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Caves of Mars: Future Home, Zoo, or End of Manned Space Exploration?

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I believe in the near future we are going to find that there is life outside our planet.

And I think that discovery, far from being a boost to manned space exploration; will be its death knell, at least for a long, long time.

Sunset on mars
Sunset on Mars -- could it also be sunset on manned space exploration?

We have had a strange relationship with our sister planet. Mars was named after the Roman God of War. Ever since Galileo in 1609 first pointed a telescope on the planet, we've realized that there is something up there. Lowell saw canals, which implied beings. Tesla claimed to be receiving signals from intelligent life forms on Mars. H. G. Wells speculated on an interplanetary war with large Martian Tripods laying waste to huge sections of humanity.

I could go on for a long time. Our culture and our lives have been steeped in Mars legend and Mars lore. Much of it has been pure speculation and reflection on our own culture, extrapolated to our neighbor. It seems that public opinion on Mars is a pendulum that keeps swinging back and forth; from arid, dry, lifeless world to strange home of intelligent beings. Lately we've theorized that Mars could have actually provided life to us, Martians are our great^google grandfathers. Each time the pendulum swings towards life, it seems to swing a little further.

I remember reading about Mars as a kid. If you haven't read The Martian Chronicles, I highly suggest you do. Ray Bradbury makes the case that some kinds of colonization are wrong and some types are right. Ray lived in a time where colonization was viewed as inevitable: in one of the short stories of the book (The Settlers), the case is made that exploration will happen one way or another, best to let it happen before we blow each other all to pieces.

I'm not so sure. Our trajectory since the Apollo Moon Landings has been one of more spending on social programs and less on space. LBJ, the president who was there to implement Apollo (and Vietnam) saw the space program as a costly race with the Russians that took money away from his domestic agenda. If you want to be cynical, it was money that could be used to buy his party votes. LBJ cut a deal with the Russians, and the plan was to kill the program slowly over time. Great article over on The Space Review. Here's the quote from one of the secret memos from inside the administration:

The final draft of our space paper is being distributed to members of the Space Council — McNamara, Webb, etc. The Vice President wishes it to be discussed at the Council.

It will encounter strong opposition from NASA and Ed Welsh, the secretary of the Space Council.

Nonetheless, I believe it right [because] it will save money, which can go to foreign aid and domestic purposes — thus mitigating the political strain of the war in Vietnam.

If the proposals in this memo are left to be fought out by the space marshals and their clients, we will lose. Therefore I urge you to get into the fight personally — let the Vice President, Schultze (Bob), and others know how you feel. Send a copy to someone on the domestic side of the White House staff to ensure that someone from that side representing the constituency whose interests are most directly affected, gets into the fight.

Politicians are about politics. And politics is about making voters happy. Unless we discover 200 million voters living on Mars that need either an army or free health care, nobody cares about what's going on up there or who's going there. For purposes of political support, the space program is entertainment, not science. Perhaps if we could find a few Martians which would attack us, things would be a lot easier.

Tripod attacking from H.G. Wells War of the worlds
Alien tripod illustration from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
If only it were this easy.

Finding these big guys is almost out of the question, at least on Mars. We still might find some Martians, though. Let's assume for this article that we find some kind of life on Mars. No, not a Hooter's sitting next to a Mars-R-Us souvenir shop, but something we recognize as life. The chances are looking better all the time. Take a look at what we've found just recently.

Opening for a rather large cave on mars
Hole in the surface of Mars, approximately 100m wide. The bottom cannot be seen

The hope for the HiRISE images was that we could see some details from inside the hole. But as you can see by the highly stretched version at right, there is absolutely nothing visible inside that hole. It's black black black black black. HiRISE is a very sensitive instrument, and Mars' dusty atmosphere scatters quite a bit of light around, so there is certainly light entering that cave hole and bouncing around the interior. But it seems that the cave is so big and so deep that almost none of the light that enters the cave comes out. It's deep, and it's big; the hole that we see really is just a skylight on a big subterranean room. How big? We'll never know for sure without visiting it, but I expect that Cushing and his coauthors and the HiRISE team will be crunching the numbers on the illumination conditions and the sensitivity of the camera to put a lower limit on how deep that cave must be for HiRISE to be able to see nothing at all inside it. from The Planetary Society Weblog

There's not just this one super deep cave, there are least several of them. In case you missed the implications, Science Daily spells it out a little more clearly:

"If there is life on Mars, there is a good chance you'd find it in caves," said Wynne, an NAU graduate student in biological sciences and project leader for the USGS Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program.
Martian caves are considered the "best potential havens for life" because they would be protected from surface radiation and other factors, he said.
"The Martian surface is an extremely harsh environment, so the significance of caves is in their protective nature," said Cushing, a graduate teaching assistant in NAU's Department of Physics and Astronomy, who was the first to spot the black areas on the photographs. "Caves on Mars could become habitats for future explorers, or could be the only structures that preserve evidence of past or present microbial life."
"This is a very interesting discovery with positive implications," said Nadine Barlow, an associate professor in physics and astronomy at NAU and expert on Martian impact craters. "Caves on Mars could be good places for long-term ice accumulation and that would make them ideal locations to look for life on Mars as well as valuable reservoirs for water to support future human exploration of the planet."

You would think that once we finally find life in the universe, especially right next door (!), we would be beating down the doors to go out there and see what it is.

You would be wrong.

The movement to prevent further spending in space is swelling, and has been for some time. The philosopher Bertrand Russell made four great arguments against space exploration that are still used to this day:

  • The space program was not undertaken in a spirit of scientific impartiality;

  • The exploration of space could result in the spread of human foolishness;

  • It would be better to expend energy addressing terrestrial problems before involving ourselves in celestial affairs;

  • The actual increase in human understanding that could result was questionable.

Chad Trainer takes Russell apart over on the site Philosophy Now. Other folks have made more crazy statements about space exploration which don't deserve mentioning here. Suffice it to say that almost immediately after the moon landings, every politician with a cause looking for votes would say something like "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we do X?"

But if life is found on Mars, we've got real problems. Real political problems. Already Space Daily is asking "Can robotic probes built on Earth be made clean enough to search for life on other planets without contaminating them?" This matter is considered so serious that NASA already has an entire planetary protection branch.

That's not a branch to protect us from the planets. That's a branch of our government to protect the planets from us.

Shot from the movie, Mars Attacks, with space aliens holding ray guns
Who ya gonna call? NASA's Planetary Protection Branch, of course!

If sending robots is so problematic ("We not only don't want to send a live organism to another planet, we don't even want to send a dead organism") sending people is nigh on impossible without contamination. The two aspects of the caves: the possibility of life and the possibility of supporting our life cannot both be consistent with our stated mission at the same time As soon as life is discovered on Mars, in the name of science that will have to be the end of manned space exploration there. At first, scientists will make the case to "take our time" with our research, advocating super-sterilized (and expensive) robots almost exclusively. At what point, however, would we ever decide to send people to a planet with life on it? Almost as soon as we begin cataloging it, there will be a movement to protect it. In an environment as unforgiving as Mars, we will not have the luxury to build a theme park or zoo around any Martian life we find -- we'll be too busy trying to survive. And even if we could, there would be heated opposition to doing so.

And honestly, who's going to make a controversial political decision about a subject certain not to win any votes from the electorate anyway? The whole idea of sending folks to Mars will just die a natural death -- petty squabbles over smaller and smaller funds, much the same as has been going on for the last 20-30 years. The only reason we probably still HAVE a manned space program is political payoffs to congressional districts.

I just don't see it happening. The private sector would explore Mars if the price were low enough, but my guess is that even if we get LEO prices down dramatically at some point in the next couple of decades, there will be active and massive opposition from the left to manned space exploration, especially if we find life on other planets, and especially if world-wide domestic unrest grows as more and more folks worldwide are brought into the middle class. There will be too many calls to focus inward, to spend on ourselves and not our future.

Strangely, this is the exact situation in which exploration is most necessary.

Finding extraterrestrial life will be the crown jewel of mankind's scientific advancement, and I will be happy to see it when it comes. But make no mistake: it will be the greatest obstacle our species has ever faced in its drive towards the stars. We had better be prepared to deal with it.

Let's be perfectly clear: either mankind has a natural place in the universe, changing and manipulating his environment to his liking, or he does not. The first philosophy is of exploration and discovery. The second philosophy is of introspection and stasis. You can certainly compromise on what man's impact will be, but you can't have it both ways. It's stagnation or growth.

1 Comment

Life on Mars? Dead idea. Man to Mars? Dead idea.
I believe in God and that God created the Earth and life on it for his children, us, human beings. Why would God waste life on a planet where Men and Women, his children, were not placed? Thus, why should there be life on Mars? For what purpose if one believes in God? Yeah, yeah. I'm another religious nut who doesn't believe in the Big Bang and that we didn't evolve from cow pond algae scum struck by lightning.
You may not believe in the Bible, that Adam and Eve were created and were the first humans on Earth from which we all sprang. Yet, you believe in Ray Bradbury's imaginative Martian Chronicles and Lowell believing Mars was Venice. But as you noted, Bradbury and Lowell in their imagination WERE projecting our culture onto Mars - a culture which is a religious culture based on Biblical teachings. As you pointed out, did Bradbury not refer to right and wrong, or morality, in describing good and bad types of colonization? Sounds religious to me. Man on Mars? You claim there should be growth or stagnation, yet you rely on the Government to provide a Man to Mars. Why not private enterprise? Because it's not cost effective. Even Virgin and other entreprenuers expect a return on space flight from paying passengers. It was great idea to send Men to the Moon, but that was due to competition against another threatening world power, the Soviets. But what are the current benefits? Tang, Teflon, portable A/C units. I'm being sarcastic about scientific inventions we all benefit from the Moon Flights, but why risk human lives to Mars? Apollo 13 magnified? Get real. What Government Leader/Politican or private invester would risk it? For national pride? For a Return on investment? Not when we can send probes as we have been. No, despite no life being on Mars, due to projecting my cultural on that idea, I don't see it happening: sending a Man (or Woman) to Mars.

Thank you!

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel published on May 27, 2007 2:07 PM.

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Daniel Markham