Populate the planets? Really?
On moving large swaths of humans off the surface of Earth
I spent June 23rd 2012 in Bletchley Park, on my way from London to Manchester, where I had been invited to attend the Alan Turing Centenary Conference. It was incredibly auspicious: the great mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code and contributed decisively to the outcome of the Second World War, was born on June 23 1912 — so I was in Bletchley on Turing’s 100th birthday. More about this inspiring visit in a later article.
Today’s subject is a discussion I had at the gala conference dinner in Manchester. As chance would have it I was seated next to a NASA scientist and engineer named Chuck (what else?) who started discussing their Mars program. He explained in detail how NASA intends to proceed with the endeavour, and the guests at the table were quite enthralled.
I couldn’t resist: at some stage I said “In my opinion the Mars Human Mission program should be scrapped immediately. It is the biggest waste in space exploration we can imagine.” Of course I got boos from the guests at the table, and the startled Chuck started debating the subject with me. Was I coming from a sociological corner that wanted the funds to be used to alleviate suffering and poverty on earth? No, that was not my reason. The Mars mission would cost less than US women spend on hair dressing. Insurmountable technological problems? No, solving these is what NASA does extremely well.
The point I was making is that the explicit long-term goal of the Human Mission plan is to colonize the neighbouring planet, and that is simply not going to happen. Human beings are not going to live in the thousands or millions on Mars, or the moon, or one of Jupiter’s moons — ever. Planning and preparing for the colonization of Mars is a colossal waste of funds and would block meaningful space exploration in other much more important areas.
Getting humans to Mars is awesomely difficult (and expensive): you have to put them on the shortest possible route, to minimize their exposure to radiation outbursts from the sun; you have to use heavy shielding to protect them from normal radiation; you have to pack air, water and food in copious amounts; you have to ensure that they can return to the earth when the mission is over, doubling, at least, the cost of the trip. And the net result: humans in bulky space suits — remember, Mars is bitter cold and has practically no air — trudging laboriously around a desert landscape for a few months, chipping rocks.
My solution: send robots. It is a hundred times less expensive, and a hundred times more efficient. Machines can take a long, fuel-efficient trip; they need not be shielded from the sun’s radiation — they could in fact be placed on the outside of the space ship with their solar collectors unfolded; they need no air, water or food; they will move around Mars without space suits, at great speed, with the ability to jump and even fly around, if that is required; they have high-definition cameras for eyes, and everything they see will be recorded and broadcast back to earth in vivid 3D, for millions to watch; they can have chemical and geological sensors on the tips of their fingers; and so many other things that we cannot build into the human flesh we want to transport to this hostile world. And robots don’t want to return! You simply leave them there until their operation time runs out.
We can put robots on Mars, Io, Europa, Titan, asteroids, comets, in dozens of places, for the cost of a single human Mars mission. And if you are concerned about the quality and abilities of the current generation of space exploration vehicles you need to remember that the human mission will take well over a decade (and cost hundreds of billions). By the time it is under way we will have seen incredible progress in robotics — that I can guarantee. Take a look at what Boston Dynamics is currently doing, before a hundred billion has been invested into the effort:
If you are reading this a year from now (December 2016), or two, or more years, you should search for new videos on the Boston Dynamics YouTube channel (and elsewhere). Progress is being made on an almost monthly basis. Take a look at BD’s Handle Robot 2017, which moves around, impossibly, on two wheels; or the NextGen Atlas; the SpotMini, the Sand Flea Jumping Robot and many others. Please note that I have touched on the subject of using robots in hostile environments in my article on undersea exploration.
Ahh, but that is a short-term view, Chuck said. What about the more distant future, when we will need to migrate to other planets, if nothing else to ensure the survival of our species. Humans will need to adapt to the requirements of different environments.
Really? Homo sapiens has evolved to live comfortably on just ten percent of the surface of this planet, Earth. Seventy percent of it is ocean, which we cannot breathe or drink, in which we have trouble staying afloat or walking on its floor. Ten percent of the earth is too hot, and ten percent too cold. Occupying those ninety percent is too difficult — we prefer to cram ourselves into the tiny easily habitable bits. Now remember: even the most hostile places on our planet are balmy paradise compared to what space, what our solar system has to offer.
Unfortunately XKCD’s Randall Munroe was not in Manchester to help me in my argument with Chuck and the others, but recently he has, in his inimitable style, published a panel that illustrates what I was trying to say:
Yes, that’s the situation: as long as we are constrained by our biological evolution we will not be colonizing other planetary systems. A few of us may explore them personally, if we are feeling really adventurous, and have a lot of cash to spend. A thousand people have volunteered for a trip to Mars in 2025, among them Robert Schwarz, a personal friend. Robert is an astrophysicist and manages the Keck Array, a collection of five telescopes at the South Pole that is peering back at the early universe. He has spent eleven winters, nine-and-a-half months each, at the South Pole, and told me that he was doing this to prepare for Mars One, a project aiming to colonize the Red Planet by 2025. Robert is one of the applicants for a place on what would be a one-way trip.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System, an ambitious project to design and build human settlements on Mars, within the next 50 to 100 years, is aiming for a permanent, self-sustaining colony of one million people. According to Musk the ITS technology will eventually support exploration missions to other locations in the Solar System including the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Building cities on other planets for millions of inhabitants? It’s not going to happen — at least not until we have eliminated the need to house our consciousness and personalities in the flesh-and-blood bodies that evolution optimized for a tiny sliver of this planet. And long before we can start planning to undertake interstellar journeys we will have migrated into artificial systems that can cross the immense distances and survive in the exotic environments we will encounter.
Coming soon: my take on the Fermi Paradox, an explanation of why our planet is not teeming with visitors from other star systems that went through the optimistic Elon Musk phase a billion years ago.
Addendum: A few months after I had published this article — no, no, I’m not suggesting anything — Bill Maher chimed in, calling on his fellow humans to save this planet instead of trying to colonize Mars. Here’s his opinion on the subject, as usual very entertaining and extremely provocative. And here is what Niel deGrasse Tyson thinks about interplanetary colonisation.