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Terraform Humans First, Then Mars? 480

Posted by timothy
from the measure-of-all-things dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Related to the future of Mars, NASA released the transcript of an expert panel which debated terraforming the red planet. Planetary scientists including NASA's Planetary Protection Officer, John Rummel, and science fiction writers (Kim Robinson, Arthur C. Clarke, and Greg Bear) chimed in. When asked if Mars should be transformed to a place where humans could walk without life support suits ("naked"), Sir Clarke responded, "Perhaps we should ask the Martians first." Can it be done quickly-- or at all? Is terraforming ethical? If humans colonize, are the colonists on a one-way trip akin to exile?" Read on for a bit more.

"A consensus seemed to be that like waking a sleeping giant, planet building seems possible if oxygen is not a requirement and some microbial life is dormant underground. But the question of making a planet suitable for plants alone seems to span tens of thousands of years. The remaining science fiction notion was terraforming humans, instead of planets, and making us survive on what is now a very alien world."

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Terraform Humans First, Then Mars?

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  • ET, is that you? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rsrsharma (769904) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:17PM (#9474596) Homepage Journal
    Is it really a good idea to think about terraforming a planet before we're sure that there isn't any life on it?
    • Why? This isn't Star Trek. The Prime Directive is fiction only. The most there'd be is maybe some bacteria and who really cares about that?
      • by Timesprout (579035) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:37PM (#9474711)
        When our new Hyper Intelligent Sulphur Breathing Galactic Sprout overlords arrive here to do a spot of terraforming cos they think we are just strange stupid organisms, I vote we dont let Chess_the_cat handle the negotiations
      • by miope (727503) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:38PM (#9474717) Homepage
        Yeah, and in five hundred years people will be ashamed of the "barbarians pre-space humans who exterminated bacterial diversity on Mars". I'm talking seriously, we should try to avoid repeting errors... in Colon's time, nobody knew that European's diseases could be fatal for indians... and that *was* understandable given the lack of scientific knowledge of the era. Nowadays we know the scientific, historic social, and ethical value of life and diversity, so, we should be more careful with our actions. And remember that this bacteria could give us lot of insight about the beginings of life and evolution in general. P.S. English is not my primary language... I'm doing my best effort ;-)
        • in Colon's time, nobody knew that European's diseases could be fatal for indians...

          Yes, and as soon as they did, they took advantage of it by giving the Indians blankets from smallpox patients to get rid of them faster. Now, as you say, we have better ethics than the Puritans and other early American colonists. I agree that we need to make as sure as we can first that we're not harming existing life, or at least finding ways to preserve it. I really doubt that there's much there to worry about but it n

          • Re:ET, is that you? (Score:5, Informative)

            by Artifakt (700173) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @08:46PM (#9475446)
            Of course the early Spanish and such knew that European diseases could be fatal to the "Indians". But, they didn't have a germ theory of disease or other modern explanations, and they didn't know about immunity mechanisms at all. They were genuinely surprised to see diseases that had a relatively small mortality rate in Europe, or that generally took months to kill, spread so fast among the indiginous peoples, and often kill within a day or two. This is confirmed by the many letters and messages they wrote relating how remarkable it was. Most of these were sent by Roman Catholic monks, who it appears often genuinely tried to help, but by gathering Native Americans into crowded conditions usually made things worse.
            The Bio-warfare attacks with smallpox laden blankets and such generally happened in the 1700's to 1750's, not the 1500's. Those people's ethics probably weren't any better than the Conquistadores, but they understood a bit more about the technical end of handleing Smallpox and other diseases. One of the most notable of these was Lord Amherst's decision to distribute blankets known to be full of smallpox, an attack which he justified in his letters and memoirs on Biblical grounds, although the second most well documented use of smallpox was at the order of a mercenary garrison commander near what is now Chicago ILL, who was a freethinker and justified it on the grounds of European racial superiority. While these two attacks are the only ones with extensive documentation made at the time by the chief perpetrators, it seems probably that there were more, ranging from a low estimate of about 10 to more than 100 depending on the historian's best guess.
            • Re:ET, is that you? (Score:4, Interesting)

              by ron_ivi (607351) <[moc.secivedxelpmocpaehc] [ta] [ontods]> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @09:24PM (#9475689)
              Parent wroteThe Bio-warfare attacks with smallpox laden blankets and such generally happened in the 1700's to 1750's, not the 1500's.

              Interesting. Note that bio-warefare agents getting out of control dates back quite a bt further - likely to the 1346 Siege of Caffa. This page from our government's center for disease control [] has interesting details.

              On the basis of a 14th-century account by the Genoese Gabriele de' Mussi, the Black Death is widely believed to have reached Europe from the Crimea as the result of a biological warfare attack. This is not only of great historical interest but also relevant to current efforts to evaluate the threat of military or terrorist use of biological weapons.
              Bet the guy who wrote it never thought it was also relevant to exploring Mars.
        • Re:ET, is that you? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by JWSmythe (446288) <> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @07:27PM (#9475011) Homepage Journal

          Your english is fine. :)

          I'd imagine a few problems with teraforming Mars..

          First off is the point that you made. If we use some process to make the atmosphere more earth-like, we could encourage the growth of anything that may be lying dormant there, or we could kill it. We've only explored a very small part of the planet, and still don't have complete information about everything we've found. For example, what are those little balls that they found in the soil? Probably just rocks, I'd imagine, but maybe not. They have found traces of water (mostly mud-like). I'd imagine that we'd do something with the free-standing water, to get it to vaporize, making the atmosphere thicker, which would also likely start weather patterns and rain.

          To make the atomsphere more earth like, we'd probably send some plants over, such as algae, and maybe grasses. As it grows, it may cover artifacts that could be interesting. I'll use my own back yard as an example. When I moved into this house, the yard was all dirt and rocks. We spent a week digging up rocks, but there are still some small rocks in the dirt. We then planted grass. The yard is now very lush and green, but it is hopeless to think you can see the little rocks that were there.

          Imagine "teraforming" Giza (Egypt). Occasionally, archeologists find interesting rocks, like the Rosetta Stone, simply sticking out of the sand, because wind blew sand away from it. If someone encouraged grass to grow there, through aquaducts and irrigation, sand wouldn't blow away, and whatever is burried will remain burried until someone tries to build a strip mall on top of yet another unidentified tomb.

          Personally, I'm all for teraforming Mars. For a long time, I've believed that for Humanity to survive, we *MUST* have colonies on more than just Earth. We have the technology to kill everything on this planet in minutes, and it takes a mistake by one person to start that chain of events. Maybe through our own greed and industrialization, we've already set the earth on a fatal spiral through pollution. There are also other events that can happen, which are on more of a sci-fi scale. What if the sun goes super nova? What if a giant asteroid crashes into the earth?

          Sure, we don't have the technology now to colonize a planet light-years away. Just like a child, we need to learn to take baby steps, before we can run. Mars is becoming close enough for us to 'practice' on. It probably won't be perfect, but it will be an attempt. After several attempts, we'll do better at it.

          If we never teraform Mars, if humanity debates it for the rest of eternity, we'll never learn to travel faster or further, and doom ourselves to eventually overpopulate the Earth and die.

          Likewise, if we never populate Mars, our space travel technology will be very slow to grow. Necessity is the mother of invention. If we have a need to travel the distance between Earth and Mars faster, someone will invent something which can achieve this. It may not be a super-cool spacecraft. Our own science fiction has eluded to creative solutions, although technologically impossible at this time such as Wormholes, transporters, and 'Stargate' (good show).

          Eventually, we will have the technology to go to distant galaxies, but we have to manage to at least get people to the next planet first. In the last 100 years, we've come a long way. The wright brothers flew their first powered airplane in 1903. Now we can fly all the way around the earth at several times the speed of sound. Wars do great things for technology. Jet and rocket powered craft were innovated during WWII. Slow progress has been made with other forms of aircraft. The cold war was great for pushing space technology, even if it was only for political reasons. America had to do better than the Russians, so we were each trying to out-do each other.

          The first
        • by canadian_right (410687) <> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @07:46PM (#9475132) Homepage
          I kill thousands of bacteria everytime I wash my hands. If Mars has bacteria, but some in a 'zoo' and terraform away.
        • by Takuryu (759826)
          Who is to say that the bacteria don't just decide to exterminate us, instead? All it takes is a single one to hitch a ride to Earth and find a host...

          Regardless, I vote that we terraform the Sahara Desert first... it would be good practice and actually serves a purpose NOW as well as in the future.
          • by Artifakt (700173) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @08:59PM (#9475548)
            There's plenty of places we can practice. What happens if we pump desalinated seawater into Death Valley USA? How could we establish a timetable for re-shaping Mars when we don't really know much time it would take the Brazilian rain forest to reclaim the land at its current fringes if it started being protected now?
            If we're betting we can establish new species on Mars, wouldn't it make sense to first restablish some more Earthly species in ranges we have wiped them from right here? A hundred or so years ago, we failed in attempts to reestablish the Passenger Pigeon to the wild or keep it alive in zoos. We've just now gotten pretty good with the American Buffalo, and results on the Eastern Red Wolf and the Giant Panda are still mixed at best. Looking at the endangered species list, I'd say until things come off of it (in a positive direction only) at least as fast as they go on, we are not ready for Mars.
        • by Artifakt (700173) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @08:26PM (#9475327)
          The historical trend is to define "worthy of preservation" more broadly, at least in western culture. Not only have we seen a general repugnance against racism and euginecism develop that would probably surprise the hell out of our bloody minded ancestors, but there have even been words such as speciesist introduced to extend that repugnance to at least the abuse of the higher animals. Of course, these are far from universal.
          If you think of it as us taking territory from bacteria, it sounds oh-so-hypersensitive and politically uber-correct to think we should care, but if you think of it as though there must be a minimum value to any whole, complete ecology, even one made up entirely of simple life forms, it makes more sense.
          If Mars even has bacteria, and it turns out there is nothing exceptional about them, we will probably terraform the planet eventually. But the first thing we should conclude on finding a bacterium not native to our own world is not that Mars has nothing but bacteria, but that it has an ecoystem, and the only other example of an ecosystem we know is a complex and marvelous thing indeed.
        • > Yeah, and in five hundred years people will be ashamed of the
          > "barbarians pre-space humans who exterminated bacterial diversity on
          > Mars".

          Yea, I suspect you are right. And the heart of the movement will be at Mars University. They will be weak kneed mushy headed students lead by a few ivory tower dwelling pseudo intellectuals. But the most anyone else will say is "oh well, I ain't giving it back to the germs." and get on with their comfortable martian life. Or in other words, nothing new.
    • by polyp2000 (444682)
      I think that you have to make a decision like this on a case by case basis. When it boils down to the bare essentials, life is life, and life will do its best to spread unto the far reaches of the universe, by hook or by crook, with or without us. Is it right not to seize the opportunities for our race to achieve this? My own personal belief is that it is our duty and responsibility, not just for us but for future generations to explore and spread our seed where ever it can be sown. That said we should ende
      • terraforming the whole planet? There's a great idea in Cowboy Bebop [] where cities built on Mars are sunk into craters and a great wall is built around them that generates some sort of air curtain that keeps an oxygen atmosphere inside so that people can walk around under open skies while most of the planet remains untouched.
    • Re:ET, is that you? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kevlar (13509)
      Holy Crap. Its not like there is actual plant and animal life on Mars. Its a dormant planet. The best we could do is find some bacteria that might be frozen in the ice caps, but even then, bacteria is bacteria. It is barely life and if it does exist on the planet, its borderline extinct because of climactic changes. There is no ethical reason to revive a bacterial species from the dead and make sure it flourishes. On the other hand, there is an enormous ethical reason to make human life flourish on pl
  • by telstar (236404) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:17PM (#9474597)
    If we're going to make it a place where people walk around naked, we're going to need two new websites. One where we can vote who to send to Mars ... and a second with up-to-the-minute webcams from the red planet.
    • Re:Suggestion... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by powera (644300)
      Up to the Minute? There is at least a 3 minute lag between Earth and Mars, so it would be at least 3 minutes back.

      That's the problem people don't think of when they deal with interstellar travel. Most sci-fi has some FTL communication, it's only a few books that don't. I'm not sure that entanglement will ever work itself out, so it might never happen.

      • Re:Suggestion... (Score:2, Informative)

        by Apreche (239272)
        There is a very very good one shot anime called "Voices from a Distant Star" aka "Hoshi no Koe". The entire plot of this one episode OAV is the slowness of interstellar communication.

        In addition to that, this anime is grade A production quality, and the entire thing was made by a single person in his house with his computer and other animation supplies. One guy. The original voice actors were him and his wife. It's available on DVD in the US, I highly reccomend it.

        Oh yeah, as for terraforming. I ask myse
      • Good point. I have often wondered what would happen if there was a diaspora of humans into space without some type of FTL communication and the 'human' connection becomes weaker and weaker. What are the odds that one group will turn into a bunch of warmongers and seek to conquer the rest.
        • Re:Suggestion... (Score:3, Informative)

          by RevAaron (125240)
          Read "The Night's Dawn Trilogy" by Peter F. Hamilton to find out! Includes the Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God.
    • Finally! (Score:3, Funny)

      by Mr2cents (323101)
      At last a profitable plan!
  • Solved. (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:19PM (#9474606)

    I already have a large device called "Genesis" that can terraform a planet in mere days.

  • by WhiteBandit (185659) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:20PM (#9474615) Homepage
    I've recommended this on quite a few occasions. Check out Dr. Zubrin's book The Case For Mars []. The last half of the book deals with terraforming Mars.

    In short, it would be "relatively easy" to create the amount of oxygen that would be needed for us to survive. However, the atmospheric pressure is so low that we will probably never be able to walk around the surface without some sort of protective suit (or oxygen mask).
    • In short, it would be "relatively easy" to create the amount of oxygen that would be needed for us to survive.

      Why? Are we sending up Limbaugh and O'Reilly to provide hot air? Drum roll. Is this thing on? And another thing, about those airline peanuts...
    • We will probably never be able to walk around the surface without adding more gases to the atmosphere. Of course, that's part of the idea. If there is substantial CO2 locked into the martian regolith as suggested (or invented as a plot device) in the Mars (Red, green, blue, purple... okay I made the last one up) books by Kim Stanley Robinson, then it will be possible to thicken the atmosphere perhaps to something like that found in the Alps.

      As suggested in the books, the solution may be to free up whateve

      • by mbrother (739193)
        Actually, it does matter what "inert" gases are used since even many noble gases can have narcotic or anesthetic effects when taken into the blood. Perhaps this is more of a problem at higher pressures, but I doubt it can be completely ignored at lower pressures. Simplest and best would be to try to recreate an Earth atmosphere, since nitrogren is a very common element that can be obtained from comets and doesn't have ill effects at less than a full atmosphere.

        I'm a hard sf writer and the hardest part of
      • Terraforming Earth (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Latent Heat (558884) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @10:12PM (#9475937)
        I am reading this book titled Oxygen by Nick Lane on how the oxygen got into the Earth's atmosphere.

        First off, he argues that the Harold Urey/Stanley Miller experiment idea of the Earth having a reducing atmosphere of hydrogen, methane, and ammonia is a crock because the asteroid bombardment from 4.5 Ga to about 4 Ga stripped the Earth of any atmosphere it had, and the initial atmosphere at the point was largely nitrogen and some CO2 and SO2 that came out of volcanoes.

        Secondly, he argues that while oxygen can be created by UV splitting the water molecule, the bulk of our oxygen comes from photosynthesis over the ages, and that process also helped Earth hang on to its water because the photosynthesis oxygen acted as a getter for the hydrogen liberated by UV water splitting, preventing that process from bleeding off all the water as H2 vented into space and O2 chemically combined in the surface rocks (i.e. modern Mars).

        Thirdly, he explains that photosynthesis generation of O2 is nearly balanced by respiration consumption of O2, and the only thing that causes buildup of O2 is burial of a tiny fraction of the organic matter each year to cause a small O2 surplus. If we burnt up the entire biosphere and all the known fossil fuel reserves, that would hardly put a dent in the O2 (it would do major things to CO2, which is currently a trace gas) because the amount of buried organics is huge compared to the current biosphere, and what is accessible as fossil fuels is a tiny amount of the total buried organics (most of the organics are sequestered as sandstones that are "very low grade" fossil fuels as it were).

        The idea is that volcanoes pumped out all this carbon as CO2, the stuff that got converted to organics and buried reflected on the O2, some of the CO2 converted directly into carbonate rocks (limestone and dolomite) deposited as sediments. I guess volcanoes recycle some of the carbonate rocks back into CO2 output.

        Now there is Thomas Gold with his oil and perhaps coal are not fossil fuels deal, and someone has recently posted on Slashdot recently how one can look at coal under a microscope and see how it is made up of plants. But even if all oil is organic, there had to be some primordeal source of carbon in the ground, which had to be the source of the CO2 puked out by volcanoes, which is the source of all of the oxygen once the CO2 got processed by plants and the organic matter got buried so that the plants were one step ahead making O2 compared to the animals and rotting vegetation (bacteria) eating O2.

        Gold believes that oil comes from primordeal unoxidized carbon in the upper mantle -- kind of like the composition of carbonaceous carbon meteorites, but current thinking is the Late Heavy Bombardment (thing that formed the main Moon craters and basins and maria) not to mentioned the big smash that formed the Moon must have melted the Earth to quite a ways down.

        My question is that even if Gold is wrong, what was the source of the carbon that fed CO2 to the volcanoes (the source of O2 is water?) that fed the plants over eons that gave us the oxygen atmosphere?

  • 1. Magnosphere
    2. Atmosphere
    3. h2o
    4. ???
    5 Profit

  • Nope (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    "Terraforming" humans? You mean changing them genetically to fundamentally become an entirely different species? That's far more absurd than terraforming Mars.

    Remember, just because Mars won't become a grassy paradise overnight doesn't mean humans can't live there in the meanwhile. Humans can live in surprisingly little space, when combined with hydroponic gardens and nuclear power. Dome cities, or underground cities, would work and support millions of inhabitants while the surface of the planet is slowly
  • Problems (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SolidCore (250574) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:21PM (#9474622) Homepage
    But there are two problems. First, even if all Mars's available carbon dioxide were coaxed into the atmosphere, it still wouldn't necessarily warm the planet enough to make it a comfortable place for humans, because no one knows just how much carbon dioxide is there. Second, the best way to get Mars to release its carbon dioxide spontaneously is, well... to warm it up. It's kind of a vicious cycle.
  • What? (Score:2, Funny)

    The idea of 'terraforming humans' makes me think of some scientist dragging a rake over my face. My point is that it sounds like that would hurt, and I don't think many people will support scientific experiments on human beings that allow us to breath Martian air no matter how benign they are. And besides, what's ten thousand years? Those plants will be done in no time!
  • science (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sstory (538486) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:21PM (#9474625) Homepage
    I wouldn't ask scifi writers can/should we terraform. I would ask ethicists if we should, and chemists, astrophysicists, etc if we can.
    • Re:science (Score:4, Informative)

      by OrthodonticJake (624565) <{[[OrthodonticJa ... il]}{[.][[com]]}> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:26PM (#9474654) Homepage Journal
      I don't know; science fiction writers have been right about the future of technology many times. Of course, you could argue that it's because they imagine something and then scientists see their ideas and say "Lets do that", but I think there's at least one other factor involved. The more scientific of the scifi writers try to make their writing as explainable as possible, and it's that goal that makes their ideas easier to implement. So I think that having the science fiction crowd along for the ride is definitely a good idea.
      • Re:science (Score:5, Interesting)

        by sam_handelman (519767) * <.skh2003. .at.> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:44PM (#9474746) Homepage Journal
        Of course, you could argue that it's because they imagine something and then scientists see their ideas and say "Lets do that", but I think there's at least one other factor involved.

        Or, you could argue that science fiction writers predict everything (cities on the moon, flying cars, hyperdrive), and SOME of it turns out to be possible.

        Those writers who predict something possible are "prophetic", but it is largely a question of chance and selective memory.

        However, I am a biologist - and I have the minimal ethical training required by my Institutions' NIH training grant.

        Personally, I think it is ethical to terraform a planet which is not presently inhabited (by life of any kind.) Harm is, even in the most general sense, something you do to living things, so bringing life to a dead planet is harmless by definition.

        Given the risk to the experimental subjects, I do not think it is ethical to "terraform" (or otherwise genetically engineer) human beings.

        However, the more relevant question is not "should we do it?" because - we will. Ethical or not, sooner or later, some people will do it. This applies both to human genetic engineering and to planetary terraforming.

        The pressing question, therefore, is how should those who choose to do these things (whatever you think about the ethics) go about doing it? Acknowledging that a thing should not be done at all, and then stepping back from that and considering how to minimize the negative imapct when it is inevitably done, can be a difficult feat of mental gynmastics, but in the coming centuries I think it it something peopole of conscience are absolutely going to have to do - in parallel with efforts to stop the more monstrous excesses from being perpetrated at all.

        P.S. - Terraforming Mars will be fairly difficult. In a billion years or so, when the photodensity on Mars (and on Earth) has risen (because the Sun is getting bigger), Mars may look very attractive.

        At that point, the big problem with Mars is the lack of a strong magnetic field, which makes it difficult to retain water vapor in the martian atmopshere. This is a problem now but it gets worse as the level of solar radiation striking Mars goes up.

        This doesn't mean nothing can live on Mars - we can make micro-organisms that could live on Mars with a, frankly, fairly modest budget and present day technology. There are some things down in the Antarctic that might be able to survive as-is somewhere on Mars (although I doubt it.)

        The atmosphere is also very thin, and the level of sunlight so small, that it is highly unlikely that we will be able to warm the place up enough for us to wander outside "naked" merely by changing the components of the atmosphere (which could be done with the afforementioned genetically engineered microbes).

        Covering the large stretches of the planet in insulated greenhouses (built by self replicating solar powered robots) is probably the best solution if you want a vaguely earthlike environment. This can be done well in advance of the billion year timeframe, of course, and allows you to retain water vapor and a very high temperature.
        • Re:science (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Hard_Code (49548)
          Well, not all ethical questions only concern living things. There of course is the issue of destroying life that we don't know exists, or that MAY develop there, or destroying geological features that might have scientific or archaeological value, or any number of issues.

          I also don't necessarily concur automatically with the "well-somebody-will-eventually-do-it-so-let's-jus t -do-it-now" line of argumentation.

          Note that none of this actually indicates I'm /against/ terraforming Mars, but just that I don't
    • Re:science (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Chuckaluphagus (111487) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:27PM (#9474664)
      While I will agree with you in some part, a number of the most famous science fiction authors have been serious scientists in their own right; Sir Arthur Clarke is a co-inventor of the orbital satellite, and Asimov had multiple degrees in chemistry and biology.

      Science fiction authors also think about this sort of matter on a regular basis, and not as a mere idle notion. Combine that with significant knowledge of the subject matter, and it isn't unreasonable for the government to be asking them what their views on terraforming are.
    • Agree. I think this is the same kind of thing that you see on TV where they ask celebrities onto talk shows to discuss things like the economy or foreign policy. They don't know anything, but it's good for ratings. But in this case, it's government money, presumably. It makes me wonder who the first person was that suggested that they have a discussion about terraforming Mars, and if anyone else in that meeting laughed out loud before realizing he/she was serious.
    • Re:science (Score:4, Informative)

      by mbrother (739193) <mbrother.uwyo@edu> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @07:12PM (#9474892) Homepage
      I'm an astrophysicist and an SF writer, and the writers they had on their panel all know an enormous amount of stuff about Mars -- much more, in the global sense, than any typical super-specialized scientist. And maybe it's because I haven't studied "ethics" as a discipline and have an agnostic's distrust of other people trying to tell me what is right and what is wrong, but I'd just as soon keep "ethicists" out of the whole deal. Most policy decisions aren't made on the basis of ethics anyway, but on the basis of economics and public opinion. Still, if we want to bring in ethics, why not novel writers? I'd probably prefer to listen to Dickens, or Fitzgerald, or Morrison, about what is right and wrong for human beings than "ethicists."
    • Re:science (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CAIMLAS (41445)
      Ask ethicists if we should?

      Who are they to decide on something like that? Am I not a human myself, able to make ethical decisions if asked? All people are. Granted, most people don't, because they act selfishly. But what's to stop an ethicist to get blindsided by the glory of being someone that helped instigate the colonization of Mars for humanity, to forever go down in history?
  • Its probably not ethical or even remotely possible *yet*. But perhaps we go along the path of genetically engineering humans to be ultra low-burn systems with skin as thick as lead so they can walk around on the Martian surface with nothing more than an oxygen tank to sip from?

    Its improbable, but you can grow a human in 20 or so years, terraforming a planet takes generations......
  • by idontneedanickname (570477) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:23PM (#9474636)
    "The remaining science fiction notion was terraforming humans..."

    Terraforming [] isn't the right word. Terraforming is forming planets to make them more like Earth (Terra). Purposefully altering humans/human physiology does not yet have a word accosiated with it, I think.

  • <pedantry> (Score:2, Informative)

    by rdsmith4 (767227)
    That's "Sir Arthur," not "Sir Clarke." </pedantry>
  • by Bad Vegan (723708) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:25PM (#9474649)
    Wait wait! Let's finish the job here first. Once we're done Venusforming Earth, we can Terraform Mars.

    I'm sure we can figure out some capitalist-distributed scheme that Wall Street loves while changing the atmosphere of Mars as we've done here (deforestation, carbon-based energy industry, too many cow farts, etc.). Of course, the real question is how long will the Mars atmosphere be breathable by "naked" humans before it's unbreathable again thanks to the top-selling 2050 Ford Evacuate super-SUV......
  • Alpha Centauri (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Atmchicago (555403) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:27PM (#9474659) Homepage

    Perhaps we should look at the video game Alpha Centauri, a very underrated turn-based strategy game. The game takes place on an Alien planet, and requires heavy terraforming, including removal of the natural environment, to allow your civilization to grow. A quote from the game:

    "Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.

    CEO Nwabudike Morgan

    "The Ethics of Greed"

    The prevalence of anoxic environments rich in organic material, combined with the presence of nitrated compounds has led to an astonishing variety of underground organisms which live in the absence of oxygen and "breathe" nitrate. Likewise, the scarcity of carbon in the environment has forced plants to economize on its use. Thus, all our efforts to return carbon to the biosphere will encourage the native life to proliferate. Conversely, the huge quantities of nitrate in the soil will be heaven to human farmers.

    Lady Deirdre Skye

    "The Early Years"

    • Re:Alpha Centauri (Score:5, Interesting)

      by drinkypoo (153816) <> on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:50PM (#9474768) Homepage Journal
      Alpha Centauri is apparently inspired, at least in part, by the Mars books by Kim Stanley Robinson. All of the archetypes in the book are represented by the leaders in AlphaC, which is one of my favorite games ever. I love playing as the flower children and unleashing swarms of locusts of chiron upon my enemies, especially after building the dream twister and other psi-related special projects.

      Anything AlphaC has to say about terraforming was said better by the Mars trilogy. You have the Greens led by Hiroko who say that life will find a way and cannot be denied. You have the reds originally led (however unwillingly) by Ann who says that it is nothing less than criminal to terraform a world that you do not understand and will never understand as a result - any life which might be present on the planet will likely be destroyed and/or become indistinguishable from the life you spread upon it. You have the pure scientist (Sax) who wants to terraform Mars for his own convenience (a common theme in scientific development) and just to see if it can be done, how it can be done, et cetera. And so on, and so forth. In fact if the books have a failing it is that the characters are too transparently archetypical, but nonetheless they're books that I read eagerly, seldom stopping, and still reread periodically. The space elevator, terraforming of assorted planets, and even modification of humans for life on some of them, meeting the planets halfway. Truly amazing stuff and much more insightful and realistic than AlphaC, however good the game is - and it is.

  • Good Idea? (Score:2, Insightful)

    Is terraforming even a good idea? Mars ended up the way it is because of its position in the solar system. It was not 'meant' to sustain life from Earth. Hypothetically, life forms can exist on any planet, with each unique to their respective environments. I don't think terraforming is a really good idea. Is it really necessary to change a planet (or ourselves) in order to do whatever the intent (exploration, colonization, etc) is? In that case, should we attempt to 'engineer' a race (or a group of pe
  • the toughest bit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kylemonger (686302) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:27PM (#9474665)
    The toughest bit would be getting Mars to have a magnetic field around it again, to keep the solar wind from peeling away the atmosphere (again) and to keep out most of the ionizing radiation. Without that protective field, all terraforming efforts are a waste of time.
  • by Arcanix (140337)
    We cover the planet with the dirtiest factories we can imagine churning out CO2 and other delightful pollutants to create the greenhouse effect and intersperced with them a dense forest that converts the CO2 into oxygen. Wait 40,000 years. Convert factories into family fun centers and pave over troublesome forests and now we're ready for humans.
  • In Soviet Russia, the ground terraforms you!!

    I honestly feel that instead of spending billions fixing up Mars, instead that money should be used on Earth to fix problems that exist here, right now. Hunger, environmental problems, political strife, etc. It'll be a very long time before anything that occurs on Mars has any effect on the majority of human civilization, while investment in fixing Earth problems can have a more immediate global effect for us all.

    In addition, we shouldn't view Mars as a place
    • Hunger is a signal that it's time to eat. Why do you wish to get rid of this important function of human bodies? Malnutrition and starvation are things that are better to get rid of, but they have more syllables so they're hardy to use in demagoguery.
    • by An Onerous Coward (222037) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @07:32PM (#9475038) Homepage
      It's becoming increasingly clear that we need someplace to run off to when we screw up the Earth too badly. We've got six billion people on the same ship, and nobody has bothered to install lifeboats.

      Also, the sooner we start working on Mars, the sooner we'll start learning how environments actually work, and the sooner we'll gather the expertise needed to avert major catastrophes.

      The way I see it, terraforming Mars is an absolutely necessary safety measure, and no amount of money spent on problems "back home" will provide that safety. If we can turn Mars into a self-sustaining world of 20-million people or so, I don't see anything short of alien invasion or Sol going nova that could wipe us out.
  • by Barryke (772876) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:29PM (#9474672) Homepage
    How Stuff Works: How Terraforming Mars Will Work []
  • by jdrogers (93806) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:30PM (#9474680) Homepage
    I have thought about this alot. Growing up in an environmentalist family, I tend towards the "leave nothing but footprints" ideals. There have been so many times in history where humans have royally fscked up a new environment by spreading disease or introducing an unchecked species with no natural predators.. But is this different?

    Obviously, if there is no life there, its not as if we would be destroying a species or habitat, but how do we prove there is no life there?

    We are at a unique point in the grand scheme of things because for the first time in history, we as a species have the capability to spread life beyond the bounds of our world. Life wants to spread. With this new found cpability, is it our duty to help it spread?

    Now, terraforming is a bit extreme, but I really struggle with even the basic idea of wether it is ethical to, say, introduce bacteria to other worlds and give life a chance to do what it does in other places.
  • by vlad_petric (94134) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:32PM (#9474689) Homepage
    perhaps we can send these guys over! Lost world of mutants discovered []

    The interesting thing about the sulfur-based ecosystem discovered in Romania is that it was formed apparently with mutations that ocured quite fast on an evolutionary scale (thousands of years as opposed to millions).

    We will obviously see a lot of mutations if we send life on an alien world. So my question is - are we gonna repeat the Australian eco-fiasco at a planetary scale ?

    • Why don't we repeat the Australia prison-island with a prison-planet?

      Since it'd be virtual exile -- exile Microsoft, the NSA, the RIAA, the MPAA, Congress, Pakistan, Israel...

      Then check back in a few hundred years and see what we've got!

      Disclaimer: Not everyone in these groups deserves to be exiled. But few Australians today would consider Australia exile.
    • They are really good at playing scientist. I mean, almost everything they said came from existing scientific theory, and they generally kept their concepts straight. They even listed references!

      Granted, none of those references were related to actual citations, and they referneced entire newspapers rather than specific articles. And they mostly just supported the parts of concepts they liked without explaining why they didn't like the rest. But still, A for effort!
  • Assuming the ethical question of whether to change Mars or not was resolved in the affirmative, how might life be introduced to the red planet sustainably?

    Bulldozers, cows and fish are all problematic for such a distant destination.

    But what about microbes... and a lot of time? What might be the result of microbes?

    Fish, cows and bulldozers perhaps?

    Is that what happened on Earth?

  • Seems to me if we have the technology to terraform Mars then we should be able to call a halt to all ecological activism here on Earth. Too mch green house gases? Just set the terraformer on "high" for a few months and clean it all up right?

    I bet if someone does the math they'll figure out that anything mankind could set up on Mars to generate an atmosphere would have to run for... oh, a hundred thousand years or so (one of the articles says 40 thousand) to have any noticable effect. Which gets us bac
  • make a bigger pie (Score:3, Interesting)

    by daraf (739813) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:41PM (#9474735)
    If (when) we have the ability to terraform another planet, we should definitely do so.

    From an environmental habitat point of view, I would argue that we are an overly successful species in terms of reproduction (mostly due to awesome public health and healthcare systems). Combine that with the fact that we are naturally pre-disposed against culling significant portions of our world population, and it's apparent that there aren't going to be any less of us in the foreseeable future.

    Creating / expanding our existing habitat by a significant amount (e.g., 1 red planet's worth) would allow us to decrease our average environmental impact per area.

    This might also have the side effect of easing existing social inequities in our world; we spend a lot of collective effort both trying to get 'more of the pie' and trying to 'divide up the pie equally'. I say it'd be better to just make a bigger pie.

    On the issue of possibly impacting existing life, I'd argue that exploration and colonization is more important than microbes and red dust.
  • by master_p (608214) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @06:44PM (#9474744)
    Not that I don't like the idea of the space age where people from Earth will routinely travel from/to other planets, but it seems that pressing issues are piling up on Earth: poverty, foundamentalism, ignorance, ecological destruction and pollution, failing economies, oil wars, huge military spendings, terrorism, and many other issues.

    If all these issues are not dealt as soon as possible, then, I believe, we must prepare ourselves (or our children) about huge wars, especially over natural resources. Many knowledgable people say that the future wars will be about water.

    Please excuse my ecological save-the-world rumblings that may shatter your dreaming about a space future. I do believe that humanity's future is in the stars, but unfortunately there is another step before it that must be successfully completed...and every day that passes it seems more and more impossible...
    • The problems on Earth are 100% political, and no matter how long we wait the problems of poverty, fanatics, etc... will be with us. We have God like powers with our technology compared to just 300 years ago, but this has not brought rational cooperation between all people. If we wait until all the problems on Earth are solved we will still be waiting when a comet wipes us out.

      Terraforming and colonizing Mars should be done as soon as possible. It will mean that the human race will survive an Earth wide dis

  • "The remaining science fiction notion was terraforming humans, instead of planets, and making us survive on what is now a very alien world."


    "Man Plus" (c) 1976 by Frederick Pohl

    which deals specifically with the idea of modifying a man so as to enable him to live unaided on the surface of Mars.

  • welcome our terraformed Matian overlords.

    On a serious note I could see some serious conflicts arising out of a Martian race of humans. We have a hard enough time getting along when there is a difference in gender, race, religion, and/ or politics. A new species could only lead to more conflict methinks.

  • Why pose the question as black and white? Just as we evolved on Earth to our environment and continue to do so, why wouldn't we do the same for Mars? We could begin terraforming and our bodies will grow into the changing environment.

    It isn't a given that our bodies would change so much that we wouldn't be able to come back to Earth either. By the time we have created a way of life efficient enough to survive on Mars to Terraform it, we should be able control our own evolution with more precision. We could

  • We should do whatever it takes to establish and secure the survival of our own species first. So yes its ethical. Should we do it now? That's debateable.

    I think it might be a good idea to start now before we destroy ourselves in nuclear war or face over population and capitalism collapses. However we should limit the amount of money we spend on this project and perhaps our great grand children will actually see this project completed.

    Right now our main concern should be preventing our own self destruction
  • Its good they talked to scifi writers about this because that is all it is - scifi. We can't even terraform the Western US in a sustainable fashion (we are technically in a worse drought than the dust bowl right now), so why would we think we could do it on Mars?
  • What a great idea! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by operagost (62405) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @07:48PM (#9475139) Homepage Journal
    Inviting science fictions writers to determine the fate of Mars exploration? Brilliant! Now, let's get Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts to develop an antiterrorism strategy!
  • by Pan T. Hose (707794) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @07:55PM (#9475186) Homepage Journal

    The terraforming of Mars seems to be, in my opinion, unfortunately quite unavoidable, to say the very least, and that is because of all of us who are "marsaforming" Earth so well that soon we sadly will be unable to live here any more. That's very sad. It might not be a problem for us, but for our children or grandchildren.

    I am sure one day someone will remember the timeless implications of our today's Slashdot discussion looking at the Mars University and will say: "Very impressive. Back in the 20th century we had no idea there was a university on Mars," to which his professor will answer: "Well in those days Mars was just a dreary uninhabitable wasteland... much like Utah. But unlike Utah, it was eventually made livable, when the university was founded in 2636." That will be a great day in our history.

    I am very excited. I dream of being able to ski on Mars one day. That would be amazing. We definitely have to bring some water there and lower the temperature somehow to freeze it (we could use the process of so caled desublimacion to change the steam--a product of hydrogen and oxygen synthesis--directly into snow). That would be great. I am so excited. I haven't read such an exciting article for a long time.

    The Slashdot headline is misleading, though. We don't need terraforming of humans, but rather marsaforming. I, for on, am already terraformed quite well, thank you. I hope Slashdot editors will correct this mistake as soon as possible. Other than that, the very idea of marsaforming humans instead of terraforming Mars is novel and extremely exciting. Great read.

    Also, I find the ethical implications very interesting. After all, who gave us the right to live on Mars? The answer is sadly: no one. But does that mean we should not live there? Probably yes.

  • by TheNarrator (200498) on Saturday June 19, 2004 @10:32PM (#9476045)
    Don't these guys know that we are the reproductive system of the earth? I'm SERIOUS here, think about it! We are how the whole earth's eco system gets transported to other planets. Why did we evolve to where we are today anyway? You think Humans showing up on the earth was some kind of horrible evolutionary accident? NO.. It just part of the natural process of planets developing intelligent life forms and then those lifeforms reproducing the planet's eco-system on other worlds. We are like the seeds of the earth flower getting blown out into outer space via space ships with the DNA and specimens of earth life forms. If we Terraform mars we will see the first real example of a planet re-producing itself!
  • by innerweb (721995) on Sunday June 20, 2004 @02:33AM (#9476938)
    ... but, how are we going to get enough mass onto Mars so that it can hold onto a viable atmosphere?


  • by mark-t (151149) <[markt] [at] []> on Sunday June 20, 2004 @02:54AM (#9476989) Journal
    Mars has no magnetic field.

    Without a magnetic field to help shield it, the solar wind slowly strips away the upper atmosphere, making the atmosphere thinner and thinner and thinner.

    So if we try to thicken the atmosphere as part of a teraforming process, it won't do any good... the solar wind just keeps lapping it up and sending it into space, and would eventually bring it right back down to where it is right now.

    It's just not worth the effort for something that wouldn't actually last.

  • by Genda (560240) <> on Sunday June 20, 2004 @07:20AM (#9477447) Journal
    Once we have teased the genome apart, and can say with certainty how the code in a particular part of our DNA builds a brain and how another part grows skin... we will be able to compare our morphology against all the other animals on the planet, and our biochemistry against all the other life on the planet.

    Add to that the magic of anthromorphic biohybrid materials, nanotechnology, advanced materials science, DNA based assembly and construction, and the utilization of interesting new synthetic metabolic cycles, and we can pretty much engineer ourselves to live in any kind of environment.

    Why change Mars one wit, when we can build human beings with everything they'll need to live and thrive on Mars just the way it currently is. This does presume that we decide that Mars is such a nice place that we should have millions or billions of us there on a long term basis.

    Robotics and some level of AI, make the possibility of building human habitats on Mars in the next decade or two absolutely feasible. These habitats will be able to support hundreds or thousands of human beings who will be substantially identical to the folks that walk around on earth today (save gene therapies that protect Mars inhabitants from the rigors and health threats of low G environments.)

    The point is that long term endeavors to new worlds and deep space, demand some intrinsic alterations of ourselves. To preserve that which is best in human beings, we may have to sacrafice our past, and create ourselves anew.

  • Fix all the damage we have done over the ages before we leave for another planet?

It's later than you think, the joint Russian-American space mission has already begun.