For almost as far back as we can trace human history there has been a fascination with the sky. The Mesoamerican Mayans used the appearance of certain constellations to mark the planting seasons.
For the ancient Egyptians the appearance of the star Sirius marked the beginning of the summer solstice and so the annual flooding of the Nile.
We have built our monthly calendars around the phases of the moon and our yearly calendars around the journey of the sun. We have walked on the moon and spent time far beyond our own atmosphere, looking down on earth as a beautiful blue and green orb and marvelling at the vast, glittered expanse surrounding our tiny world.
Now, human beings are attempting to go to Mars. Like a tale emerging from a science fiction novel, the journey to the Red Planet has already begun. Some of us may see it happen within our lifetime if the science game-changers are to be believed. SpaceX has made claims they will have their first astronauts there as soon as the 2020s, while NASA gives a tentative 2035 estimate. This is a fascinating statement if we look at the fact that a mere decade ago, this was considered by most of us to be entirely impossible.
We spoke with Kai Staats for insight to the human journey from Earth to Mars. Staats is a life-long amateur astronomer, documentary filmmaker, and scientist-in-training. For ten years he was CEO of a Linux OS and supercomputing development firm with projects that included working with the image processing team for the Mars rovers at NASA JPL, bioinformatics at Argonne National Lab, and sonar imaging on-board U.S. Navy submarines. His MSc research (2014-15) at the University of Cape Town was in the application of Machine Learning (AI) to filtering radio astronomy data at SKA.
Following this impressive road, Staats has engaged his passion for science outreach and science education through work as a researcher, filmmaker, and writer. In January 2014 he spent time in the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert in a two week simulated Mars habitat, where he assisted a robotics researcher and produced six short documentary films for Space.com. He is now working on his third film for the National Science Foundation and another with an astrophysicist and dance team about the life of a star (www.songofthestars.org).
Space is a magical place. One of Staats’ passions lies in the higher education of sciences because of the magic it can bring to the human conscience. “My breath is taken away every time I look through a telescope, every time I venture to visualise what it might mean to discover life on Mars or on a moon of Jupiter; to some day receive evidence of life on a planet orbiting a distant star. I have never met someone who looked at the rings of Saturn for the first time who was not instantly, even in some small way transformed.” Maybe one of the reasons space is so fascinating to us is that it reminds of us of where we fit into the cosmos, and leaves us with a feeling of excitement and wanting more. This can be named as one of the most important reasons for science education, it reminds us what a big, big place our world and universe really is. It makes us think a little deeper.
Despite this, for most of us the journey to Mars may feel like a distant and detached reality. Dealing with an ailing planet, and an economic world that is making it increasingly difficult to survive daily life we may be asking, “What is the point? Why does this matter?” These are the questions that the great minds of our generation have been asking and using to drive them forward – and the answers are important.
Staats explains his answer as “multi-fold.” The first part of the answer may seem obvious – we need a plan B. In order to talk about Mars as both a journey of its own and a destination, we cannot forget the Earth journey that has led to us to this point. The growth of the human population is one of the largest pressures on our planet. In fact, it is undeniable that the human influence has begun to change or at least accelerate changes within the fundamental ecological properties of our own planet.
This sentiment has been met with much controversy in the media, with many of us asking, if we can go to Mars, why can we not aid in the regeneration of our own planet? Well, we can and we must – for our own sake. Mars is not going to be our new planet any time soon, and we will need Earth for many millennia to come. There is a very long way to go to ever inhabit Mars. We actually have to get there first. However, our future on Earth remains unpredictable, both due to human influence as well as natural influences way out of our control. “We know that life on Earth has been wiped out at least five times. We need a backup plan, a place to call home in case ours is met with disaster, space born or human made,” Staats says.
Speaking about the Mars journey in a recent Science Café talk in Cape Town, Staats referred to a study on individuals who were diagnosed with depression. When asked to describe their future, they described only pure reality. Only what was realistically possible based upon their exact circumstances.
Seeing our future exactly as it is, is depressing us as a species. With the overwhelming number of problems we currently face, and the equally overwhelming amount of change we have to make to correct it, the human psyche is beginning to falter.
However, no matter how sentimental it may sound, the human spirit seems to be made of stronger stuff. We keep on trying new things, we are essentially problem solvers and have been since we first invented the spear to catch our food, and discovered fire to keep us warm. In this sphere lies the second part of the answer to our question – why does Mars matter? The unexpected answer is…hope.
“It is human nature to desire to look to the future and see something better than what we have, right here, right now… But when we no longer see an improved future, despite the innovations, we find the future depressing, dystopian,” Kai says. The human race needs something to strive for, something to get behind.
It is a great current discussion amongst many prominent scientists, thought leaders and pioneers today that science and technology have seemingly failed us. The once great promises and infinite possibilities we envisioned engulfed by our endless list of problems and failures as a species. An overwhelming number of things that seem to outstrip our natural problem-solving and solution-oriented instincts.
Mars becomes important because it reminds us that we are capable of incredible things. We have performed life-saving medical marvels. We have been to the depths of the ocean and can hop on a plane and fly to destinations far from where we are in a matter of hours. We have the capacity to build and fix and overcome. It gives us heroes to admire and in so doing, lends us aspirations that drive us forward as individuals. “We need new heroes…there is something about humans taking tremendous personal risk that inspires entire generations. Not an “extreme sport” but a true adventure, the likes of which we have not seen for nearly half a century,” Staats says.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the basic physical hurdles we will have to overcome to get to Mars. The journey itself will take an estimated two hundred days, nearly six and a half months. That means the astronauts will spend a solid six months in a confined space with only each other and nowhere else to go. Think about doing that journey with your best friend, never mind a near stranger. The planet is far less than ideal for the human physiology with the lack of oxygen and high levels of CO2 being the main issues. Staats explains that life on Mars will be completely confined to indoors, in a compression suit or in a compression rover. How we handle these challenges is another discussion entirely.
Despite this grounding reality, Mars remains important. Its incredible scale of adventure and risk reminds us of who we are. The human identity is shaped by taking on challenges and attempting impossible feats. We have to keep trying. This is the key to the human spirit.