Why Mars could be humanity’s final stop in space exploration


Since the Moon landing we have been dreaming of setting foot onto another surface that is not the Moon. Minds have been set alight by the thought we could, one day, step onto Mars and maybe stay there. New frontiers! In astronomical terms, the red planet is tantalizingly close and our imagination has gone into overdrive when looking at Curiosity whose googly camera eyes reminded us more of the little space robot ‘Wall-E’ than a space probe. It just made things so much more emotionally connected and tangible than they had ever been before. We feel that ‘destination Mars’ is the next logical step in our journey of space exploration. It is seen as the launch pad for the colonization and exploration of the solar system and beyond, as much as the Moon was considered before. The problem is, Mars might just be our final stop, forever.

Surely, this would represent an inherent admission of failure before we have even started? But there are much more viable alternatives to explore plus we might not even notice that we are failing, which is evermore so annoying.

Time is Money

Firstly, let’s look at the backstory here where we are being told Mars is the so called ‘Launch Pad’. Why would you want to go further than Mars once you got there? The theory goes like this, and starts with a picture. Imagine, in the second part of this century we may have made it to Mars in form of a semi-permanent station housing a max of 8 strongly earthbound astronauts. They will of course see Earth as their home and are in the best sense possible ‘visitors’ on a hostile planet with a ticket back. The end of the century, humans could then have managed to stay permanently on the red planet. That would be with no guaranteed ticket back and colonization could start with all its foibles when it comes to incest, food, cultural differences, egoism. True ‘Martians’ would be born and a new civilization could start to form by the end of the 22nd century. All that given we still had enough resources and motivation on Earth along the way of this almost 200 year long journey to support a multi trillion dollar program. But let’s assume that this is the case and potentially Mars does offer some form of either mineral reward keeping us all motivated or we do find life there which would change a lot of things.

So now come along with me to this new civilization that is trying to make the best of the remoteness they have found themselves in, connected to Earth only by a thread and not an umbilical cord anymore. Would they genuinely think about going where no man has gone before when food and water, i.e. survival, is their main objective? A human can only be a scientist and explorer if there are resources to support and time as well as space to think, study, reflect and imagine.

The Great Silence

At the heart of this is 1930s physicist Enrico Fermi’s question: ‘Where are they?’ The Fermi paradox discusses the problem of the non-existence of any proof of alien life to date, either in sound or actual visual. We are living in a galaxy of around 100 to 400 billion stars with almost all of them surrounded by planets. Even if we look at a likelihood of a fraction of a fraction of a percent, must there not be intelligent life out there, even in our home galaxy the Milky Way, never mind the 2,000 billion other galaxies in the universe as recent NASA research suggests? So should there be any type 2 advanced civilization out there, one that has managed to harness and manipulate the energy and power of a whole star as per the Kardashev scale, would they not be in a position to communicate with us or have emitted some form of credible waves over the time of their existence? And if they haven’t, considering the known age of the universe, are they actually still around to talk to us, never mind travelling to us?

Energy consumption estimated in three types of civilizations defined by Kardashev scale, by Indif

Well, in my view all of this is a little born out of human ignorance and the perception that other species want to communicate with us and that we are able to understand what they are saying. Or likewise that our friends use a form of communication obeying the laws of physics we have identified. It also omits how tiny we are in the scheme of our galaxy never mind the whole universe. Even our solar system is minuscule. Us trying to catch signals from an extra-terrestrial advanced civilization here on Earth or even with satellites is utterly preposterous. Imagine managing to hit a penny somebody flicked on top of the Empire State building in New York midair with tennis ball thrown from The Shard in London. In all that is holy to mathematicians and physicians, this could work after close to an infinite number of tries and a very strong throwing-arm but the chances are so slim, that playing the lottery every day for the rest of your life and 10 future generations would be a more useful and profitable way.

The Great Filter

Now let’s put something else on top of that. Let’s return to Earth and look at the current and some future circumstances here, which could prove counterproductive to a further Mars exploration and the survival of the human race on a foreign planetary or lunar body or even here on Earth.

Consider this; we might already be in the midst of a mass extinction event, the 6th of its kind. This time, it is a human made one, comprising of climate change, our domination of everything that flies, swims, walks and crawls on the face of the Earth and the sheer ignorance of human beings thinking our ingenuity will solve everything if we just try hard enough. I’m afraid trying hard might not be enough this time around.

In the face of a planet that needs feeding and depleting resources, humans may never want to go to Mars in the first place. Or, whoever is unfortunate enough to land on the red dust ball will run out of support very quickly – back to the ‘Time is Money‘ point.

To that end, ‘The Great Filter’ is the suggestion that there is some kind of absurdly difficult step in the evolution of life – one that precludes it from becoming an interstellar race. Here on Earth that step in evolution could be missed as we are destroying the very foundation of our existence as a race, the planet.

Where does this leave us humans?

Because of the two great depressing Filter and Silence we should not be fixated on finding extra-terrestrial intelligent life. We are looking down a dark hole of nothingness with an end that is creeping in more and more. Therefore, should we not be the ones to go where nobody and no one has gone before and not just around the corner to our very dry next-door neighbour? Could our train of space exploration just say “Next stop Mars, last stop, no connections available, ever!”?

A new path to preservation…

Now, which train could we jump on to make sure our species is preserved long term and we are not filtered out as possible many other species have been before to join a silent crowd?

Could one way out be the discovery of space and time bending possibilities of travel which would make colonizing our dusty red neighbour obsolete and could give rise to a space travelling species? The chances are indeed very small, judging by what we know today. But doesn’t boldness mean to go where no one has gone before? Doesn’t it also mean to be adventurous in your decisions? When Kennedy announced the plans to go to the Moon, the USA could have invested more in a permanent space station in orbit. That would have been the most logical next step. But they went further, attempting something that was inconceivable to the many and represented a remote possibility to the few. Therefore, let’s not go to Mars! Let’s not make this our last stop because we have exerted all resources available to us, lost all backing on Earth and literally run out of time as climate change starts to eat up our planet. Let’s invest the estimated 150 trillion USD into deep space exploration now. Let’s look at an approach to physics and maths that brings us to corners of our imagination and belief, straddling into a Unitarian approach to religion and way of life. How deep do we need to dig on the sandy beach that is the universe to find that one grain of sand we are after? Our common goal should not be who owns the longest, biggest or most beautiful of anything but who knows the most. We need to stop looking for extra-terrestrial life and consider that we might be what we perceived as ‘alone’ in the universe, meaning that we will with almost 100% certainty never contact or be contacted by any other alien life form, never mind being able to communicate with them. It just might not be plausible and possible, the end.

Deep space exploration is the only way the human race can survive long term. New planets and moons can be our new home. So let’s not wait for them, let us be them. Maybe we are the only aliens after all…?

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