Universe University

A journey through astronomy and space history to the outer boundaries of the universe.

Destiny in the Stars

Humanity’s destiny lies among the stars… if we can merely harness both the courage and motivation to seize that destiny. ‘If’ is the operative word in that sentence. During the current pandemic, it is easy for many of us to become discouraged and lose sight of the glorious future that awaits our entire species. Humans are deeply flawed beings but we are also resilient, intelligent, innovative creatures that have made enormous strides and done great deeds in our fleeting, brief existence on this planet. As nomads, we migrated out of Africa in our prehistory – crossing rivers, mountain ranges, deserts, and oceans – to explore and build settlements on every continent on Earth. That’s no small feat for a group of frail primates. Sending human beings to the planet Mars now must be our decisive priority as a species. While the challenges of making such a journey will be incomparable, the rewards of such an endeavor will be even greater still. The journey is within our grasp technologically and it has been for some time, though we have to take the final step in committing time, effort, and money to achieving it. The first men and women to explore the red planet will behold sights never before seen by human eyes and their descendents in future generations will be just as comfortable on other planets as human beings are on every continent of our planet today.

First, I would like to address why I believe Mars must be the focus of our efforts rather than the moon or any other destination in space. In my writing for the Universe University blog as well as my writing for the podcast itself, I often quote the words of others more experienced or more knowledgeable than myself when illustrating important points. I recently had the privilege of interviewing the brilliant Dr. Robert Zubrin: founder of the Mars Society and author of Mars Direct, which is the most efficient and cost effective plan ever written for landing human beings on Mars and returning them safely to the Earth. When the United States first landed on the moon in 1969, rocket engineer Dr. Wernher von Braun stated that with a strong national effort, American astronauts could walk on Mars by 1981. The price tag of such a project was not appealing to the United States Congress. When President George H.W. Bush brought up the subject of Mars missions again in 1989 during his Space Exploration Initiative, Dr. Zubrin proposed Mars Direct. While many at NASA loved the plan, the organization ultimately failed to adopt it for purely political reasons. I asked former NASA historian Alex Roland about the prospects for manned Mars missions and he said this:

“I’ve been saying that for decades now that it’s surely not going to happen in my lifetime. I think I’m safe to predict that it probably won’t happen within your lifetime either … it’s enormously expensive and complicated to do it.”

I asked Dr. Zubrin why Mars ought to be our focus. Below, is his response:

“There’s two things that make Mars of great interest. One is science. It’s the Rosetta Stone for letting us know the truth about the potential prevalence and diversity of life in the universe. And the other is that Mars is the new frontier where a new branch of human civilization can be born and where humanity can begin transforming itself into a space faring species.”

Later on in our discussion, he revealed that space exploration in general is fundamental not only in searching for life elsewhere but for the discipline of science itself:

“The greatest lab in the universe is the universe. The best place to do astronomy is space. And historically, astronomy has led to the development of physics. The laws of gravity, which led to the discovery of the laws of classical physics, were discovered through astronomy. There’s Newton’s work, which was a product of astronomical research. Much of what we know about electromagnetism came from astronomy. Certainly, General Relativity came from astronomy. The discovery of nuclear fusion came from astronomy. So I think there’s fantastic forces at play in the universe and we will discover them through space based astronomy … Things that seem inconceivable now will become conceivable.”

Our current civilization would indeed be very different and our quality of life greatly diminished if we had no understanding of electromagnetism and basic physics. Even Einstein’s General Relativity, a set of rules that govern how stars and planets behave in outer space, has powerful practical applications. For instance, our Global Positioning System or G.P.S. requires that we recognize and keep track of the time dilation predicted by General Relativity and experienced by our G.P.S. satellites in orbit around the Earth. The new technological and scientific breakthroughs born of space-based astronomy in the coming century are sure to be every bit as valuable as those from previous centuries.

It was Dr. Zubrin who convinced a young entrepreneur named Elon Musk that Mars should be the ultimate focus of Mr. Musk’s ambitions in the space industry. Now, Mr. Musk’s company SpaceX is testing prototypes of the vehicles that may soon take human crews to Mars.

This is why Mr. Musk says that Mars must be humanity’s focus: “Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact that it will be open a long time.

Of course, many critics of space exploration will ask why we would bother to spend such enormous amounts of money traveling to another planet, especially under current circumstances, when there are so many pressing problems right here on Earth? Of course, no one disagrees that human beings should use our ingenuity and intelligence to address our problems on Earth. However, human space exploration will undeniably give us crucial information to solve those very problems!

Dr. Joel S. Levine is a planetary scientist with a career spanning four decades and he has published over 150 scientific journal articles. He concurs with Mr. Musk and Dr. Zubrin that the search for life on Mars is of paramount importance. Dr. Levine says that that it will have profound implications for humanity’s broader understanding of biology, microbiology, combating diseases, and human health. One cannot deny that these topics could be of particularly vital importance during the current pandemic we are facing. Such knowledge might be worth a great price.

Regardless of what the future holds, COVID-19 will one day be a distant memory much like previous pandemics. But what about the ongoing threat posed by climate change to the world’s nations and ecosystems? Surely, understanding and combating climate change must be a higher priority than sending human beings to Mars, right? One tweet in March stated, “Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.” In less than two weeks, it received hundreds of thousands of likes. Indeed, the reduction of human activity on Earth caused by quarantines and social distancing has reduced air pollution all over the world. Human activity within the past century has undeniably disrupted and even destroyed ecosystems around the world. However, is it really fair to suggest that human beings are a literal virus?

This concept is not new. In the 1968 book ‘The Population Bomb’, author Paul Ehrlich predicted that humanity’s growing population would trigger massive, catastrophic starvation worldwide within the course of just a few decades as humanity depleted the planet’s dwindling, finite resources in short order. It was not a dystopian science fiction novel but a sincere prophesy that human population growth would play out like a viral infection on the planet. Ehrlich advocated widespread sterilization of human beings to combat this problem.

We did not sterilize ourselves en masse in 1968 and the Earth’s human population continued to skyrocket. Yet most societies on Earth managed to grow enough food to sustain their increasing populations due at least, in part, to revolutionary scientific advances in agriculture. Those same societies enjoy much higher standards of living now than they did many decades ago. Climatologists today do indeed warn that human activity is drastically altering the climate. Yet they explain these effects are due to humans releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not due to humans having babies or growing vegetables. Imagine the scientists, engineers, artists, and musicians that would have never been born if humanity had embraced the idea that we were a cancer on the Earth? Appropriately enough, Dr. Robert Zubrin calls such an ideology ‘antihumanism’ and it is the subject of his book ‘Merchants of Despair’. In following this ideology to its logical conclusion, Dr. Zubrin writes, “One does not seek to advance the cause of a cancer.

There are many examples on Earth of animal populations growing quickly and as a result, changing the balance of the ecosystem that they live within. We do not label all these animal populations as cancers or viruses. Why should we label ourselves as such? We express appropriate moral revulsion at the political leaders in human history who saw different races of human beings as viruses or cancers… yet there are some human beings on this planet today who view not one single race as a virus but an entire animal species as such: homo sapiens. Shouldn’t we be equally repulsed by this idea as well?

Of course, the vast majority of environmentalists today do not hold such radical views. Most environmentalists are compassionate human beings that simply want to make the world a better place for humans as well as the other organisms that live on our planet. This is indeed a noble endeavor and humans should never ignore the effect our presence has had on our home planet. On the contrary, we should work to drastically reduce any and all destructive effects we have on our ecosystems and preserve them for future generations. In our present century, there are many examples of human beings doing just this very thing.

Dr. Zubrin pointed out that in 2012, the Native American Haida tribe endeavored to restore their own salmon populations by collaborating with American scientist Russ George. By distributing iron sulfate in the Pacific Ocean, they stimulated a bloom of phytoplankton that, in turn, offered more food for young salmon. By 2014, the salmon population in the region had skyrocketed. New advances in biology and microbiology predicted by Dr. Levine as the byproduct of Martian exploration are sure to offer even greater tools to humanity. The Haida tribe’s decision to increase the salmon population that they relied on for food was a far better solution than sterilizing themselves to ensure that there they would have no future descendants to endanger the lives of salmon.

Climatology is the tool we must use to use to understand and combat climate change. Yet in our present century, climatology has become inseparable from space technology. Our rich understanding of the changes in the Earth’s climate today only exists because of continuing observations and photographs of the Earth taken from outer space. Space technology and infrastructure give us a comprehensive and cohesive view of nearly every corner of the world. Sending astronauts to Mars specifically will yield still greater insights for climatology on Earth.

Dr. Levine has stated Mars exploration is fundamental precisely because it will revolutionize our understanding of climate change. All of the evidence seems to suggest that while Mars is a frigid, sandy desert today; it was almost certainly very warm and wet in its ancient past. Surface features like dry river beds forged by liquid water erosion bear witness to this past. It might be of great importance to determine precisely what factors caused Mars to undergo a climate metamorphosis from a habitable oasis to an icy desert. There are innumerable lessons that could be learned from studying the Martian climate that could transform our understanding of climate change here on Earth.

We cannot and will not reap all the benefits of a human mission to Mars with remotely controlled robots or rovers though. In a presentation in 2017, Dr. Levine pointed out that the robotic rover Opportunity covered 26 miles on Mars in just over a decade. Yet he stated that a small team of human beings in a similar, larger vehicle could cover the same distance in just one day! The work of a handful of dedicated and brave scientists on Mars in a single day might very well yield advances in science that would be the equivalent of a lifetime of work here on Earth.

Charles S. Cockell, a professor of astrobiology, stated that a region on Mars called Terra Sirenum might be of particular interest because of its massive salt deposits. It is likely the remains of an ancient sea that has long since gone dry. Professor Cockell stated that even deep underground on the planet Earth, microbial life in or around salt deposits can thrive even with very little access to nutrients or light. Half jokingly, Professor Cockell has said, “If you send me to Terra Sirenum with a microscope and a shovel, I can tell you in a few hours whether there is life on Mars.

Some critics of human Mars exploration have suggested that human beings returning from a mission to Mars could bring back a deadly pathogen that might cause a devastating pandemic here on Earth. Such a notion has been the plot of countless science fiction stories and films. During our current global pandemic, this seems like a particularly serious concern. Alarmist writings on the issue include a piece from the internet publication Quileute titled, ‘One Small Step for Man… One Giant Leap toward the Annihilation of Mankind’. (Curiously, the author of this piece is a psychologist, not an epidemiologist or microbiologist.) Critics say that the risks are far too grave to allow humans to land on Mars and gather rock samples to bring back to Earth.

These concerns do not stand up under scrutiny though for two reasons. The first is that microbial life on Mars, if it exists, has likely already found its way to Earth! Surprisingly, multiple pieces of both Mars and the Earth’s moon have been discovered on the Earth in the form of meteorites. They were almost certainly ejected from those worlds during asteroid impacts in the distant past. One of these Martian meteorites named ALH 84001 was examined under an electron microscope and found to have strange structures that resembled microscopic bacteria. Since then, there has been vigorous scientific debate about whether these structures are evidence of ancient Martian life or whether they were created by some other natural process.

We know that there are forms of microscopic life on Earth that can survive within the vacuum of space and microbiologists today say that it is entirely plausible for some forms of life to survive transit between planets, hidden inside meteors. This is the basis of panspermia: the hypothesis that life on Earth originated from meteorites carrying life from other planets in our solar system or even from other exoplanets. Is it possible that we are all Martians? Perhaps, though such a conclusion is far from certain. For those concerned about Martian pathogens stowing away on a return journey to Earth, that ship has already sailed. Plenty of material from Mars has already landed on Earth. Those who are incurably paranoid about hypothetical Martian pathogens making their way to Earth can rest easy though. The Apollo astronauts were quarantined for 21 days after returning from the moon because doctors agreed that if they were infected with a pathogen of any kind, they would show symptoms within that time frame. Astronauts returning from Mars will be sealed in their spacecraft or ‘quarantined’ not for days or weeks but for months on end as they travel back to Earth.

Furthermore, the majority of microorganisms on Earth are not harmful to human beings. The microorganisms that do cause illness or death do so because they evolved alongside humans and animals. This is the second reason why we ought not be concerned about a Martian pandemic on Earth. One thing we can say with a high degree of certainty is that there are no terrestrial animals, let alone human beings, living on the surface of Mars. So if life exists on Mars, it certainly has not evolved to live within the bodies of human beings or terrestrial animals.

Other critics charge that human explorers on Mars might accidentally bring microscopic life from the Earth, thus making it impossible to determine whether indigenous Martian life ever existed. The concern is known as ‘forward contamination’. Dr. Zubrin says this argument is also fallacious. We know that microorganisms on Earth, like all life, leave behind ample evidence of their history such as fossils. If microbes have existed on Mars for billions of years, surely we will find fossils and other biomarkers that will offer evidence of their presence prior to humanity’s arrival on the planet.

Finally, the critics make a plea for the hypothetical Martian microbes themselves. Astronomy Professor David Weintraub said the following in 2018: “If life already exists on Mars, then Mars, for now at least, belongs to the Martians. Mars is their planet, and Martian life would be threatened by a human presence there.” If Professor Weintraub’s view is correct, then microbiology itself is immoral and unethical in many respects because human scientists risk posing some threat to the microbial life that they observe. Why search for microbial life at the bottom of the ocean, in caves, near volcanoes, or anywhere on Earth if we risk encroaching on microorganisms and doing them some kind of possible harm? Even if we can gain valuable knowledge that will help alleviate the suffering of human beings or help to restore ecosystems in different parts of the planet Earth, the risk to the microorganisms is just too great! Of course, if you view human beings as a virus or a cancer on the planet Earth; then they will inevitably be a virus or a cancer on any other planet that they explore.

Yet I along with many others do not share such a dim view of humanity. We are deeply flawed creatures but we also have the power to do good; morally and ethically. President John F. Kennedy said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

Mr. Musk has stated that he wants to have one million people living on Mars by the year 2050. Such a goal will undeniably be immensely difficult to achieve and in this case, Mr. Musk’s reach may exceed his grasp. The colonization of Mars and the rest of the solar system will likely be a process that will take centuries but our future descendants will be eternally grateful that we took the first step to becoming an interplanetary species. A permanent human outpost of any kind on Mars will be a paradigm shifting accomplishment in human history and it will mark the beginning of humanity’s expansion into the cosmos. Mr. Musk deserves full credit for treating such a goal as the urgent imperative that it is. Historian Arthur Slessinger said that the Apollo 11 moon landing was the most significant achievement of the 20th century. Building an outpost on Mars will be more significant still and may prove to be the most significant achievement in the history of our species. We have to take that first step though. Dr. Zubrin said, “History isn’t a spectator sport. We have to play our part.

Perhaps astronomer Carl Sagan said it best when he uttered the following words:

“Our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history … It is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity, we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilizations and the Italian renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet, to enhance enormously our understanding of the universe and to carry us to the stars.”

This is a far more hopeful, uplifting, and optimistic message for humanity than the notion that we are a cancer on the planet Earth and we must sterilize ourselves to save the planet. Then again, if we aren’t willing to accept our destiny as an interplanetary species and we are truly determined to stagnate on a planet with finite resources, leaving the vault of knowledge that is the universe permanently locked, perhaps we might as well sterilize ourselves and accept a fate of extinction?

Article Comments