Mars

On October 12 of 2016 U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to help send people to Mars within the next 15 years, pledging to work with private companies “to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.”

Earlier this year,  SpaceX founder and all-around wunderkind Elon Musk of Tesla fame outlined his highly ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022 – three years sooner than his previous estimates. And, never short on vision, he envisages 1 million people living there by 2060 (presumably all going to the local shopping malls in electric vehicles)

And back in March of 2012, Dutchman Bas Lansdorp announced The Mars One project to establish a human settlement on Mars in 2023, and as such the effort is portrayed as “the next giant leap for humankind”. Other than that, the one catch is that this project does currently not include a way to leap back to earth from there …

The most amazing thing of the Mars One project is that – when the word went out that they were looking for volunteers for a one way trip to Mars – people have been lining up to be part of this mission.  “The trip of a lifetime” said one volunteer that made the shortlist. Well, yes, and “likely the very last trip of a lifetime” might also be an accurate description of it.

To be sure, Mr. Lansdorp does not plan to make the trip himself. He will be occupied by the production of a reality TV show that is meant to finance the project as it will feature his Mars-bound flock as they get on with the business of colonizing the dusty red planet.

martian sunset
The Sun sets on Mars (NASA)

Now, why in the world would anyone want to go to a place like Mars – also known as a dead planet? It was author and visionary Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who – in The Martian Chronicles – made the colonization of Mars becomes a necessity for human survival – with humans fleeing a troubled, broken and atomically devastated home planet Earth.  But unless someone knows something that I don’t know, the last time I looked, this incredibly beautiful planet of our is still very much alive,  and most of it very habitable, and although there are many among us who are doing their best to put a stop to that, with a little bit of foresight and determination we will be able to put a stop to them sooner rather than later to ensure it remains habitable for the foreseeable future.

It is said that exploring the solar system as a united humanity will bring us all closer together. Mars is the stepping stone of the human race on its voyage into the universe. Human settlement on Mars will aid our understanding of the origins of the solar system, the origins of life and “our place in the universe”.

Now I would not want to make light of any of these lofty objectives, but there is a kind of charming naivety about these projects that makes me question the depth of the brain trust behind them. While “Getting there is half the fun!” or so it is said, there are some significant issues to be concerned about before strapping yourself into a tin can for a lengthy journey into the unknown, and this regardless of the fact that – as in the Mars One project – you will only have a one-way ticket for this trip (!)

Recent research into the effects of long-term space-travel suggests that cosmic radiation from the remnants of supernovae could pose cognitive risks for astronauts on long journeys. Researchers from Arizona State University exposed rodents to space-like levels of radiation for six weeks and observed significant cognitive damage. The rodents performed badly on memory and learning tests, and showed elevated levels of anxiety. Six months later, the rodents were still suffering from neural damage. The conclusion is that cosmic radiation breaks down the structural complexity of neurons in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is associated complex cognitive behaviour like decision making. Researcher Dr. Charles Limoli, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of California Irvine’s School of Medicine compared it to stripping the branches off a tree.

“It may impact the ability of astronauts to undertake multitasking, executive function, decision-making, or respond to unanticipated events,” he said.

And  while one is cocooned in a space capsule for a seven month trip through a vacuum,  as well as having one’s brain vacuumed out by cosmic radiation, I wonder about the intrepid Mars-bound traveler ability to realize that that our place in the universe is the very planet they just left, the one that that spawned us, nurtured and continues to sustain us provided we continue to care for it.

The fact is that, today, it has become possible to reach out and touch the stars remotely with the help of some very clever technology, and allowing us to do so from within the comfort and safety of our own planet’s environment. There is no aspect of Mars – or the universe at large, for that matter – that, in principle, cannot be discovered or examined remotely and without having to go there physically. This as opposed to having to drag our critical life-sustaining environment along with us when we do this  in person.  Now why do I suddenly have this image of a goldfish in a zip-lock bag filled with water …

It seems to me that putting all our resources towards the advancement of remote technologies for space-exploration will be a significant less costly way to realize our goals for spacial exploration, let alone not having to put people’s lives in jeopardy, which should be the very first consideration for not wanting to fire folks into in infinite vacuum on the head of a rocket.  Really, how desperate can you get?

Alright, so where is my sense of adventure – and don’t I have any imagination at all? From my very early days as a teenager I have been collecting science fiction literature by just about any who could inspire me on that matter, and that includes Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and even cranky Vonnegut – and many, many others – and not forgetting Jules Verne, who’s writings introduced me to the genre a long time ago.

As well, you name the science fiction movie or TV production made recently or in the past, and I will likely have seen it, including Le Voyage dans la Lune from 1902. And yes, of course the Matt Damon movie “The Martian”.  Add to that all the TV series such as Star Trek, Space:1999, FarScape, Firefly, etc, and without question most of it very entertaining, if not always very believable!

So what does this have to do with  the utility of manned space exploration?  What I  have picked up from this is that the tales of science fiction are metaphors for exploring the human mind, in terms of considering alternate realities within the limits of our understanding of what we are and what we are all about.  Such considerations also project our existing technologies into the future to get a glimpse of what they ultimately might lead to. And what better way to put them into the hands of some aliens, who, as different they may be from an appearance point of view, are often decidedly more human than most in emphasizing certain human character traits  – in particular in the department of predation, conquest, domination, violence and destruction.

On that subject, I have always wondered why is it that aliens are typically out to destroy us or take our planet. I think this is because we have a deep-seated fear that we might in fact loose the earth to some evil alternate version of ourselves – now or in the future.  By invoking the latter as aliens we can fight and kill them in a virtual reality game without feeling guilty about ourselves, having essentially disowned such threats through a process of self-denial, i.e., no human being could ever be that self-destructive.

None of this will have anything to do with setting up human colonies on lifeless planets such as Mars or other dead rocks such as the Moon. There, I only smell money, the usual target of predatory capitalism, ready to ransack another heavenly body,  and as far removed from the romantic notion of “exploring the solar system” as you can get.

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles,
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows
Ground control to major Tom, your circuits dead,
There’s something wrong
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Can you…
Here am I floatin’ ’round my tin can far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.
(from “Space Oddity”, on the 1969 David Bowie album)