February 18, 2021 marked a groundbreaking day for the space community when the Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars’ surface. From the comfort of their TV screens, many people watched the rover make its final descent to the Red Planet. The rover’s purpose? To search for signs of life.
While interest in space tourism has spiked in recent years, so has the conversation of interplanetary living. The current conversation revolves around the potential of humans moving permanently to other planets — and the possible environmental and ethical implications of space colonies.
Although the notion of becoming a multi-planetary species can be deemed as something far off in the future, it’s actually a closer reality than you might think.
In a 2018 interview with the Washington Post, Elon Musk shocked the world when he announced that he has personal plans to move to Mars and settle down within his own lifetime. Jeff Bezos told the Washington Post, in a separate interview, that he plans to colonize the solar system.
Many private sector companies, like Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin, have made it their mission to reach these other planets. And with their followings, the notion of becoming a multi-planetary species has picked up a lot of support.
In fact, more than 100,000 people have signed up for a one-way trip to Mars, hoping to be chosen and spend the rest of their lives on uncharted territory, according to a 2013 CNN article.
“Some people think we should become multi-planetary in case Earth becomes uninhabitable due to pollution or a natural disaster,” said Dr. Claire Leon, former Boeing executive and professor of aerospace engineering at LMU.
The reality is, Earth won’t last forever.
“Eventually, the sun is going to explode and Earth will go away,” said Miles O’Brien, former aerospace correspondent at CNN. “Earth doesn’t last forever. And that’s a depressing thought, right. Think of all the things we’ve created from art to literature to science and technology all just evaporating one day… It’s a little bit of human narcissism in a way because we want to make sure we continue the lineage of humanity, the knowledge, everything we hold dear somehow never ends…But still, I like the idea of thinking that humanity will extend beyond some finite period.”
Others are more hesitant about the idea of humans becoming multi-planetary, adding that there are plenty of social and political complications that can arise.
“I only support it provided that we do it with the ultimate goal of human survival, as opposed to superiority or dominance or poor ethics,” said Michaelyn Thomas, an aerospace industry specialist and executive manager at Virgin Orbit, a rocket company based out of Long Beach, CA.
“Space settlement can be a way for humans to move beyond the differences that divide us on Earth and it can foster a collective culture to work together as a human race, as opposed to the social and geographical constructions that separate us on our planet,” Thomas added. “Perhaps when the evolutionary cycle of Earth comes to an end, all humans would have safely relocated over time to new planets.”
This isn’t just idle fancy: NASA’s website has a 35-page, step-by-step guide on how to colonize Mars, called “NASA’s Journey to Mars.”
According to the guide’s introduction, Mars “is the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence…Mars’ geological evolution and climate cycles were comparable to Earth’s, and…at one time, Mars had conditions suitable for life.”
In order to understand the extent to which becoming a multi-planetary species is possible, we must understand the various avenues to do so — and evaluate the environmental effects and ethics of these possibilities.
Terraforming is the unnatural process of altering the environment of a planet to mimic that of Earth. Essentially, terraforming refers to the modification of a planet’s natural atmosphere to make one that is habitable for humans.
While totally innovative, terraforming is a very controversial topic, with its ethics being brought into question.
“I would take terraforming off the list. I don’t think Mars you know, as Elton John said, ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,’” said O’Brien.
“I am not an expert, but I do question the logistics, ethics and politics behind such an incredible endeavor,” said Thomas. “I suspect that we humans don’t quite know what we’d be eradicating in the chosen planets’ natural environment once we deploy and start the process of terraforming.”
Environmentalists are hesitant about the process of not only terraforming, but touching down on other planets in general.
“I think it would be horrible if humans went in there and, I call it, contaminated that whole area,” said John Dorsey, professor of environmental science at LMU. “I would not be surprised if we do find something [a form of life], but I think we need to take tremendous precaution not to contaminate the area.”
Dorsey clarified that contamination is harmful to the microbial level. “You’d be amazed at where Earthly microbes can hang out. There’s this one species of bacteria called Deinococcus that was found living in nuclear reactors. So, they’re pretty amazing life forms. So whatever you do, you want to make sure that when you’re sampling other planets, moons, things like that, you don’t want to contaminate.”
While many people think of space exploration as trivial or view an interplanetary society as some distant possibility, there are others whose job revolves around this hypothesis.
“I think it is not so much about avoiding contamination. There is no way we can avoid contamination if we go anywhere, because of the nature of human design. Wherever we go, we spread germs,” said Vera Mulyani, founder and CEO of Mars City Design, an architectural company whose sole purpose is to develop sustainable living destinations on Mars. She calls herself a “Marschitect.”
Rather than avoiding contamination, Mulyani emphasizes the importance of humans living in harmony with the natural environment, by adapting to the natural environment.
Mars City Design is a Los Angeles based company that has a crowd-sourced urban design and innovation platform where they create blueprints of sustainable cities for human colonies on Mars. Currently, they have test locations in the Mojave Desert where they plan to 3D-print the future of Mars.
They emphasize biomimicry, which is the process of building around the natural, prerequisite environment of Mars.
“Everything we put out there is going to blend and be in harmony,” said Mulyani. “It’s very holistic, meaning sometimes you don’t even see the building because it’s integrated into the landscape. It’s using the existing space that is already carved by nature.”
Due to the fact that resources are so limited on Mars, Mulyani states that we will have no other choice but to reuse what we bring, or waste, from Earth.
Because of these limitations, Mars City Design suggests we use the materials that are already abundant on Mars for construction: basalt, regolith, ice rocks and transparent aluminum. This approach is eco-friendly in the sense that it minimizes the amount of materials being transported to Mars from foreign locations. Mulyani stresses the importance of subtracting versus additive manufacturing.
While technology billionaires make ambitious claims to colonize Mars and private companies actively plan for their arrival, many aren’t thrilled about catapulting the process in general, viewing it as a call to abandon the Earth.
“I think only recently, in the last three or four decades, have we really begun to understand the levels of impact that we have on our own planet. We are realizing that globalization, development, and our extreme resource extractions and overuse has led to extinctions, loss of ecosystem services and widespread global effects from climate change,” said Karina Johnston, professor of environmental science at LMU. “In my opinion, we should focus first on ‘getting it right’ here on Earth before we seek to expand our colonization.”
“I do think that both of those gentlemen [Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk] have enough money to really make a dent solving some important problems we have here, and I’m not telling them how to spend their money, but I do think to the extent that it gives some people an excuse, in a weird way, to think of our planet as a disposable item, like ‘oh we’re done with that one, let’s go to the next one,’ it’s a bad frame of mind to have,” said O’Brien. “I love the idea of going to space and exploring space, but space as a tool to solve our own planet should be right at the top of our list right now because we’ve got some big, fundamental issues here and we don’t want to make this whole multi-planetary species thing mandatory because we can’t live here anymore.”
Ultimately, the coming decades will be telling of how we plan to approach interplanetary living. If you could be the czar of Earth’s future space endeavors, what would you like to see us do?