Walking Naked on the Red Planet

Greg Bear’s novel, "Moving Mars."
Image Credit: Amazon.com

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

Donna Shirley: Let’s say that we’ve decided to go to Mars, we’re going to terraform Mars, we’re going to terraform it so people can live on it. What kind of people are going to go to Mars? Greg, you had people going to Mars (in your book). Could you talk about them?

Greg Bear: Well, my people weren’t by and large genetically modified, although they did have biochemistries installed so they could survive the lower gravitational fields or weightlessness. Mostly they looked like me and you, but I think if we’re going to go to Mars I think it’s a cheaper option to fix ourselves up rather than fix Mars up.

We could generate ourselves so that we don’t need that extra flora, that biota, that occupies our intestines and our skin and everything else, and that way we won’t leak too much when we go there. But that might be a real fantasy. Humans leak – that’s pretty much a universal truth.

So my people in "Moving Mars" are pretty much like you and me, as Mr. (Robert) Heinlein would imagine them. I think what we’re going to see is that when we get to Mars in a serious way, we’re going to want to change ourselves, just so we can do what Stan would like to do, and that’s walk out on the surface of Mars and climb a rock, naked.

That’s a pretty good idea, isn’t it? Just your fingers – no suckers allowed; you can’t put suckers on your fingers – just the few extra scales or whatever, to keep yourself from drying out, and a way to recover your oxygen quickly. The Maui effect. You just really want to get out there with nature and touch Mars directly. That’s tough to do when you’re in a NASA suit, but we’ve seen very skinny space suits being designed, and that might be adequate for Mars.

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.

But that’s getting off the point. The point is that I think we’ll be genetically modified very soon after we get there. It’ll be more economical. You could propagate faster. And if we’re going to do this thing of being fruitful and multiplying, then we can multiply in a different form. And the question then becomes, will they be Martians, as Ray Bradbury says? I think they will. Will they be respectful of any other life forms we find buried tens of kilometers deep on Mars? Perhaps. But for economic reasons, almost certainly they’ll preserve them and start studying them. And the whole process will go on. I don’t actually think we’ve ruined the Earth. I think we’re transforming the Earth. We’re Earth’s gonads, and we’re about to do what comes natural.

Donna Shirley: So Lisa, when you’re down in the mine somewhere…

Lisa Pratt: I can’t believe you’re going to ask me to say anything after that!

Donna Shirley: [laughs]. When you’re down in the mine somewhere, how do you protect the life forms from leaking?

Lisa Pratt: Well, you try very hard, but the point of the matter is we’ve already done a very invasive procedure in these deep mines. We’ve already put in tremendous infrastructure, and we’re pumping enormous amounts of air through those mines in order to sustain the miners who work down there.

It’s very interesting when you walk around on Earth, three kilometers below the surface, every place there’s the smallest drip or trickle of water, there’s a luxuriant red biofilm of air-consuming organisms that are utilizing the chemical disequilibrium of these deep-Earth waters. In order to sample for deep-Earth microbes, you have to wait for the serendipity of the miners drilling into the virgin part of the subsurface and intersecting high-pressure water. And if the water that is intersected continues to come out at high pressure, and you can collect a sample before the aerobic organisms work their way back in, then, in fact, you have a chance to identify the indigenous life forms. What we find is there are many microbes at depths below two kilometers below Earth’s surface.

"One of the reasons that people all around the world are so interested in Mars is that it sits outside of the systems of current culture and economics."–Kim Stanley Robinson
Image Credit: University of Arizona

Donna Shirley: Let’s talk about the economics. If we’re going to terraform Mars, what are the economic incentives? Will pharmaceutical companies be able to fly us to Mars to find new medicines? Stan, you had some economic things worked out in the trilogy.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, no, it will never be economic. This is the cool thing about it, and one of the reasons that people all around the world are so interested in Mars, is that it sits outside of the systems of current culture and economics. You can’t make a profit from it. You can’t make it make sense in religious terms. It’s just a kind of a thing that humanity would do as a project for the sake of how interesting it would be. It would be an interesting story.

We would go there first the way we go to Antarctica, to do scientific studies, to try to help us understand the world better. And then after that, if it were to be terraformed, people would be doing it for itself, just in the way of gardening or building a cathedral. There is no analogy that really makes sense, because it’s such a new and big thing. But I think that people are interested in all these little robotic missions and in everything about Mars, because it’s so hard to get outside the economic trap that we’re in, in our current culture. So it’s best to think of it as being meta-economic, or beyond economics.

John Rummel: Well, at least it’s not at the time scale of the typical investment. If we did have forty thousand years of burying reduced carbon, we’d have oil there, so we could get that.

"There is a chance that there’s fossil evidence for life on the surface [of Mars]." -James Kasting
Image Credit: NASA

Donna Shirley: For a long time, they said, we’re going to do it for science. And then we say, no we’re going to do it just because humans explore. So why would humans go to Mars? Anybody want to take a crack at that?

James Kasting:
Yeah, I’ll take a crack at it. I think scientifically, it’s very exciting. It’s not just looking for extant life and drilling down deep beneath the surface. There is a chance that there’s fossil evidence for life on the surface. We want to understand the surface of Mars like we understand the surface of the Earth. We’ll learn something by robotic missions, we’re learning lots right now from the current missions, but we won’t understand Mars like we understand the Earth until we get teams of geologists up there with rock hammers, clambering down Valis Marineris and looking at the whole stratigraphic sequence that is very difficult to get to robotically.

Lisa Pratt: Actually, I think there’s an important step in-between, and that’s to take the time to return samples to Earth. We take the risk of bringing samples back to Earth, where they can really be analyzed in a comprehensive way by many different laboratories around the world, using as many different analytical techniques as we can throw at them, before we get in a hurry and make what I think would be a titanic mistake to actually get up there on Mars and walk around with human beings before we’re prepared for what we discover.

Greg Bear: That’s a good use for the space station, too, if you don’t necessarily want to bring those samples back to Earth.

John Rummel: If you bring it back to the space station, you’ve brought it back to Earth, but you’ve brought it back in an uncontrolled fashion. The fact is that there is nothing about modern biology that we know enough about in space to be able to do the kinds of tests you’d want to do. You bring it back to the space station, what goes up must come down, therefore any space station that’s in orbit right now will eventually be part of this planet once again. If you do find life on Mars, you don’t want to find it in a place where you can’t control it adequately. So you really can do a safe job of bringing it back to a terrestrial laboratory and allowing it to be looked at to make sure that there’s no biohazard, and then get it out to the people who can do the work. Finding a biohazard would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. So we’re looking forward to that.

Artist’s rendition of an asteroid impact on Earth.
Image Credit: NASA

Back to your question, though, about why you would go to Mars. Essentially, ignorance is not bliss. Going in also may tell us about a future place where we could put at least part of this civilization to come back and clean up after an event like (a giant asteroid impact on Earth). So I would advocate, if not terraforming, at least solar system exploration, as a way of saving part of the history and the culture of humanity.

Donna Shirley: People say, "Well, we’re going to mess up the Earth, so we’re going to jump off of the Earth and go live on another planet." David, what do you think about that idea?

David Grinspoon: Going to Mars now with robots or even with human expeditions, which is very different from terraforming, is greatly motivated by curiosity, and part of the return from that is we get smarter about how planets work. This is knowledge that we really need, because whether we like it or not, we are at least partially running a planet now. Maybe we’re running amok on a planet, but the decisions that we’re making with our technical civilization are changing this planet. So we can’t afford the luxury of ignorance about how planets work.

I think we need to explore the solar system, not just to satisfy our curiosity, but to get smarter about how planets work. In the long run, I think we will go to Mars to live – assuming again Mars is a dead world, which I think it is, probably – for the same reasons that human beings left Africa. Why aren’t we still all living in Africa, which we were at one point? I think it’s part of what we do; we wander and we explore. In the long run, I think we’re going to continue that beyond the Earth.

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