Mars is not the solution to any problem

Except the complete extinction of the species

Kim Stanley Robinson, writer of the famed Mars Trilogy, has cast down the gauntlet toward Elon Musk indicating Musk’s perspective on the exploration and domination of the Red Planet seems akin to the writings of 1920 pulp-era science fiction novels. (Oh no, he didn’t.)

I don’t have a problem with Musk’s enthusiastic approach to trying to reach and colonize Mars, but I don’t see this endeavor in the same light most people do. Being fair, Robinson’s perspectives toward Mars, while entertaining are no less challenging because as I have said before terraforming Mars is simply a feat beyond our limited scope of technologies.

Here is the brief article and associated links if you are curious about Kim Stanley Robinson’s perspective.

What I am going to talk about is while we are in the early stages of visiting Mars, the idea of sending a hundred or a thousand or a million people is simply out of the question.

The very idea of colonizing Mars is both fraught with perils and requires efforts humanity is simply not capable of understanding or rallying the energies of the entire species in order to make Mars a reality in the near future.

I have talked about both in the past. Once about Elon Musk’s unfortunate conversation when he suggested (later he says jokingly) using nuclear weapons to melt the Martian permafrost at the poles.

I also wrote a thought-experiment where I discussed the idea of the comic-legend Superman having only a year to plan and prepare, using only his powers and technology made on Earth, could he make Mars habitable in such a short period of time.

The question originated on Boing Boing, when a friend asked me to weigh in on the topic because of some of the harsh invective the question of terraforming Mars raised there. Musk’s article above was the first essay in the thread. Here is the entire BBS thread. Some of the language is incendiary.

Now you have the backstory, let’s answer the questions:

Could Elon Musk create the tech to terraform Mars?

  • What would be necessary for Mars to be terraformed?
  • What about the consequences of such work?
  • Do we have an obligation to protect the Earth while we are seeking other planets to expand toward, in the future?

This topic has engendered a lot of heated responses but the truth of the matter is simple. We are abusing the Earth. We are utilizing its resources without any respect for the future of the planet or our future living on the planet.

I will start this essay with a simple premise: The Earth does not need us. If a comet struck the Earth tomorrow, we would be extinct and that would be the end of it. The Earth would survive.

Our planet has been struck by numerous comets and large meteors before (See: Chixulub Impactor). While the life ON the planet was devastated, the Earth was still intact. The Chixulub event is believed to have caused the extinction of the largest dinosaurs on Earth.

Our planet has seen five mass extinction level events where entire swaths of plants and animals were extinguished and we are in the middle of a sixth great extinction events.

…the sixth mass extinction is in progress, now, with animals going extinct 100 to 1,000 times (possibly even 1,000 to 10,000 times) faster than at the normal background extinction rate, which is about 10 to 25 species per year. Many researchers claim that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event faster than the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction which wiped out the dinosaurs.

Rather than a meteorite or large volcanic eruption, the alarming decline of biodiversity (diversity of species on earth) leading to the current mass extinction is the results of five major human activities:

  1. The continued rising temperature of the atmosphere due to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. While the claim is climate change is not real, we are already seeing the results of rising temperatures, increased storm activity, increase ferocity and more varied weather all indicate something is out of order.
  2. If we keep polluting the layer of air protecting the planet and responsible for all significant life to exist;
  3. If we keep polluting the vital natural resource of water, of which 99.99997% of it is inaccessible to us;
  4. Then we will eventually drive ourselves to extinction, anyway. Either we will alter the climate, increase deforestation, over-populate the planet, exhaust our food supplies, over-fish the oceans, create toxic levels of pollution or completely destroy the watersheds of the planet.
  5. We live precariously, at best, and unless we start thinking better, more holistically, with more vision, and concern for the future of humanity as a whole, rather than as nation-states, we are doomed. It’s only a matter of time. Innovation is only one of the things we need to do better.
Who is Elon Musk? — Click image for a basic understanding of a complex fellow

What does that have to do with Elon Musk? Nothing in particular, except he has the idea he can crowdsource his way to another planet. He believes he can innovate a way to Mars in such a fashion that all of the difficulties associated with leaving the Earth can be overcome — difficulties which to date have been considered significant, challenging and in most cases, insurmountable.

There is inherently nothing wrong with his desire to create a means to leave the Earth. In essence, if we are to make an opportunity for humanity to live on other planets, someone must do the work. Since no governments have stepped in due to nationalistic tendencies toward conquering Earth’s resources in a particular nations name, an independent whose vast wealth allows him to experiment with the idea in ways previously thought to be the province of governments.

Is he correct in thinking this? Perhaps. But it is a much greater endeavor both in terms of technology, in terms of physics, in terms of biology, in terms of ethics than any single mind can hope to comprehend of, let alone consider singularly. Don’t believe me? Consider these ideas, don’t worry, I am certain I won’t cover them all:

Leaving the Planet:

  • Earth’s gravity well is one of the first major hurdles we must overcome if we are to do anything significant off-planet. Since we have no offworld manufacturing facilities (say like we should have on the moon even before heading to Mars) everything has to escape Earth’s gravity well.
  • Currently even with SpaceX’s advances in space flight into low-Earth orbit, it still costs over a $1,000 a pound to move something into low-Earth orbit. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. A Human being, under ideal conditions, needs at least a half a gallon of water a day to survive. The most expensive water you would ever drink, I promise you. Using this number, you can determine just how much it will cost to get people, tools, equipment and other resources offworld.

Once in Space:

  • Radiation: Even when we can move something into space, at our fastest speeds it will require ships shielded enough to protect the crew and passengers from radiation and cosmic particles for many months at a time. At the fastest speeds and launching at closest points of approach it will take 150 to 300 days for anything launched from Earth to reach Mars. Adding insult to injury said materials capable of providing shield are very heavy. (See: Problem #1) Long-term exposure to radiation is one of the most dangerous and persistent hazards in space.
  • Micro-meteor strikes would be an unpleasant second. Traveling at many times the speed of sound, and added to the velocity of the ship in transit could mean impacts with incredible amounts of energy being delivered to the spacecraft in question. Multiple this by the volume of the ship in transit, the number of passengers and you see such a ship will require a significant amount of protection and or redundancies to keep it safe during transit.

When we get to Mars

  • When we get to Mars, the radiation problem hasn’t gone away because Mars does not have an appreciable magnetic field. Our planet’s magnetic field protects the Earth from solar radiation, solar wind and other exotic high energy particles inimical to human life. We know the magnetic field is there because of the display of the auroras over the poles of our planet. Without such protection, the surface of Mars will always be a hostile environment unless all dwellings are equipped with radiation-resistant habitation. In most cases, it would make more sense to build underground, which would require equipment capable of performing such earth-moving. (See: Problem #1)
  • Living on Mars will become another issue: It’s low gravity will reduce the capacity of anyone living there from eventually leaving the planet without dire consequences. Thus it is likely to be a one way trip, for the foreseeable future. What are the long-term ramifications for someone to live under the Martian gravity for the rest of their lives? Will their bodies function normally? Will they lose strength, physical vitality? Will their organs continue to function normally? None of this can be known before we go. It can only be theorized, at best, extrapolated perhaps from astronauts in orbit for prolonged periods.

Ethical Questions

  • A minor ethical question becomes the issue of terraforming. Should humanity be bringing our ecosystem to other worlds? In our current state of space travel it isn’t an issue since most worlds in our solar system are uninhabited or are barely habitable to life as we know it. But should we discover a means to move between the stars, should we consider the ramifications of moving our ecosystem to other worlds?
  • What about the potential threat of other ecosystems moving backward towards Earth? Should all space travel be one-way to prevent possible incursion from alien organisms taking hold on Earth, with no means of biological restraint in place? Granted the threat of this would be very small, but it is always a potential possibility. With humanity seeking worlds like Earth, the threat of xeno-contagion rises if a planet shares more characteristics with Earth.

I am not trying to get into every aspect of the problems with moving toward Mars, because every difficulty we have on Earth, we will have on Mars. We will need to feed, clothe, protect, and defend the people living on Mars, the same way we do on Earth, only better.

If indeed, humanity wants to move into the Solar System, inhabiting other planets and moons away from Earth, our ability to create resources, reuse resources, utilize effectively every atom of materials we bring with us or ship from Earth, for the foreseeable future implies not only do we have to become far more efficient than we have ever been in our management of said resources, but that we have to have a paradigm shift in our ability to relate to each other, to deal with the deprivations of the bounty of the Earth and to consider every movement into the Solar System as a means to protect the humanity which may come to live there, possibly for the rest of their lives.

A Final Word

Moving out into the solar system will require a viewpoint far removed from our current model of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” which has been our operating system as a species for as long as we can remember. Protecting the Earth is not part of a program instead of moving into space, it needs to become part of the program OF moving into space.

We will need to enhance our ability to support the Earth because as we move into space, the Earth will become the lifeline of humanity as it moves into the solar system. The places we will go will have the potential to improve our opportunities for survival, but none of them will offer us the surfeit of resources the Earth can provide, if we take care of it today. For exo-humanity to thrive, we must protect our home planet for as long as possible. Like it or not, we are likely to depend on Mother Earth for centuries to come.

Much of the research for this document came from this Quora question. While the premise may seem silly, the research is real and the science is interesting. Check it!

The Answer-Man’s Archives are a collection of my articles discussing superheroes and their powers. We deconstruct characters, memes, profiles and how superheroes relate to real science. Find us onthe Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange or at The World According to Superheroes.

Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.