Should we be aiming for Mars when we still need to save our own planet?
4 November 2021
Three University of Auckland academics ponder the question, for Ingenio magazine, of whether we should keep trying to explore Mars when Earth needs help.
The probability of being hit by an asteroid capable of wiping out life on Earth is very low, but rare things do happen.
Each academic had around 350 words to voice their opinion.
Professor Guglielmo Aglietti
Whether we should shoot for Mars when we need to save our own planet is a legitimate question to ponder, as we have to prioritise and balance different aspirations.
The natural resources that support life on Earth are limited and although every possible effort must be made to preserve our environment and its sustainability, the natural world evolves and so does our society. Every successful society in history has grown beyond its initial settlement, and therefore we can expect a similar evolution.
The history of our planet and knowledge of space taught us that events such as asteroid strikes are relatively common in planetary timescales, and ultimately the Sun will not be able to sustain life on Earth forever. Although the timescale of the latter means that we don’t need to worry about that for some million years, concerns about the former are legitimate.
A large celestial body could be already on a collision course with Earth, with consequences that could be catastrophic. It’s a scenario fit for Hollywood disaster movies, but so was the explosion of a worldwide pandemic, with the consequences we have all experienced. Therefore, I would be cautious to outrightly dismiss these disaster scenarios.
Indeed, the probability of being hit by an asteroid capable of wiping out life on Earth is very low, but rare things do happen. Therefore, if possible, it is wise to prepare and develop a capability to support life elsewhere, for example on Mars.
Other arguments can be deployed, from the more historical to the scientific. Our ancestors went beyond what was thought to be the end of the world in search of fortune, and similarly now we are considering venturing beyond Earth to settle or capture new resources. There’s also the fact that exploring Mars might shed light on the evolution and end of life on a planet.
Then there’s the more utilitarian argument that the development of space technologies has produced countless innovations that have improved life on Earth, and we can think about a future where interplanetary tourism or asteroid mining would be relatively common enterprises.
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be whether we should aim for Mars, but what resources should be designated to support this endeavour while allowing us to address the many other urgent challenges society faces.
The imperative to live within the limits of this planet is one we need to face and address – indeed a Māori approach requires nothing less, and even that we live regeneratively.
Dr Dan Hikuroa
Enabled by the world’s best sailing innovation, the waka hourua, our ancestral navigators discovered, mapped out and settled more than 1,000 islands across Te Moana Nui a Kiwa Pacific Ocean.
They perfected non-instrumental open-ocean navigation more than 3,000 years ago, well before early European explorers reached the Pacific with compasses and sextants.
“He ao! He ao! He aotea! He aotearoa,” are the words Kuramārōtini (also known as Hine-te-aparangi), hoa rangatira of Kupe, cried out when those aboard the Matahourua, chasing the octopus Muturangi from Hawa’iki, encountered the lands we now call Aotearoa New Zealand.
When Kupe departed to return to Hawa’iki, he recorded the name Te Hokianga-Nui-a-Kupe, Hokianga for short, as his departure point and then shared the star paths to navigate back to Aotearoa from Hawa’iki.
But the skills and vast knowledge that had been handed down for generations were almost lost altogether, save for the vision and efforts of Pius Mau Piailug, the last of the master navigators, who shared it with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Placed anywhere in the Pacific Ocean, Mau could ‘see’ where he was and navigate to any place. Since then, numerous aspirants have become master navigators and the future of navigating is secure. So, the discovery of new ‘worlds’ has always been part of Māori history.
Although human curiosity no doubt played a role in the search and discovery of new islands, such migration was largely driven by necessity, as population growth increased and demands on limited resources surpassed ecosystems’ carrying capacity. It strikes me that Mars missions and our quests to get humans to Mars, ostensibly as a solution to exhausting the limits of this planet, follow a similar path to my ancestors – voyages of discovery followed by migration compelled by need.
But the imperative to live within the limits of this planet is one we need to face and address – indeed a Māori approach requires nothing less, and even that we live regeneratively.
As for whether we should aim for Mars, I refer to a story I heard about Mau Piailug. When invited to look through a telescope on Maunakea he asked “why?” To see distant celestial objects was the response. He replied to the effect, “If I can’t ‘see’ it, I am not supposed to see it.”
Perhaps that’s what my ancestors would say.
This new age of exploration ... is not driven by science, but by the prospect of profit and, most importantly, the narcissistic ego of our favourite billionaires.
Dr Heloise Stevance
This question couldn’t be more relevant, when we are in a new age of space exploration and your sibling who dreams of going to Mars on holiday is sounding less and less crazy by the day. But why now, when we’ve been sending rovers to Mars for nearly 25 years?
For the first time in history, we are looking at the prospect of putting people on Mars, which captures not only the imagination and wonder of the public, but also is a beautiful demonstration of late-stage capitalism.
This new age of exploration (which is starting to look a lot like colonisation) is not driven by science, but by the prospect of profit and, most importantly, the narcissistic ego of our favourite billionaires. These very same billionaires gathered their outrageous wealth and power by exploiting the working class and taking advantage of a system that is, at its roots, careless of the environment.
But that is the tragedy of fast advances in space exploration: they are never driven by science and always driven by ego. Why do you think Russia and the US raced each other to the Moon? It’s the world’s greatest peeing contest. Now the Musk-bros are going to come at me claiming I am ‘anti-progress’ when in fact I am just ‘pro-science’ with a sprinkle ‒ a dash even ‒ of ‘anti-capitalism’.
Going to Mars is great, we have so much left to learn and I am enthralled by the progress of Perseverance and Ingenuity. I am, however, less impressed by Jeff Bezos’s space phallus (if you haven’t seen pictures of his rocket, I recommend you check it out).
Space exploration and environment conservation are not mutually exclusive ‒ there is enough brain power and money around. The problem is that it is currently up to a few billionaire individuals to choose where to spend our planet’s resources, when it should be up to scientist communities.
I won’t tell you that we should never ever send humans to Mars, but it may be time to read the room and deal with the climate emergency and wealth inequalities. Never mind if it crushes Elon Musk’s dream.