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


SpaceX: Boldly Going into the Future

Yesterday, South African-born billionaire entrepreneur, inventor and engineer, and founder of eBay, PayPal and SpaceX, Elon Musk, launched the first private attempt to dock with the International Space Station. This bold move goes down in history as the beginnings of a new frontier in space exploration – the age of private spaceflight.

I’ve been following the private sector’s developments in space technology for some time now. You may be wondering why the big cable news networks and blogs are making such a fuss over the Falcon 9 rocket’s launch. The gist is this: before President Obama came into power, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (known as NASA to non-space geeks) had this brilliant, yet exceptionally expensive plan for a programme that would take-over from the aging space shuttle fleet (the STS, or space transportation system programme that’s been a large part of NASA’s recent history). It was called the Constellation Programme, and the idea was to return to the moon by around 2017, and from there, move to a human landing on Mars or an asteroid. They’d even begun testing new rocket-engine technology and had developed three concept vehicles based on an engine called the Ares. Things were looking good for NASA, until Obama came into the White House, and, inheriting a poor-administered political landscape and having to begin a term of office in what was probably the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, he effectively cut all funding for the Constellation Programme. Just like that, the excitement at returning to our cosmological neighbor was brought to a standstill.

NASA thus decided to outsource its rocket building activities to the private sector, so that they could focus on astronomical research, and at the same time, give themselves more time to work on a new rocket system that could fulfill at least some of the objectives of the scrapped Constellation programme. SpaceX is one such private company that has shown significant potential in developing and successfully launching a vehicle that, it is expected, by 2014 will be able to allow the United States to launch their own astronauts to the ISS and not rely on their partners at ROSCOSMOS (the Russian Federal Space Agency).

SpaceX has proved that it is possible to engineer a space vehicle at a fraction of the cost of what governmental agencies spend on this type of design work. Yet it also opens up the skies to a myriad number of designers, engineers and future thinkers who are willing and ready to contribute to the advancement of our civilisation, a future that is certainly embedded firmly in the realm of the stars.

Why Colonising Space is the Future

I’m very interested in the colonisation of space, as I do believe that this is the future. Our planet has been plagued by human error in our quest to develop civilisation. Thus, it makes sense that, with our rapidly developing technologies and breakthrough discoveries in science, we can indeed “redeem” ourselves by setting up a colony on another planet.

We have already colonised the space around our own planet, so to speak, as their are thousands of man-made craft orbiting the Earth at various heights.

I’ve presented a speech that was quite successful in late 2009 (the transcription and a few images are available here), and the research that I undertook for that presentation really caught my attention to the fact that it’s possible to colonise right away. The problem with the methods described in my research was that the costs are insanely high, and because of the arcane nature of the project, and the volatility of such an endeavour, investors are not willing to part with their money just yet.

Over the course of 2010, I hope to talk more on this fascinating subject. I will, naturally, be discussing the colonisation of Mars, our nearest neighbour, as its similarities to our own home are very high.

There is a trilogy of novels written by Kim Stanley Robinson called the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) that really captures the idea of terraforming a planet, and the scientific, cultural and social repercussions that accompany it, from a wide variety of viewpoints. I plan on reading the series this year to further enlighten my quest to understand the colonisation of space.