With all the talk and efforts behind going to Mars to build a colony, I can’t help but think about how we are going to do it and what will happen to people when we do. I love science fiction that touches on the subject, I also love the imaginary technologies behind those stories. As an anime fan, any space colonization talk can’t escape the “Gundam” and “Macross” series. Putting my mind back on a more practical track though, I have somewhat mixed feelings on the subject.
Martian Optimism & Pessimism
We humans have proven time and again that when we put our focus to the job, we can bring about rapid technological advancements in a relative short time. The current estimates to put a colony on Mars by 2027 might actually work out if things progress as it is now. I do not have doubts that we will be able to do it. I do not have doubts that the colonists will have a way of survival on the red planet. It is not a matter of if or how. We might be off by a few years but as far as I am concerned, it is just a matter of when.
However, I do think that we will lose most if not all the colonists we send there in the first group. The main reason for this is that there is no Plan B if something goes badly wrong.
- We do not have a permanent presence in space and it is unlikely for us to have one within the next 10 years. The ISS is a good attempt but is merely a research outpost, not a full fledged resupply star base. To boot, it is nearing 20 years of construction and it is not completed yet. Any resupplies have to be launched from Earth, and requires Mars to be at a certain point of its orbit to be sent over. There will be a delay between physical contacts with Earth, a delay long enough to kill everyone before help arrives.
- We can deal with many of the difficulties of living on Mars, it is just a matter of technological advancement. We can’t deal with the low gravity there though. Science fiction aside, we do not have the means to negate the effects of low gravity. We know the effects of living in a zero gravity environment for months. We do not know what will happen to people when they live in a low gravity world for years. Sending colonists from Earth itself might not be a good idea.
- If the companies which are backing the push go bust, who will support the colonists? There probably won’t be any economic returns for building a colony on Mars, so it will be a continuous drain. If the companies go down, will the colonists be abandoned to their fate?
And this is why I think leap-frogging the moon to go to Mars may not be a good idea. I would say a better approach would be to set up proper infrastructure in near Earth orbits and on the Moon before going for more ambitious plans. The infrastructure will not likely be run by humans either. AI will be the way to go. Thus, I think what we should first do is…
- Build a base on the Moon that will provide building materials for other structures and ships in space.
- Develop asteroid mining capabilities to provide raw materials (water included) in space.
Without the necessary timely support, the first Mars colony will be a reality TV show gone horribly wrong, as the entire world will watch intently at the slow deaths of its inhabitants.
AI, Evolution & Genetic Modification
Let’s suppose the Martian Colony was a success. The next problem will be evolution as humans living there evolve to adapt to the new environment. This is where the Low G will feature greatly. Martians will probably grow taller and with weaker hearts, or their eyes might change to perceive their world differently. In any case, it shouldn’t take long to see physical differences. Question is…how will Earthlings perceive their Martian progeny? I think it will be imperative for a tolerance to develop for eventual demi-humans that evolve on the other habitats in the solar system, or things will get ugly pretty quick.
Let’s look a bit further into the future when we send out the first colony ships to other stars. I doubt the ships we send out will be anything like the ones we see in science fiction today. I imagine that it will contain cryogenic chambers but there won’t be any full sized humans on board. Everything will be controlled by an AI, programmed to have motherly functions. The living things in the chambers will be human embryos or perhaps fertilized eggs. When the ship reaches a habitable planet, we can not and will not drop humans on it. The biosphere, if there is one, will be completely different from Earth. For humans to survive on this planet, genetic modification will be required. In other words, we won’t be sending humans to other planets. We will need to send a blueprint of human DNA and a means to edit that blueprint into a sub-species of human, specially adapted to live on the new world. The colony ship will land or drop scouts onto the surface and use any information retrieved to build a new species. The human embryos will be modified and raised on the ship before setting them loose. When the first contacts come back to Earth, we will be looking at new humanoid creatures.
The only way to remain Earthling biologically will be to develop instantaneous travel across the void of space. As romantic as it is in fiction, I doubt this will come to be for a long time, if it is even practically possible. Even when we do, what was once human would probably have changed into humanoids as varied as all the colors in a palette.
If we are still as petty as going to war over religious differences, what hope do we have of accepting a different human species altogether? As such I think the final roadblock to space colonization will not be technological, but social. It will be the concept of tolerance and the acceptance of human genetic engineering.