Jordan: I have been known on occasion to talk about my desire to leave this doomed planet behind and by known to, I mostly mean, I’ve been told, shut up, you have a family, you’re not going to colonize Mars. And that’s true. First, because no self-respecting colonization mission wants a podcast or closing in on 40 but mostly it’s true because for every rosy promise of an eventual human colony on Mars, reality sets in, and that’s too bad because those promises get more rosy by the year.
News Clip: It sounds like something sci-fi, but NASA’s Mars orbiter has seen something only imagined. Liquid water has been found on Mars. This is the first time in the four and a half billion year history of earth that it’s been possible to extend life beyond earth. Thousands of people are going to colonize Mars, and I am telling you that they’re going to do this soon. Strap yourselves in. We’re going to Mars.
Jordan: It will not shock you to learn that there are some problems these rosy announcements don’t address. And that the likelihood of an early death, a failed mission, cancer from extreme radiation, or even in the very best case scenario, a life lived in tunnels, meters under the surface are among those problems.
Why do we still dream of Mars? Why do we want a backup planet? What’s going on there that keeps us hoping beyond hope, even though it would be easier to live on earth after total nuclear winter and to exist on Mars right now. At will one day make it there. We natural dreamers or is it more than that?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Dr Katie Mack is a theoretical cosmologist. She is an assistant professor of physics at NC State university and she’s currently on a visiting fellowship at perimeter theoretical physics in Waterloo. Hi, Dr Mack.
Jordan: Can we start by just telling me that as a scientist, when you hear an announcement like a, the latest one in a string from Elon Musk, what is the first thing that goes through your head?
Well, I, you know, I wonder what the. Technical plans are because a lot of times these announcements are things like, Oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. And I’m always curious to know what, what the real sort of thinking is behind it in terms of what are the resources that are going to be used?
How is the technology going to be used at the end? You know, is this a plan or is this a hope, or is this a sort of, you know, maybe we could do this if we had a certain amount of funding, if we had a certain. You know, situation in terms of the technology development, it’s, you know, so I’m always kind of wondering exactly, exactly what people mean when they, when they make big pronouncements about big plans.
How often do you find that it comes with the technical stuff that you just mentioned and how often is it a more of a hope?
Katie: Well, it’s, it depends on who’s talking about it and it depends on how developed the plans are. If there’s, so, for example, if NASA is developing a plan to send a probe to a comment or something like that, there will often be.
A website with a lot of technical details about the mission. It’s something that’s been in development for 30 years. Um, and you can download fact sheets and all of that with private companies, it’s a lot, a lot of times, a lot less, uh, open. And that’s for various reasons around the privacy of the technology or just the different standards by which, uh, different organizations were operating.
Jordan: Well, I just wanted to cause I in preparing for this interview because we decided we wanted to talk to somebody about the specifics of this after the latest announcement, but in preparation, I wanted to figure out how long a, this idea’s been kicking around particularly, uh, from Elon Musk. So this is just about five or six headlines going back to September 27th, 2016.
Elon Musk has a lot to prove it. Today’s Mars colonization announcement. A year later, Elon Musk project Mars spaceship will be ready for short trips by the first half of 2019 next, later that year, Elon Musk defends plans to build a community on Mars. After a downbeat NASA report, September 29th, 2019 Elon Musk unveil space X new star ship plans for private trips to Mars and beyond.
And of course, last week, Elon Musk is still thinking big with space X’s star ship Mars colonizing Brockett. Envisioning fleets of 1000 star ships departing for Mars every 26 months. Did you think when you heard that one?
Katie: Uh, it sounds very ambitious. Uh, this is a, this is a ship that’s still in development.
We’ve seen a prototype. There was a big press conference when, uh, you know, the initial kind of prototype was unveiled. But, uh, it’s never flown. Uh, and there’s, there’s still a lot of technological development that’s going to happen before this spacecraft is, is available. And as for getting a lot of people out into orbit, up in, uh, uh, out to Mars, um, it’s not clear exactly how that’s going to work.
Um, you know, there are, there are a few details online. Um, Elon Musk has been tweeting about it a bit. But, uh, whether or not there’s going to be the infrastructure available there, um, you know, what the timeline is exactly. That’s also a little vague. And you know, PR presumably purpose purposely vague because it’s still kind of in the future and a lot of this is going to depend on how the development of the rocket goes.
Whatever kind of living situation they set up there is going to be. So, you know, it sounds, it sounds. Like a lot to promise, but, uh, we don’t, we just don’t know yet how it’s going to turn out. And I think as with a lot of space missions, there will probably be delays. There’ll probably be, uh, changes to what exactly is being done.
And that’s something that anybody who pays attention to space space missions is very, very used to. So I, I don’t think that it’s. Beyond the pale for there to be a promise of a really cool thing that gets pushed back a bit, or where the scope changes. Um, so I think in general, when I hear an announcement of any kind of space mission, I take the details with a bit of a grain of salt, and
Jordan: I should add that I wasn’t, even though it might have sounded like it.
Reading those in a condescending tone. I am an optimist towards going to Mars. I would love to, and then every time I talked to somebody who actually knows about it, um, they pour a lot of cold water over my hopes
Katie: and dreams. I mean, I would love to go to, you know, I, um, I have applied to the NASA astronaut program twice.
Um, I, I made the first cut one of the times, you know, I’ve . This is something that I would love to do. I would love to go into space. I would love to go wander around on Mars. I think this would be an amazing dream, but there are also some realistic limitations that we have to consider, and there are things that we have to prepare for and that there have to be really good plans in place.
I would. I think personally, much rather go to Mars with NASA than with space X, just because I know that NASA is definitely going to put, you know, to be very conservative about everything and I, and as somebody who would be on the rocket, I appreciate that.
Jordan: Well, let’s leave, uh, colonizing Mars for just a moment.
Is it inevitable that we’re inching closer to eventually sending, you know, uh, uh, NASA astronauts to Mars?
Katie: I think that’s, that’s definitely in the plans. You know, that’s, um, part of what the. Those sort of long term goals of of human space flight for NASA are so there, there is a hope to get people out there.
There’s a plan to send people back to the moon and eventually onto Mars. That’s, that’s part of the stated plan of, of NASA at the moment.
Jordan: Why do you think that astronauts on Mars aside, people are so much more captivated by the idea of, you know, thousands of people and thousands of rockets going to live there.
Katie: I think there are a few things. I think one thing is that it’s, the idea of being on Mars is something that has. Captured the imagination for a long time. You know, it looks like a place who could go on and around, you know, it looks like a desert, um, with, you know, Hills and rocks and, and dunes. And it just looks familiar in a way that a lot of the other, you know, planetary bodies out there and moons, don’t, you know, the, the moon looks very, very alien.
Mars looks kind of like a desert, you know, it looks kind of like something we could imagine wandering around on it. And so I think. Part of that is what’s really fascinating to, to us as as people we, we liked the idea of just going and seeing the place and being someplace that’s a lot like earth, but alien as well.
And I think that because it looks so earth like, and because, you know, we’ve sent so many little rovers and probes and things there. It’s, it seems like the kind of place you could go and live, you know, there’ve been movies about it. You, you know, set up a habitat, live there, be Martians. It’s a, it’s a kind of fun idea and I think it’s also one of these things where people think that this is the next step for humanity.
You know, we have people on earth, we’re going to spread out into the solar system. Obviously Mars is where we’re going to go next and we’re going to live there. And then that’s going to be the first step toward being a kind of interplanetary species, as, as people often like to say. On top of that, one of the reasons people want to do that is that people think of Mars or anywhere else as a kind of backup in case something terribly bad happens to earth, right?
So there’s this idea, we need a backup planet. We need some place to go in case another, you know, extinction level asteroid hits, or in click in case we destroy the world with climate change or nuclear war or whatever. Um, there’s this idea that, that it’s. It’s, we have all our eggs in one basket and we need to kind of diversify to, uh, to maintain the possibility that humanity will continue on, even if we really, really, um, screw things up here
Jordan: when we talk about this stuff.
And as you mentioned, there’s a lot of fiction and a lot of, you know, fairly, uh, realistic seeming at least science fiction, uh, devoted to colonizing Mars. What are some of the things that, uh, people who do this for a living tend to notice that are never really addressed?
Katie: So one thing, one place where there are a lot of misconceptions is, I think when people talk about Mars as a backup.
Plan. Um, I think people really underestimate how hard it would be to live there. It’s a place where there’s a very, very thin atmosphere. Um, you would have to wear, you know, a pressure suit just like you’re in a vacuum. For the most part, it’s very, very cold and there’s very little oxygen and the gravity is quite low.
It’s about a third of, of Earth’s gravity, and that would have its own. Um, you know, causes its own problems. And Mars doesn’t have a global magnetic field. It doesn’t have a thick atmosphere. And those two things together mean that the radiation environment is very different and very harsh. And so when people think about living on Mars, I think those kinds of considerations, you know.
We figured, Oh, we’ll just build a dome or something. It’ll be fine. You know, we’ve seen all these, these science fiction stories where you know, you, you have your little habitat and you wander around and everything’s great, but it’s actually a really, really inhospitable place and much more in hospital bolt than pretty much anything.
That could happen to earth would be so, so there’s, there’s almost nothing that could happen to our planet right now that would make it harder to live here than on Mars. Um, there’s, you know, if in the worst case scenarios of climate change, nuclear winter, you know, an extinction all the last road, whatever.
We’d basically be forced to live underground and have processed air and you know, it would, it would make it impossible to grow food on the surface and that would be a problem that, you know, we’d probably find some way around it on earth. Those are already, we’re already in that situation. If we go to Mars, we’d, we’d probably have to live underground because the radiation environment is so harsh.
It’s very, it’d be very difficult to grow any food on the surface. We’d have to have process there. And we’d have the extra challenges of the lack of gravity. The, um, you know, the soil is, is possibly toxic in certain ways. You know, there are, there are a lot of other challenges that are already there on Mars that, you know, there’s, it’d be very hard to make those conditions worse here on earth.
And so when people talk about Mars as a backup planet, I think that. They’re sort of often underestimating how difficult it would be to live there and how it would compare to anything bad that could possibly happen to earth. So that’s, that’s one of the big things. I think that a lot of times there’s this, this idea that, Oh, you know, yeah, bad things are going to happen to earth, but it’s fine.
We’re going to leave and we’re going to, we’re going to, you know, push out into the, into the solar system. We have this whole new planet and we can, we can. Live there and be and be happier. And I think that that’s a much rosier picture picture of Mars and a much w, you know, a and a worse picture of what could possibly happen to earth than, than what we really think about as scientists.
Jordan: So I understand why. That stuff might get glossed over in the Martian or another science movie because it sucks to see people meters and meters underground rather than walk around the surface. But how come these very real problems don’t seem to get mentioned in, you know, whether or not you want to believe Elon Musk or anybody else who proposes this.
Why don’t these problems seem to be taken into consideration when we’re talking about colonizing a planet?
Katie: Well, I think they probably are being considered by the scientists who are working. You know, with, with the space X team and so on. I think that. It’s not really clear how big the problems are going to be.
So, you know, I mentioned that the radio radiation environment is very harsh, exactly what that’ll do to us. We don’t really know. And, um, in terms of longterm habitation, maybe there’ll be ways to adopt, maybe the, the radiation isn’t as bad, or maybe people are just okay with having an increased risk of cancer if they’re gonna, if they’re gonna live on Mars.
Um, so it’s possible that the, you know, we’re. It’s possible. There are ways around this stuff that as we get better technologies, uh, we’ll be able to do something about it. You know, I’ve heard people talk about trying to create a, an artificial planetary magnetic fields on Mars to help protect, uh, against, against some of the radiation and the kind of technology that you need for that is just astounding.
We can’t do that right now, but maybe, you know, maybe sometime in the future we could do it. And, and I think there’s a lot of, a lot of times people will say, well, you know. We, we shouldn’t just give up on it. We might be able to figure this out. Maybe it’s not as bad. And so I do think there are people taking this stuff seriously, but it’s not, it’s not what you lead with if you want to get people excited about it.
Right. So it’s not that I think that these problems are being totally ignored, but they’re definitely not getting out into the public consciousness. I think as much as the sort of glitzier you know, we’re going to go on a big rocket ship and live on Mars kind of ideas, get out there. In terms
Jordan: of, uh, the fanciful notion of a backup planet, um, in the extreme case of us needing one and not being able to make, do with whatever horrific thing we do to the earth because it’s better than going elsewhere in that case is Mars.
I feel dumb asking this probably you get a lot of dumb questions, but, uh, is Mars even the best option or should we be looking for a place that might be more impossible to get to but not as inhospitable if we did.
Katie: Uh, I mean, in terms of places we know about, um, where we have any kind of good data. Mars is the most Earth-like on that said.
Given how much easier it is to get to the moon, you might do just as well. There. You still, you have a lot of very similar problems on the moon. The gravity is even less. So that’s a bigger problem. But, um, we know that there’s, there’s probably some ice, uh, somewhere on the moon that we might be able to use for water.
Uh, we know there’s ice on, on Mars. You can lose for water. So that in terms of that resource, they’re there. They, you know, both of them can be, can be exploited. But Mars is, is definitely the most service, like, and, and probably if, if we were going to have people living somewhere long term, it’s, it’s the best bet, especially because there are probably underground lava tubes where you could live in these caves underground, that that would be reasonably well shielded.
So the, the, there’s some infrastructure and in a sense already, um, there for living underground. Um, so I do think that that Mars is the best. Please for, you know, if you want to set up longterm habitat, I think that that’s, that’s going to be the most Earth-like of the places that we definitely know about now.
But I also want to mention that, you know, if we think of it as a backup planet, there are billions and billions of people on there. Something on seven or 8 billion people living on this planet. And even if you. Are able to send three rocket ships a day or whatever it is that, that Elon Musk is talking about, it’s still, you’re not going to get everybody relocated.
And so it’s not really a backup planet in any real sense. It’s, it’s a place where certain lucky people might be able to go and live, um, if everybody else is dying on earth. And that’s not, that’s not as rosy a picture as a, as a lot of people like to talk about either.
Jordan: No. Is this just psychology at play that like.
I know personally, I think about it to make myself feel better.
Katie: I mean, I don’t know. I think, I think that, that we are natural explorers, you know, as, as a species, we like to, we like the idea of going and seeing new places. We liked the idea of, of expanding out into the unknown. And it’s exciting, you know?
I mean, this is something that humans have been doing forever, right? And it is possible that someday. You know, we’ll have the technology and the infrastructure for people to easily move back and forth and maybe, um, maybe there will be a more, more of an interplanetary species thing going on, especially in the very, very, very distant future.
And in that case, you know, hopefully it wouldn’t be because we’ve, you know, doomed billions of people to, to perish on an uninhabitable earth. You know, hopefully it would be because, you know, we’re actually, you know, getting out there and doing fun things. Um, so I think that that’s a very exciting notion.
And you know, I love science fiction. I love movies and TV shows about spaceships and, and living out on different planets and in space and, and, you know, all of that kind of thing I think is very exciting. It’s very, it’s a very fun thought. And I don’t want to discourage people from thinking about that.
And I don’t want to, you know, just be a total downer. Like, I, I do think that these are. These are fun, exciting things. And I think as a species, it’s, it’s not a bad idea to, to, to see where we can go and to do human exploration of space. Um, but, uh, but I also do think that a lot of times when these things are talked about, there’s this idea that, Oh, we’re just, we’re just all going to go live there.
And, and that’s, you know, that’s not how that would work, um, in any, in any realistic sense in, in the near future. And so. When, when people get excited about, Oh, we’re going to go live on Mars, what’s really, what we really should be talking about is a few people are going to go and have a temporary home there.
Maybe. And it might not actually be all that pleasant. That’s the near future scenario. And maybe that’s a stepping stone to something grander and more inclusive. And, you know, uh, sort of better suited to the way people actually like to live. But, uh, the near term idea is. You know, this is, this is something that would be really hard and very exclusive and you know, maybe it’ll work out great and maybe it will be, you know, something that’s a much longer term challenge.
Jordan: That was kind of going to be my next question is. If the goal is realistic to put people on Mars, even just a, an astronaut to visit, what should we be working on now? Is it getting out there? That’s the problem. Is it surviving once we’re there? Um, what’s NASA working with?
Katie: I think there, there are a lot of different things.
I mean, um. There’s one of the things that the NASA has been working on for a long time, uh, which is kind of a, something that a lot of people don’t think about as much is sort of isolation simulation experiments. So they have these experiments where you put a, you put a bunch of people in a closed habitat for six months or a year.
And just see how people deal with being in an enclosed space where they can’t go outside and they’re interacting with a small number of people and they have very few options for things to do. Um, what does that do to us psychologically? And that, that is a big question Mark. You know, when, if you’re going to go to Mars, you’re going to spend months and months in a spacecraft on the way there, and then once you get there, you’re probably going to be very isolated with a small number of people.
Um, if you’re, you know, one of the first sort of astronauts being sent there and we don’t really know. What that does to human psyche to be that isolated and be that confined. Um, so that’s one of the things that, that NASA has been working on for a long time, is figuring out what it takes to do that kind of mission, how that isolation might actually affect us as people.
Um, and then there are other, uh, there are other things that we’re doing, you know. There are experiments in what the Martian soil might be useful for in terms of growing food, are experiments in the kind of shielding you need to do their experiments in, uh, creating oxygen from, um, the resources that are on Mars that are, that are accessible now.
Um, they’re, they’re experiments being designed and, and employed now to, to test out some of those technologies. Um, so there are a lot of. There are a lot of preparatory experiments being done in terms of the technology of what it would take to live in a place like that, both in terms of the logistics of getting the resources you need and survival, physical survival, but also in terms of what does it mean for people to actually be doing these kinds of missions.
And so that’s, that’s kind of a neat thing that, that. NASA is really taking very seriously, um, what does it take for a human being to actually go to a place like this on, you know, on the way there, once you’re there, um, how that affects you as a person. And then there’s all the microgravity experiments as well.
The international space station is great for testing out what it does to humans to be in a microgravity environment for a very long time, which is what you would have to do to get to Mars as well.
Jordan: How were you able to suspend your disbelief when you watch movies or read books about going to Mars?
What’s that process like for you?
Katie: Um, I mean, some of them are, are done very realistically, you know, uh, there, there are some movies and TV shows where they really show a lot of the challenges and, and, uh, show a lot of the technology. And, you know, it’s always some, at some point in the future where, you know, maybe we’ve overcome some of these things.
So that’s, it’s not always totally unrealistic. But you know, I mean, I watch star Trek and stuff and that’s, you know, there are moments when I roll my eyes where it’s like, well, that’s probably one work that way. But, uh, I, you know, I like a, I like a good story and I see a lot of these things is fantasy or, or just an extrapolation of, you know, maybe that could work out someday and, and for the pro, for the purpose of entertainment, I will, I will assume that everything’s going to be fine.
Jordan: Lastly, give us just a one good recommendation then for one you think is, uh, is really realistic.
Katie: Uh, well, my, my favorite science fiction on TV right now is the expanse. Um, it’s, uh, reading
Jordan: the books. Those are based,
Katie: the books are great. Yeah. Yeah. So it’s a TV show about, uh, you know, humanity is, has gone out and settled the whole solar system.
And. Um, and there’s a group of people living on Mars and a group of people living on the earth. And then there’s another group living out in the asteroid belt doing asteroid mining and such. And there’s this sort of, uh, politics and, and conflict among those, those groups, and a number of other challenges come up.
But, but that TV show does a very good job of showing. Very realistic, kind of incremental technology that, you know, gets us out there over the next couple hundred years or whatever. Um, and that’s, that’s very cool to see. And in that show, you know, they’re working on terraforming Mars, which is a whole other question.
And something. Very difficult and very, um, you know, futuristic. And maybe maybe we could do something with that or maybe not. It’s kind of unclear. There are arguments in the literature, but you know, in terms of how people live in, in low gravity and what that does to people and what kind of, you know, how people get the resources they need to live in space.
All of that is covered in the expanse and it’s, it’s done very, very well. So I really enjoy that, that show a lot.
Jordan: Dr. Mack, thank you for, uh. Crushing my dreams, but being, being kind about it.
Katie: I appreciate it. Well, I, I hope that, I hope I haven’t crushed any dreams. I do think that, you know, as I said, I, I, I do want to get out there and I think that that’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to do it.
I also think that, um, you know, when we. When we talk about it, we should be intentional about how we’re, how we’re discussing it and what we really want to do.
Jordan: Absolutely. Thanks so much.
Katie: Thank you
Jordan: Dr Katie Mack is a theoretical cosmologist. She has a heck of a title. That was the big story. If you’d like more. We’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We’re also on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. You can find Dr. Mack on Twitter, by the way, at @AstroKatie, this podcast and all the other frequency podcasts are in all of your podcast players from Apple to Google to Stitcher, to Spotify to whatever.
And they are also at frequencypodcastnetwork.com Claire Brassard is the lead producer of the big story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor and I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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