As we stand on the threshold of becoming an interplanetary species, the debate has centered on the technical feasibility of putting men on Mars to the expense of what kind of presence we wish to be in the cosmos.
Is mankind about to become the predatory extraterrestrial race often depicted in horror films? What safeguards are we placing to save the universe from ourselves? After all we’ve been off to something of a poor start on Earth…
An intergalactic legal framework
The existing legal framework governing human affairs in space, inherrited from the previous era of space exploration in the 1960s, translates a lot of the worries of its time: explicitely forbidding the placing of nuclear weapons on celestial bodies, outlawing the claiming of national sovereignty over celestial bodies, and reminding us that astronauts are first and foremost envoys of all of humanity into space.
To this end, the treaty forbids the contamination of celestial bodies – a highly impractical clause in a view of colonizing Mars. Not only does space colonization require to place humans near bodies of water and, inadvertently, have them place their microbes in an environment where they may potentially subsist and even annihilate existing life there, the whole idea of ‘terraforming” a planet like Mars is nothing short of planet-wide contamination.
The idea that forms of life we may find elsewhere – or even the potential for this other life to develop – has a superior claim to celestial bodies than forms of life as we know them on Earth is enshrined in the present treaty. A manned mission to Mars, with a view of setting a human outpost on the red planet, would necessarily infringe on the treaty.
The reason this is so disturbing is that – regardless of the validity of the principles laid out in the treaty – our first step into our new existence as an inter-planetary species may well be in complete violation of the basic set of rules we had set for ourselves. And opening such a momentuous potential for mankind under the auspices of complete lawlessness does not bode well for our intergallactic criminal record…
The economics of outer-space
Another trap that awaits us in space is our notion of economics. Space X may well drastically reduce the cost of taking humans to Mars, but there will always be a cost. And the question of whether there is to be a return on this initial investment – beyond scientific discovery and hedging our bets for the survival of the human race – may trip up our first step into our interplanetary existence.
Exploiting and trading resources collected in space to insure the financial viability of the operation – is one of the potential returns on investment that could be expected by such an expedition. If such a space trade were to flourish, we could easily turn into a predatory mode – built into our economic system – unhampered by concerns that may apply on Earth – although very marginally – about the viablity of over-exploiting our planet’s resources.
In other words, the economics of the other worlds we intend to build need to be rethought on a model different from our own – lest we repeat the same mistakes that are making us leave our current home.
We come in peace
Last, but not least, the crew and the rules that govern their relations will be critical in upholding the values that we as a species would like to come to represent in the universe. Beyond the mere physiological and psychological difficulties the crew will have to endure – who they are and how they operate together as a group can make or break humanity’s hope to be a peaceful, benevolent presence in the cosmos.
Thus, beyond the notion of skills necessary for the trip and for survival on Mars, beyond the question of a diverse enough gene pool to sustain an actual colony there, beyond the imperative for a willful departure to the unknown, there is the question of interpersonal relations – both as a sum of its component parts and as a social body with rules and norms guiding its decision-making.
This basic set of rules required to ensure democracy in humanity’s new out-post is – to a certain extent – conflicting with the commanding structure require for a mission of this magnitude. Clearing up these ambiguities before sending men into outer-space is necessary to avoid the social experiment entailed in any space colonization doesn’t turn sour and produce a Martian tyranny.
Why are we leaving?
The simple fact that we are able to reach out to other worlds doesn’t mean that we should. If we are to take the argument put forth by transhumanists in defense of space colonization: that humanity on Earth faces serious dangers (global warming, nuclear war, an asteroid) and that it’s survival would be better secured if it were present on several planets, we shouldn’t forget that most of these threats are man-made.
If building a brave new world in the stars is one way to ensure the continued survival of the species, it simply cannot work if the species carries on in its destructive habits. In other words, if colonizing Mars without deeply questionning our mode of existence is plan B, we may already be in need of a plan C…
United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, Outer Space Treaty (1966)
Charles C. Mann, The Tricky Ethics of Intergalactic Colonization