Should we stay or should we go?
Today I’ve the great pleasure of hosting Keith Stevenson on my blog. Though I predominantly write fantasy and urban fantasy, I love to read science fiction and have recently finished Keith’s debut novel, Horizon. It’s a wonderful piece of work I recommend to anybody, a novel of large scope set in an intimate environment with a tightly contained cast of characters.
let’s hear what Keith as to say . . .
The highly enjoyable movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel, seems to have everyone taking about the possibility of traveling to and colonising another planet. NASA is already leveraging this interest with its Journey to Mars program. It feels like it’s ‘all systems go’. Of course there are a few obstacles in the way…
Firstly there’s the need to ‘science the sh*t’ out of a lot of technical issues. Andy Weir spoke about some of these on a recent, entertaining Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast [http://geeksguideshow.com/2015/09/21/ggg169-andy-weir/]. Currently it takes us a long time to get anywhere, although our spaceflight tech is slowly improving. Then there’s the radiation we’ll be exposed to over the prolonged period on board the spaceship and to a lesser extent on the planet, which will greatly increase our cancer risk. And, of course, there’s the problem of taking EVERYTHING with us, including the air we breathe. Let’s not kid ourselves, the cost will be huge and the need for mission redundancy will be vital, particularly when the nearest help will be at least a couple of years away. And no matter how well we test our devices for extracting water from the lunar regolith or catalysing oxygen from the Martian tundra, there’s no guarantee they’ll work on-site. Mistakes like that can be deadly.
But there’s also the damage we could wreak on another planet when we start living there. The jury is still out on whether there is life on Mars, at least on the microscopic level. That’s why the Mars rover robots are scrupulously disinfected before launch to make sure we don’t corrupt the pristine Martian environment with Earthly biota. We can’t disinfect people, so there will be inevitable contamination, with potentially devastating effects on indigenous life. That was certainly a concern for the stellarnauts in my SF novel Horizon; sent to research another solar system, most of them were horrified by new orders to scout the worlds they found there for potential colonisation. Beyond purely scientific concerns, there are moral and ethical questions about changing the natural life cycle of another world, which my stellarnauts wrestled with. But something tells me that when it comes down to it, we’ll lament the damage done by our colonisation, but it won’t stop us going.
Of course some planetary biota, particularly those that evolved in other solar systems, may be deadly to us in return. Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel Aurora shows just such a world and in a recent interview with Radio National Books and Arts Daily [http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/ksr-aurora/6810960], he suggested that perhaps our place is not among the stars and that the life that evolves in other star systems may be so inimical to Earth life, that we’d be better off staying in our own planetary back yard. It’s true that the planets and asteroids of our solar system are there for the taking. As for the stars, I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet. Extra-solar life may be dangerous as Kim Stanley Robinson says, but let’s not discount the possibility that in the future we may engineer ourselves to thrive in those alien environments: an idea already explored in James Blish’s Pantropy Series and books like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus.
In any event for the simple survival of the species, staying put on Earth is not a viable alternative. We need to diversify to viable colonies on numerous moons and worlds just so one meteorite doesn’t wipe us out. Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves shows to devastating effect just how badly the ‘all-our-eggs-in-one-basket’ scenario can turn out for humanity.
As usual our imagination outpaces our ‘real-life’ ability to do the stuff we want to do. It’s been forty-three years since a human walked on the moon. But as Buzz Aldrin said recently [http://www.aol.com/article/2015/10/06/buzz-aldrin-earth-isn-t-the-only-world-for-us-anymore/21245132/] we’ve already reaped huge technological rewards from the space program and continue to do so, and once we set up a colony on Mars, the mineral wealth of the asteroid belt will be within our reach. After a long period of robot probes and deep-space satellite missions, we’re finally getting ready to send people out of Earth orbit again. The dangers will be huge. The setbacks may be many. But the rewards will be incalculable.
Keith Stevenson is the author of Horizon an SF Thriller out now in ebook from HarperCollins Voyager Impulse. He blogs about the ideas behind Horizon at www.horizonbook.com.au and you can find out more about Keith at www.keithstevenson.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/keithstevensonwriter and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/stevenson_keith