The future of mankind and off-world transhuman settlements on Mars
This post was originally posted on my blog in 2014. I’m reposting it here. I’m planning to unpack a little deeper the mars imaginary. This will make a good intro.
You can find what’s left of the original post here, and the Disqus comments are still available. Some readers took time to provide meaningful feedback.
Brave sky-travelers, forbidden seas and maps of the celestial bodies
“A planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”
— Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Behind the very human mythology of great explorers, our technological and innovation quest, lies a deeper idea. In a recent Aeon interview, Elon Musk, the Tony Stark-like entrepreneur, founder of Space-X and partner of the Mars One project explained how for him, this Mars venture goes beyond simply inspiring people or developing new technologies. For a decade now, Elon Musk has been explaining that Mars exploration is about literally creating “an extinction insurance for Humanity”.
This idea of humanity’s Cosmic Manifest Destiny isn’t very new. In 1610, the astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, in a letter to Galileo:
“Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travelers, maps of the celestial bodies.”
— Johannes Kepler
“Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, or a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers we have not yet thought of,”
“I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load, he have repeatedly warned.”
— Stephen Hawking, in 2006
This idea is currently gaining more ground with the concept of near-term extinction that more and more space fanatics refer to. The green economy boom and Al Gore’s movie in 2006 seem very distant. In eight years, how did we shift from an ideology of saving our natural life support system, the Earth, to a new paradigm, saving Humanity with an exodus to other planets?
There are many elements used to defend this position. First the potential for our self-destruction, environmental risks of massive scale disasters like pandemics, nuclear holocaust or mega-tsunamis. But it goes deeper as many scientists now look into the risks and potential for mega-scale cosmic accidents like a collision with another star, or a supernova shockwave, or the incinerating beam of a gamma-ray burst. We could swing into the path of a rogue planet, one of the billions that roam our galaxy darkly, like cosmic wrecking balls. Planet Earth could be edging up to the end of an unusually fortunate run. (Extract taken from the Aeon interview of Musk).
This leads me to ask the following question. Have we entered into a new post-green era requiring us to face reality and accept our civilisational failure? Is the Earth not only condemned in the long term by the death of our star, but has our way of living already threatened our future survival chances to such a new level that building an off-world survival colony makes complete sense today? Isn’t there something terribly fatalist here? How much does it reveal about us?
Keeping everything up and running
To explore these questions, I propose to look at a recent study by a team of MIT Ph.D. students specialised in large-scale multi-billion dollar space programs. Using publicly available information about the Mars One mission plans they simulated the adventurous trip to Mars. Although the Mars One CEO claims the teams used “bad data” their findings remains revealing.
“The major challenge of Mars One is keeping everything up and running.” Repairing equipment and suits on Mars is a problem Mars One has yet to solve. Unmanned supply missions in advance of a second human launch are expected to land on the red planet a few weeks after the original colonists arrive, and Lansdorp (the Mars One CEO) suggests the first crew could take those stocks in a pinch.
— MIT Students Claim Astronauts Will Starve On ‘Mars One’ Mission
The next frontier for Silicon Valley?
Reading about Mars projects can also reveal a specific range of concepts being the pillars of the Mars colony mythology. Like for example the idea of an “Earth-to-Mars economy”. One of the most interesting project in that sense is Marscoin. A digital currency for Mars. Because current telecommunication technologies cannot allow the martian economy to work directly on our earthly Bitcoin blockchains, a group of entrepreneurs are working on a crypto-currency for Mars. Their baseline and motto is: “Future of Prosperity & Progress”.
In questioning the ideology that empowers the dream for a life on Mars, there is quickly a pattern emerging. In almost every articles, every interviews comes the promise of a Transhumanist tomorrow and on this topic, Elon Musk isn’t very shy:
‘At our current rate of technological growth, humanity is on a path to be godlike in its capabilities,’
— Elon Musk
Despite the fact that Elon Musk has been very clear about his understanding of AI’s threats to humanity, a core element of the transhumanist mythology, we can wonder if we are becoming prisoners of “Future talk” as Zoltan Istvan calls it?
“Singularity. Posthuman. Techno-Optimism, Cyborgism. Humanity+. Immortalist. Machine intelligence. Biohacker. Robotopia. Life extension. Transhumanism. These are all terms thrown around trying to describe a future in which mind uploading, indefinite lifespans, artificial intelligence, and bionic augmentation may (and I think will) help us to become far more than just human. They are words you hear in a MIT robotics laboratory, or on a launch site of SpaceX, or on Reddit’s Futurology channel.”
— Zoltan Istvan — Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future?
New world, new humans, new systems
On a future focused wiki, writers imagined that Mars would eventually become a safe haven for persecuted transhumans obliged to flee the Earth. They imagined that by 2019, transhumans would be attacked on a regular basis in the US and Canada forcing them to plan their departure. By 2022 many of the leaders of the Transhumanist “Tribes” would meet in secret with the leader of Titan Aerospace (which would have acquires Lockheed Martin in 2014 ). He would reveal himself to be a modern transhuman and has been secretly preparing for an exodus to Mars over the last few years in response to the anti-transhuman movement. By 2030 the last known transhuman on Earth is publicly executed in Mexico.
Has thinking about the future become about welcoming the merge of humans with machines, the mind with the database and a near-term cosmic destiny of planetary terraforming and geo-engineering?
In an 1994 article entitled “The Significance of the Martian Frontier” Robert Zubrin asks:
“Why Mars? Why not on Earth, under the oceans or in such remote region as Antarctica? And if it must be in space, why on Mars? Why not on the Moon or in artificial satellites in orbit about the Earth?”
“It is true that settlements on or under the sea or in Antarctica are entirely possible, and their establishment and access would be much easier than that of Martian colonies. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that at this point in history such terrestrial developments cannot meet an essential requirement for a frontier — to wit, they are insufficiently remote to allow for the free development of a new society. In this day and age, with modern terrestrial communication and transportation systems, no matter how remote or hostile the spot on Earth, the cops are too close. If people are to have the dignity that comes with making their own world, they must be free of the old.”
— Robert Zubrin
We can ask if in a way, a Mars frontier means a new world, as the American continent was for European monarchies. Not only vast resources and land but mostly a blank page awaiting history to be re-experimented and shaped to match new ideologies and vision for off-world post-westphalian human settlements.
“The relevance now is that there’s an increasing number of nations going into space, there’s an increasing number of private companies building rockets and with this renewed effort in space exploration it’s becoming very important to think about who’s going to control space,” “Will it be corporations? Will it be the state? How is the individual to have any freedom in an environment that is absolutely lethal?”
— Charles Cockell, astrobiologist, University of Edinburgh
“The people who wrote Star Trek had a system in place, the Federation,” says Janet De Vigne, a language lecturer and colleague of Cockell’s at Edinburgh. “Star Trek is a post-capitalist society — if you’re setting up a settlement, what is the economic set-up going to be? The economy could be completely different.”
“Delegates also agree that the “right to leave” should be included in the new constitution. But that raises questions over the practicalities of leaving a colony on a planet without breathable air. As going outside is not a viable option, who pays for the trip home? Even more concerning, if the colony is being run by a corporation do they have the right to sack you? To send you back to Earth or throw you out of the airlock?”
— How to create a bill of rights for Mars colonies
There are many angles to view this topic. This could be some Billionaire Icarus project for corporations looking in new ways to emancipate their activities from the grasp of nation states, taxes and the gargantuan costs of lobbying. This could be a highly expensive Noah’s arch that could provide us with a fragile survival plan for our species. This could be a fantastic collective and international effort to unite humans in a common destiny beyond our nationalistic and cultural differences. This could also be another acceleration of the rampant inequalities of our current civilisations. Only available for a few beautiful and wealthy elite of augmented humans. This could also quickly become a cosmic financial black-hole. At the end of the day there is probably a little bit of all of that in the Mars colony idea.
Beyond this vision, lies a postulate about the future of hummankind and our chances of medium-term survival. Is it a natural response to our understanding of the rapid degradation of our environment and our self-destruction potential? Did we pass a threshold or point of no-return? Is Mars our plan-B?
Or maybe we’re just amazing wanderers.
I am Pascal Wicht, a Swiss designer working in the spaces between ethnography, strategy and futures.
I spend my life exploring the world to collect signals of change and new ideas. By connecting stories from different fields, I help organisations make sense of the world and put imagination at the heart of their conversations for the future.