The Martian Future

Questions: The Martian Future

Great Terraforming Debate: Part VII

According to Greg Bear, Isaac Asimov calculated that it would take us 100,000 years to turn every single atom in the galaxy into human flesh.

Q: One of the main criticisms of astrobiology as a science is that our sample size is one – life on Earth. So, I’ve been hearing you guys talk about the merits of Mars, if it has life, and well if it doesn’t we might as well bulldoze the thing. But Mars is our only negative control, so maybe there’s some merit in a lifeless Mars. I’m wondering what you guys think about that.

Greg Bear: Stan was talking about that. That’s an extreme and interesting position.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, the Red position: Leave it lifeless. It’s an awfully big and beautiful, sublime landscape. I’m just thinking that there are 10 planets in our solar system and a whole bunch of asteroids. And maybe we could let those be the controls and leave them alone.

Over the years of working out the Mars trilogy and looking at those satellite photos – and it’s amazing how much clearer the current generation of photos are; it’s quite beautiful – it struck me that it would be a good place for the human mind to be. It would be good for the story of history. So, I have my fingers crossed that the planet’s dead. And it’s not just so that my novel remains science fiction, as opposed to fantasy – it would be an aesthetic disaster of the first order to have that happen – but, more importantly, if we could inhabit Mars, it would be good for history.

David Grinspoon: It’s also possible that Venus is dead. We don’t know that. But it’s possible. And if that were the case, that’s a closer control to the terrestrial life experiment than Mars, for many reasons: It’s Earth-sized, it’s currently geologically active, etc. So Venus maybe could be the control.

"In wilderness is the preservation of the world." -Henry David Thoreau
Image Credit:

Greg Bear: So who was it who said, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world?" John Muir? That’s the Sierra Club slogan.

Donna Shirley: Thoreau.

Greg Bear: Okay. I think that’s a pretty profound philosophy in a lot of ways. You need empty spaces so you can reappraise yourself. You need places where you can go to be away from others so you can find out who you are or have become. And if Mars is that place, that means we’ll have completely locked up all the isolated places on Earth and filled them full of condominiums.

You know, I think maybe Stan is right. Maybe there are certainly places on Mars that we aren’t going to get to for a very long time, but ten thousand years down the road, what is the solar system going to look like? Isaac Asimov calculated that it would take us a hundred thousand years to turn every single atom in the galaxy into human flesh, if we went geometrically. That’s an ugly idea. Considering that there’ll be McDonald’s along the way to increase that mass.

So I think as I get older I begin to realize that isolation is a good thing occasionally. And I certainly don’t want to live on the people track for the rest of my life.

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.

Q: Some devil’s advocate questions crossed my mind, since usually there’s someone further on the, "Let’s go; let’s go; let’s make it a garden" side of things. There does seem to be that viewpoint that if Mars is a second genesis, then completely hands-off is the best way to go. Isn’t there a counter-argument that, if Mars is a second genesis, we’re two for two; the genesis of life is probably a common enough thing that perhaps it does not merit that kind of treatment, particularly if that kind of extreme hands-off prevents us from going and finding even more samples and having long-term exploration. If we’re hands-off on Mars, then any interesting spectra we see orbiting around stars in the coming decades is one of those hands-off places, too. Do you think that’s too much of a barrier? Perhaps that could be a strong argument against the extreme hands-off?

John Rummel: I don’t think we know the first thing about looking for extraterrestrial life. The bottom line is that we’re like the drunk looking for his keys underneath the light because that’s where he can look. And if we don’t actually look, we’ll never have the ability to answer your question.

Without looking at all, we have no idea whether there’s a second genesis, a first genesis kind of spread out a little bit, or whether or not it is, in fact, an empty world. And so we have to accomplish this biological Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. We have to actually go and make the measurements. We have to look for the potential for life. And to that we have to take at least the representatives of living organisms into that environment.

What planetary protection does is try to limit the damage that we can avoid making in any kind of inroad into that environment, so we actually have the data back before we find out that we’ve already screwed it up. We’re really appallingly ignorant about the rest of the solar system, and I think that as Lisa’s work, and the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents seven months after Viking first landed on Mars, will show us, we’re appallingly ignorant about this planet. So I think we have to make an effort to learn about life on Mars, and I think we have to be aware of what we don’t know here.

Q: Earlier it was touched upon that humans might be genetically altered to be better suited for Mars. I was wondering, however, if humans are born and raised on Mars, would they maybe be changed in some way to better suit the environment, or since they’re raised in a human environment, such as a base or a structure of some kind, they might not change at all. What do you think about this?

Donna Shirley: Stan addressed that, with his tall Martians.

Black smoker hydrothermal vent.
Image Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)

Kim Stanley Robinson: One can think about areoforming of humanity. And here’s another place where we’re so ignorant: living in 38 percent gravity – is it possible at all? Will it wreck our health and really be something that is a stopper to the whole notion of inhabiting Mars? Or will we adjust? And what will those adjustments consist of? Would they end up really tall?

They might grow up, martian natives, the kids born and brought up there, and when they come to Earth it’s a disaster for them. But on Mars itself, they may tend to be tall and deep-chested, analogous to what we see in people in Tibet and the high Andes, and so you get high-altitude people who don’t really give a damn about Earth. They’re areocentric. And I think that’s the way it would be, if there is a generation that’s born there. By the time you get to a third generation, you’ll have a new culture for sure. Whether you’ll have different genotypes or phenotypes, I think that’s a longer thing.

Q: Much of the debate has centered on whether there is any currently existing life on Mars. Proving the positive for that is easy: you find it, and you confirm it or not. But proving a negative…. I guess the question I had in mind was, "What time scale do you have in mind at which point you would be able to say, `Yes, this is a dead rock. Let the ethical debate begin about what we want to do with it after that.’" How long is long enough to have dead be dead?

Greg Bear: Can we agree a billion years is probably pretty good?

James Kasting: I would say you would want to make sure you’d drilled down to the liquid water region which we think exists at some level. And you’d want to do that in multiple places. And if you didn’t find life, I’d be pretty happy with going ahead with whatever.

Michael Meyer is helping put together a NASA film series that will feature debates on various space issues.
Image Credit: NASA

Greg Bear: I think that’s a good answer. And there’d probably be a protocol set up – I think that’s a perfect thing for a committee to study and say, "We will do thus and thus and thus," and ask the world’s experts to come in.

Donna Shirley: Does that exist, John?

John Rummel: No, there’s no protocol right now, because we’re just scratching the surface, literally. So when we get down to the places that Lisa can imagine, then we can start talking about when you quit.

Lisa Pratt: I think also once we’re secure in exploring on the surface, we’ll use various geophysical methods to image the subsurface. And that’s going to help immensely, because then we can have some sort of intelligent strategy about where we look.

Q: I would like to ask you, from the technical side, when we have made vegetable life on Mars, what adaptation could we alter that also would be practical for human to live there with a minimum of technical attributes?

James Kasting: In order to make Mars plant-habitable, you need to bring the climate up to Earth-like temperatures, which is something we haven’t talked about tonight. You might be able to do it with CO2 alone, if you can find enough subsurface. It takes 2 or 3 bars, which is way more than people could breathe, or any kind of animals, but if you had a breathing mask you’d be okay. You might be able to do it with less of that if you can fill the gaps in the spectral windows with CFCs or perfluorocarbons, or something like that. It would still be a very technically challenging operation. And I guess the question in my mind would be, "Would it be worth going to all that trouble if you still had to wear a breathing mask when you were up on the surface?" Maybe we’ll decide that it would be.

Donna Shirley: Okay, thank you very much. I’m now going to do a commercial. The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame is going to open in the middle of June this year, and we are now accepting membership. We’re looking forward to participating in more of these debates with NASA. Michael Meyer and company are helping us put together a NASA film series. We’re planning to do debates on SETI, on the moon, on turning people into interesting things in the future, nanotechnology, and so on. And so we hope that we’ll be able to do more of these in the future and that you will enjoy them.

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

Astrobiology Magazine: Mars Articles