Moving Beyond Earth

Nerd Alert: It is my sincere hope that at some point during my life we make the necessary advancements in order to send people beyond Earth to colonize another planet. The first logical step would be Mars. If that occurs before I’m old and decrepit, sign me up. Seeing as we’re on the right track, I am confident that we will at least land a human on Mars in my lifetime. Colonization might sound crazy, but it’s not that far fetched (continue reading). I believe there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that we could be entering a revitalized era of human space exploration. There are numerous challenges, but continued exploration, and ultimately colonization are critical to the long-term prospects of our species.

Why Leave the Pale Blue Dot?

Valid question. The one stipulation I have is that I would like to visit all seven continents prior to my departure. The Earth is an incredibly beautiful place, diverse in both its landscapes and inhabitants. I want to get my fix before I leave. Although, despite my affection for our planet, I believe expanding our reach in order to ensure the survival of our species and preserve consciousness is a far nobler pursuit. The reality is that humans barely register as a blip on the radar in the history of the Earth, let alone that of the greater universe (or multiverse). This can be challenging to come to terms with, but if we want to stick around for the long haul, we’re going to have to leave the nest.

Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” offers my favorite model to convey the brevity of our existence. He explains that if the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history were consolidated into a single 24-hour day, humans would emerge just one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight:

“The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime, barely an instant. Throughout this greatly speeded-up day continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minute, somewhere on the planet there is a flash-bulb pop of light marking the impact of a Manson-sized meteor or one even larger. It’s a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummeled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do for long.”[1]

If you’re in need of additional perspective, consider that dinosaurs roamed Earth for over 30 times longer than we have. Of course they only had natural disasters to worry about. We face an additional threat and perhaps the mightiest adversary of all: ourselves. The number of catastrophes that could take place – man-made or natural – are limitless. No matter how you look at it, our time on Earth is finite. A multi-planetary existence would allow us to hedge our bets and mitigate the risk.

Ultimately, I believe it is our duty to envision and secure a future for humanity beyond Earth. We are not restricted to this planet. For once in the history of our species, we can alter our course as primarily destructive beings and avoid the mass extinction that follows in our wake. We have an opportunity to spread and cultivate life on other planets, moons, and asteroids within our solar system. This would act as a safety net for intelligent life, as we know it, ensuring that we wouldn't be extinguished in one fell swoop. It is widely agreed by some of the most brilliant minds in the world that this is indeed the next step in the evolution of life.

Bringing Mars (and the rest of the solar system) within Human Reach:

Bust out The Magic School Bus. This requires some serious technological advancement but I think the commercialization of space technology and exploration, most evident in the increased competition between companies like Boeing and Space Explorations Technology (SpaceX), will help propel this and drive down costs. There’s certainly no shortage of challenges. These range from issues relating to cost, practicality, deep sleep, radiation, habitats, self-sufficiency, mass transport, and terraforming, to name a few. In my opinion, the two initial game changers will be developing a safe method of deep sleep, called torpor, and a reusable rocket transport system.

Torpor is a state of lowered physiological and metabolic activity where body temperature is lowered to between 90 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit, reducing metabolic rate by 50-70%.[2] This offers a significant advantage in long distance space travel because with our bodies in stasis, resources required for the journey are drastically reduced (kitchens, food, water, supplies, etc.). There are multiple benefits to this but in initial human expeditions it would translate to smaller, more efficient ships, helping to cut costs. Looking further ahead to scenarios of colonization this would save room for other important equipment and materials.

NASA is currently funding research to study prolonged torpor.[3] What we know already is that torpor occurs naturally in some cases of hypothermia and for the past decade it’s been used for trauma and critical care patients. As of today torpor is limited to about one week in its duration. We would need to find a way to extend this to ideally about 180 days (based on planetary alignment, speed, etc.) in order to make Mars a reality. This does not come without its challenges. During stasis, nutrients would have to be monitored and supplied via intravenous feeding. Over such an extended period of time, muscular atrophy and bone loss also become a real concern. It’s suggested that this could be limited by sending low-level electrical pulses through the body and/or a spinning habitat, but research is ongoing.

Another necessity, and widely agreed to be the most important, is the development of a reusable rocket transport system. The trouble with current rockets is that they’re built for single use and they’re not cheap (and that’s putting it lightly). Reusability is key here because it would drive costs down significantly and the concept of colonization would become much more feasible. Consider the example of airplanes. They’re expensive to build, although admittedly not even a fraction the cost of a rocket, but airfare is affordable because planes are reused, often several times each day. The same model could apply to space travel.

Elon Musk, the brains behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, sees reusability as the fundamental development needed to revolutionize access to space.[4] Not surprisingly it’s the primary focus of SpaceX. The major challenge is that these rockets need to be able to withstand re-entry and return to a vertical landing position. Fortunately, we’re an intelligent species and able to conceive such advancements. When we develop a solution for both reusable rockets and prolonged torpor, it will eliminate a number of barriers and space will become far more accessible.

Video of Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) taking its second test flight at our rocket development facility. F9R quadrupled its height from its previous test to rise to 1,000m. Early flights of F9R will take off with legs fixed in the down position.

Life on the Red Planet:

Disclaimer: Mars is going to be borderline miserable living for the foreseeable future. That’s not to say it cannot be made into a planet where we could thrive, but that will take centuries. It’s going to be pretty brutal for the first colonists. Many have likened the environment of Mars to the heart of Antarctica. Mars is a barren desert where the average temperature is -81 degrees Fahrenheit.[6] Obviously this depends entirely on location; surface temperatures range anywhere from -284 degrees to +86 degrees. Additionally, Mars’ thin atmosphere makes the retention of heat a difficult task and the lack of a magnetosphere makes solar radiation a real threat. Did I mention the colossal dust storms that occasionally engulf the entire planet?[5] Fun times.

Now the good news, despite all this, is that Mars does in fact possess the fundamentals for life. Water that once flowed freely on the surface is now frozen in the soil, sunlight would allow us to harness solar power, and its sols (solar days) average 24 hours and 37 minutes, quite similar to days on Earth.[6] Additionally, key elements necessary for life have been found, including: sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.[7]

Considering the challenges we face on Mars, especially the temperature and oxygen levels, the concept of terraforming is rather intriguing to consider. Terraforming is the process of manipulating the conditions (atmosphere, temperature, topology, ecology) of a planet, moon, etc. to reflect those of Earth.[8] This would make it more habitable and manageable for Earth-based life.

As it relates to terraforming Mars, we would first need to warm the planet up. The Martian atmosphere is incredibly thin. Earth’s atmosphere is more than 100 times denser.[6] Despite this, there are a number of ways we could initiate the process of building a thicker atmosphere to retain heat and filter radiation. In fact we’re quite good at this here on Earth – see climate change. We would need to initiate a greenhouse effect and release some of the carbon dioxide beneath the surface of Mars.

There are a number of suggested ways to achieve the release of greenhouse gases. A few of these include orbital mirrors to reflect sunlight and heat the surface, redirecting asteroids with high levels of ammonia to hit Mars (ammonia would raise the greenhouse gas level), or pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.[8] The trick will be finding a way to accelerate this process – best case we’re talking centuries into the future before we see significant results. The good news is that once you get the heating process started, it creates an autocatalytic effect. After the initial release of carbon dioxide, the planet will begin to warm which in turn releases additional carbon dioxide, and so on.

Terraforming Mars - An artist's depiction of the gradual process

If we were able to return Mars to its warm, wet state, it would then become theoretically suitable for organic life. We could manipulate the soil in hopes of one day introducing plants to the surface that would thrive in its carbon dioxide atmosphere, and eventually cultivate forests.[8] Over time, these forests would convert the atmosphere to breathable air, allowing us to walk freely on the surface. Remember, I am greatly oversimplifying this process and it’s going to take quite a bit of time. How long? I have not a damn clue, but you and I will be long gone by then.

The Bigger Picture:

We need Mars first before we can take the next step. In terms of proximity, it makes the most sense, and its conditions bear a closer resemblance to Earth’s that any of our other neighbors. Once we reach and colonize Mars, it will offer momentum for continued human exploration and colonization. We could then consider intriguing moons of Saturn and Jupiter, among other locations.

There are many who believe that we might be getting slightly ahead of ourselves to consider colonization. They argue that we should wait and allow technology additional time to advance and explore for us. Perhaps I’m impatient. Although if that’s the case, I’m in good company since Elon Musk has stated on multiple occasions that he thinks SpaceX could be leading the colonization of Mars by 2040.[10] He estimates that ticket prices will be in the neighborhood of $500,000. I’ll start saving. 26 years from now puts me at 52, still a spry young lad. Musk’s vision might be somewhat optimistic, but the dream has to be there before it can become a reality.

The one certainty here is that in order to ensure the survival of our species, we must move beyond Earth. If we don’t, we will be left to wither over time. As far as we know, we are unique in our levels of consciousness and intelligence. We possess the ability to consider our own existence and the foresight to preserve it. Despite the chaos that the human species can bring about, I believe we are still a beautiful phenomenon that has the considerable capacity for good. If given the opportunity to assist in our preservation, I would be happy to oblige. A multi-planetary existence is a monumental challenge, but I truly believe that the ends justify the means.

[1] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway, 2003. 336-37. Print.
[2] Prindle, Drew. "NASA Is Funding Research on Deep Sleep for Transporting Astronauts to Mars." Digital Trends. 7 Oct. 2014. Web.
[3] Klotz, Irene. "NASA Eyes Crew Deep Sleep Option for Mars Mission." Discovery News. 3 Oct. 2014. Web.
[4] "Reusability: The Key to Making Human Life Multi-Planetary." SpaceX. 1 Oct. 2014. Web.
[5] "The Perfect Dust Storm Strikes Mars." NASA Science. 11 Oct. 2001. Web.
[6] "Mars Facts." NASA Mars Exploration. NASA. Web
[7] "NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars." Jet Propulsion Laboratory: California Insitute of Technology. NASA, 12 Mar. 2013.
[8] "Terraforming." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Nov. 2014. Web.
[9] "Terraforming Timeline: Making Mars Ours." Exploring Space. PBS. Web.
[10] Andersen, Ross. "The Elon Musk Interview on Mars Colonisation." Aeon Magazine. 30 Sept. 2014. Web.