There are two Mars related stories in the news these days: The quite exciting landing of Curiosity on Mars a few days ago, and Elon Musk’s plan to bring people to Mars within 10-15 years.
I have been interested in astronomy and space exploration since I was a little boy, and this interest was fueled even more when I saw Cosmos by Carl Sagan at age ten or eleven. It brought me directly into a profound sense of awe of the universe and life itself, of us all – quite literally – made of star dust, the product of 13.4 billions years of evolution, and that these eyes, these ears, these thoughts, these feelings are the eyes, ears, thoughts and feelings of the universe. In the words of Carl Sagan:
And we, we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we have begun at least to wonder about our origins — star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos.
In my teens, I became interested in systems views and the Gaia theory, and it was quite clear that the Earth as a whole can be seen as a seamless living organism, where we as humans have specific roles and functions, as any other species and ecosystem does. What is our role? We are, clearly, an awareness organ for the Earth and the universe. We are a way for the Earth and the universe to bring itself into awareness. We are a way for the Earth and the universe to experience itself. Through us, the Earth and the universe develops technologies which allows for it to explore itself even further, in even smaller details (microscopes), even further out in space (telescopes, space travel). Through us, Earth is able to see itself from the outside, as one seamless whole, and that feeds back into and even transforms our human society and culture.
Perhaps most importantly in the long run – we may be a way for the Earth to reproduce. The Earth has already taken the first steps in this direction, through our space travel and ideas of Mars colonization and terraforming. It’s an universal impulse for life to wish to (a) survive and (b) reproduce, so why wouldn’t this also be the case for Earth as a whole? There are several mechanisms which may make this happen. It’s a natural consequence of our combination of (a) curiosity and passion for exploration, and (b) our current and future levels of technology. It makes sense. Having two – or more – planets with human colonies and Earth life (plants, animals, ecosystems) makes humanity and Earth life far more resilient. A large space object may crash into the Earth, wiping out civilization and large portions of life, or we may do it ourselves. So if we have a “backup” civilization and Earth life somewhere else, life can continue there and perhaps even support or re-seed life on Earth. In a longer perspective, we know that the sun will eventually engulf the Earth.
If we take our first steps now in exploring the solar system (already happening), human interplanetary travel (close to happening), human colonies on other planets (planned), and eventually travel to other solar systems (so far just imagined), future generations may be very grateful. We are not only doing it for our own sake, because it’s exciting, gives us knowledge, and allows us to develop our science and technology. We are – in a very real way – doing it for future generations, even for Earth life as a whole.
Of course, there are some questions around this as well:
There are ethical questions in colonizing other planets, and especially terraforming them. Even if they are barren, is it in our right to colonize and terraform? We’ll probably do it anyway.
And, as many say, why not use our resources to help ourselves here and now? The short answer for me is, why not do both? And it’s an unfair and often uninformed comparison. The full NASA budget is for instance three times smaller than the amount of money people in the US spend on pet food each year. The amount spent on space exploration is minuscule compared to what’s spent on almost anything else, including entertainment and sports. And the results of space exploration is already very important in the short term, in terms of science and technology, and perhaps even more important in the long run.
I also notice I have some beliefs here, especially about people I know who otherwise are smart and kind, and in this area see money spent on space exploration as wasted:
They are uninformed. Small minded. Conventional. Unimaginative.
They are unfair. (Setting space exploration up against taking care of life here.)
They are cruel. (In the longer perspective, not giving humanity and Earth life a chance to survive outside of Earth.)
– earth as single organism
– impulse to reproduce, and may do so through humanity and terraforming (humanity taking the function of reproductive organs)
– the earth will die at some point, so if earth life is to survive, need to find other planets and solar systems
– good to start now, not be complacent + in our nature to explore, discover
– elon musk – humans to mars, one of the first steps
– (also some ethical questions in colonizations, terraforming)
– beliefs: they are small minded, heartless, uninformed,
Elon Musk from SpaceX may be the first to have concrete and doable plans for bringing humans to Mars, and the ability and interest in doing so. And it may happen sooner than most of us expected.