The United Nations of Mars

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty limits the use of celestial bodies (including Mars) exclusively to peaceful purposes, prohibiting weapons testing and military maneuvers.
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Image Credit: NASA

The Mars Terraforming Debate is co-sponsored by NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine, the SciFi Museum (Seattle), and Breakpoint Media.

Donna Shirley: If we want to do something massive, like terraform Mars or even go to Mars with a lot of people, is it going to have to be an international endeavor? If so, how do you do that? Is it going to be all U.S., is it going to be like the Star Trek universe, where it’s all humanity? What’s that going to look like?

John Rummel: Well, if you look at the front row of this audience now, it’s not all U.S. Why would it be? I think everybody’s going to be interested in this. And I think that the opportunities are there for all humankind to be able to go to Mars, to go other places in the solar system and learn together. If you take a look at any of the missions that are currently planned, they all have international participation, and that counts for everybody’s mission. Not NASA, not ESA, not China – everybody’s missions have international participation. It’s the way of life in solar system exploration.

Donna Shirley: So, science fiction guys, what about you? You’ve postulated international groups going to Mars. What are some of the issues involved in that?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Oh, gosh. There’s language problems. There’s metric and foot problems. There’s problems!

Antarctica provides a really good model for this. That’s under an international treaty and nobody claims it, nobody owns it, there’s no sovereignty there. It’s a beautiful model and I sort of wish that the rules of Antarctica would just creep north by a degree or two every year until the whole planet was under the Antarctic treaty. The space treaty is based on the Antarctic treaty. If there’s going to be a Mars treaty, I’m sure it’s going to be based on the Antarctic treaty.

Apollo 11 achieved the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth in 1969.
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There are national stations down there. You know, the Italian station, the French station, the Kiwi and the Australian stations, and the American station. It’s possible, I think, that Mars expeditions might be national, just because of the logistical reasons of one sort or another, and getting the initiative to go. But they will have international components to them, and it will just become international and be under international law and be a human achievement. It seems to me inevitable that it will work out that way.

But the idea of it being any kind of a space race – I mean, what if the Chinese suddenly say, all right, we’re set to go. We’re off to Mars and we’re going to be there in 10 years. Although they wouldn’t announce that. But if we came to that conclusion, would it then turn into another space race? It seems to me it would break down and fall back into internationalism before that actually transpired, that we no longer can get stuck in any kind of Apollo races. But this is more a hope than a certainty.

Greg Bear: I think that’s probably what’s going to happen. I think that there’s more nationalism than we can think of out there, and there’s more pride. There’s pride of people who’ve come into a technological age after we have. They are going to exert themselves. They’re going through the kind of adolescent fervor that we are still going through, but at a later stage.

I think that’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a bad thing. It’s going to be a conflictful thing, but in living systems, that’s how problems are solved. Two different systems or more get together, clash and conflict, and there’s a lot of casualties along the way. Is there a way of doing it better? I think there probably is. I think that we could sit down and apply ourselves to it, if we want to take that role of standing back from the space race, but you know we’re still a pretty young country. I think we’d probably roll up our sleeves and say, "Hallelujah!" and jump into the fray. It’s a wonderful place for novels, fortunately. But it may not be the best place for raising children in peaceful circumstances.

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.

Donna Shirley: Okay, so now we’ve got this bunch of nations on Mars. You’ve got some experience, Lisa, in South Africa and other places. How does one set up a society where people are willing to collaborate and get around the national boundaries and work together? How did you get into South Africa and get into mines?

Lisa Pratt: The reason it worked in South Africa is we made a compelling argument for the joint benefits to the mine owners, the mine operators and the scientists. So if there is an analogy, I suppose it’s that there will have to be a multi-front reasoning that moves forward incrementally until, as a society or as a planet, we all agree that there are compelling reasons.

Donna Shirley: John, planetary protection’s a highly international endeavor. How does that work? Can we use any models there for living together on Mars?

John Rummel: Well, the 1967 space treaty is the basis of planetary protection law around the globe. We co-ordinate with the Committee on Space Research as a consensus where there is an international planetary protection policy.

Think about back contamination concerns: an international crew is coming back, and they’ve found life on Mars, and then they find that maybe they’re infected by that life. Do you want to tell them they can’t come home because they have Mars flu? You’ll find that there’s another nationality born right then, and that’s called Martian, and they’re going to want to come back anyway.

I think that we have general consensus throughout the international community, and a lot of concern internationally, about making sure that Mars is as we find it, until we decide to do something else with it.

Lisa Pratt: I might mention one other thing, that the thorniest issue in getting this deep subsurface research going was getting the agreement signed at very high government levels about who owned the genomes. That in fact it was concern about the value of the meta-genome that would come out of the mine in terms of its economic applications. The genome for anything that we bring out of the South African mines is owned by South Africa.

Isaac Asimov, author of "The Martian Way."
Image Credit: The Galactic Inquizitor Online

Donna Shirley: Do you want to have the last word, David?

David Grinspoon: Well, it occurs to me that one of the subtle benefits of the space age is that there is something of a planetary perspective that is spawned from seeing images of the Earth from space. Contemplating human beings going to another planet; there’s something inherently global about that. I think that even if it is different national expeditions that go to Mars to live, that once they get there, they’ll identify with being Martians.

One of my favorite science-fiction stories when I was a kid was by Isaac Asimov, the story called "The Martian Way." That is the story of the martian colonists eventually saying, "To hell with Earth. We’re Martians, and we’re going to do it our own way." I think that one of the benefits of thinking about all this, whether or not we end up doing it sooner or later, is that it does, in some sense, almost subversively foster a kind of global consciousness that can help us, maybe, get along here on this planet.

Donna Shirley: I think that’s a very common theme of science fiction. Science fiction asks the question, "What if?" And what we’ve got here are some people who are actually working on these things, and thinking about what if there’s life, what if there isn’t life, how would we govern ourselves, and so on. And that’s one of our major functions of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame – to show people how to ask those questions, and to show people how to think about what might happen. To use terraforming Mars, for instance, as a thought experiment that reflects back on ourselves.

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