Red Civilisation: Our Future among the Stars

Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.

–Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Contemplating a life on our neighbouring Red Planet has always fascinated me. In 2009, I presented a talk for my English class on colonizing Mars, and the research I gleaned from that exercise has fuelled my imagination ever since. After reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book Cosmos, and watching the brilliant reboot of the series hosted by one of my favourite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I have once again begun to think about what it would be like to build a society on Mars.

Earth’s human population is increasing at an alarming rate. This is having significant spiralling effects on other aspects necessary to sustain life: the depletion of natural resources, subsequent environmental damage, and myriad health problems. In essence: our planet is being hotly contested for the sustenance of our precariously built civilisation.

Thus we have two options: to seek out solutions to our current predicament (which is hastily being done by passionate people from diverse professions). And to seek out other possible places for habitation.

The latter option is both absurdly outlandish and deeply compelling to those with an affinity for the creation of something new.

Human beings have always been nomadic – we’ve always had the impulse to explore, to go beyond the horizon and discover things. It makes sense, then, that the quest for Mars has always been on our roadmap. It’s just the challenge of getting there that’s been the obstacle on our path. We’ve made significant steps, though: NASA’s Mars rovers, the most recent of which, Curiosity, is doing a sterling job of understanding Mars. The robots getting us closer to that ultimate goal of finally stepping on this mysterious red world…

But when (and not “if”) we get there, what will our civilisation be like? We have the opportunity to start fresh. To reimagine our politics, to create a new culture – to develop, if you like, a “Society 2.0.” After a generation, we will be the Martians. And the shaping of anther planet will take our species from being shaped by the evolutionary forces of the Cosmos to being the shapers of worlds, the creators of entire planets, and disseminating our species further amongst the stars.

It’s an exciting and immensely frightening prospect. Perhaps there will be friction between those who dwell on the “home planet” (Earth) and the new society developing on Mars. What will interplanetary economics be like? Could there be a possibility of trade between both planets? And, of course, management of resources has the potential to spark the fires of war. The surface area of Mars is equal to the entire landmass of Earth; if our population continues its exponential rise and we end up shunting a fraction of that off to another world, there will inevitably come a time when Mars itself will be facing similar challenges. And discoveries of precious resources could be another reason for planetary invasions and dissent between both worlds… Of course, issues of religion will also be a major factor: religion was, after all, a major component of historic expeditions to new worlds. Now, with the momentum of science and the advancement of technology, would we be able to transcend such things, or to effectively update our philosophies to encompass dual-world inhabitations?

The contemplation of future societies amongst the stars is filled with rhetoric. But it is these questions that can spark further debate about the sociocultural aspects of inhabiting other worlds. Imagine travel brochures offering getaways to Olympus Mons… “experience fabulous Valles Marineris…” New architecture for a new world, new means of transport, living, working, entire professions rewritten for a red planet…

I leave you with this message for Mars by Sagan:

“The gates of the wonder world are opening in our time…” –Carl Sagan

The new “Cosmos” Trailer

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of my favourite contemporary scientists and all-time awesome voice of reason and science in today’s confused world, will be headlining the reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

Titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the 13-part documentary series will be broadcast sometime next year.

I think Neil deGrasse Tyson fits the role perfectly, given how passionate he is about science and learning. The new series is also being produced by Carl Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan. I can’t wait to watch it.

Here’s the official trailer from the San Diego Comic-Con:

The Next Frontier of Civilisation: Contemplating Mars

Curiosity approaching the Martian surface. (credit: www.universetoday.com)
Curiosity approaching the Martian surface. (credit: www.universetoday.com)

It sounds like science fiction: a one-way trip to the Red Planet, with the chance to be one of the first humans to venture forth into the vastness of deep space and establish the first Martian colony. A project called Mars One is attempting to turn that wisp into reality, and already over 70 000 people have signed up. But this entire project draws a deeper level of contemplation: of our future as a civilisation.

Renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan (one of my scientific heroes) wrote this in his bestselling novel Cosmos: 

Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred, and there are few notions more stirring than the idea of a neighbouring planet inhabited by intelligent beings. […] If the planet ever is terraformed, it will be done by human beings whose permanent residence and planetary affiliation is Mars. The Martians will be us.

–Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” (1980)

Our future lies in the stars, on the dusty surface of a distant neighbour we’ve gazed at for centuries, dreamt of visiting, wrote extensively about and let our imaginations run wild upon its rocky, crimson surface. Mars has a special place in my heart. I’ve written about it fictionally, and gave a presentation on it in Grade 10. Even before that, I had whimsical dreams of making a movie called Mission to Mars. But now, the dream of visiting this planet is becoming a lot more real each day. Scientists, engineers, economists, medical specialists, writers are all coming together to imagine just how we could take our civilisation to the next frontier: space.

The Problem Right Now

Earth is a beautiful planet. It has just the perfect blend of ingredients to allow you and I to exist. However, in our advancement as a species, we’ve created a few challenges: globalisation, industrialisation, and the growth of our species has resulted in depleting natural resources and, effectively, a dying planet. Call it what you want – global warming, climate change – our impact has rendered our planet unfit, unhealthy. And whilst urbanists and others try to find solutions to our crises, I do believe that the time to consider a second planet is now.

Yes, it sounds far-fetched. Because it is. But if we were to stop, and consider how rapidly our society has advanced in merely 150 years – from a society dreaming about soaring amongst the birds, to one that takes flight for granted, even complains about the Wi-Fi signal onboard. We’ve progressed. And I think, in that vain, contemplating the Red Planet is only natural; a logical progression from where we were, to where we are, to where we shall be.

Contemplating Mars is an exciting solution to some of our great challenges.

Why it’s compelling

Thinking about establishing permanent residence on an entirely new planet is a truly exhilarating thing. Imagine Mars as a blank canvas: with an already intelligent society descending upon it, we have the opportunity to intelligently design what could be a “civilisation 2.0,” a new take on society, politics, and urban living.

We could start society afresh: history has taught us of the social implications befalling the colonisation of distant lands. It usually leads to civil unrest, civil war, and the assertion of supremacy of one group upon a larger citizenship. These are issues we can avoid, for we now have the chance to strategically plan our new society, and to design all its constituent components. It’s a vision of utopia, yes – and here, literature warns us that utopian conceptions are prone to failure in the face of reality. But by designing everything – from the technology, to the social engineering – we have the opportunity to create something truly remarkable on an altogether fascinating planet. Whilst it may never be perfect, it will be as close to it as we could get.

The science and technology are not quite there yet: much still needs to be done to get our ideas and their execution up to the scratch of the “greatly advanced technology” Sagan talks of needed to accomplish such things as full-scale planetary terraformation. But if we can get more people invested in the notion that going to Mars is a very real possibility, and that we can establish our presence there in a very tangible way, I think the momentum will begin to increase, propelling this dream into reality.

The Mars One Project

Mars One is interesting. At first, its ideas will enthral you (I invite you to visit their website and see for yourself the promises they make). However, their mission should not be considered the final word on this idea. Mars One is still very much a project in its infancy; after all, creating a new colony is extremely expensive. They talk of outsourcing the tech aspects to more qualified private companies, like SpaceX for the launch vehicle. But SpaceX themselves have still got a lot of work to do; they’ve only recently (last year) managed to launch an unmanned craft to the International Space Station. Whether the Mars One project will prevail remains to be seen; 70 000 people think so, but reality in this case seems to be the big door at the end of their dreams.

This brings about another interesting node of thought: will the future of space travel, and thus, exploration, be a triumph of the private sector, or will government agencies continue to take us towards the stars? From the progress of pioneers like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, I think the days of the politically-sided government agency funding space are limited, and the age of commercial travel, and the innovation spawned from competition, will be one aspect that might get us to Mars quicker than bureaucratic methods.

One thing’s for certain, however: those who will eventually be jettisoned to our neighbour may risk the very real possibility of not returning to Earth. Their’s will be a one-way journey to a new future and all its possibilities. Only the most committed souls, those so devout to the advancement of science and the progress of our race, will make that difficult psychological and social cut. But they’ll be heroes, and will get to live the dream many of us have harboured for years.

In closing…

I’m not saying that we should ditch efforts to solve the problems facing us here on Earth; that we should run away (literally) from the challenges of this age. Urbanisation, depleting fossil fuels, and increasing populations are issues that really need more attention. But if, for a moment, we were to step back, and consider advancing our species, propagating ourselves into the stars, and all the opportunities (and inherent challenges) that face us in that grander scheme of things, I truly think we can begin to see innovation on an awe-inspiring scale. We can begin to inspire generations to embrace the concept of moving beyond Earth, of standing on the shoulders of giants like Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and those others so invested in humanity’s future. We can begin to see ourselves as not only the explorers, but the settlers too: the founders of a new era.