Will there be cats on Mars?
Human and animal colonisation of the red planet
Elon Musk in his talk at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September last year outlined in startling detail about how he will transport people on mass to Mars.
He plans to build a fleet of 1,000 giant rocket ships that would fit 100–200 people at a time plus cargo which would optimally make a 80–90 day trip, (but most of the time would be longer) to our nearest neighbour. Musk predicts Mars will have a 1 million strong self-sustaining population within 40 or so years from first touchdown.
My interest in Mars goes back to being seven years old and devouring every book about astronomy in my local library. My mother had to take me to bigger libraries and specially order textbooks about the universe as my fledgling subject matter expertise exponentially grew. This was in the early 1980s and Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan were my go to authors on space and Mars. I remember staring in fascination for hours at the images taken by the Viking space-probes of the oddly familiar red rocky surface with a truly alien dark greenish sky. My ambitions to become an astronomer faded with time but I have never lost my passion for astronomy and dreams to one day go to Mars.
Now as I am a founder of a tech company building a biosensor for animals, naturally my thoughts turn to how animals are impacted by our technological evolution. An idea that has occurred to me a few times is ‘Will we take our pets to Mars?’ On a personal level, I have taken my cat with me from Australia, to Qatar, UK and now France. Hypothetically, if I were to be offered a place on a rocket to go to Mars tomorrow, would I take her with me?
Looking at some examples of fairly recent colonisation, on the Mayflower for instance, the pilgrims took with them two dogs as well as chickens, goats and pigs to their new country which would become the USA. On the first fleet to Australia, there were goats, horses, cows, pigs, rabbits and chickens. There is no record of European dogs or cats on the first ships. But interestingly, cats and dogs arrived later when the colonies were more established.
By the time we make it to Mars in the 2030s to 2040s, I suspect we will be growing meat in laboratories so we won’t be taking livestock to the planet. Perhaps at a long stretch potentially we might take fish if we were to take any farmed animal, but the chances are we won’t need to. So the question is would we continue our pattern of human settlement and take with us our companion animals. And if we do, at what stage of our settlement would we take them?
Quite apart from our emotional desire to take our companion animals or to adopt some on the planet to keep us company, some ethical questions can be raised about the effects of interplanetary travel and settlement on animals. Would it be physically safe to take them on the rocket ships? Even if this was so, what effect would it have on their psychology? Dogs need to run around, would there be enough room for them to exercise? On arrival at the planet, it is likely we would need to live underground to avoid radiation killing us while the planet is terraformed. The gravity on Mars is around a third of that of Earth’s. How will our pets adapt to this? Is this a good environment for your beloved animal, who didn’t choose this existence?
I realise in the grand scheme of preparing ourselves to be an interplanetary species that taking other sentient species along with us is a small consideration. But I think it is a subject that will become more important closer to the time and throws up some interesting philosophical and moral questions.
In answer to my earlier question about whether I would take my cat. If I arrive when the settlement is already set up and functioning predictably and safely… then yes, most likely.