Living on Mars

Questions: Living on Mars

Great Terraforming Debate: Part VI

John Rummel points out that 3 billion years ago, microbes ruled the Earth.
Image Credit: The Blue Holes Foundation, 2001

Q: In the broad sense of life, it doesn’t matter what we do with Earth. What we have to think about is what we need to do if we want to preserve human life – not life itself, because life is going to be here until the sun dies. The U.S.A. uses most of the energy of the Earth. How much energy do we need to save in order to go to Mars and terraform Mars? And are we going to have enough energy in order to stay here on Earth?

Donna Shirley: So is your question, "Are we going to run out of energy?"

Greg Bear: It’s a matter of focus, isn’t it? We have to have discipline to do big things, and we seem terribly undisciplined at times. I hope that’s what you were getting at there. And also as a culture, the United States is fairly dominant in the consumption of raw materials in the world today. And you know that there are some of us who think that that’s a necessary thing and others who object to it. There’s really no answer to this question.

It’s a big question, because as I’m watching you ask your question, I’m seeing this entire planet learning to take baby steps. When you talk about things like, "Will we survive beyond the death of the sun?" you’re talking about the very earliest thought processes of an organism that’s going to be much larger than our solar system eventually. And that really is like watching a baby being born. So I hope that’s not too abstruse, but, yeah, you ask huge questions there.

Science Fiction Meets Science Fact. ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ Terraform debaters left to right, Greg Bear , author of such books as "Moving Mars" and "Darwin’s Radio."; David Grinspoon , planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute; James Kasting , geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University; Christopher McKay , planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.; Lisa Pratt , biogeochemist at Indiana University; Kim Stanley Robinson , author of the "Mars Trilogy" ("Red Mars," "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars"); John Rummel , planetary protection officer for NASA; moderator Donna Shirley , former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

James Kasting: I thought what she was asking was, "Is it really worth spending the huge amount of money that it would take to terraform Mars, when we have so many pressing problems on the Earth?" And I would say no. I’m a pessimist about that. I think it would be too expensive and not a good economic enterprise.

Q: I understand from reading that between 50 and 70 percent of the mass of life on Earth is under the ocean floor. Is that valid or not?

Lisa Pratt: There are so many estimates out there now about biomass and the answer is: We really don’t know, because we don’t have an adequate inventory right now for the sub-sea biomass or for the deep-Earth biomass. We just don’t know.

John Rummel: I would point out that 3 billion years ago, when life was abundant on this planet finally, that the Earth was a planet of microbes. Microbes ruled the Earth. That hasn’t changed at all. We are still a microbial environment. We have a really nice skin coat of people and critters and plants. But effectively, the biomass is probably at least 50 percent microbes and if you count the ones we carry with us, maybe even more.

Q: You were talking about the potential that any current surviving native martian life might exist as far down as a couple of clicks below the surface. If it required us to drill to a great depth in order to encounter the native life there, if it exists, then would that leave us free to do what we pleased with the uncolonized surface, while leaving the martian ecosystem undisturbed?

David Grinspoon: I think it’s a question of whether we’re smart enough to know if we can have extensive industrial activities, or whatever kind of activities we’re going to have on the surface, and not affect the subsurface. I don’t know if we’re smart enough yet to make that decision, but theoretically I would say that, yes, if we knew that we weren’t affecting that subsurface life, then perhaps there isn’t that much difference ethically between acting on the surface of a dead Mars and a Mars with life that’s completely unaffected by our actions. Unless, I suppose, we think that subsurface life has some long-term potential to become surface life. But the way Mars is going now, and the way Mars’s future looks, I would say that’s not particularly likely.

"The minute we talk about doing anything with the surface, we’re going to lift the lid of the permafrost to get the liquid water." -Lisa Pratt
Image Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, NASA

Greg Bear: Yeah, we don’t know about Mars, but I can tell you that on Earth there is a constant churning between the deep Earth bacteria and archaea and the upper surface. It’s constant, but it’s very slow. It’s probably on the order of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years for a complete turnaround, but it still exists. I don’t know if that same turnaround would be on Mars.

Lisa Pratt: I think, in addition, the minute we talk about doing anything with the surface, we’re going to lift the lid of the permafrost to get the liquid water. At that point we’ve probably opened holes and cracks into the subsurface world, so I think it’s very hard to imagine that you could really have a barrier between those two worlds that would be effective.

John Rummel: I’m absolutely certain we don’t know enough about Mars to know an answer to that question.

Q: You spoke earlier about three different aspects for looking at martian life: exploration, exploitation and, I believe, ecosynthesis was the term. The first two are certainly focused within the lifespan of an individual or even an individual society – How can I learn something? How can I use something? – where the final one, ecosynthesis, given the time frame of forty thousand years at the minimum, presents a challenge of changing human perspective into encompassing a task that not only goes beyond the lifetime of a person or a society, but well beyond the lifetime of human civilization. For Greg and for Stan, how do you see people learning to embrace that sort of change in perspective?

California poet Gary Snyder.
Image Credit:

Kim Stanley Robinson: My teacher, Gary Snyder, the California poet, always dates his letters, I guess right now it’d be 41004. So he’s saying that from about the time forty thousand years ago, humanity has been itself, dating it from the start of art, I believe.

I think taking the long view is a good thing. The idea that it’s a hundred thousand-year project, of course, puts it on a different scale than anything else that we do and takes out the normal use values that we bring to bear. And yet, humanity was around forty thousand years ago, and it really ought to be forty thousand years in the future.

So it’s good to think about these long-term projects just for the way it increases our sense of ourselves as a species, and also for planetary consciousness. It’s not just our species, we are interpenetrated with all things, including the bacteria, on the planet. So it is a healthy thing to think about. It is not escapist. It’s an interesting new lens to look at our current situation.

Greg Bear: Exactly. The existence of science fiction and of the Science Fiction Museum is a sign of evolutionary advancement on a huge scale.

Q: A couple of years ago, I was riding on BART through Oakland, and I ran into a gentleman who had a very different perspective. I don’t know how we got from the subject of his love life, which is what he started with, to human exploration of space, but when I mentioned that I did, in fact, favor manned expeditions to Mars, he got very angry. In his worldview, this made him assume that I favored abandoning the Earth to pollution and ruin and going off with a technocratic elite and leaving everyone else behind. So my question is kind of two-fold: Who decides, when we talk about one country versus another country deciding these policies, we’re a democratic country, at least in theory. I’d like to know how you get people involved in the decision-making? And second of all, how do you get them educated enough to know what the decision is?

"We want to use science fiction to suck people in …to at least appreciate science and engineering." -Donna Shirley
Image Credit: Warner Brothers (Matrix DVD cover)

Donna Shirley: I’d like to say something about that. That’s what the Science Fiction Museum is designed to do, hopefully. It’s the function of all museums to preserve knowledge. But it’s the function of the Science Fiction Museum to speculate from that knowledge, to go forward from it, and to ask the questions about what might happen.

Thinking about the future is going to help you make those sorts of decisions. People do need to be informed, and one of the things we’re trying to do is to get people interested in science. We want to use science fiction, frankly, to suck people in the way that some of us were sucked in when we were kids, into going into science and engineering, or at least appreciating science and engineering. We’re also interested in promoting literacy, because if people can’t read, they can’t really understand things. They’re not going to get everything they know from television. So we have an evil purpose. Our plan is to subvert children – heh, heh, heh. "Did you watch `The Matrix?’" "Yes." "Did you like it?" "Yes." "Do you know that’s science fiction?" "No, I didn’t know that. What would be the science behind making that happen?" So we do have this evil purpose and I think that’s at least one way that we’re going to do these things.

Greg Bear: Yeah, this technocratic thing. I think science fiction has really come of age, because now we’re starting to upset the Greens. And this is a good sign. The dialog is about to get really serious, because we’ve convinced enough people that this stuff is doable. Going into space is doable, building micro-machines is doable, taking over the genome is doable. Now they have to think in what used to be called science-fictional terms just to deal with current politics. And our present president has a very hard time thinking in science-fictional terms, despite giving an interesting pronouncement on the space program. His biological program is nothing. So we’ve got to deal with these issues on a larger scale. It’s a little too late for people who are becoming president now. We’ve got to perhaps vote for them on the basis of whether or not they read science fiction when they were kids.

Related Web Pages

Great Terraforming Debate: Part I
Great Terraforming Debate: Part II
Great Terraforming Debate: Part III
Great Terraforming Debate: Part IV
Great Terraforming Debate: Part V
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VI
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VII
Mars Exploration Rover Mission: Home
NASA Mars Exploration Program
The Great Debate Series

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