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:

Where’s our sense of wonder?

We as a society have become jaded by the banalities of modern existence.

The idea of travelling beyond the reaches of our planet’s confines has become something of a given; the frequency of trips to the ISS has relegated space travel to just another fact of daily life. With the cancellation of the Space Shuttle programme, this has further propelled the notion that space has become common, that humans choose to obsess over trivial things rather than contemplate the big questions out there.

Our sense of wonder has left us, to be replaced with the pressures of 9-5 living, of surviving the next day, and the day after, existing for the weekend or that holiday that will proffer us an ounce of reprieve from the stress of the now. We’ve forgotten what it was like to be caught up in the excitement of one of our species venturing forth into the unknown, discovering something new and taking us as a civilisation just a step further.

We’ve forgotten what it was like to be amazed, to be awe-inspired by the wonders of exploration. With the moon conquered, with Everest scaled, we’ve become a little too complacent with our position on Earth. Issues arising from that double-edged sword of industrialisation and political bureaucracy have resulted in a stagnation of appreciation for the beauty that is discovery. Many aren’t phased by the heroic missions of astronauts on the ISS.

What we need is something truly spectacular to rekindle that feeling of the Apollo days, the Space Shuttle days. The launch of a Soyuz from the deserts of Russia offers some of that excitement; last year’s chilling free-fall jump by Felix Baumgartner was another moment when humanity collectively witnessed something amazing in the name of going into the unknown. We need more of these moments. More of those fragments of time when the troubles of today can be put into the perspective of a grander vision of existence.

As we progressively advance our technologies, and science continues its relentless pace forward, I do hope that this generation, and the ones following it, will keep this momentum going and inspire those moments of wonder that validate us as the curious creatures that we are.