4 big questions about the race to Mars

Apr 12, 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 looked upward. Someday, the Red Planet might become a place to house Earth’s expanding population … it could be a lucrative place to mine natural resources … or it could be humanity’s last refuge.

Our current fascination to colonize Mars was kicked off by the Mars One project a couple of years ago; it got a boost of seriousness when Elon Musk decided 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 communicators — got together to call out four issues we should think about before we take our first small step onto the red surface of our neighbor planet. An edited 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 — eleven 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 national 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

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-funded HI-SEAS Mars mission simulation in Hawaii (TED Talk: How to go to space, 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 habitability of planets (TED Talk: Let’s not use Mars as a backup planet): I don’t think it’s a proper proposal. It’s a shorter timescale, [in order to seem] forward-thinking. If you wanted to do this on any kind of timescale, including 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 quasars 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 aligns with the idea of transporting many hundreds of people, especially at the beginning. We’ll likely still be in primary exploration phase, not permanent dwellings.

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 good plan of how to do that. I mean, where are the thousands of people living there?

AV: The realistic plan we have right now is a fly-by. It’s what we did first with the moon. And that’s already going to be a massive challenge: radiation, life support, the psychology of it all. Just flying around and then coming 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 when 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 experiences, 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 another. 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 made 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 solar 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 sailing.

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 landing, the InSight mission, for two years, pushing it until 2018.) Meanwhile, what 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 sorting that out; desertification is happening all over the world. And yet the plan is we’re going to put a fan or a shield in space and melt the polar ice caps?

DL: Is that the plan, that we put a big Jiffy-Pop over the ice caps at the pole?

LW: None of this is a plan!

AV: I think we all agree that the terraforming part is completely unscientific. But then there’s actually your question: is it possible to build biological life support on Mars for thousands of people? At this point it is not possible. At all.

DL: What?

AV: Of course not. We don’t have that. There’s one system that is quite functional here on earth, and that’s the MELiSSA regenerative ecosystem, of the European Space Agency. It’s probably the closest to a regenerative ecosystem 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 evolved enough as humans to be able to do it right? There’s no historical indication 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 together under stochastic, unpredictable conditions unrealistic. I have a more despotic vision of humanity under stressful, unpredictable conditions, with limited resources and the risk of things breaking and you just can’t replace 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 speaking, that could be an option, but I don’t think a short timeline is realistic at all.

Look at the first and longest Biosphere 2 experiment; the crew split up into two camps waging psychological war. An important point here is that the Biosphere 2 experts mostly selected themselves. For NASA’s HI-SEAS simulation, psychologically compatible people are selected to carry out the missions.

JI: When you travel to space with NASA, they do extensive psychological tests, but you’re not going to be able to do that for 10,000 people. There’s no analog on Earth for the experience of Mars, so culture and society must be 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 things 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: The most prominent early Mars-nauts are likely very wealthy people who pay to 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,” “interplanetary 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, where we’re not considering the implications of what we’re doing.

And we need to think about what kind of social disparity [this settlement will create], widening the gap between haves and have-nots on literally an interplanetary scale.

DL: It kind of smoothes over our own history as humans. The Christopher Columbus narrative [this effort is modeling itself on] erases some other important 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 dying. 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 historically 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 rendered invisible, I listen for what is not mentioned. And what is not mentioned in this plan are the people who are not CEOs, who aren’t the Elon Musks of the world. What of the vibrant and richly diverse people on this planet 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 implies that this will happen regardless of NASA, regardless of whether other people 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 capitalism 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 corporations can grow beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. Apple is the biggest company on earth, but that’s going to be peanuts in comparison with a company that successfully starts exploiting resources in outer space. The money 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 sociopolitical repercussions.

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 realistic order to when we do things. Maybe: “We’re going to send scientists. Let 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 exploiting a pristine environment for our economic gain is the exact wrong way to proceed.

RH: There is definitely a risk of [a commercial space program] backfiring and 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 that 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 really 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 as a lack of vision, pessimism. People love to say that we’re saying “you can’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 both respect and critique. To infinity and beyond.