However, like so many advocates of Mars exploration, I've always thought the sacrifice was worth it. But — to test this belief — I wanted to look at the case against Mars; three reasons humans should leave the red planet alone. It is hard to forget the images six months ago of Elon Musk's midnight cherry Tesla floating through space. A stunt, for sure — but also a marvellous demonstration of technical competence. But not everyone was happy. Unlike every previous craft sent to Mars, this car — and the mannequin called Starman sitting behind the wheel — had not been sterilised.
As it happens, the Tesla overshot its orbit. At the time of writing, it is 88 million miles from Mars, drifting through the darkness of space with Bowie on an infinite loop. But the episode illustrates the first argument against human travel to Mars: contamination. If humans do eventually land on Mars, they would not arrive alone. They would carry with them their earthly microbes. Trillions of them.
There is a real risk that some of these microbes could find their way onto the surface of Mars and, in doing so, confuse — perhaps irreversibly so — the search for Martian life. This is because we wouldn't be able to distinguish indigenous life from the microbes we'd brought with us.
Our presence on Mars could jeopardise one of our main reasons for being there — the search for life. Furthermore, there is no one way of knowing how our microbes may react with the vulnerable Martian ecosystem. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes … the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars. Of course, one easy way to minimise the risk of contamination is to send robots to Mars instead of humans — the second argument against a manned trip to Mars.
Robots have several inherent advantages. They are much cheaper than humans because they don't require a vast support infrastructure to provide things like water, food and breathable air. They are immune to the risks of cosmic radiation and other dangers inherent to space travel. And they won't get bored.
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Over the last 40 years, the international space community has an extraordinary legacy of robotic missions to Mars. A few weeks ago, the European Space agency's Mars Express identified liquid water buried in the south polar region of Mars. The Curiosity Rover recently celebrated its sixth birthday with the discovery of organic molecules and methane variations in the atmosphere — both positive signals of life.
And while most of its targets are chosen by humans, Curiosity also uses artificial intelligence to autonomously analyse images and choose targets for its laser detection system. With the rapid pace of progress in robotics and AI, it is likely that the effectiveness of these non-human explorers will only increase. Robots on Mars will be to able to carry out increasingly complex scientific research, accessing craters and canyons that humans might find too difficult to reach — and perhaps even drilling for Martian microbes.
The most polarising issue in the Mars debate is arguably the tension between those dreaming of a second home and those prioritising the one we have now. Before his death, Stephen Hawking made the bleak prediction that humanity only had years left on Earth.
The other would give birth to a line that would one day include the entire human race. While the descendants of her first child would end up being pretty normal and monkey-ish, as time passed, strange things began to happen with the lineage of the other. It happened slowly and gradually through the thousands of generations the same way your brain slowly comes to in the first few seconds after you rouse from sleep.
But as the clarity increased, our ancestors started to look around and, for the very first time, wonder. What is that bright yellow circle on the ceiling and where does it go every night? Where does the ocean end and what happens when you get there? As the light of human consciousness grew brighter and brighter, we began to arrive at answers that seemed to make sense.
Maybe we were on top of a floating disk, and maybe that disk was on top of a huge turtle. Maybe if we can find the place where the ceiling meets the floor, we can poke our heads through and see all the super fun stuff on the other side. Around 10, years ago, isolated tribes of humans began to merge together and form the first cities. In larger communities, people were able to talk to each other about this mystery novel we had found, comparing notes across tribes and through the generations.
As the techniques for learning became more sophisticated and the clues piled up, new discoveries surfaced. The world was apparently a ball, not a disk. Which meant that the ceiling was actually a larger sphere surrounding us. The sizes of the other objects floating out there in the sphere with us, and the distances between them, were vaster than we had ever imagined.
Colonization: Second Contact Bk. 1 by Harry Turtledove (, Hardcover) for sale online | eBay
And then, something upsetting:. This was a super unwarm, unfuzzy discovery. What did that mean? Could this really be what was happening? Not only was our planet not the center of things, even our sun was just a random dude out there, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothingness. Our sun turned out to be a little piece of something much bigger.
A beautiful, vast cloud of billions of suns. The everything of everything. The better our tools and understanding became, the more we could zoom out, and the more we zoomed out, the more things sucked. We were deciphering the pages of Where Are We?
Colonization: Down to Earth
Imagine not realizing that the universe is a thing and then realizing the universe is a thing. Most of us handle it by living in a pleasant delusion, pretending that the only place we live is in an endless land of colors and warmth. And our best friend for this activity?
The clear blue sky. But in the last 60 years, that relationship has vaulted to a whole new level. During World War II, missile technology leapt forward, 2 and for the first time, a new, mind-blowing concept was possible—. For thousands of years, The Story of Humans and Space had been the story of staring out and wondering. The possibility of people leaving our Earth island and venturing out into space burst open the human spirit of adventure. I imagine a similar feeling in the people of the 15th century, during the Age of Discovery, when we were working our way through the world map chapter of Where Are We?
At the time, the Cold War was in full throttle, and the US and Soviets had their measuring sticks out for an internationally-televised penis-measuring contest. With the successful launch of Sputnik, the Soviet penis bolted out by a few centimeters, horrifying the Americans. To the Soviets, putting a satellite into space before the US was proof that Soviet technology was superior to American technology, which in turn was put forward as proof, for all the world to see, that communism was a system superior to capitalism.
The US was not to be shown up again. They were on the verge of success when in April of , the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into a full orbit around the Earth, making the first human in space and in orbit a Soviet. It was time for drastic measures. John F. The result was Project Apollo. The Soviets answered with Soyuz, their own moon program, and the race was on. As the early phases of Apollo started coming together, Project Mercury finally hit its stride. The next seven years saw 22 US and Soviet manned launches as the superpowers honed their skills and technology.
By late , the furiously-sprinting US had more total launches under their belt 17 than the Soviets 10 , and together, the two nations had mastered what we call Low Earth Orbit LEO. Both powers had their sights firmly set on the moon. Three Apollo missions later, in July of , Apollo 11 made Americans Neil Armstrong 3 and Buzz Aldrin the first humans on the moon, and Armstrong took this famous photo of Aldrin looking all puffy: 5. Ever since life on Earth began 3. Suddenly, there are Armstrong and Aldrin, bouncing around another sphere, looking up in the sky where the moon is supposed to be and seeing the Earth instead.
Project Apollo proved to be a smashing success. Not only did Apollo get a man on the moon before the Soviets, the program sent 10 more men to the moon over the next 3.
There were six successful moon trips in seven tries, with the famous exception being Apollo 13, which was safely aborted after an explosion in the oxygen tank. The final Apollo moonwalk took place in late In only one decade, we had conquered nearby space, and progress was accelerating. Many more people on the moon, a permanent moon base, people on Mars, and beyond. Or that after leaving Low Earth Orbit in the dust years earlier and using it now as our pre-moon trip parking lot, would roll around and LEO would be the farthest out humans would ever go.
So what happened? After such a wildly exciting decade of human space adventure, why did we just stop? Instead, we should ask:. Space travel is unbelievably expensive. National budgets are incredibly tight. In the face of international embarrassment at a time when everyone was trying to figure out whose economic system was better, the US government agreed to drop the usual rules for a few years to pour whatever resources were necessary on the problem to make sure they won that argument—.
And once they won it, the contest was over and so were the special rules. And the US went back to spending money like a normal person. Instead of continuing to push the limits at all costs, the US and the Soviets got a grip, put their pants back on, shook hands, and started working together like adults on far more practical projects, like setting up a joint space station in LEO.
Related Down to Earth (Colonization, Book 2)
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