If Not Progress, What? If Not Mars, Where?

Last month two events led me to do some thinking about manned exploration of Mars.

Billionaire investor Dennis Tito, under the Inspiration Mars Foundation umbrella, announced plans to launch a 1.4 year manned circumnavigation of Mars in 2018. I had the enviable assignment of writing our official position for The Mars Initiative, a fundraising organization I helped found in 2012. (If you marsglobe1x200haven’t had the chance yet, please review the rest of the website, as well as my post.)

The IMF announcement catalyzed some necessary discussions within TMI that will remain ongoing for several months. IMF’s agenda is ambitious, particularly the timeline and the margin for safety and testing. In the broader community most people are skeptical about whether the mission can be achieved, and a few are adamant that it cannot be achieved. I think it is achievable, and failure of one attempt will not prove this assertion false (n=1 is not a sufficient sample). This mission could not have been conceived two years ago because the necessary commercial developments had not yet occurred. The project operates under a tight schedule constraint, and execution risks abound.

In 2003 I was one of the original founding members of the Dallas Chapter of The Mars Society, which last year successfully hosted their national convention. I continue to host and update their website. Then and now, getting involved in Mars-related organizations seemed like something interesting to do that not many other people were doing. It wasn’t until I wrote the following words that the magnitude started to sink in:

IMF is inspiring multiple generations to prepare immediately for humanity’s genesis as a multi-planetary species.

I feel I have to put that into context.

  • 2 million years ago: The Homo genus first used stone tools.
  • 1.8 million years ago: Homo erectus first left Africa, probably used more complex tools and fire.
  • 75,000 to 125,000 years ago: Modern humans migrated once again from Africa and replaced the indigenous Homo populations. 1
  • 5,000 years ago: Humans first harvested energy for transportation–via the wind sail.
  • 200 years ago: Humans began systematically converting chemical energy into locomotion.
  • 1961: The first human left the atmosphere (and returned safely), using chemical energy.

In addition to energy, the organizational systems and technological environment (i.e. Kevin Kelly’s technium) enabled such accomplishments.

On a planet that is 4.5 billion years old in a galaxy that is 13 billion years old, the recent rapid pace of social and technological development is remarkable. There are 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy. We are rapidly discovering planets around many of them. In the end there may be at least as many planets in our galaxy, and tens or hundreds of millions that are approximately like Earth. I think it is safe to conclude that life exists all throughout our galaxy.

The existence of complex life like that found on Earth is more dubious. The existence of complex social and technological systems like that of modern homo sapiens is even more in doubt. Amid vast numbers, and vast timescales, the current progress of our species is truly remarkable.

In the first paragraph I mentioned there were two events. The second of was the opportunity to complete the reading of Robert Zubrin’s new mini-book, Mars Direct. Much like his earlier books, it outlined a plan to put humans on Mars in one decade. MarsDirectIn addition it echoed the criticisms made in his previous books of the the political and administrative dysfunctions that have stifled the plan over the last thirty years.

The next step for homo sapiens is to become a multi-planetary species. Indeed the entire progress of humanity almost seems to have led us to this goal, if such a thing would be possible accidentally. The necessary social and technological prerequisites have already been developed. The flame and passion for exploration thrives, as does our ability to engage in collective action for group benefit. For the last 5 decades, humanity has been one to two decades away from achieving its first steps towards that goal of putting its first representatives on another planet.

It is frustrating, therefore, to witness that ways and means that we have convinced ourselves that squandering progress was in our collective best interests.

There is nothing magical about Mars. It is simply a rocky body with 40% the mass of Earth and an atmosphere that provides some protection from and redistribution of solar radiation at the surface. Unlike the Moon, Mars contains the requisite atmosphere and resources to sustain an self-sufficient and permanent human civilization. The technologies will take longer than one to two decades, but their development will inevitably provide benefits back on Earth. It is important to note that humanity faces time pressures that are similar to those Inspiration Mars faces–expanded from years into decades or centuries. I won’t turn this into a tract on the dangers of nuclear weapons, global climate instability, or accidentally misplaced asteroids. These dangers are all real enough.

The remarkable achievements of humanity are a but the smallest spark, and they are not guaranteed to endure. Making sure they endure, and building on them is our responsibility.

1 DNA evidence now suggests some modern non-African humans in Europe and Asia contain DNA not found in our more immediate African progenitors, as a result of interbreeding with these earlier Homo populations.