Elon Musk loves Mars–in fact, he wants to live there, with you! The mustachioed SpaceX CEO sauntered onto stage at the 67th annual International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico in September, to announce his grand plan for colonizing the Red Planet and saving humanity from ecological apocalypse on Earth. The ease and certainty in his voice made even a grandiose agenda of highly advanced, but surprisingly affordable technology–gigantic, reusable rockets to carry hundreds of passengers and ultra powered engines–seem pretty convincing, almost even ‘right.’ 

“I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humanity]: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out,” said Musk. “The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.”

Mars, he says, is our best bet. Still, underlying Musk’s well-meaning initiative for preservation of the human race is a much more ominous reality: the fact that humans have systematically and irrevocably disrupted every single environment they have ever had contact with. 

There is no doubt that going to Mars and staying there would be the technological triumph of our century. But, there’s also a clear moral question we should be asking as we consider the empirical effects of man’s influence on nature. Is it ethical for humans to go to Mars given their track-record on Earth? 

Hannah Arendt, a Jewish-American political philosopher from Germany, considered this idea within the context of outer space as early as 1958, just a year after she had witnessed the Soviets go extraterrestrial. She drew connections between ecological destruction, humanity’s relationship to technology, and space exploration in the Human Condition. Like Musk, and a handful of space enthusiasts, she considers the possibility of our being able to explore space as a venue where man could, if need be, preserve life:

“Foremost in our minds at this moment is of course the enormously increased human power of destruction, that we are able to destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself. However, no less awesome and no less difficult to come to terms with is the corresponding new creative power…we have begun to populate the space surrounding the earth with man-made stars, creating as it were, in the form of satellites new heavenly bodies, and we hope that in a not very distant future we shall be able to perform what times before us regarded as the greatest, the deepest, and holiest secrets of nature, to create or re-create the miracle of life…”

To put Arendt’s position into perspective with Mars exploration, one must consider the way men interacted with formerly untouched ‘environments’ like space in the past. With the help of technological advancements that have allowed us to enter, exploit, and extract resources from different environments, humans have done the following: destroyed a tenth of the Earth’s remaining wilderness (the size of two Alaskas) in the last 25 years, put ourselves on a path to decimating two-thirds of the world’s wild animals by 2020, considerably bleached the Great Barrier Reef to death through ocean warming, as well as produced a massive hole in the Earth’s protective Ozone layer approximately three times the size of the United States. And we have done much more. Is space then, as Arendt ponders, really a place in which humans can exist without potentially destroying it? 

Truthfully, we seem to already have an answer. In the last six decades space exploration, we have launched thousands of artificial objects in orbit around the earth and generated over 500,000 pieces of space debris. NASA, and other space agencies, have actively looked in extraterrestrial mining technology to extract resources from natural space objects. And, powerful space-faring nations have developed space weaponization technology to ensure that they could stake their claim in space as a frontier for military primacy if necessary. Going to Mars, with this legacy of complete disregard for the natural world, while it might be a triumph, could also constitute a moral travesty. 

That is, if we continue to look at space as a platform for yet another Earth. Obama’s recent announcement on the American commitment to space shows that we are still putting humans before the science: 

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time. 

Shaping our commitment to space exploration within this framework of human preservation may have consequences, says Arendt. But, to understand why we must look toward how we view modern science. Consider the work of German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (Arendt’s teacher) who foresaw our current environmental predicament in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” The instrument of technology, he says, is inextricably linked with what we want, and our existence “depends on our manipulating of technology” in a way that is beneficial for humanity. He offers a warning that even the environment has become a technology that we exploit according to own desires–and, to a large extent, he’s right. Heidegger concludes that within this technological age, man has revealed nature as the “chief storehouse of standing energy reserve”: 

“The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and to maintain…meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order.”

Arendt echoes this sentiment The Human Condition as she considers the reality of scientific discovery. She writes, for instance, that Galileo’s introduction of the telescope was an incredible technical development that opened doors to learning. But its potential was outshone by humanity’s uncertainty– suddenly men were not as exceptional as they had thought. To combat this uncertainty, we moved the subject of inquiry away from the science and back to ourselves. The telescope evolved into an affirmation of our greatness, not a chance for discovery; it was one of many opportunities we took from modern science to “make” our own existence.

photo-1454789415558-bdda08f4eabbThe consequence, as explained by Heidegger, is that science becomes a technology for humanity to prove it is great; life becomes a series of man-constructed data points. Knowledge and nature lose, and disruption prevails. 

Thus, a word of caution: Mars is not a plan B for the human race as so many have framed it. Rather, it’s a venue for scientific innovation, knowledge, and intrigue. If we continue to think about frontiers in the former way, there is a risk that history will repeat itself just as it did on land, within the oceans, the air, and beyond. In a nutshell–just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Continuous undervaluing of scientific knowledge as the ultimate goal will be our undoing.

Going to Mars, therefore, is an opportunity to move the point of inquiry away from ourselves and back to knowledge itself. Before we are able to separate the purpose of science from merely proving the greatness of man’s intellectual capacity, there will always be a risk of our trying to turn this frontier into a technology for exploitation–a way to further validate our supremacy. 

As a space enthusiast, I would love to see the day we go to Mars. And truly, I would be giddy at the chance of hopping on one Musk’s luxurious, first-class rockets (assuming I was sure I could come back and tell you about it). But, there’s an image of the future lingering in the back of my mind that I can’t ignore.  

For the scientist in all of us, the vision of this pristine red planet turning into a hub for mineral extraction and profit is chilling, and it is one we should actively try to avoid. 


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