Mars

One Small Martian Step for Man…One Giant Leap Toward the Annihilation of All Mankind

On October 21, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that he foresees NASA will land astronauts on the moon by 2035. “We need to learn how to live and work in another world,” he told lawmakers. “The moon is the best place to prove those capabilities and technologies.” 

The article that follows comprises the fifth instalment in “Our Martian Moment,” a multi-part Quillette series in which our authors discuss what kind of society humans should build on Mars if and when we succeed in colonizing the red planet. Our editors invite submissions to this series, which may be directed to pitch@quillette.com.

Early in his administration, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that the United States should send an exploratory manned team to Mars. This year’s 40th anniversary of the moon landing has re-energized talk of space exploration. Recent items in Daily Caller and The New Atlantis offered enthusiastic visions of astronauts going off to the red planet, even as others offered naysaying.

Like many Americans, I am an enthusiastic supporter of NASA and the overall endeavor of space exploration and research. And it still pains me to think that my federal government killed the Space Shuttle program, the crown jewel of American technology, thereby denying our astronauts a means of being sent into space, and forcing us to rely instead on the Russians. (Later, when our government decided to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea, a Russian official announced that the only way American astronauts would now be able to reach the international space station would be by trampoline.) And yet, having said that, let me also say that I strongly oppose the project of sending a manned mission to Mars, which would be useless at best and catastrophic at worst.

First, this likely would be a suicide mission. And when the astronauts died, as would almost certainly be the case, the resulting backlash would strengthen the case of those who insist that public money “would be better spent on Earth.” Going to Mars (minimum distance: 54.6-million km) is not like going to the moon (384,000 km). A crude comparison would involve someone in Wichita (a) making the two-and-half-hour drive to Oklahoma City, and then (b) taking a right turn on Interstate 40 and declaring that he was going on to Vladivostok. The distance to Mars is enormous. And, unlike the case of Apollo 13, this scenario offers no way for others to help out if something goes horribly wrong.

If and when astronauts get to Mars after such a prolonged period in space, they will be as weak as kittens and may not even be able to stand up on their own, much less explore. If one wants to know what they will see, just go to the Mohave desert at dawn and walk around wearing half a dozen ski jackets (which is about the closest anyone could come to simulating the effects of a spacesuit). Mars is a barren desert, an empty rock. We know that already thanks to unmanned missions. At this very moment, in fact, we have robotic wheels on the Martian regolith and sharp eyes in its orbit. NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft (“Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution”) is still there, as is India’s Mangalyaan. And plans are afoot for other such unmanned projects. We already are learning about Mars, but without actually having to embark on the deadly project of getting there.

NASA’s Mars Maven orbiter.

We had to go to the moon because back in the 1960s we had absolutely no idea what it would be like. Such was our ignorance that there was even a theory that a lunar module, upon landing, would be swallowed up by lunar dust. We did not even know what Earth looked like from space. Yes, we had sent probes, but they were primitive—nothing like those we have today, some of which can even do chemical analysis on the spot and transmit the results back to us electronically.

“But what about life on Mars?” you ask. For centuries, people have asked this question—including 16th-century scientist Giordano Bruno, whose extraterrestrial theories got him burned at the stake. Francis Godwin, Voltaire, Cyrano de Bergerac and Daniel Defoe all wrote fictional works about life beyond earth. And of course, there was The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells’ story of a massive Martian army invading us instead of vice versa.

Okay, so what about life on Mars? We already know the answer. There is none. Certainly no complex life forms. As for Martian bacteria, viruses or prions, they may exist. But God help us if even a small sample from that frigid red rock got the chance to multiply in the lush paradise that we call Earth. (Can you say “smorgasbord”?) It would be like putting a drop of sewer water in a Petri dish. But all this is likely beside the point, because scientists have discovered that there are perchlorates in the Martian soil that generally are lethal to bacteria and plants (as we know those life forms on earth). That’s bad news for anyone dreaming of “terraforming” Mars.

We know for a fact that bacteria formed on Earth 3.2-billion years ago (near the beginning of the solar system). This means that bacteria probably formed on Mars at around the same time. Recently, a liquid lake was found on Mars. This means that bacteria could still be there. So here is a possible scenario: Astronauts go to Mars and make it back alive. A cause for celebration, right? In fact, they might unwittingly bring back one or more alien species. And if so, these creatures likely would be harmful to us. Popular culture often teaches us to think of aliens as quasi-hippies that exist without harming others or their environment. But that’s not the way nature works.

If there is life out there, it must live off something.

If you have an optimistic belief that our governments would take the necessary steps to abort this potential pandemic, consider the fact that although the United States periodically ends up with invasive species that are detrimental, if not lethal, to local ecology, it does little to combat the invaders, nor the continued importing of such vermin. Although numerous exotic species (from pythons to kudzu to lionfish to water hyacinths) have come into North America and proliferated to the point of disrupting ecosystems, our government has not seen fit to put a ban on exotic species imported for sale in pet stores. To put it simply: When it comes to such matters, politicians are imbeciles. One should not rely on them. It would be a mistake.

Nor should you believe that we would quickly discover and wipe out any invasive pathogen. After all these years, there is no still cure for AIDS. Or smallpox. Or even measles. Or the common cold. Or pneumonia. Or chicken pox. Nor have we found a cure for the decimation of bees Or monarch butterflies. Or…need I go on?

Illustration from 1906 French edition of ‘War of the Worlds’

The point has often been made elsewhere that we might not even recognize alien life if we saw it—as it likely would take the form of bacteria or viruses that are biochemically different from their terrestrial counterparts. Such deadly pathogens could take months, or years, to manifest themselves in their hosts, by which time they would have spread globally. This would lead to the same ending as in The War of the Worlds, but with the roles of Martians and Earthlings reversed.

It is well known by now that, at some point, Mars had a lot of water on its surface, not just an isolated lake or two. There is strong evidence of now-dry rivers and deltas. So here is another scenario to give you nightmares. Perhaps the loss of Mars’ water was due to bacteria, or a virus, or even a microorganism as tough as a tardigrade, that somehow broke down the water at a molecular level and has since become dormant, much like microorganisms on earth go dormant during periods of scarcity or adversity, sometimes for millennia.

So a human steps on Mars and returns to Earth carrying the water-eating bug in the folds of a spacesuit. The virus escapes and water begins to disappear—slowly at first and then rapidly. What can be done? Nothing. One cannot apply a vaccine to the ocean.

If this scenario sounds implausible, then you are unacquainted with some of the bizarre microorganisms that already live on Earth. And consider the fact that billions of years ago, there was no oxygen on our planet—until the evolution of organisms that gave off oxygen as a byproduct of their metabolism. Oxygen was poisonous, or even corrosive, to the planet’s other inhabitants. They all either died, or became refugees in the planetary nooks and crannies where oxygen is unavailable.

And that is just one nightmare scenario out of thousands. Another would be a Martian microorganism that breaks apart chlorophyll for sustenance. Can we administer a vaccine to every blade of grass, tree and plankton?

Unless the answer is yes, we should be scrapping any plans to send humans to Mars. Far better to use that money to set up a permanent base on the moon, from which we could keep a sharp lookout for near-Earth asteroids. Instead of inviting human extinction on other planets, let’s try to keep humanity alive on the one we’ve already got.

 

 

Armando Simón is a retired forensic psychologist and the author of When Evolution Stops, The U, Samizdat 2020, and The Cult of Suicide and Other Sci Fi Stories.

Comments

  1. “The best thing about science fiction [is] its ability to look into the future, see what’s coming, shriek like a startled baboon, dump a load into its pants and flee into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” --Darren MacLennan

  2. Has it escaped the author that meteorites from Mars ( Shergottites) have been landing on Earth throughout the course of geological history?

    Asteroid impact events are a fact of life in this solar system- the one associated with the extinction of the dinosaurs being but one spectacular example, and they can launch bits of the imacted surface at velocities high enough to reach other planets throuout the solar system. As surely as un-sterilized shergottites have reached the Earth , debris from terrestrial impacts rains down reciprocally on Mars and the other plants orbiting the sun:

    Some details can be read in this brief WSJ essay:

  3. This article is what you get when you send a psychologist to do an astrophysicist’s job - or that of a chemist or a biologist.

    Manned missions beyond low Earth orbit are highly dangerous to those who make them, which is why the first humans to reach Mars will be sent by Elon Musk, not by any government. But you can’t simultaneously argue that conditions on Mars are so helllish that humans can’t survive there and at the same time the planet is full of lifeforms that will immediately feast on Earthly organisms once brought back. If any native organism there is going to kill humans, the astronauts themselves on their 8-month return journey will be the first to know it.

  4. This will all remain , to put it mildly, speculative , until such time as molecular exobiologists and paleontologists explore enough of Mars to form an opinion .

    Much also remains to be discovered about how organic materials respond in the long run to temperatures below 50K–

    Despite the NW African meteorite bonanza of recent decades, we have not yet seen enough of Mars on Earth to illuminate the question.

  5. I’ll invoke ice nine here (Vonnegut 1963 Cat’s Cradle) with some bemusement, as both/all sides of these arguments, pro n con, are valid from within this infinite realm of possibility.
    imo if we can’t even scratch the surfaces, let alone the depths and floors, of our very own oceans (aka the majority of our beautiful gem of a planet) we’re not technologically ready to take on outer space. Heck even moon missions are cripplingly frail, little visits.
    And until we can harness the virus that is greed, where $$$ for the very few dictates decisions that affect the All, we are not psychologically ready, either.
    Those deficits haven’t stopped “us” yet, so whatever

  6. “This year’s 40th anniversary of the moon landing . . .”
    And it just gets worse with speculation that makes no sense in biology or physics.

    “Okay, so what about life on Mars? We already know the answer. There is none. Certainly no complex life forms. As for Martian bacteria, viruses or prions, they may exist.”
    Ya what?! “There is none” then “they may exist”?

    “And if so, these creatures likely would be harmful to us.”
    “Likely”? Based on what evidence?

    “And consider the fact that billions of years ago, there was no oxygen on our planet—until the evolution of organisms that gave off oxygen as a byproduct of their metabolism. Oxygen was poisonous, or even corrosive, to the planet’s other inhabitants. They all either died, or became refugees in the planetary nooks and crannies where oxygen is unavailable.”
    That’s probably the most sensible point the author makes - but its bearing on his hypothesized Martian bacterial invasion of Earth goes right over his head.

  7. In the past, when mankind frequently sent off voyages of discovery, the explorers knew they might die. There was a high likelihood of drowning, starving, getting murdered and various other well-known completely understood problems. From this thread, it seems we now forgo exploration due to flights of fancy. “Is it possible something bad could happen?” has become the standard. Anything is possible, so I guess we just never go anywhere. An asteroid hitting and destroying all life on earth is also possible (likely even on some timescale.) Nuclear warfare killing all of us is quite likely. Frankly I would rather send people out there and see what happens than sit here and wait for extinction.

  8. Apocalypse fears related to microbes are nearly always unwarranted. There have been a few really nasty pandemic plagues in human history, but none have even come close to the “annihilation of all mankind”. What’s more, as far as I know, there’s no example of any species that has ever become extinct due to a pathogen.

    Something you have to keep in mind with microbes is that there are a LOT of them, and they grow really fast. That means they EVOLVE really fast, and have been doing it for billions of years. On Earth, they’ve figured out how to harness basically ever possible energy-yielding reaction to grow. If they aren’t doing it, it probably can’t be done in a way that yields enough energy to sustain life – either here or on Mars. The author’s example of a “water eating bug” doesn’t hold water (haha) – because it already exists (photosynthesis uses electrons from water to power biomass formation), but also because water is a crappy electron donor AND electron acceptor and can’t yield biochemical energy without input of extra energy from the sun. But let’s assume for a second that something evolved to grow on water directly. It’s still impossible that this would create a problem!
    The organism would produce oxygen (or maybe peroxide, which would decay into oxygen) as a waste product, which would then be used by heterotrophic organisms that would grow on the biomass produced by the water-eater using its oxygen waste product as an electron acceptor – yielding water as a waste product and closing the cycle. All biological processes work in cycles like this because of the nature of chemistry – and it’s hard to imagine this not being the case on any planet with a self-sustaining biosphere.

    In other words, there is simply vastly more potential for apocalypse bugs to evolve here on Earth, with our gigantic, fast-paced biosphere, than on a dead rock like Mars, but we’re still here, and that’s not a coincidence. Martian life will be interesting when/if we discover it, but it won’t be any more threatening than the bugs here on Earth.

  9. Agree with half of this. We are not psychologically ready, nor will we be practically ready, until an economical incentive for space travel is discovered.

    The natural human impulse for “greed” is what drives all discovery and innovation, and it will be no different this time. What we need to shed is our envy: demonizing people who are smarter than we are and better able to utilize available resources, and worse, expecting we can eat those people and still have the value they generate.

  10. I am simply flabbergasted at all the comments to this article. They are either snarky comments on the author or, more often, they quibble about minutiae.

    The author is making one simple thesis: we already know a lot about Mars. But it may contain unknown, totally novel, pathogens that could destroy entire ecologies, or life, here on Earth for which we have no defense. The risk is not worth it.

  11. With all due respect, this is a huge overstatement. Or at least, you could say it about every new thing science does. There were people who worried the search for the Higgs Boson would create a black hole under Switzerland, or that the detonation of an atomic bomb might start a chain reaction that would blow up the whole world. The same arguments made in this article could have been made about landing on the moon, and probably were. They are all science fiction boogeymen and we shouldn’t let them scare us out of exploring the universe.

    IMHO the risk that isn’t worth it is staying trapped on this rock, or in this solar system. We know with 100% certainty that eventually something apocalyptic WILL happen here, and if our species – which remains the only sentient form of life in the universe as far as we know – is stuck here when it happens, then that would be a tragedy beyond description.

  12. Using your logic murder is fine and dandy, the victims would be dead and being dead doesn’t hurt.

  13. So you think murder would be Ok if you manage to kill everyone including yourself.

    007 whatever you do don’t let dr neoteny get the nuclear codes…

  14. just a pedant

    What you mean just? Being a correct pedant is lots of work.

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