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Invaders from Earth

Invaders from Earth

By Ed Cohen

A tardigrade, or “water bear,” is a tiny organism that can survive exposure to the vacuum, cold, and radiation of space. It apparently could hitchhike on the outside of a spaceship that went to Mars and contaminate the environment, which is one concern of ethicists. Photo courtesy NASA
Ethicists are split on when, how, and why humans should go to Mars.

Forget what happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” With the discovery of water on Mars earlier this year increasing the likelihood that some form of life may exist on the red planet, a Star War of ethics perspectives has commenced.

On one side are those excited enough by the discovery to begin planning manned missions and imagining ways to retrofit the planet as a “backup Earth.” That way all of human creation would not be lost if our home world became uninhabitable.

Opposed: those who argue for caution and deliberation. They don’t want to see a repeat of historic catastrophes like small-pox-carrying European explorers and colonists wiping out indigenous populations. There’s also the fear of doing irreversible damage to another planet’s environment even as nations struggle to agree on steps to reverse climate change here on Earth.

“It’s like we’ve made a mess of this house and rather than clean it up, we’re thinking, ‘I’ll just move across town,’” says Margaret R. McLean, associate director of SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

In a piece published on Slate.com, McLean argues for slow and careful extraterrestrial exploration. Her Ethics Center colleague, Brian Green, assistant director of campus ethics and a lecturer in the School of Engineering, endorses the backup Earth idea in an op-ed published on CNN.com earlier this year. 

The two are also scheduled to debate the issue in an event titled “Martian Morals: Acting Ethically on the Red Planet,” Feb. 17, 2016, in the Weigand Room of Vari Hall, home of the Ethics Center.

Escape hatch

Green’s argument resonates with those made by some well-known visionaries when it comes to space, including Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and physicist Steven Hawking. They think it’s too dangerous for humanity to keep all its eggs in the one basket of Earth. The potential is too great for nuclear war or a natural disaster, such as a meteor strike, to destroy the planet.

In his CNN op-ed Green argues that, ethically speaking, the opportunity to insure humanity against oblivion far outweighs the possibility of destroying microbial life, which is all that is likely to be found on Mars.

“On Earth,” he notes, “we kill microbes all the time.”

Having a colony on Mars could not only preserve our species, he says, it could also be good for the Martian microbes.

He cites an idea proposed by NASA planetary scientist Christopher McKay regarding Mars: Use the chemicals that carpet the planet’s surface to produce greenhouse gases. The gases could raise the temperature on Mars the same way many scientists believe human activity has done on Earth. The average temperature on Mars is -67 F, although it can get as warm as 80 during summer days on the equator. Extra heat and water could spur development of indigenous life, he says.

Mars attacks

In science fiction, concern is often raised about visitors to primitive planets slogging their way through the primordial ooze and destroying microbial life—the kind that scientists believe evolved, over millions of years, into humans. Wouldn’t a colony on Mars risk doing the same thing?

McLean says the possibility of such destruction should not be a red light for exploration. But knowingly doing irreversible harm to Martian life requires careful weighing our exploratory zeal against the obligation to leave Mars no worse than we found it.

“It’s a bit like early explorers saying, ‘Well, we know that we could infect indigenous people with small pox, but we’re going to explore and expose them anyway,’” she says.

Both Green and McLean believe that care must be taken to protect against contamination in both directions—Earth germs going to Mars and Mars germs (if they exist) hitching a ride on a ship returning to Earth. That’s why the Apollo moon astronauts were quarantined for a time after splashdown.

But it’s inevitable that transfers will happen, especially if a colony is set up on Mars. Scientists have already discovered tiny Earth-native organisms called tardigrades or “water bears” that can survive the vacuum, radiation, and cold of space, Green says.

One thing both ethicists agree on is that finding indigenous life on another world would be among the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. The creatures would illustrate what NASA’s McKay terms a “second Genesis,” showing how life came together along an entirely different path.

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