Human ignorance… or why we might never become Martians

When I was little, I was fascinated by an eco-project called Biosphere, where scientists  had taken on the task of recreating an entire ecosystem within a giant greenhouse. This greenhouse was supposed to be a closed system, only consuming as much oxygen as it needed, or rather as much as the people living within this system needed. The landscaping was beautifully laid out by an article in the GEO magazine and I was stunned by the pictures – this was before I learned how to read.
Only much later did I realise how ambitious or maybe even beautifully insane the idea of recreating an ecosystem actually was. I do not have to tell you how complex ecosystems are and how tricky it is to get the parameters right within their boundaries – think of hundreds and thousands of species interacting, stabilising water, soil, and air parameters, etc.
Unfortunately the project was a failure. The inhabitants of the Biosphere, mostly the humans to be precise, were struggling with low oxygen levels, and high CO2 levels, biological water filtering not working properly, too much heat – the greenhouse was part of the Arizona desert.

The ocean at Biosphere
The ocean at Biosphere. Image by Jasper Nance. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Almost 30 years later, the successful recreation of a functional ecosystem has still to come. Or does it? It depends on whether you believe that mankind should travel to Mars or start a colony on the Moon. Of, course there is always the possibility that we eventually manage to wipe out some of the life support systems on earth and have to replace them by artificial ecosystems.

Did you know that traveling to the Mars would approximately take 500 days? Can you envision being locked in a tiny space with 5-6 other people? To make this more worthwhile, those who plan such missions have thought of only allowing space travel for such long distances for couples. Well, good luck then, because theoretically divorce might be an option, but practically…?
Even better, the long travel in outer space makes it necessary to shield the voyagers from radiation, which is a problem on every flight but more so in space. Usually lead plates would be able to shield of such radiation, but that would make the spacecraft incredibly heavy and it would not be able to leave Earth. Some genius has come up with the solution: organic matter works similarly effective in absorbing radiation. Hence, the proposal, the voyagers could use their dried faeces – yes, their poo! – which is in essence organic matter, to cover the walls of the spaceship on their way to Mars. What a lovely prospect, being with the same six people, locked in a small space, and all the walls get increasingly covered with poo, wrapped in plastic bags of course. Do you still think we will ever travel to Mars?

There is a more rational, less sarcastic reason for not going to Mars, it is actually pretty nice on the planet we live on. Can you tell me why we would want to travel one-and-a-half years, taking a high risk of never returning, or even dying on our way, to be then stuck on a planet that is effectively I gigantic desert? Well done folks, because I can’t think of one either! We have a life support system on Earth in place and it works for the whole planet not just some small greenhouse, which might get incredibly warm, CO2 prone, and freaky small, just remember the Biosphere project.
Let’s face it, nature is just so much more capable of tweaking the system and avoiding collapse than we are. All we have to manage is stay well within our limits. Oh yeah the limits, I did not tell you that at the moment we are using resources which projected to infinity would use up 1.7 Earths. You might say: “Sorry children and grandchildren, but we just had to try to get off the planet. As you see, it did not work but we also used incredible amounts of money, resources and creative potential to give it a try. At least we send this space crew towards Mars in 2035. Well, okay they never made it, but they could have. No, actually we did not know yet how to get them back, or how to transport large proportions of the population in that direction either, but we were so rich and so bored, we had to give it a shot.”

Mars seen from space at daybreak
Mars seen from space at daybreak. Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. CC BY 2.0.

Elon Musk, let’s describe him as a adventurous space entrepreneur, sees humanities future on Earth rather gloomy and said something along the lines, that humanity will either become a space-bearing, multi-planetary species or go extinct due to environmental catastrophe. His company, SpaceX will thus produce “cheap” trips to Mars, which of course will require public funding, because after all it is for the greater good. On top of it, SpaceX will do the Mars trip already in 2024, 11 years earlier than NASA. They do produce recyclable rockets, so how bad can this plan be? The only alternative that you could think of to prevent environmental catastrophe for all of us, right?

Let’s face it we have but this one planet. It is pretty awesome the way it works, or at least the way it was working before we developed industrious people came along. We have scratched its surface quite a bit but that does not mean that we need a new one soon, or more importantly, that we will have the chance to find an equally likable planet.
Even if some economists assure you that all we need is more growth and everything will be fine again, just look around you and listen to what your heart tells you. Those stories about endless economic growth and prosperity might just not be true.
That leaves you with two major options: (1) bury your head in the sand and hope that you won’t be here anymore when we have transformed Earth into Mars or (2) act as if you were responsible for this ONE planet (or at least your doorstep of it) and avoid (option 1) for the sake of our children’s children. To explain what I mean by responsible, I probably need another article, but until then be creative!

Yeah, alright, you are probably just about to sign up for the Mars mission with Elon (option 3 then). Good luck convincing your partner to share the bunk bed with you and never mind the poo covered walls.

Hope you enjoyed reading this. Comments, sarcastic as well as others, are welcome!

 

Resources:

New Scientist (2013) – Mars trip to use astronaut poo as radiation shield

Independent (2014) – SpaceX’s Elon Musk: Nasa? 2035? I’ll put man on Mars in the next 10 years

Earth Overshoot Day (last visited 18/01/2018)

Elon Musk explaining space travel to Mars (65 min. Video) – Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species

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