By Enrique Lescure
I’ll admit it. I love space.
Partially, I guess my mother is to blame. When I was a child, she used to tell me Star Wars, Terminator, A Space Odyssey and Alien as stories. Soon, I had been hooked on Star Wars (though my greatest love before age nine was dinosaurs). I still do love space, and as soon as there is a live sending of the landing on a planetary body or any other celestial object, I must see the press conference, and will follow the research data as it pops in.
When I need to relax, I use to put on ambient music and explore a brilliant programme called Space Engine. I love to slowly traverse the stars, watching how they swirl around majestically like magic snowflakes in romantic renderings of blizzards.
The thought of all the billions of worlds out there, worlds with awe-inspiring landscapes, exotic environments, life and creatures that exist, breathe, see and sense their world. Civilizations beyond the stars, gazing up to their skies and wondering from where they came… it’s a thought that is deeply humbling.
Yet, I would use this post here to criticise the notion that the immediate short-term solution to our problems on Earth is to be found out there.
It is not.
The allure of Mars
“Fuck Earth” ~ Elon Musk.
At the dawn of the 21st century, actors in both the west and the east take a great interest in the Red Planet, which for a long time has pre-occupied the minds of astronomers, xeno-biologists, sci-fi authors and conspiracy theorists alike. Mars One sought to establish a human colony on Mars by the 2020’s, but the project has all but fallen apart. Despite this, interest remains very high, and Elon Musk has built his goals around helping to establish a Mars colony.
According to Musk, we need to spread humanity through the solar system and the Milky Way, to guarantee our long-term survival. According to him, our top priority should be to place one million humans on Mars.
I am in agreement with Musk. In order to optimize our future survival as a species, we need to spread to other bodies in the solar system, and perhaps also build new space habitats in orbit around the sun, especially as the human population will continue to increase in numbers (albeit at a slower rate).
But I am also in disagreement with Musk. I do not consider it our top priority right now.
Mars terraformation is alluring as a prospect, but the fact is that we (as a species) currently unintentionally are leading a venusformation of Earth, by upsetting the planet’s climate, and a marsformation by creating artificial linearly arranged environments – environments which on their own cannot support life.
This goes not only for Musk, but for large parts of the space industry. I do not believe that the motivation in this case is primarily greed or power, but rather imagination and curiousity – and tragically passion. The very same passion for “the final frontier” that I myself holds dear.
This passion can under the wrong circumstances contribute to the destruction of the Biosphere of the planet. But I move ahead of myself.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mars.
A frozen radioactive wasteland with extreme temperature variations, a very irregular orbit around the sun, a weak atmosphere with little protection from dangerous UV rays, the north being a plain with raging dust storms (and radioactive dust at that), and the south a barren rocky landscape.
The only place vaguely reminiscent of this on Earth is located in the far south…
Humans have part-settled Antarctica since the late 19th century (whaling stations) and today mostly have presence through research stations. These stations are dependent on supplies by shipments from the US, Brazil, Russia and other countries that have bases on Antarctica. Of course, people are growing food there as well, in expensive greenhouse stations, and to some extent are producing their own supplies.
Elon Musk hopes to replicate this on Mars, but with far more people and in a far more hostile environment. Leading such a project would cost billions, to not speak of the terraformation of Mars which would be necessary to create a long-term flourishing colony.
The colony would be dependent on supplies shipments from Earth, on fuels for transporting colonists, and would mean that thousands of scientists would commit themselves to this project, while the Earth is burning.
The first priority
Elon Musk and other visionaries are the kind of people that our planet is needing at this moment. And with “this planet”, I’m not referring to the Red Planet, with its many alluring mysteries. Rather, I am referring to Earth, our cradle and cosmic ship, with which we are undertaking a journey throughout the galaxy, dancing with the stars.
How can you think of saying “fuck Earth“, mr Musk? This world has brought to you your life. The complex biosphere in which you have been born and raised, have given humanity the opportunity to rise to gaze at the stars. No matter how fascinating Mars is, it is essentially a dead world – a radioactive desert on which you hope to plant the seeds of human civilization.
At this very moment, in basements and laboratories throughout the world, geeks are dreaming of terraforming Mars – while Earth burns in pain.
If we have the power to terraform Mars, how come we cannot save Earth?
On Earth and on life
What kind of values would you like us to spread throughout the stars? Should we spread the values of McDonalds? Of acquisition? Of real estate? Or should we try to aspire to greater things as a civilization?
I would argue, that the greatest thing there is in the Universe, is Life.
Intelligent civilizations, wherever they are located, should all be humbled by the fact that they arose from the humble origin of primitive organisms on their home planets, and that they have been nurtured by the biospheres of their home planets. Life creates diversity, opportunities, experience, and from what I can observe, all living things want to live.
It makes no sense for a species that can create culture, arts and music, to devastate and murder their own planet for nothing else than to maximise the outcome on a curve for the fastest possible rate. I would argue that humanity as a whole owes a thing to itself, namely to prove itself worthy by turning our way around and saving this “fucking” Earth (as Musk would say).
The kind of habitats we imagine on other worlds, with biodomes, green energy and recycling/upcycling/downcycling facilities, must be realised on Earth on a massive scale tomorrow. We can build self-sufficient arcologies, housing thousands of people, in habitats spread out over artificial islands in the Pacific. We can create irrigated sustainable cities in the Saharan Desert and on the Arab Peninsula. We can satisfy the world’s energy needs by solar alone.
With the resources and creativity of humanity, we can achieve wonders, but we need to focus.
Like Elon Musk, I dream of humanity crossing the Great Void of Ginnungagap, to journey beyond this Middle Earth, towards Vega and Alpha Centauri, towards Tau Ceti and the Pleyades.
But first, we have to sort out the mess we have created on Earth. If we retreat from that responsibility, we would have lost an opportunity to show ourselves from our best side.