Sunday, 2 October 2016

To colonise Mars, or not...

I just read an article in the Economist about this very subject, triggered by pioneer Elon Musk's just-released plans (dreams?) for huge rockets that could take 100 people at a time to Mars. While I usually like this news mag, I took issue with the article because they use the name Stephen Hawking and the word 'claptrap' in dangerous proximity...

In my very first (and only) school debate, some years (okay, decades) ago, I tackled this subject, pointing out that humanity needed a Plan B in case we were unlucky or stupid enough to wipe ourselves out.

The Economist shoots down a couple of the basic arguments with sniper precision. Most pandemics and plagues, even of the most virulent kind, will not kill everyone. About 80% is the maximum conceivable, so there are still a lot of people left. And they point out that if aliens arrived, they could make quick work of Mars (probably before breakfast) before tackling more irksome Earth.

All true.

But they are missing something.

A massive, global pandemic would ravage the population. Let's take a worst case scenario, 80%. That's one in five who are left. Let's assume (and it's one hell of an assumption) that in the aftermath, those 20% decide to work together. Would they have the right skills? How long before infrastructure would fail at every level? We live in a world with very inter-connected and finely-tuned systems. How long would the internet keep running? Our phones? Power plants? The Grid? Aviation? Communications? Oil and gas? Many companies store their data and knowledge in the Cloud. Would it still be there? Would we even know what skill sets we required to get things back up and running?

We'd have to be fast, too. Because education would slip back quickly. Most people would end up having to run farms in order to survive (the film Interstellar is great on this) rather than learn engineering. And what of medicine, and MRI scanners and chemotherapy and and and...

Global nuclear war would be worse as infrastructure would be decimated. The social situation following such a catastrophe is simply unknowable, with science fiction writers the few who dare to tread there, and they are not painting a bright picture. Humanity would not be extinct, true, but we'd be set back at least decades, maybe centuries. But not so if people on Mars could come back and help fix things, help us re-boot our societies.

There is another reason to look to Mars, and the stars. It is to do so while we can. There is a belief that we can just keep going on getting better and smarter and tekkier. But we don't know what is around the corner. In my own SF book on this subject (the Eden Paradox), over the next few decades religious wars erupt and funding for space exploration is simply not available. Once again a valuable skill-set is lost, this time one to build a life-raft before climate change gets the better of us. So. Do it while you can. Because interplanetary travel is not something you can engineer in a year. It will take decades to get it right.

In July I visited Cape Canaveral and got to watch an Atlas V rocket launch. It was over fast, but it meant a lot to me. And that was just a spy satellite. I remember the hope and awe of the first landing on the moon, the inspiration it served for more than one generation. Imagine watching the launch of a rocket taking people to Mars. Imagine being able to point to a dim dot in the sky, and say, hey, there's people there, just like us.

Just imagine...


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