With the likes of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and even Donald Trump talking up manned missions to Mars, an exciting new life may await us in the off-world colonies. But is the red planet a red herring?
Planetary scientist Amanda R. Hendrix (formerly of NASA) and science writer Charles Wohlforth believe so. In their new book, Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, they insist we should be looking for a habitable place—specifically, Saturn’s moon Titan. Unlike Mars, it has a significant atmosphere and an easily tapped source of renewable energy. Getting there, however, won’t be easy. Drawing on a breadth of research on everything from robotics to war to food production to genetic engineering to quantum technology, the authors spell out the challenges we could face in the outer solar system. They add a speculative narrative that imagines how we might make it to Titan and sardonically posit that when we do, we’ll simply start exploiting its environment and fighting each other. They argue we should also be trying to save our current planet, rather than simply to escape.
Hendrix and Wohlforth spoke with Maclean’s contributor Mike Doherty about the politics of space research, the risks of cosmic radiation and the reasons why our first space colonists likely won’t be the kind of people we’d expect.
Q: Why is humanity so fixated on travelling to Mars?
AH: It’s always been fascinating because back in the earliest observations, it looked like there were canals on Mars and some sort of greenery, [as if] there could be aliens. It remains a good option for looking for past life, and more accessible than some of the places in the outer solar system that might have current life. So it’s interesting as a target scientifically, but for long-term human settlement, it’s not the place to go.
CW: We’re a very long way from being able to put humans safely on Mars. The issues with [brain damage from] galactic cosmic rays, or GCRs, are serious, and in the past year, NASA has really come to recognize them: an internal document says you only have 150 days of safe travel unprotected—which won’t get you anywhere near a Mars-and-back mission with current technology. It’s probably time to level with the American people, and setting a farther-out human habitation goal is a better way to start solving those problems, rather than thinking about a short-term trip to Mars that’s probably not going to happen.
Q: The TV show Mars imagines all of the various space programs around the world coming together with a shared goal, an international Mars mission, but your book imagines separate government-led and private missions to Titan. How likely is it that our space programs will actually come together again to do something ambitious?
CW: Well, the track record isn’t that great. The International Space Station was an amazing accomplishment and a technical tour de force: they built these different pieces and got them into orbit together, but by the time it was done, relations between the U.S. and Russians had really soured. The U.S. and the Russians essentially function independently on the ISS: they’re two different teams at different ends of the space station doing their own experiments.
I don’t think that the space dog is going to wag the geopolitical tail. The ability of countries to get together on Earth is more likely to determine if they can co-operate in space, and it’s not looking too promising at the moment. They’d also have to be able to co-operate for decades. Commercial space programs are more likely to really improve the propulsion and develop launch capabilities. Our thought is, nations should be working on “stretch” scientific and technical advances.
Q: You mention in the book that NASA has become “sclerotic.” How did it get that way, and is there any hope for it?
CW: I think it got that way partly because of Congress, and presidents over the years constantly shifting their goals. It also ran into a crisis of bureaucratization, which often happens to agencies as they age and the original visionary leaders retire. And finally, the risk-averse quality—[the] Apollo [program] was a very rare, amazing thing, where the nation as a whole takes on an endeavour, knowing it’s risky. Commercial operators are a little more accepting of risks than people who have political jobs, looking at re-election.
AH: We just had a SpaceX explosion. No people were harmed, luckily, but if there were, what would have happened? But I agree with Charles. NASA is great, but the vision has kept changing over the years, and it makes it really hard to get anywhere. We can still go to Mars and the moon as stepping stones, but if everybody agreed to go to Titan, we could get a lot farther. One of the important changes to make would be to not necessarily change the NASA administrator with the presidential administration. That would help us to achieve big human projects, and going to the outer solar system.
CW: Which means taking on the harder scientific problems, like protecting the passengers from radiation. It was known a good 20 years ago that there needed to be extensive research on that, and yet the money was never spent. So we’re right where we were 20 years ago, in a sense.
Q: It struck me as I read the book that the more ambitious space programs were funded by Republicans and defunded by Democrats. Is that just a coincidence, or is there something there?
CW: I don’t know if there’s a real pattern there. One thing that’s true is that when George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush made their announcements [in 1989 and 2004, respectively] about going to Mars, Congress didn’t actually add any money to NASA, and so those projects were pretty much doomed from the beginning. They didn’t really make it a huge emphasis in their administrations. So in a way, when Obama cancelled [George W. Bush’s] Constellation program, he was just admitting the inevitable—it was not going to succeed because the money had not been [allocated] to it. Also, you can’t just expect presidents and Congresses to do something that the public doesn’t want. Carl Sagan observed that actually the public doesn’t want to spend that much money to go to Mars, if you look at the polls. So the first step is to develop the public support, and then the politicians will follow.
Q: A senior Trump adviser has said the forthcoming administration will defund NASA’S climate-change research and put the money into space exploration. What do you make of this?
CW: Amanda and I see no [need for a] choice between NASA doing Earth science and space exploration. Both are essential. The work NASA does in studying the Earth and its climate is critical and has been for decades. NASA was on the forefront of some key discoveries. Its satellites are among the most important assets providing real-time information about many climate and Earth-science issues. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem possible to predict what a Trump administration will do about anything. As we’ve seen in the weeks since his election, even his most important campaign promises were quickly discarded. So we will wait and see what happens to NASA.
Q: There was optimism about space exploration in the ’80s until the Challenger exploded. Now, many advocates, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, have been saying that we have to explore space because humanity faces a threat of extinction here on Earth. It feels as though research into space travel is being driven by fear.
AH: I like to stay more optimistic. I agree that maybe we ought to establish a human settlement somewhere in the solar system because things are going to go very wrong on Earth, but humans really do like to explore. In the ’80s, things were looking up because the shuttle program was fairly successful: There were frequent launches, and people were pretty excited. But now what do we have, going forward in terms of crewed missions? Well, it’s really just aiming towards Mars, and finding that it is actually really hard.
CW: There’s an unacknowledged problem with the pessimistic way of looking at it: We’re never going to be able to get any significant proportion of the human population off the Earth, and the cost of getting even a small percentage of our population off the Earth is far, far more than the cost of addressing the problems that would make us want to leave here. We can fix the Earth a lot easier than we can leave it.
Q: Why specifically is Titan the place to go, and can we realistically get people as excited about Titan as we have been about Mars?
AH: Titan is a much more interesting place just visually; in terms of the landscape and the opportunities there, Titan offers so much more. It’s really Earth-like: it’s the only other place in the solar system that has any liquid on the surface. It’s not water, but it’s ethane and methane, and there’s a nice atmosphere. It’s one-and-a-half* the [atmospheric] pressure that we feel here on Earth, so it’s not too much and not too little. The main benefit, of course, is that people will be shielded from a lot of the the GCRs that are so damaging. It takes a long time to get there, and it’s cold, but there are ways around that.
Q: Is figuring out how to get there fast enough the most difficult thing?
AH: Well, it would have to be a completely new kind of engine. We talk about a quantum thruster, which is a possibility. As far as we know right now, chemical propulsion is not going to do it, so we really need an innovative concept.
Q: In the book, you envision a scenario where on a pioneering trip to Titan, a Type-A commander who does everything by the book goes off the rails, whereas an easygoing tinkerer succeeds. What kind of people are we going to have to send out there for long missions?
CW: I was so surprised, when we started interviewing psychologists, to find that the guy the HR department would want to hire is not the guy you’d want to be sending on a long exploration mission, and someone like Dale Pomraning [a machinist who spent a winter in Antarctica] was a model. So we interviewed him, it was a kick—he was telling long stories and jokes and just being silly…It makes all kinds of sense. If you’re cooped up on some kind of long, long mission with just a few people, you cannot be high-strung.
AH: You’ve got to go with the flow.
CW: And the selection process would have to be very different from how it is now. Larry Palinkas, the main scientist who has studied that, said he didn’t know how to find that type of person. So that’s another area where quite a bit of research is needed.
Q: You imagine how the development of robot soldiers could give the space program a boost because “warbots” would be hardy enough to survive harsh conditions in space. We’ve seen time and again in our history how conflict has spurred on technology. Might we make it to Saturn’s moon because we’ll be fighting one another?
CW: Well, Second World War technology is what gave us space flight in the first place, with the V-2 rocket and Wernher von Braun and all of that. We’re just trying to take the patterns of the past and project them to the future, and I think that military technology through history has led to civilian technology.
AH: It doesn’t have to. We don’t want there to be a big war!
CW: That chapter was really thinking about how that robot technology might develop and become radiation-hardened. It does seem that robots are going to be going places [in space] before we are, because we have such a big challenge to solve health issues.
Q: Stephen Hawking said recently that humanity has 1,000 years to colonize another planet—or presumably a moon—because the threat of extinction is so great. Do you think we’ll make it? Best case scenario, how quickly could we get to Titan?
AH: It would be hard to put a number on it. So much work needs to be done—in the transportation, the health issue, the food…We don’t know anything about reproduction in microgravity. It might take a really long time.
CW: We spend a good part of the book talking about how inaccurate predictions of that kind have been. We really don’t have any idea. I don’t think Stephen Hawking does either. I think we’d like to see a much faster pace, and we think it is naturally going to develop through industry.
Q: Does space exploration need to be a higher priority because of that threat of extinction?
CW: The work to address climate change is non-negotiable. That has to happen as quickly as possible. The progress to get to living on Titan is so far in the future that what really needs to happen is a greater investment in pure science and addressing these big-leap technological issues, which always yield huge benefits on Earth. I don’t think we see it as an either/or. Should we be doing this because we’re afraid of the Earth being destroyed? I think the answer is no. We should do it for other reasons, and we should keep the Earth from being destroyed.
Correction: A previous version of this post suggested Titan’s atmosphere was “only one-half” the atmospheric pressure experienced on Earth. A bad phone line muffled the correct sentence, which is that Titan has “one-and-a-half” the atmospheric pressure of Earth.