The idea of inhabiting Mars may still seem like a dream in the head of Philip K. Dick. But, thanks to some straight-out-of-sci-fi technological advancements, and a reignited excitement about the red planet, it isn’t unrealistic that your kids could see people walking Mars in their lifetime. Who are these people? Probably your kids.
So, how long do they have to pack? What are the difficulties the first colonists are going to encounter? What will the cost of a Skype conversation be when your kids are living the good life in Valles Marineris? Stephen Petranek is the author of How We’ll Live On Mars and one of the main minds behind The National Geographic Channel’s new MARS series. If you want to give your kid more insight into what they’re in for — besides the fact Matt Damon will science the shit out of everything — here’s what he sees in the years ahead for deeper space exploration. Bring some 1000 SPF sunscreen.
Bad news, guys. “We cannot plan to live on this planet indefinitely,” says Petranek. By doing things like destroying the forests that replenish our oxygen supply, people are quickly pushing the planet towards an ecological tipping point. Even if we do change our ways, there’s the inevitable fact that in about a billion years the sun will radiate strongly enough to kill everything on the planet. Or at least throw the Earth out of orbit. Which would also kill everything on the planet.
Explaining the inevitable downfall of humanity might be a bit heavy for the kids. How about just bringing up the fact that humans are restless dreamers who have always searched for the next frontier. “Only in the last 5,000 years did humans stop being nomadic,” says Petranek. “Over tens of thousands of generations we’ve learned that you have to keep moving on to the next wilderness. I think that’s actually built into our DNA and that’s part of our survival mechanism. And it turns out that’s accurate, we need to move on to another planet.” There, doesn’t that sound better than, “We’re screwed.”?
2024: A Space Odyssey
If Elon Musk, our very own Tony Stark, gets his way, the SpaceX program could be landing humans on Mars as early as 2025. Petranek puts it at about a 40-60 chance that that’ll happen (Musk, he says, “has something of a history of not quite meeting his deadlines”), and a 90-10 chance by 2035. Personally, Petranek thinks Musk could do it by 2027, but even if SpaceX doesn’t take, he also says China’s “land a man on the moon by 2025” dreams could quickly be followed up by a lander on the red planet by 2030 and humans by 2040. NASA is also working on basically “an Apollo on steroids” that’s scheduled for an orbital mission in early 2030. “It’s going to happen soon, much faster than people think, and it will be the most disruptive, extraordinary event of our lifetime,” says Petranek. Even bigger than the 2016 election.
Life As A Martian
So what is humanity’s new, redder home going to look like? Petranek says that life on Mars will eventually be a lot like Earth. But for a long time we’ll have to produce everything we need to survive there from scratch. Luckily, there’s a lot of iron on the planet, so humans can build giant smelting factories. From there they can make plastic — for sippy cups and whatnot. And the clay-like Martian soil makes excellent building material.
You will be spending a lot of time indoors. Why? Because the UV rays are a lot stronger on the red planet (“You’d get a very bad sunburn in about 15 minutes,” Petranek says), so everyone can expect to either live behind 12-to-15-foot walls, underground in lava caves (caves, not cakes), or in the shadows of the planet’s many cliffs and craters. Early colonists should probably work on using that iron some light therapy lamps.
Mars also has water. A lot of it, but it’s frozen and/or underground. Even if we can’t get to it, Petranek says a device has been invented that can pull H20 out of the thin, but very humid, Martian atmosphere. (Bad for good hair days, but good for survival.) There are also great amounts of frozen CO2 at the poles. He describes a “solar mirror” device that could be aimed at the north or south of the planet to melt it and create a “runaway greenhouse effect” that would thicken the atmosphere. The device wouldn’t be enough for humans to breathe, but it would help plants thrive. That means one of the first tasks early inhabitants would undergo would be to implement this and start planting genetically modified crops to sustain a larger civilization.
So Should Your Kid Start Studying Interstellar?
Petranek is a fan of The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar, serious scientific flaws and all. Movies like these get people used to the idea that further space exploration and colonies are within our grasp. “Most of this is a matter of will and money rather than technology,” he says. For years, NASA was saying they had no plans for a Mars program. Then, boom, we get Space McConaughey, and all of a sudden there’s a NASA Director of Human Missions to Mars. Coincidence?
Mars Is Just The Beginning
According to Petranek, life on Mars isn’t the end game, but a pit stop. “I think of Mars as a practice platform — we go there and learn how to survive in an extremely hostile environment and create civilization in a place we never before would have imagined,” he says. Once scientists figure out how to survive there, they’ll start looking into other solar systems for more Earth-like planets, possibly within the next 200 years. He also believes that the race to Mars is going to accelerate overall developments in technology even more quickly (like genetic modification and curing cancer using immunotherapy). In other words? Your kid’s kid’s kids will basically be genetically invincible space pioneers.