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Terraforming: Human Destiny or Hubris?

This story first appeared in the Spring 2005 Issue of Ad Astra Magazine

 

"Men areweak now, and yet they transform the Earth's surface. In millions of yearstheir might will increase to the extent that they will change the surface ofthe Earth, its oceans, the atmosphere, and themselves. They will control theclimate and the Solar System just as they control the Earth. They will travelbeyond the limits of our planetary system; they will reach other Suns..."

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky c.1926

Saythe word "terraforming" amidst a gathering of spaceenthusiasts and it's a bit like upending your beer mug in an Australian pub. Itmeans you're ready to duke it out with anybody in the joint. And the fightusually breaks out along these lines: One team sees the quest to replicate thebiosphere of Earth on other planets as a moral imperative, an inevitabledestiny, or both. Others -- equally passionate -- recoil at such pretension,proclaiming with surety that humans have no right to interfere with Nature aswrit 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 seefulfilled should arouse such fire and fury? [Nobody quibbles much about warpdrives, wormholes or what we're actually going to reply to ET.] But there seemsto be something about the notion of taking a planet upon whose surface you didnot evolve and changing it to suit yourself that catalyzes all audiencesimmediately to one pole or the other.

Bindyourself to the nearest mast and try to listen dispassionately to thecombatants and you'll start to hear these discussions for what they really are:religious conflicts. Disagreements rooted in faith, belief and longing. Whatyou won't hear, usually, is good science.Not often sound engineering tips. And not much of immediate practicaluse to those of us who want to expand Humankind's range to include the resourcebase of space, a primary goal of the membership of the National Space Society.

Equallyodd, if you think about it, the terraforming tiradesseem 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 gravityfield. Europa,and (likely) other moons of the gas giants, may have lots more liquid water andcould harbor more complex life. Cometshave mega-tons of water and organics and they visit us predictably. And, aslong as we're talking technology that doesn't yet exist, we might imagine (asCarl Sagan, and a generation of science fictionwriters before him, did) thinning and cooling the atmosphere of Venus -- avirtual twin of Earth in size and mass -- as least as easily as we could causea thicker and warmer atmosphere to magically stick to the low mass of Mars.[See Randa Milliron'sexcellent article in the winter 2005 issue of ad Astra.]

YetMars is where the terraforming battle rages now. Solet's face it.

DesignerWorlds

"Canwe do it? We're doing it on the Earth," argues Jim Bell, lead scientist for theMars Exploration Rovers' PANCAM, "We're changing the Earth's atmosphere whetherwe realize it or not. It's certainly within the realm of a reasonableextrapolation of future technology to think we can do it on Mars. Must we doit? I don't think that's our call. I think that's the call of the people whoare living there a hundred years from now, living in spacesuits, dealing withthis gritty dust that's all over the place, having to manufacture oxygen fromrock or ice underground."

Noteveryone wants to wait that long: "We have the capability now of being thepioneer species that can go out to a currently barren island out there on Marsand 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

Thereis a notion -- strangely, embraced by both ultra-liberal tree huggers and rabidreactionary exploiters -- that the Earth is somehow a self-regulating ?ber-organism. This idea implies that Terra's vast mass andcomplex biosphere will adapt to human-induced alteration in a manner that isultimately favorable to that biosphere as a whole system (though notnecessarily good for humans). But why would it be that Earth can do that, whileMars seems to have "areo-formed" itself from a warmwet world to a cold, dry barren wasteland?As Jim Bell puts it: "How do you go from an Earth-likeplace, to a Mars-like place?"

Thatis a central question behind the current Spirit/Opportunity missions. And theirPrincipal Investigator, Steve Sqyures, has this tosay about terraforming: "We are very far from beingable 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 intendeddirection, getting an intended outcome and betting people's lives on thatoutcome strikes me as a chancy proposition for the foreseeable future. Itsounds like a tough thing to do."

Perhapsthis whole business may turn out to be about simply taking control of the paceof biological change rather than about redirecting towards or awayfrom Earth's biology.

AstrogeophysicistChris McKay, one of the first scientists to look seriously into the notion ofpurposefully guiding the biological evolution of Mars -- and one of the founders of theso-called Mars Underground -- thinks of a Red Planet re-engineered, but for theoriginal residents. "If there is life on Mars, it's not doing very well. Weknow that from just looking at the planet. And it could use some help," McKaybelieves. "I think we would be ethically on good grounds to support it, toencourage 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 technologicaleffort 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 personaljudgment is that life is a more intrinsically valuable, beautiful phenomena." Chris McKay perceives a marked differencebetween warming the planet up to support simple, stupid life and fullyengineering a human-shirtsleeve balanced Nitrogen/Oxygen atmosphere at watercycling temperatures. On McKay's Mars, the first is possible and desirable; thesecond is not.

Todo either requires giving the rusty red world a much thicker atmosphere. Marsatmospheric scientist Scot Rafkin isn't sanguineabout that possibility: "I think it would be tough. And more than the technicalaspect, you have to wonder how expensive it would be versus, say, enclosinghuge regions of Mars and modifying the environment for human habitation. Itmight make more sense to do that than to try and add significantly more mass tothe entire atmosphere."

"Lifeon Mars probably died out young when the planet went through thistransformation to a thin, cold atmosphere," says planetary scientist David Grinspoon. "There's nothing about the ancient past of Marsthat was so different from Earth that the origin of life should not havehappened. I think it's quite reasonable to look for fossils on Mars (but) in myopinion Mars at present is dead, dead, dead."

Lackingany other examples of life in the Universe, there's no denying that Earthlife's propensity to begat more life is spectacular. "The fundamental policy oflife is one of talking barren environments and transforming them into thosethat are friendly to the propagation of life," opines Mars Society founderRobert Zubrin. "That is why we have oxygen in Earth'satmosphere and why there is soil on Earth's continents. It's an artifact oflife. Symbiotic communities of plants and animals have transformed the Earth."

Earth life and Mars life could berooted in the same DNA. Or they could have had independent origins. "Thequestion of going to Mars if there are, in fact, Martians - even microbes - isa question that tends to be glossed over by people that are really excitedabout the idea of going to Mars," David Grinspoonadds. "The good news is that there aren't Martians, I'm pretty sure. But wehave to be a lot more sure before we go starting toset up our strip malls and sports stadiums."

Givenour track record of modifying Earthly environments, can we safely conclude thatNature has pre-destined -- or at least deputized -- Homo sapiens to be theagent of its spread to the stars?

Again,Bob Zubrin: "Human beings in bringing life to Marswill be, in a very real sense, continuing the work of Creation. We will not beplaying God but engaging in that activity that God gets the most credit fordoing. 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 tolook at a terraformed Mars and not be prouder to behuman."

DesignerHumans

Ah,but what is a human in this brave new Universe? Though the specifics are fuzzyat best, no one disagrees that true, deep change of an entire planet -- Mars orany other -- will take "a long time."Our great-great grandchildren may find that it is easier to reshape andsupplement people to live on varied worlds than it is to rework those worldsfor the sake of people. The bio-memetic revolution isjust now being born. And it may seem to its beneficiaries, a few generationshence, that the idea of altering an entire globe to perform like Earth israther like Michelangelo depicting God as a great white, corpulent, male,cloud-floating human. It's a great work of art, but it now seems awfullyexclusive and faintly embarrassing.

Couldbe our concern here ought not to be for what our descendants will think of usfor having contemplated terraforming, but rather whatthe terraformers' progeny will think of them forhaving actually done it. Heady stuff.

Next page: The Designer's Galaxy

~

The Designer'sGalaxy

Oneway to keep one's sanity inside a terraformingdiscussion is to remember why one wanted to set sail for space in the firstplace. Perhaps the most compelling reasoning for grabbing a toehold beyondEarth 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.

"Ifyou've got an endangered species, you don't want to have just one little plotof it someplace,' says David Grinspoon. "All life onEarth is that endangered species. If we get to that stage where we'll be movingfrom one celestial body to another, we'll have a pretty good crack at outlivingthe Sun. We may be manning the lifeboats, but in those lifeboats there will beall the species of Earth coming with us (well, maybe not the mosquitoes)."

Wespace enthusiasts have felt this push for a long time. KonstantinTsiolkovsky, the Russian space visionary, began tobuild out a sensible strategy for populating the galaxy while the Wrights werestill building bicycles. By the middle of the 1920's he "had it down to ascience" (engineering details to be worked out later, of course). A liberaltranslation 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.

Sonow you have it: a sixteen-step program to an infinite future for the seed ofHumankind. Note how late in the game terraformingappears. Almost a century ago, Tsiolkovsky's stunningintuition showed that long before you get to the level of engineering requiredto transform whole worlds, you already have everything you need to prosper inspace without such worlds! And there are very good reasons not to automaticallygravitate to planets.

PlanetProblems

Implicitin this notion of planned planetary engineering is that you have to start withsomething the size of a whole world. But why do that?

Studentsand followers of Gerard K. O'Neill (yes, this author is one such) haveconducted thousands of gentle, loving interventions for the past three decades,trying to help our colleagues get past their inborn "planetarychauvinism." Just because you evolved ona planet does not necessitate that you continue to live on one. And there aresome profoundly good reasons not to do so. Like that big honkin'"gravity well" that you have to expensively and dangerously blast your way upout of each time you need to go someplace. And the bigger theplanet, the worse the penalty.

It'stough to scale your engineering efforts to alter an existing world, making itecologically dynamic yet stable enough for biology (like Earth's beneficial disequilibrium).But in building ever-larger individual contained habitats, you may likely learnthe environmental and construction technologies to do so. Along the way, youend up creating a whole host of custom-designed mini-worlds in wide a range ofshapes, sizes, climates, gravity levels and life-styles associated with thesefactors.

Importantly,a widely distributed, de-centralized society is much more resilient to (likelycompletely immune from) acts of senseless terrorism -- even if such acts areperpetrated on a planetary scale: say a diverted retrograde comet; a doomsdaybio-weapon; choose your own personal nightmare...

Andafter all, planets are not common, not easy to travel to, and not really allthat nearby.

Enticingas it may be, Mars is still on the order of 100 million miles away. And it's a bitch of an environment to workin: dusty, cold, windy, dry... Much closer are the Near Earth Asteroids; easierto get to than the Moon, much richer in materials too. Planetary geophysicist Dan Durda says it this way: "By the time you pull all themetals, the rich organic molecules, all the useful volatiles like water, theoxides (for re-entry shields) out of the surface of an asteroid, the slag (thegarbage) you have left over has about the same composition as the lunarsoil." And you, or your teleoperated robot, can work your way around most anyasteroid with your fingertips. There's no deep "gravity well" to climb out of.

Way to Go

Let'sface it: space settlement -- whether upon the surface of a terraformedsphere or within an engineered one -- is the living embodiment of"disruptive technology." If we go (and Isay we must) we will change the Solar System and it will change us.

Easyfor writers, like yours truly, to sit back and poke irony; hard to "put yer nickel down and bet". So I say this: Go on, inflameyour colleagues. Debate terraforming all you want. Challenge and duel to yourheart's content. But at the end of the night -- andparticularly the next morning when it comes time to approach the bankers andthe venture capitalists -- let's do what works.

Andwhat works is what takes the least work: Asteroid/comet resources in near Earthorbits. The use of solar energy and electro-tether technology-- and a little bit of nuclear power -- to launch ourselves into aHydrogen/Oxygen economy, which then would drive higher-order materialsprocessing. 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 thetechnologies truly become available.

Butif you want to widely populate space soon, do this first. The way Tsiolkovsky, O'Neill and, perhaps, God (or at least thephysics of the Universe) intended.

Dave Brody hasbeen a Life Member of the National Space Society since 1982. He is currently IMAGINOVA's Executive Producer and Director of Media; theviews expressed herein are entirely his own.

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