifest destiny," "interplanetar=
y manifest destiny" -- as humans we need to go to Mars, like it's our right=
LW: I actually would love for us to go to other planets. I'm a supporter of=
interplanetary exploration, even settling in places beyond our own Earth. =
But the reasoning being "this is our right"? I think it's turned into this =
very problematic narrative where lessons from history are being ignored, wh=
ere we're not considering the implications of what we're doing.
And we need to think about what kind of social disparity [this settlement w=
ill create], widening the gap between haves and have-nots on literally an i=
DL: It kind of smoothes over our own history as humans. The Christopher Col=
umbus narrative [this effort is modeling itself on] erases some other impor=
tant narratives, of Native Americans, African Americans. My people came to =
America against their will. And among Europeans who came, many of them were=
indebted; you had these massive droves of poor people doing the work and d=
ying. It's the people with the least power politically and economically who=
'll do the work.
JI: We're talking about this very glossy ride to the red planet, because hi=
storically people who've had resources ride on the backs of someone else to=
get there. It's the people who carry the history ...
DL: ... who get the calluses on their feet.
JI: As an astrophysicist and a black woman who is often faced with being re=
ndered invisible, I listen for what is not mentioned. And what is not menti=
oned in this plan are the people who are not CEOs, who aren't the Elon Musk=
s of the world. What of the vibrant and richly diverse people on this plane=
t who bring to bear far different and arguably far more valuable resources =
than just the ability to pay the exorbitant and largely unattainable price =
tag of this journey?
4. Should humankind's boldest exploration be driven by commercial goals?
LW: There's a certain forcible aggressiveness in this narrative that implie=
s that this will happen regardless of NASA, regardless of whether other peo=
ple from around the globe might consider it a good idea or a bad idea. It's=
very heavily based in, "There's a small group of people who can do this, a=
small group of people who can afford to buy tickets to go and do this, and=
so they will."
AV: What concerns me is the unchecked expansion of neoliberal predatory cap=
italism into outer space. It's really something I can't wrap my mind around=
; there is no criticism at all. It's all about getting there first to gain =
and profit the most. Space presents a massive territory through which corpo=
rations can grow beyond anything we've ever seen before. Apple is the bigge=
st company on earth, but that's going to be peanuts in comparison with a co=
mpany that successfully starts exploiting resources in outer space. The mon=
ey they're going to generate and the territory they're potentially going to=
occupy will dwarf anything on Earth, and that's going to have serious soci=
JI: The timeline is the critical conversation we have to have. It would be =
more productive and feasible to have a collaboration, establish a more real=
istic order to when we do things. Maybe: "We're going to send scientists. L=
et them do their job, and then we figure out how we want to engage in other=
ways." Leading with the goal of mining, terraforming or otherwise exploiti=
ng a pristine environment for our economic gain is the exact wrong way to p=
RH: There is definitely a risk of [a commercial space program] backfiring a=
nd damaging the entire program of human space exploration. If the Mars One =
program with its ambitious goals caused casualties, the repercussions would=
be huge. That's my main concern.
LW: I think "some people will die" is probably a good guess for something t=
hat might happen in the initial stages of settling a planet.
PS: Space exploration is exciting!
AV: Starting with a flyby such as the Inspiration Mars project would be a r=
eally good step. I would be very excited to see this in my lifetime.
RH: I worry that when people bring criticism to the idea, it gets painted a=
s a lack of vision, pessimism. People love to say that we're saying "you ca=
n't do it" and "it's not possible." But we're not naysayers at all. None of=
us would ever be called that in any other context. This program deserves b=
oth respect and critique. To infinity and beyond.