Annexing Mars

Should We Move In?

Science fiction has speculated on terraforming Mars and the ramifications of doing so. Terraforming is the deliberate alteration of an environment or climate on a planetary scale. But is it even a possibility? Does Mars have the necessary ingredients to become habitable, and do we have the necessary knowledge? A group of science fiction writers, academic luminaries and NASA scientists will hold a lively debate about terraforming Mars at NASA Ames Research Center on March 30, 2004.

Science Fiction Meets Science Fact. ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ Terraform debaters left to right, McKay, Pratt, Rummel, Shirley, Clarke, Robinson, Bear, Kastings
Credit: NASA

The debate is the first in a new series of discussions entitled "Science Fiction Meets Science Fact." This series is the result of a shared vision between NASA, Breakpoint Media and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, scheduled to open in summer 2004. The free, open-to-the-public debate will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. PST in the main tent on the Moffett Field parade grounds at NASA Ames.

"The series is an exciting collaboration between NASA’s online Astrobiology magazine and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame," said Dr. Michael Meyer, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology. "Terraforming has long been a fictional topic, and now, with real scientists exploring the reality, we can ask, ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ "

The first debate, "Transforming Mars" will feature:

* Sir Arthur C. Clarke – Award-winning author of "2001, A Space Odyssey"
* Kim Stanley Robinson – Hugo & Nebula award-winning author of the "Mars Trilogy"
* Greg Bear – Hugo & Nebula award-winning author of "Moving Mars"
* Dr. James Kasting – Professor of Geoscience at Pennsylvania State University
* Dr. Christopher McKay – Planetary Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center
* Dr. John Rummel – Planetary Protection Officer, NASA
* Dr. Lisa Pratt – NASA Astrobiology Institute subsurface group, Indiana University

The debate moderator will be Dr. Donna Shirley, director of the new Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Shirley is the former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and the original leader of the team that built the highly acclaimed Mars Pathfinder rover.

Martian terrain
Layered martian terrain in painting by Bill Hartmann (left), orbital image from Mars Orbital Camera (right).
Copyright William K. Hartmann

Terraforming was once solely the province of science fiction. In the 1930’s, Olaf Stapledon wrote of the use of electrolyzing a global sea on Venus in order to prepare it for human habitation in Last and First Men. Jack Williamson coined the term "terraforming" in the 1940s in a series of short stories. And in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke, who is one of the debate panelists, gave the concept wide exposure with his novel, The Sands of Mars. Another panelist, Stan Robinson, picked up the terraforming torch in the 1990s with his epic trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars.

Scientists began taking terraforming into the realm of fact in the 1960s, when Carl Sagan published several articles dealing with the possibility of terraforming Venus. Terraforming Mars has been the subject of research of one of the panelists, Dr. Chris McKay, since the 1970s.

Mars is the planet most similar to Earth, and therefore it should be the easiest planet to terraform with current technology. Three proposals for terraforming are : 1) heating up frozen carbon dioxide with polar mirrors; 2) importing comets and asteroids rich in trapped greenhouse gases like ammonia or methane in orchestrated collisions; 3) perfluorocarbon factories to release perhaps the most powerful greenhouse gas, CFCs.

Debate on Terraforming, click for larger view.
Credit: NASA ARC

In order to terraform a planet, the science must move from initial exploration to base building and human settlement.

  • See terraforming gallery and slideshow
  • Humans sent to live on Mars will bring with them ideas on how to govern themselves, rules of conduct for living in society, economic motivations, and personality conflicts. Once bases are established, the next step would be to transform the planet’s environment to make it habitable for life. The debaters will address the potential challenges, pitfalls and ramifications of creating habitable worlds. Making a planet habitable, of course, means eventually introducing life. But what if Mars already is "habitable?" What if we discover life on Mars? Would it be ethical for us to alter the environment of the planet, at the risk of destroying that life? Do Martians have the same rights to life as Earthlings, even if that life is only microbial?

    Taking a leap into the future, if one assumes the technology, biology, sociology, and politics have all combined to create a unique sub-race of humanity on Mars, then generations of human beings would have been born, grown, bred and died on Mars. Who are these Martians?


    The debate is part of the Astrobiology Science Conference, which will be held at NASA Ames from March 28 through April 1.

    Related Web Pages

    Astrobiology Conference
    Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
    Breakpoint Media: For All Mankind
    Conference Talks and Agenda
    Genesis Project
    Mars: Goldilocks’ Oasis?
    Biosphere Under the Glass
    Greening the Red Planet
    Interplanetary Internet
    Build Your Own Planet
    Growing Glowing Martian Mustard
    Thawing Mars