ELON MUSTN’T: Why We Shouldn’t Go To Mars
I’ve searched for a way around this for months.
I’m still hoping someone will read this and point out where I’m wrong.
You see, I love Elon Musk. Tesla – the cars and the household batteries – and the Hyperloop are all inspired. All have the potential to provide real benefits to humanity. I hope Musk makes billions; a Rockefeller for the new age.
But there is a problem with SpaceX.
Elon Musk founded his rocket program 14 years ago, with the stated goal of colonizing Mars. He has repeatedly called it an insurance policy against humanity’s extinction, adding “I think the wise move is to make life multiplanetary while we can.” Checkout his interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on ‘StarTalk’ (S6E10 22/3/15, ‘The Future of Humanity’). And Musk isn’t alone in this view. Dr Stephen Hawking has also been banging on about it since the ‘90s. At an event last year Hawking stated again: “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”
Nevertheless, despite both these men’s great intellects, there are a number of problems with the idea. One problem in particular renders them dangerous.
EARTH TWO… POINT? ZERO
First of all, let’s be clear: As far as I can tell, neither Musk nor Hawking are talking about extrasolar colonies – travelling outside our solar system. At least not yet. The search for habitable extrasolar planets is enticing. It appeals to our hardwired desire to explore and acquire. Humans have fantasised about travelling the stars since before ‘Buck Rogers‘ or ‘No Man’s Sky.’ But it’s a spectacularly bad idea. Even Hawking admits that making contact with other life forms should be avoided. First, we’ve never found another planet capable of supporting land-based mammals: geologically stable, not bathed in solar radiation, just the right temperature, with surface water but not too much, and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Even then, we have to find a way to get there – another big stretch without fanciful exceptions to the laws of physics.
The truth is, we won the lottery with Earth. And now we want to try and win the lottery again?
Let’s pretend for a moment we do find Earth 2.0 and make it there alive. Chances are we’ll be wiped out in minutes by a pathogen, predator, or existing civilisation that sees us as food, biosecurity threat, or immigrant. There are more things that can go wrong than right, including reverse-colonisation of Earth. But here’s the most likely scenario:
I’ll write in more detail about the Fermi paradox in another article. There is a reason intelligent life isn’t visible throughout the universe. We’re not sure what that reason is, but whatever it is, there are no visible exceptions. Assuming any species has ever lived long enough to travel through space, there is an equally good chance the main reason we’ve never encountered them is that ‘intelligent’ life understands biosecurity risk. Even humans have elaborate customs controls between countries to stop someone bringing a raisin across a border, yet we think we can lob a whole human safely into an alien ecosystem? Humans are riddled with bacteria. We’d be dead without them. If extra-terrestrial lifeforms aren’t fatal to us – or our bacteria – chances are we’re fatal to them or their food sources. We’re most likely to get shot down before we land.
And we need to survive the next hundred years first. But more about that later.
So let’s talk specifically about inhospitable planets with no organic life in our own solar system. Like Mars.
NOTHING TO FEAR BUT OURSELVES
A space colony on Mars raises a range of practical, environmental, ethical and economic problems. Not least, who gets to live in the lifeboat? Volumes have been penned on the dilemmas of lifeboat ethics. Or, how do we justify allocating resources to space travel when we still have pollution, poverty and injustice on Earth? To pretend these issues are less important only perpetuates them. Perhaps more importantly, Mars is only effective as a lifeboat if it is self-sustaining. It must have its own manufacturing, extraction of rare earth metals, and a permanent population. This in itself will take decades, during which time Earth will need to continue to resupply the colony. These are all problems with possible solutions. What is harder to overcome – and less appreciated – is the impact back here on Earth.
Musk and Hawking have variously cited as their motivation for a Mars Colony as the possibility of nuclear war, meteor strike, or disease. However, the worst extinction event in Earth’s history wasn’t any of these things. If we look back through the past billion years of evolution – since the first sexual reproduction in single-celled organisms – none of these risks have come anywhere close to wiping out all life on earth. The second greatest risk, geological activity, has died down as the Earth has become more stable. The next, gamma radiation burst from a supernova, is a million years away. We have the technology to survive an ice age, and improve the survivability of a meteor strike which – at worst- still has a 1-in-4 chance of survival. Global nuclear war is unlikely to make every continent uninhabitable. Declassified nuclear target maps illustrate the clustering of targets in developed countries.
That leaves only one genuine threat to the extinction of life on earth.
Not only is it the greatest threat ever, it is more of a threat now than ever. In fact, it has already begun. Worse still, we are already failing dismally to do anything about it.
Oh, and we are the sole cause of the whole problem.
|Has It Happened Before?
|% Loss of Life
|Chance of Survival
|Permian–Triassic extinction event
|260 million yrs ago
|Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event
|66 million yrs ago
|Gamma Ray BUrst
|Ordovician–Silurian extinction event
|443.7 million yrs ago
|20% (Humans only)
|15% (Humans only)
|NON- NUCLEAR CONFLICT
|World War II
|3% (Humans only)
|Probability of a new event that hasn’t occurred or wasn’t observable?
In the context of a billion years of evolution the greatest threat to life on earth is, well… us.
For all the talk, atmospheric CO2 levels have continued to rise unabated since the first scientists noticed it more than 30 years ago. This current warming event – compared to the one 260 million years ago – is more sudden, and occurring against a background rate of extinction that is already abnormally high.
The fact is, we need to escape ourselves long before we escape meteors or nuclear war.
So let’s re-test Musk and Hawking’s logic given that we are our own greatest threat.
ON HOISTING AND PETARDS
Shakespeare used a wonderful phrase in Hamlet who plotted that the King be “hoist with his own petard” – or blown up by his own bomb.
The Falcon 9’s 9x ‘Merlin’ semi-cryogenic rockets burns two propellants, liquid oxygen and a highly refined kerosene-based rocket fuel called RP-1. Liquid oxygen burns into more oxygen. No problems there. But RP-1 is a fossil fuel. The Falcon 9 burns around 150 tonnes of RP-1 in two stages. Add together initial combustion, oxidation of partially combusted CO, and aerosol effects of monatomic ‘carbon black’ at high altitude, and a single launch emits about 500 tonnes of greenhouse gas equivalents. Throw in the energy used to produce the liquid oxygen and refine the kerosene, and the total tops out at more than 650 tonnes – for one launch. For a manned Mars mission we’re talking about at least a dozen launches a year till 2024 to get started, then indefinite resupply.
Basically, we’re adding to greenhouse gas emissions on earth, to escape greenhouse gas emissions on earth.
It seems self-evident to me we shouldn’t be adding to global warming, till we’ve fixed it.
Some may argue Musk is also selling Teslas. If everyone buys a Tesla we will significantly reduce emissions, in the same way everyone should have bought solar panels 30 years ago, or be buying wind power right now. We’ve had the technology to solve climate change for decades. Technology isn’t the problem. It’s people. The only way we can avoid extinction is to change human behaviour.
Using rockets that contribute to global warming to escape global warming is more than a pointed contradiction. On a much more profound level, colonising Mars is a continuation of the same behaviour that got us in trouble in the first place. Here’s why…
Dr. Linda Billings (PhD) is billed as a communication researcher for NASA and advisor to the Senior Scientist for Mars Exploration, and Planetary Protection Officer. In the 2007 book ‘Societal Impact of Spaceflight’ Billings penned a chapter titled: ‘Ideology, Advocacy, and Spaceflight—Evolution of a Cultural Narrative’. In it she wrote:
“…examining the history of spaceflight advocacy reveals an ideology of spaceflight that draws deeply on a durable american cultural narrative—a national mythology—of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits.”
The ‘ideology’ Billings describes is basically a list of the reason we’re driving toward extinction – the very reasons we’re even thinking about needing a lifeboat. ‘Frontier pioneering’ led to the oppression of indigenous peoples and extinction of sustainable cultures everywhere. ‘Continual progress’ for its own end is worthless where the goal is unguided. Humans do not have a ‘manifest destiny’. Destiny should be based on merit. ‘Rugged individualism’ is a barrier to solving a collective challenge like climate change. And as for ‘a right to life without limits’, that’s just absurd, bordering on evil. The earth has limits. Operating within those limits is essential to our survival. All told, if we work off Billings’ list of merits, the ‘Societal Impact of Spaceflight’ is entirely negative. (Based on this one-eyed list of values, there’s no reason for space travel at all.)
This may seem like an abstract observation today, but place yourself a few decades in the future, when the Mars colony is still dependant on resupply from Earth, and the impacts of climate change have become far worse. Investing resources (and greenhouse gas emissions) to preserve an elite few on a distant colony will become a more glaring moral contradiction.
BURNING PLATFORM VS BURN THE SHIPS
DeGrasse Tyson’s podcast introduces Musk’s interview with the description “why Elon feels it’s important to not be stuck here on Earth.”
‘Stuck’ on Earth?
For thousands of years humans have maintained the illusion that we are somehow separate from the natural world. Every molecule in our DNA was formed by the light of our sun, to coexist with trillions of other species. Make no mistake, natural selection and all the forces of the Universe – geological and cosmological – weeded out billions of other species and permitted us to survive. The chance of finding any other home that will be so gracious is infinitesimal.
The real reason climate change is such a threat isn’t that we’ve burned too much fossil fuel. It’s that when we realised it was a problem, when we still had time to change, we made excuses for inaction. We claimed special privilege. We maintained this arrogant, ungrateful illusion of our separation from the natural world. For 10,000 years we have made every possible excuse to avoid the terrifying reality that this is the only planet we have, or that we have to earn the right to exist. We imagine afterlives, invent gods, and dream of space all to avoid taking responsibility for our mortal predicament. Precisely because Earth is so fragile, it is the only planet we can thrive: with the right temperature, atmosphere, resources, and compatible species – free of predators, toxins, viruses, or cosmic death rays. We have evolved here over a billion years for precisely these conditions, as have our food sources and symbiotic bacteria. We entertain the most absurd fantasies to allow ourselves not to do what is necessary for our survival. As long as humans think god, technology, or interstellar escape will save us, we will continue our lackadaisical approach to the real threat here on Earth: us.
In February 2011 then CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop sent the infamous ‘Burning Platform’ memo to all 68,500 staff, relating the story of “a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea.” That man was Andy Mochan, a superindendant on the fateful Piper Alpha oil-drilling platform which exploded in 1988. Mochan miraculously survived the explosion by diving 15 storeys from the fire-engulfed rig into freezing waters, saying later “It was fry or jump, so I jumped.” Nokia jumped. Subsequently, by adopting Microsoft’s operating platform, they survived. When Musk and Hawking cite five kinds of apocalyptic hell as a reason to leave, they suggest Earth is a ‘Burning Platform.’
Consider then, 469 years before Mochan jumped off his platform, Spanish Captain Hernán Cortés. Cortés landed in Veracruz to attempt the conquest of the Aztecs. Now, I’m reluctant to recommend the logic of a genocidal Conquistador who brought about the destruction of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, but he is the most frequently cited example of the following: Cortés gave the order to his men to burn the ships after they made landfall. Cortés understood that his crews would only apply themselves to survival in the territory if he removed the possibility of escape. They went on to more than double their numbers through alliances with local tribes, and wiped out the Aztecs. But Cortés was by no means the first to employ this strategy. There are dozens of examples of the ‘Burn the Ships’ trope in every culture, at every point in history: the mythical Tuath Dé invasion of Ireland, the Trojans (Book V, The Aeneid), the Sidonian rebellion against Ochus, Alexander the Great’s invasion of Persia, Chinese warlord Xiang Yu of Chu, the Roman Prefect Asclepiodotus, Emperor Julian the Apostate, Tariq ibn Ziyad in conquest of Spain, Swedish hero Styrbjörn, William the Duke of Normandy, the 1169 freebooters raid of Wexford, the pirate De Lussan, Germanic warrior Högni, John Paul Jones vs HMS Serapis and the mutiny on the Bounty.
As a rule, the only way an idea is arrived at separately in every human culture is if it is hard-wired into our brains.
Both the ‘Burning Platform’ and ‘Burn the Ships’ analogies illustrate the power of a forced hand, and the survival instinct. But they are also opposites. Mochan sought personal self-preservation in a desperate solitary leap, whereas the ship-burners all led armies. Musk and Hawking too are suggesting a solitary leap to survival, rather than a collective strategy.
There’s also a question of timing: For Mochan is was too late to save the platform, where the ship-burners were all driving toward a goal.
The question for Musk and Hawking is much the same. Is the Earth really a ‘burning platform’? Is it too late to save the Earth? Or do we need one last big push, one last act of desperate survival? Are we happy to celebrate Billings’ and NASA’s culture of ‘individualism’? Or, by relinquishing the survival of all humankind, are we conceding failure?
And by building a lifeboat are we accelerating our defeat?
Imagine an Earth ravaged by climate change, with a Mars colony in the mix – both a physical lifeboat and a monument to Billings’ ‘manifest destiny’, ‘individualism’ and ‘life without limits.’ As climate change worsens, promoting political instability, economic collapse and a tide of refugees, Earth will continue to become less attractive as a home, but requiring an inversely proportionate dedication to the cause of saving it. Meanwhile, Mars – reliant on resupply from Earth – will become inversely more controversial, and without a significant change in human behaviour an increasing symbol of elitism. The incongruity of continuing to allocate resources to a distant colony as Earth declines, must eventually reach flash point. History predicts that someone at some point will decide to ‘burn the ships’ regardless. But more importantly, what kind of message does it send to all those whose help we need to bail water now from our sinking vessel, if one of the heroes of the cause is planning his escape?
Moreso, how much then does the possibility of escape dilute the focus of those with concentrated wealth and power?
We must focus all our energy on preserving life on Earth. All of us. Or fail at our peril.
Burn the ships.
You can build them again once we have saved this planet.
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