As so often happens, I was researching a topic for a post on another blog (on a completely unrelated topic) when I came across a thought-provoking documentary, The Mars Underground. The documentary explores the history of plans for manned missions to Mars (from a US NASA led perspective), and beyond to a practical future of exploration. We see how, time and again, politics, both on the national and internal NASA level derailed human expansion into space.
Doom and gloom of politics and bureaucracies
As someone who believes the richest future for humanity involves spreading across space, I found the first part of the documentary dredging up my most pessimistic ideas of what we, as a species set on endlessly, violently competing against itself. On top of the political dynamic are problems of cost, and technological feasibility. A proposal by Robert Zubrin and David Baker, known as Mars Direct, shows how a series of mission to Mars can be done with current technology and within NASA’s current budget. This is what the whole documentary drives towards. We can get to Mars now. We could be there already and possibly be moving along in developing a permanent base.
The documentary finishes with discussing terraforming Mars. The idea is not so far fetched as some sci-fi representations. Zurbin suggests that using factories to produce “super greenhouse gasses” the planet’s temperature could be raised by 10c within a few decades. At that point Co2 trapped in the soil would begin to release, becoming a self-sustaining process. With a thickening atmosphere, air pressure increases, and eventually people would be able to move about the surface without bulky pressure suits. That in itself would be amazing. I’d happily settle for wondering the Martian equatorial wastes with an oxygen mask. Better yet, water trapped in the soil will have been melting for some time, creating a paradise for vegetation (creating oxygen).
Assuming we don’t discover a feasible way to speed up the oxygenation of the atmosphere it would be tens of thousands of years before the atmosphere were breathable. In that time Mars would become virtually unrecognisable as the planet it is today. Who want’s to bet technologies that speed the process won’t be discovered? I certainly don’t, not that it is likely I’d be around to claim my winnings or payout any losses.
It is this last part of the documentary that gives me that thrill that comes with daring to imagine the possibilities that technology, vision, and will can unlock. The possibility that our species will not wither away on Earth till the sun boils the seas, or more likely, we succumb to any combination of catastrophic natural and/or self-created disasters. The possibility that we will become a fully-fledged spacefaring species gives me all sorts of warm fuzzies. Then it’s onto the generation ships and on out into the galaxy, but that’s a topic for another day.
I believe the following video is the 2006 version. The 2011 Director’s Cut contains some significant updates. Unfortunately I haven’t found a streaming or DVD available in Australia, but I did find The Mars Underground: Updated Edition – Director’s Cut on Amazon US.