Curiosity Rover | Mars (2012)

1501880-6405352 - Johnson Aaron - May 4, 2016 1252 PM - curiosity-mars-rover-self-portrait-martian-sand-dunes-pia20316-full

Curiosity Self-Portrait by NASA, retrieved from http://mars.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/images/?ImageID=7658

By Aaron Johnson

The technology used during the Space Race and Apollo missions inadvertently revealed man’s agency as a geological force in the Anthropocene. An aim of the Mars Rover missions is to analyze the Red Planet’s chemical and biological composition. Moreover, they are the drivers of man’s hope to one-day colonizing Mars, making the Rovers objects of the Anthropocene. Today, the idea of colonizing Mars is, for some, viewed as our species’ next step. However, this million-mile leap to another planet poses moral questions regarding the new Martian environment and society, and man’s role leading to the abandonment of Earth.

Thirty-five million miles away in outer space floats Mars, the Red Planet. Although cold, lifeless, and barren, Mars has intrigued man’s naked eye and prodded his imagination since ancient times. H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, War of the Worlds, describes a Martian invasion of Earth and is one of the most notable alien-invasion storylines specific to Mars. Still today there is no shortage of science fiction and space exploration stories. Andy Weir’s 2014 novel The Martian depicts an astronaut/botanist/engineer living on Mars after being stranded there during a third manned excursion. Although both novels are considered science fiction, the latter is believed to be closer to reality than ever before.

Because of trailblazing technologies like as rockets and robotic rovers, man has been able to expand his boundaries into the solar system. Mars’ close proximity and similarity to Earth allow it highly sought after by space probes. The Mars Rovers were the first to provide man with extensive information on the Red Planet that increases our interest in space pioneering, making them objects of the Anthropocene era. This geological epoch deems man as the dominant force because we are able to shape the global environment to our needs, which is unprecedented by any other species. The very technologies that mold the Anthropocene and contribute to environmental decline are the exact same technologies that spearhead the research and eventual colonization of Mars. Futhermore, the paradoxical movement to colonize Mars raises ethical questions regarding why we are seeking to expand to other planets.

Space travel first caught fire during the Cold War era. The United State (US) and United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) were neck and neck in the nuclear arms race and the Space Race. The first major move in this cosmologic competition was the USSR’s launching of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957. More moves and countermoves were made by launching dogs and humans into orbit, each attempting to establish dominance over the other as nuclear tensions grew between the two nations. Under President Kennedy’s administration, NASA launched the ambitious Apollo Lunar Program in 1961 to put a man on the Moon. Twenty-five billion dollars and eight years later, the Apollo 11 achieved its goal; the US won the Space Race. The Apollo missions are among the first indications that man has the technological abilities to put himself into outer space and colonize celestial objects.

Even before man had landed on the moon, NASA was looking to Mars. In November of 1964, Mariner 4 had returned the first flyby images of the Martian surface; these were the first close-up images that man had ever obtained of another planet. Following the Mariner expeditions, NASA set out to land a rover on another planet, shifting our perspective from a satellite to a roving vehicle on Mars’ surface. During the Viking 1 and 2 missions in 1975 and 1976, the probes landed on Mars and investigated the soil for evidence of life and obtained the first panoramic image of its surface. In 1997, Mars Pathfinder touched down on the planet with intentions of demonstrating the feasibility of low-cost landings on Mars and characterizing the Martian environment for further exploration.

The start of the new millennium brought a new mindset regarding Martian exploration. In 2001, the Mars Odyssey began orbiting Mars to monitor its environment. The Odyssey scrutinized Mars’ environment to determine if it was ever conducive to life and how much radiation exposure future astronauts may encounter on missions. In 2003, Spirit and Opportunity—rovers with names reflective of man’s outlook on Mars—analyzed Martian soil for any signs of “water activity.” This hunt was finally successful in 2007 when the Phoenix Lander found traces of water ice at Mars’ northern pole. Most recently, the Curiosity Rover has made expansive discoveries of water since 2012. The increasing evidence of water continues to fuel man’s quest to understand our neighboring planet.

After spending billions of dollars of research and development, NASA has sent five rovers to Mars. All of these Martian missions contributed data that was collectively assessed and debated whether or not to pursue further investigation of Mars, namely for a potential to support life and eventually harbor the human species. Because the rovers were able to travel to Mars, collect samples, and report their findings back to earth, they are further enticing man to colonize Mars. The human race is capable of manipulating Earth’s environment and landscape, and through the Mars Rovers, we now aim to do the same to Mars’.

SpaceX and Mars One are two companies with the goal of establishing a human colony on the Red Planet. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, sees the human colonization of Mars as a part of our species’ manifest destiny. He asks, “Are we on a path to becoming a multiplanet species or not? If we’re not, well, that’s not a very bright future.” Musk pushes for the colonization of Mars and believes that technology will be the saving grace of mankind, much like the pro-technology Naturalist Anthropocene narrative by Christophe Bonneuil. He argues that it is our obligation to expand our territory extra terrestrially since we are the product of millions of years of evolution.

However, being the product of millions of years of evolution can be condemning. Our technological developments of nuclear weapons and carbon-belching engines are only some of the contributors to our native planet’s demise. These technologies, among other things, may lead to mass destruction, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures, all of which endanger our species and the planet. Stephan L. Petranek is the author of How We’ll Live on Mars, in which he rationalizes Mars’ colonization: “There are real threats to the continuation of the human race on Earth, including failure to save the home planet from ecological destruction and possibility of nuclear war.” He continues, “the first humans who emigrate to Mars are our best hope for survival of our species. Mars will become the new frontier.”  However, if man cannot responsibly manage one planet, how can it be trusted with complete autonomy over another?

The colonization of Mars further exemplifies the inequalities and class polarization that are common throughout the Anthropocene epoch. Contrary to the Anthropocene’s name, not all societies play an equal role in the epoch. Therefore, its origins cannot be accredited to all of mankind, invalidating the idea of species thinking. Ironically, the effects of the climate change that stem from the Anthropocene affect undeveloped societies more severely than developed ones. Meanwhile, the developed nations that cause these damaging effects are practically unaffected. This trend is echoed in the case for Mars’ colonization: developed nations like the US have the financial assets and technological tools to get to Mars, whereas developing or undeveloped nations do not. Mars is “the new hope” for the nations that have traumatized the Earth, yet those who have played no part in Earth’s degradation will be abandoned in the mess.

Frank Drake, an astronomer at Harvard University, raises another moral question by building off of Enrico Fermi’s famous “Where are they?” question regarding other intelligent life forms. Kolbert explains these ideas: “If there are lots of planets out there that are suitable for life, and if life eventually produces intelligence, and if intelligent beings on one planet are capable of figuring out how to communicate with intelligent beings on another, then the fact that we haven’t heard from any suggests that such civilizations don’t last.”  Our species’ technological capabilities may allow us to make the leap to another planet, but having this ability does not justify us doing it. If humans are truly an exceptional species, one intelligent enough to modify our environment—and an entire planet 35 million miles away—we should also have the capacity to know our limitations and recognize our imminent undoing. Fleeing from Earth to Mars after traumatically altering our native planet does not solve the problem, but simply buys some of us more time.

Sources:

History.com Staff. “The Space Race.” History.com. 2010. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.history.com/topics/space-race.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Project Exodus.” The New Yorker. June 25, 2015. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/01/project-exodus-critic-at-large-kolbert.   

Matson, John. “Timeline of Mars Exploration, from 1960 to 2011 [Interactive].” Scientific American. November 03, 2011. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/smith-mars-timeline/.

Moskvitch, Katia. “Water on Mars: Curiosity Rover Uncovers a Flood of Evidence.” Space.com. September 18, 2013. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://www.space.com/22854-mars-water- curiosity-rover-discoveries.html.

NASA. “Chronology of Mars Exploration.” Mars Exploration Timeline. April 12, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/chronology_mars.html.

SpaceX Channel. “Elon Musk: The Case For Mars.” YouTube. 2013. Accessed April 20, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndpxuf-uJHE.