Before we leave Earth make sure we can keep the lights on
The spacebillies’ ventures and plans to colonise Mars deserve praise but it is more important that we first save our own planet
The recent ventures into space by billionaires is too nearby in history to write about them in a way that searches for large patterns or determines value. This opens up a path, one of many to be sure, for a discussion of the future without being foolishly prophetical.
Two of the travelling spacebillies (a convenient moniker for space-travelling billionaires), Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, are somewhat similar in the sense that they are more interested in commercialising space flight than Elon Musk.
Of the three, and for scientific reasons, Musk may be taken more seriously because of his stated intentions to send humans to Mars, “colonise” the planet and then terraform the place to make it “more like Earth” and therefore more habitable.
We must make room for his mercurial changes of thinking; the last time I checked he wanted to land a human on Mars as soon as 2024, and complete at least 10 launches to start a city there by 2050. The only thing I can say with absolute confidence is that Musk will not be around when or if Mars is terraformed.
Unlike Bezos and Branson, Musk is not a self-made billionaire in the traditional sense. He is more of an “entrepreneur”, someone who has the ability to sell good ideas for a lot of money and produces the goods, so to speak. Staying with Musk, the science is more fascinating than the entrepreneurialism.
To state the obvious, Nasa’s Perseverance Rover, which landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, is proof sufficient that it is possible to land a craft on the planet. Bear in mind, however, that Perseverance is a relatively small craft. It weighs just more than a tonne and is 3m long, 2.7m wide and 2.2m tall.
The World Economic Forum suggests the cost of the Perseverance mission could (eventually) amount to $2.9bn. Most of us ordinary souls may be forgiven for wondering how many mouths could have been fed with all the money they spend on Perseverance. There’s no arguing that.
In one respect, going to Mars and colonising the planet in some distant future is about something else. This lies in the imaginations of scientists and a smattering of people who believe human beings are innately in search of new frontiers. Unfortunately, these dreams are based on the way European “frontiersmen” conquered the West of North America, in what Rudyard Kipling described as “savage wars of peace”.
Theodore Roosevelt was not as lyrical, he called European wars against indigenous Americans “war with savages”. Together they assumed these wars prepared the way for progress ... Mars is what the Museum of Science in Boston describes as “the new frontier”, and necessarily progressive.
Let us for the moment forget the politics (especially the general nastiness of the “savage wars of peace”) and assume money is not a problem. We have to look to whether there is life on Mars now, or if there may be life on Mars in the future. My personal view is that it would be supremely arrogant to assume we are the only living creatures in the multiplicity of galaxies captured so beautifully in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field imagery. Just reading the literature and the numbers hurt my head.
Nevertheless, any living creature to be found would more than likely exist in the form of a single-cell organism. In this sense, flying to Mars and establishing a colony of humans will be easier, and quicker, than to wait for single-cell organisms to evolve into complex forms of (multicellular) life. Consider this; the first (known) single-celled organisms appeared on Earth about 3.5-billion years ago and it was not until about 600-million years ago that complex multicellular creatures emerged.
The first problem is that a craft big and powerful enough to carry something larger than Perseverance is a huge ask. With time, though — probably not within Musk’s time frame — we may be able to build a craft that is big enough and take humans along. What happens next? Well, the key word is survival in the new frontier. Again, I will skip over the physics and the numbers that hurt my head. It must suffice to say that Mars is now uninhabitable by humans. We will have to build accommodation and find sources of oxygen and water, and that’s just the start of it.
Let me cut this short. The late Stephen Hawking wrote that Earth was “becoming too small for us ... In the long run the human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.” If we are to survive, he wrote, “I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth”.
For now, given the progress in science and technology, we’re probably better off finding ways past the binary contest between capitalism and socialism, make the world a healthier and prosperous place, and save what we can of Earth.
• Lagardien, a visiting professor at the Wits University School of Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank, as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.
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