Terraforming: Human Destiny or Hubris?
This story first appeared in the Spring 2005 Issue of Ad Astra Magazine
"Men are weak now, and yet they transform the Earth's surface. In millions of years their might will increase to the extent that they will change the surface of the Earth, its oceans, the atmosphere, and themselves. They will control the climate and the Solar System just as they control the Earth. They will travel beyond the limits of our planetary system; they will reach other Suns..."
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky c.1926
Say the word "terraforming" amidst a gathering of space enthusiasts and it's a bit like upending your beer mug in an Australian pub. It means you're ready to duke it out with anybody in the joint. And the fight usually breaks out along these lines: One team sees the quest to replicate the biosphere of Earth on other planets as a moral imperative, an inevitable destiny, or both. Others -- equally passionate -- recoil at such pretension, proclaiming with surety that humans have no right to interfere with Nature as writ large upon the face of other worlds. Both viewpoints are, of course, so fraught with self-defeating conflicts as to be, well, flat out wrong.
Weird, isn't it, that an enterprise that no one now alive can remotely hope to see fulfilled should arouse such fire and fury? [Nobody quibbles much about warp drives, wormholes or what we're actually going to reply to ET.] But there seems to be something about the notion of taking a planet upon whose surface you did not evolve and changing it to suit yourself that catalyzes all audiences immediately to one pole or the other.
Bind yourself to the nearest mast and try to listen dispassionately to the combatants and you'll start to hear these discussions for what they really are: religious conflicts. Disagreements rooted in faith, belief and longing. What you won't hear, usually, is good science. Not often sound engineering tips. And not much of immediate practical use to those of us who want to expand Humankind's range to include the resource base of space, a primary goal of the membership of the National Space Society.
Equally odd, if you think about it, the terraforming tirades seem to swirl solely around Mars. The asteroids are much easier to work with. Earth's Moon is closer, better known and sports a more fun-friendly gravity field. Europa, and (likely) other moons of the gas giants, may have lots more liquid water and could harbor more complex life. Comets have mega-tons of water and organics and they visit us predictably. And, as long as we're talking technology that doesn't yet exist, we might imagine (as Carl Sagan, and a generation of science fiction writers before him, did) thinning and cooling the atmosphere of Venus -- a virtual twin of Earth in size and mass -- as least as easily as we could cause a thicker and warmer atmosphere to magically stick to the low mass of Mars. [See Randa Milliron's excellent article in the winter 2005 issue of ad Astra.]
Yet Mars is where the terraforming battle rages now. So let's face it.
"Can we do it? We're doing it on the Earth," argues Jim Bell, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers' PANCAM, "We're changing the Earth's atmosphere whether we realize it or not. It's certainly within the realm of a reasonable extrapolation of future technology to think we can do it on Mars. Must we do it? I don't think that's our call. I think that's the call of the people who are living there a hundred years from now, living in spacesuits, dealing with this gritty dust that's all over the place, having to manufacture oxygen from rock or ice underground."
Not everyone wants to wait that long: "We have the capability now of being the pioneer species that can go out to a currently barren island out there on Mars and make it habitable for life," declares engineer and author Robert Zubrin. "Really, what humans are doing is, in a sense, fulfilling an obligation on behalf of the terrestrial biosphere."
Gaia Weighs In
There is a notion -- strangely, embraced by both ultra-liberal tree huggers and rabid reactionary exploiters -- that the Earth is somehow a self-regulating ?ber-organism. This idea implies that Terra's vast mass and complex biosphere will adapt to human-induced alteration in a manner that is ultimately favorable to that biosphere as a whole system (though not necessarily good for humans). But why would it be that Earth can do that, while Mars seems to have "areo-formed" itself from a warm wet world to a cold, dry barren wasteland? As Jim Bell puts it: "How do you go from an Earth-like place, to a Mars-like place?"
That is a central question behind the current Spirit/Opportunity missions. And their Principal Investigator, Steve Sqyures, has this to say about terraforming: "We are very far from being able to control -- or even fully understand -- the climate of our own planet. And I think that changing the climate of an entire planet in an intended direction, getting an intended outcome and betting people's lives on that outcome strikes me as a chancy proposition for the foreseeable future. It sounds like a tough thing to do."
Perhaps this whole business may turn out to be about simply taking control of the pace of biological change rather than about redirecting towards or away from Earth's biology.
Astrogeophysicist Chris McKay, one of the first scientists to look seriously into the notion of purposefully guiding the biological evolution of Mars -- and one of the founders of the so-called Mars Underground -- thinks of a Red Planet re-engineered, but for the original residents. "If there is life on Mars, it's not doing very well. We know that from just looking at the planet. And it could use some help," McKay believes. "I think we would be ethically on good grounds to support it, to encourage it to flourish into a global scale biota like we have on Earth, especially if it was on the verge of extinction which it could well be."
McKay would champion a technological effort to nurture these, presumably microbial, or at least miniature, Martians: "They would have the right to evolve on their own biological trajectory. Although Mars is a very interesting world without life, my own personal judgment is that life is a more intrinsically valuable, beautiful phenomena." Chris McKay perceives a marked difference between warming the planet up to support simple, stupid life and fully engineering a human-shirtsleeve balanced Nitrogen/Oxygen atmosphere at water cycling temperatures. On McKay's Mars, the first is possible and desirable; the second is not.
To do either requires giving the rusty red world a much thicker atmosphere. Mars atmospheric scientist Scot Rafkin isn't sanguine about that possibility: "I think it would be tough. And more than the technical aspect, you have to wonder how expensive it would be versus, say, enclosing huge regions of Mars and modifying the environment for human habitation. It might make more sense to do that than to try and add significantly more mass to the entire atmosphere."
"Life on Mars probably died out young when the planet went through this transformation to a thin, cold atmosphere," says planetary scientist David Grinspoon. "There's nothing about the ancient past of Mars that was so different from Earth that the origin of life should not have happened. I think it's quite reasonable to look for fossils on Mars (but) in my opinion Mars at present is dead, dead, dead."
Lacking any other examples of life in the Universe, there's no denying that Earth life's propensity to begat more life is spectacular. "The fundamental policy of life is one of talking barren environments and transforming them into those that are friendly to the propagation of life," opines Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. "That is why we have oxygen in Earth's atmosphere and why there is soil on Earth's continents. It's an artifact of life. Symbiotic communities of plants and animals have transformed the Earth."
Earth life and Mars life could be rooted in the same DNA. Or they could have had independent origins. "The question of going to Mars if there are, in fact, Martians - even microbes - is a question that tends to be glossed over by people that are really excited about the idea of going to Mars," David Grinspoon adds. "The good news is that there aren't Martians, I'm pretty sure. But we have to be a lot more sure before we go starting to set up our strip malls and sports stadiums."
Given our track record of modifying Earthly environments, can we safely conclude that Nature has pre-destined -- or at least deputized -- Homo sapiens to be the agent of its spread to the stars?
Again, Bob Zubrin: "Human beings in bringing life to Mars will be, in a very real sense, continuing the work of Creation. We will not be playing God but engaging in that activity that God gets the most credit for doing. By so doing, we will show the divine nature of the human species and, therefore, the precious nature of every member of it. No one will be able to look at a terraformed Mars and not be prouder to be human."
Ah, but what is a human in this brave new Universe? Though the specifics are fuzzy at best, no one disagrees that true, deep change of an entire planet -- Mars or any other -- will take "a long time." Our great-great grandchildren may find that it is easier to reshape and supplement people to live on varied worlds than it is to rework those worlds for the sake of people. The bio-memetic revolution is just now being born. And it may seem to its beneficiaries, a few generations hence, that the idea of altering an entire globe to perform like Earth is rather like Michelangelo depicting God as a great white, corpulent, male, cloud-floating human. It's a great work of art, but it now seems awfully exclusive and faintly embarrassing.
Could be our concern here ought not to be for what our descendants will think of us for having contemplated terraforming, but rather what the terraformers' progeny will think of them for having actually done it. Heady stuff.
Next page: The Designer's Galaxy
The Designer's Galaxy
One way to keep one's sanity inside a terraforming discussion is to remember why one wanted to set sail for space in the first place. Perhaps the most compelling reasoning for grabbing a toehold beyond Earth was articulated by Greg Allison within these pages a few months ago: survival, not just of we the "smart monkeys" but of Earth's complex and explosive ecology.
"If you've got an endangered species, you don't want to have just one little plot of it someplace,' says David Grinspoon. "All life on Earth is that endangered species. If we get to that stage where we'll be moving from one celestial body to another, we'll have a pretty good crack at outliving the Sun. We may be manning the lifeboats, but in those lifeboats there will be all the species of Earth coming with us (well, maybe not the mosquitoes)."
We space enthusiasts have felt this push for a long time. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian space visionary, began to build out a sensible strategy for populating the galaxy while the Wrights were still building bicycles. By the middle of the 1920's he "had it down to a science" (engineering details to be worked out later, of course). A liberal translation goes like this:
- Build, test and fly winged airplanes powered by rocket engines. [Sound familiar, X PRIZE fans?]
- Bit by bit, fly these faster and higher. [We now call it: "Build a little; test a little."]
- Drop the wings and create true rockets with reaction control systems.
- Learn to splashdown from orbit into the cushioning ocean. [Alan Shepard became Tsiolkovsky's test pilot in 1961.]
- Get up to Mach 25 and orbit the suckers.
- Incrementally extend your mission durations.
- Learn how to grow plants in zero-G to make atmosphere.
- Get your crews comfortable working outside in pressure-suits.
- Put your EVA skills to work making closed-cycle orbiting plant nurseries.
- Build town-sized space stations in various Earth orbits.
- Harness the Sun to heat your habitats, nurture their plants and push your around the Solar System.
- Expand your operation to the Main Belt of asteroids, using their resources to replicate your large habitats. Encourage big, diverse groups of people to live there.
- Populate the rest of the Solar System -- and as much farther out as you can get -- changing planets as needed. [OK, so there's the "T" word, finally.]
- Now -- as a consequence of the god-like powers you've obtained -- work on changing humans to live more personally fulfilling, socially responsible lives.
- Give in to population pressure and expand Humanity's range to other stars; spreading Earth's spawn geometrically.
- Leave the Sun behind entirely -- sometime well before it burns out.
So now you have it: a sixteen-step program to an infinite future for the seed of Humankind. Note how late in the game terraforming appears. Almost a century ago, Tsiolkovsky's stunning intuition showed that long before you get to the level of engineering required to transform whole worlds, you already have everything you need to prosper in space without such worlds! And there are very good reasons not to automatically gravitate to planets.
Implicit in this notion of planned planetary engineering is that you have to start with something the size of a whole world. But why do that?
Students and followers of Gerard K. O'Neill (yes, this author is one such) have conducted thousands of gentle, loving interventions for the past three decades, trying to help our colleagues get past their inborn "planetary chauvinism." Just because you evolved on a planet does not necessitate that you continue to live on one. And there are some profoundly good reasons not to do so. Like that big honkin' "gravity well" that you have to expensively and dangerously blast your way up out of each time you need to go someplace. And the bigger the planet, the worse the penalty.
It's tough to scale your engineering efforts to alter an existing world, making it ecologically dynamic yet stable enough for biology (like Earth's beneficial disequilibrium). But in building ever-larger individual contained habitats, you may likely learn the environmental and construction technologies to do so. Along the way, you end up creating a whole host of custom-designed mini-worlds in wide a range of shapes, sizes, climates, gravity levels and life-styles associated with these factors.
Importantly, a widely distributed, de-centralized society is much more resilient to (likely completely immune from) acts of senseless terrorism -- even if such acts are perpetrated on a planetary scale: say a diverted retrograde comet; a doomsday bio-weapon; choose your own personal nightmare...
And after all, planets are not common, not easy to travel to, and not really all that nearby.
Enticing as it may be, Mars is still on the order of 100 million miles away. And it's a bitch of an environment to work in: dusty, cold, windy, dry... Much closer are the Near Earth Asteroids; easier to get to than the Moon, much richer in materials too. Planetary geophysicist Dan Durda says it this way: "By the time you pull all the metals, the rich organic molecules, all the useful volatiles like water, the oxides (for re-entry shields) out of the surface of an asteroid, the slag (the garbage) you have left over has about the same composition as the lunar soil." And you, or your teleoperated robot, can work your way around most any asteroid with your fingertips. There's no deep "gravity well" to climb out of.
Way to Go
Let's face it: space settlement -- whether upon the surface of a terraformed sphere or within an engineered one -- is the living embodiment of "disruptive technology." If we go (and I say we must) we will change the Solar System and it will change us.
Easy for writers, like yours truly, to sit back and poke irony; hard to "put yer nickel down and bet". So I say this: Go on, inflame your colleagues. Debate terraforming all you want. Challenge and duel to your heart's content. But at the end of the night -- and particularly the next morning when it comes time to approach the bankers and the venture capitalists -- let's do what works.
And what works is what takes the least work: Asteroid/comet resources in near Earth orbits. The use of solar energy and electro-tether technology -- and a little bit of nuclear power -- to launch ourselves into a Hydrogen/Oxygen economy, which then would drive higher-order materials processing. And Humanity would get lots and lots of cheap, free-floating, scalable, designer settlements in interesting, useful orbits. Argue about modifying and colonizing whatever mud-balls you want as soon as the technologies truly become available.
But if you want to widely populate space soon, do this first. The way Tsiolkovsky, O'Neill and, perhaps, God (or at least the physics of the Universe) intended.
Dave Brody has been a Life Member of the National Space Society since 1982. He is currently IMAGINOVA's Executive Producer and Director of Media; the views expressed herein are entirely his own.
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