Part 1: Homo Sapiens, we have a problem
Our future on this blue marble planet we call home is uncertain.
Uncertain like the perpetual expression on Jared Kushner’s face or hearing Yanny when deep in your heart you know damn well it’s Laurel (#TeamLaurel, #TeamTruth). We don’t know when the end of time will arrive for mankind, but the time will come. Students of evolutionary biology know this. Doomsday predictors profit off it.
Fun fact - of all the species that have ever lived on Earth in the past 4 billion years, 99.9% are extinct. And the typical lifespan of a species is 10 million years. That is barely a wink in geological time-scales. On Earth, extinction is the rule, survival the exception. And there is no reason to believe we are exempt from the forces that fossilize.
Once upon a time, not long ago we were just one of the many proud Homo’s in the club called 'YAS, Live Your Best Pre-historic Life'. We had our cousins, Homo neanderthalensis chilling, relaxing, and acting all cool in the cold, barren land of Europe, and the Denisovans trekking through Asia, on what must have been the original “Eat. Pray. Love. lemme find myself in Asia" trips. These species of Homo eventually went extinct, which of course is a euphemism because in all likelihood we, members of the Homo sapiens tribe outcompeted them either through peaceful means or really aggressive rock – paper – ‘kill off your entire clan’ –scissor games. The world has witnessed the extinction of all but one Homo species, and right now by default we’re next in line. A royal succession of death.
Grappling with our eventual demise has never been humanity’s strong suit. Hence why so many religions and cultural traditions believe in an 'after life' with unlimited mimosa brunches, trap ‘Drunk in Love’ remixes on single repeat, and twangels (twerking-angels). Okay, maybe that’s just my vision of the after life, but you get it. The concept of the 'after life' is born out of our desire to be immortal when death is the only guarantee. The after-life promises us solace and an eternal second chance.
What solace exists for an entire species? And do we get a second chance? More specifically, what do we do if Earth becomes inhospitable either by man-made causes like nuclear winter, biological warfare, climate change, or artificial intelligence uprising? Where do we go if cosmic forces beyond our control like an asteroid impact or solar flare eruption make Earth inhospitable? How do we cope if Trump wins in 2020?
If you’re sitting here thinking, Wahala, you silly wabbit, apocalyptic extinction scenarios are for kids, I’d say "wrong!" The threats are real and can occur at a non-zero probability. And even if we live peacefully for eons to come, in 3.5 billion years, assuming we get to 2020, the sun will burn 40% brighter than it does today. All the world’s oceans will boil away and the thirst will be life-threateningly real. Overtime, life could not survive on Earth’s surface and our planet will be effectively sterilized. So while we may try to persist, this is no alternative fact. Eventually, the Sun's fire and fury will turn Earth into a dry, torched, and lifeless place.
All of this is to say, Homo sapiens, we have a problem. Our judgment day is coming. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. But it is coming. And so the burning question we have to ask ourselves is:
How do we ensure the survival of our species?
Does humanity get an after life?
Do angels twerk?
I've been asking the last question for years. Cosmologists and futurists have been asking the first two questions for decades. They’ve also been dreaming up solutions for just as long. Most have converged on a single answer, an inconvenient truth.
We need to leave.
Carl Sagan, the brilliant late astronomer, astrobiologist, visionary, and science inspiration of mine said it best:
Venturing to other worlds is the solution. But where do we go? And how do we get there?
Enter Earth’s rambunctious, charismatic siblings.
The planets fascinated me in elementary school. I imagined them as Earth’s tight-knit family, eighth celestial bodies (RIP Pluto) orbiting their single parent Sol, each with distinct personalities. Venus was Earth’s jealous, hot twin sister, who looked at Earth’s beautiful blue oceans and bountiful oxygen with envy. Mars was the distant younger brother who smoked too much weed in adolescence and is now just straight chilling with almost no water or atmosphere to his name. Jupiter, the self-absorbed older brother whose ego was so big it commanded the orbit of 69 groupies aka moons. Saturn, the stunt-queen older sister whose rings stayed in formation. And then there was Pluto, the Tiffany Trump, a defacto step-child, adopted late in life and later returned to the Kuiper belt. The cruelty of having been accepted into the solar family still burns fresh on her near absolute-zero lips.
As I grew older, my fascination with planets morphed into consuming stories about humanity defying extinction by surviving, living, and thriving on distant planets. I read the space-exploration and space-opera cannon. Series like ‘Enders Game’, ‘Dune’, and ‘Red Mars’ expanded my world view by showing me that while Earth may be our precious nest of a planet, it also houses all our eggs. And for that reason, while life on Earth is beautiful, triumphant, and everything in between, it's also fragile, limited, and hangs on a thread. Our existence is but a tiny speck on an infinitesimally small needle buried in the gargantuan haystack that is our galaxy.
And so the scale of the problem we are facing is truly enormous - ensure the survival of humanity for eternity. And the scale of our galaxy is even bigger. Like a kid entering Six Flags for the first time, the possibilities for how we tackle this problem feel endless. The limit does not exist. And why should it?
It is in this grand intellectual playground where modern marvels are conceived and pioneers are born.
Part 2: Mars Generation
Who are the pioneers?
We are. Generation Y aka Millenials aka the favorite subject of salty Baby Boomers who write op-eds about civilization ending because we’re entitled Facebook addicts who'd rather brunch on chicken and waffles with bottomless mimosas than work an honest factory job. To that I’d say, wrong wrong wrong! We’re entitled Instagram addicts who'd rather brunch on chicken and waffles with bottomless mimosas than work an honest factory job. Gosh! I mean why work if we can sustain ourselves on perpetual Venmo requests and payments for Ubers, food, and drinks?
Millenials (Generation Y) and Generation Z (Snapchat users) will be the pioneers of the space frontier because we’ll be working in our prime when NASA and other space agencies begin sending human missions to Mars and locations in our Solar System. We are the Mars Generation, a term coined in 2015 by then 18-year-old astronaut-enthusiast Abigail Harrison. The Mars Generation is a moniker used to excite more investment in ‘Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics’ (STEAM) education and galvanize public support and imagination for a mission to Mars. Finally, MarsGeneration is meant to inspire the next generation of scientists, astronauts, artists, and pioneers who will work together to explore the cosmos and give our species a chance at an after life.
But why Mars?
There’s certainly no twerking angels on Mars. The planet is dusty, cold, barren, and dry. It’s the modern day Republican party - red with no sign of life.
Mars is also the best we got. Of the three other terrestrial planets, atmosphere-less Mercury orbits so close to the sun that its night and daytime temperatures range from -280F to 800F. That gives the pop-gem “Hot N Cold” a run for its money. Venus, while it’s described as Earth twin’s sister due to its similar size has a wild, messy climate. Think Anthony Scarramucci on Jersey Shore or Omorosa meeting New York. Venus is consistently the hottest planet in the solar system because of the Runaway Greenhouse effect, which traps heat on the planet. I volunteer climate change deniers as tributes for the first human missions to Venus. Of course, the atmosphere of Venus is nearly 100x thicker than Earth’s meaning the tributes would be immediately crushed upon entry onto the planet. Like hips and Abe Lincoln, data doesn’t lie. *looks at climate change deniers*
The Gas giant planets are all disqualified on the basis that they’re made of gas so…unless we’re trying to float on clouds of hydrogen and helium - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are not matches.
Still, people have imagined setting up colonies on these disqualified planets through terraformation, which is the act of modifying a planet to make it more like Earth and thus more suitable for life. For example, in the case of Venus, we could install gigantic mirrors that orbit the planet and reflect the sun’s rays. This would slowly cool the planet over millennia and also enhance the selfie-game of any astronaut to cosmic proportions.
At the moment, we’re not going to terraform any of Earth’s siblings because they’re beautiful just the way they are... slash we don’t have the financial resources. This really leaves Mars as the sole suitable planet for immediate human exploration and eventual colonization. Mars is not too far from Earth, it’s a low-gravity terrestrial planet with some water and an atmosphere. It’s measly, but beggars can’t be choosers here. Also, Mars may have supported life early in its history, which is exciting! This is an active area of research for astrobiologists and bet will be THE greatest scientific discoveries – finding evidence of life in space.
NASA and other national space agencies have sent many a spacecraft to Mars over the years to understand more about this elusive chanteuse. Currently there are 6 spacecraft orbiting Mars, and 2 rovers on the ground collecting data that will be useful for eventual human missions to Mars. These missions are not far off as several national space agencies and private companies have announced human missions in 2030s.
One company space enthusiasts are excitedly following is Elon Musk’s, brainchild SpaceX. Elon Musk aka the real life Tony Stark aka Grimes boyfriend (what?!) is transfixed by the idea of saving humanity from extinction by establishing off-world colonies. An excellent series of blog posts about Elon Musk and his SpaceX vision was released last year by “Wait But Why” for interested folks. SpaceX’s goal is to launch a human mission to Mars by 2024. NASA by the 2030s. Admittedly, their goals are ambitious, but a quote by the late president John F. Kennedy, the president who heralded America into the space age inspires me and other futurists.
Sending men and women to Mars will undoubtedly be difficult. Sending humans to walk on another planet hundreds of millions of miles away will be on of the most challenging technological hurdles we have ever endeavored to complete. And there are no guarantees that the astronauts will come back alive. And yet, that red, dusty, cold, barren planet still calls our names. Like an enchanting siren, the song of Mars fascinates us, it lures us, it begs us to study and explore. And so we answer Mars' call, not because it is the easy thing to do, but because it’s hard. And because we’re curious. And curiosity only kills cats right?
Curiosity has driven our species from the savannas of East Africa to virtually every habitat in the globe. And that same curiosity will propel us to complete our first human mission to Mars, and our second, and our third. Hopefully, we’ll soon have a full-time base on Mars, followed by an autonomous colony, and eventually large settlements . And maybe on this red, barren, cold planet, humanity will find our after life.
Part 3 – A Whole New World
I’ve been talking about exploring space as if it’s some trivial activity. An item 4 on a 'To Do List':
- Pick up groceries
- Call mom
- Learn Beychella choreography
- Establish long-term human settlement on another planet with dangerous levels of cosmic radiation and little atmosphere, oxygen, or water
Clearly, there are a panoply of problems to solve before completing item 4. Some of these problems include – figuring out the effects of long interstellar voyages on the human mind and body. We also need to figure out how to sustainably live, breath, eat, and drink on a foreign planet. How do we protect ourselves from cosmic radiation and large windstorms? Can the astronauts stream the new Grey's Anatomy season (how is this show still going #qtna)? These are questions that need answers if we’re really about that Mars exploration life.
In the midst of these technical questions, I believe one concern should be on the forefront of our minds as we move to expand our footprint in the galaxy.
What type of society do we want to build?
Space exploration represents the possibility for us to engineer a world as we wish. One of my qualms about science-fiction has always been that in a genre where anything is possible, its stewards who are predominately white men reproduce the patriarchal, white-supremacist, and heteronormative systems here on Earth out in space. Protagonists are overwhelmingly white men, women are limited in agency and the roles they play, people of color might as well be wearing invisibility cloaks because you don't see them. The sci-fi genre relies on bold visions of the future, which I contend should be constructed to be more inclusive, just, and equitable. A true declaration that all men and women are created equal.
When I dream of the space-faring age for humanity, concomitant in this dream is an age where all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, class have equal access to opportunity. The next frontier should not be de-facto designated for white men. If we are not careful to combat this, we are in danger of replicating systems that unfairly bar people from reaching their full potential. Space represents a sort of do-over, and if we are committed to the radical restructuring of new space societies, then declarations of equality may end up being true.
So how do we do this?
One way is to exercise an unyielding commitment to an inclusive and diverse vision. By commitment, I don’t mean lip-service talks of ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ - the emptiest words in academia and business besides "sorry for the delayed response" (no you're not sorry Susan! Don't lie.)
Nor do I mean designating days where we celebrate a group of people with no substantial change to the status-quo. The level of commitment I’m talking requires money and resources to train students in underserved regions in STEAM disciplines. We should be attracting and developing talent from diverse backgrounds because genius isn't confined to certain zip codes or one gender.
I think about stories like ‘Hidden Figures’ an excellent movie about black female engineers in the 1950s who were barred from participating in the main team of engineers, all white men, who were tasked with solving the math that launched satellites to the moon. Imagine how much sooner America would have gotten to the moon if NASA had allowed these talented women to join the team. Now, imagine a society where we empowered people to achieve their true potential, such that in rooms all across the nation, teams that better reflected the country were working together to solve our problems. As we explore the next frontier, I hope that the seats at the table are accessible to all. Because in space, with the magnitude of challenges we'll face, diversity is not only about doing the right thing, it’s also about survival.
Part 4 – There’s No Place Like Home
Critics of space travel will often ask two questions.
The first - why should we care? We have 99 problems on Earth and space ain't one. Moreover, life isn't a cake walk for most people on Earth, so why are we focusing on launching toys to distant worlds, when we can instead invest our energy on feeding the hungry and curing the sick? To that, I say "true, true."
The second question - can we afford it? Short answer - yes. The real question here though is - should we afford it? Traveling to space is expensive; I'm talking multiple percentages of a nation's GDP expensive (see NASA graph below). Naturally, we have to ask ourselves, who’s going to make the money move? Government agencies? The private sector? Cardi B? If it's the private sector, are we comfortable with overtly capitalist institutions seeding our space footprint? If it's the government, are we willing to sacrifice other responsibilities of government to feed a hungry space budget?
To these questions and more I say- let NASA eat cake!
In all seriousness, the critics have a right to be concerned. Space exploration is expensive and the same money can be used to address the world's problems. One could argue, investing in space exploration does not fix immediate, short-term issues. Still, I believe we have to keep the long-game in mind. Exploring space is not only about ensuring our survival, but also keeping the slow march of technological progress moving forward. The knowledge we learn from space exploration research will inevitably positively impact life on Earth.
In fact, it already has. The biggest example of this are satellites. We rely on satellites for everything including GPS, to predicting weather patterns, to the proper functioning of the telecommunications industry. Satellites were born out of experiments asking whether we could launch spacecrafts to orbit Earth. Now the whole world require satellites to run their televisions, field their telephone calls, and update their IG feeds. *looking at you jobless millennial*
Furthermore, because the challenges of exploring space are massive, paramount to overcoming these challenges are innovative solutions which have already benefited other industries. These industries include energy production, recycling and waste management, robotics, computing, software, bioengineering, and more.
The benefits of space exploration extend beyond putting a downpayment on our survival and improving our world. There is also the intangible benefit of inspiring young people to enter STEAM disciplines. What is more engaging to a kid than learning about the solar system and Earth's rambunctious siblings? Some of these students will grow up dreaming to become astronauts, physicists, or MD-PhDs who lead the Astrobiology and/or the Space Medicine research division at NASA. The effect of space exploration on workforce development has been well documented by NASA, who showed that the number of people in America who received physical science, engineering, or mathematics degrees significantly increased after the announcement of the Apollo program that took us to the Moon.
Finally, space exploration shifts how we view our planet. Astronauts who’ve seen the Earth in its natural habitat experienced the “Overview Effect” described as a new appreciation for Earth, galvanized by seeing the planet as a pale blue dot surrounded by vast darkness. Before the mid 1960s, society had no images of Earth in space. Suddenly, images like the Rising Earth and later the Pale Blue Dot forced us to contemplate our standing in the universe. And more importantly, these images inspire us to get out, explore, and enterprise. After all it's in our Homo Sapien DNA.
The moment we establish a second home on a celestial body, be it the moon, Mars, Titan, or Europa, our relationship to Earth will fundamentally and irrevocably change. In my mind, our psychological connection to Earth will only deepen. For leaving the nest will motivate us to better appreciate the planet that birthed us, nurtured us, and matured us into the species we are today.
And no matter how far we travel, no matter how many new worlds we explore, no matter how many 'after-lives' we seek, we will always be bound to Earth, biologically, psychologically, and spiritually. Home is where the heart is.
So To Mars and Beyond; always with a cosmic link to the blue marble planet we call home.
With Terran love,
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