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Will the humans kill Mars?

Astronauts and researchers from National Geographic’s “Mars” grapple with the profit motives that could harm humans and the Red Planet.

Will the humans kill Mars?
[Photo: courtesy of National Geographic]

With Mars in our grasp comes the concern over whether humans can responsibly populate and harness its resources–or continue to repeat our mistakes if we don’t resolve entrenched conflicts.

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The warning comes from season two of National Geographic Channel’s Mars. Presented in a hybrid scripted/documentary form, the series examines how the clashing goals between government-sponsored science and private enterprise could play out in space if they aren’t first resolved on Earth. Despite ubiquitous advancements brought on by the early space industry, it’s become a volatile topic today given the uproar over corporate greed and deregulation exacerbating climate change and environmental degradation.

“Commercial interests come up against scientific interests all the time,” says co-executive producer Stephen Petranek, author of How We’ll Live on Mars, which inspired the series. “We’re doing this show now, so people can have this discussion and start to figure out how we are going to act differently on Mars than we’ve acted on Earth.”

Petranek–who appears in Mars’s documentary segments alongside the others in this article–is a two-time TED speaker, and former editor-in-chief at Discover magazine and the Washington Post Magazine, and senior science editor at Life magazine. How We’ll Live on Mars was originally intended as a collaboration with Elon Musk. When an overwhelming work schedule forced Musk to drop out, the book became one of the first TED hardcovers in partnership with Simon & Schuster. (Musk also appears in the series.)

Like the first season, season two juxtaposes a fictionalized drama unfolding in the near future with current commentary from real-life scientists, historians, and astronauts. Produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and overseen by showrunner Dee Johnson, the narrative picks up in 2042, nine years after a skeleton scientist crew established a Martian base camp, now a 200-person research colony, when a private water mining enterprise threatens the Martian ecology that the scientists are trying to study and terraform.

“So where season one looked at ‘will Mars kill the humans who go there?’ season two is, ‘will the humans kill Mars?'” says oil and energy analyst Antonia Juhasz, author of The Tyranny of Oil. “What’s so crucial about the show and having this discussion that the show brings up, is that this process is moving forward right now.”

The parallels with our present day drive home the urgency of the problem, she says. Will extracting water for Mars inhabitants “follow the same model we’ve used on Earth for resource extraction, one that has led to making the planet almost uninhabitable for the majority of people, looking particularly at fossil fuel extraction? Or are we going to learn the lessons that have gone wrong on Earth and develop the resources on Mars in a manner that respects not only the planet, but the ability of humans to live there?”

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[Photo: courtesy of Dusan Martincek/National Geographic]

Who Owns Space?

In 1967, the United Nations laid out the first of five treaties outlining peaceful uses of outer space and forming the core of space law. However, with space commercialization proceeding much faster than expected, updated and more exacting rules are needed. Diversified and conflicting concerns make international consensus difficult, putting the onus on individual nations to self-regulate–with the requisite lobbying from industry.

“We have a treaty from 1967 that just basically says no one can own anything outside of Earth orbit,” says Petranek. “But if people invest money in Mars, they’re going to want to take ownership of something. We’re just starting to feel all of this out.”

Looking to the future, Mars would offer a particular alluring base from which to mine the wealth of metals–an estimated $80 quadrillion–residing in the asteroid belt, according to Petranek’s book. Mars is not only closer than Earth to the asteroid belt, but offers a lighter (and therefore, less expensive) gravity from which to launch. The minerals would support a sustainable economy on Mars.


Related: Inside the epic debate on rethinking our 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty


With Congress now weighing two bills on asteroid and science resources, corporations are looking to influence the laws of the future.

“Those rules are entirely deregulatory, having the U.S. government to play the role of promoting resource extraction as we move to asteroids and Mars,” says Juhasz. “An attempt to build the legal structure is being driven by corporations. We hope the show will bring in the broader public to say we need a voice in this. How do we set up a system as we move into space, where there is a regulatory regime that looks at protecting what’s potentially found at Mars and making it a place that continues to sustain our life when we’re there, and not do what we did to this planet, which is break it so that it can’t sustain our life.”

How to prevent the same mistakes

Space shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison, who helped train the cast in preparation for season one, believes narratives like Mars can offer a better understanding of the problem. “Sometimes we can see things more clearly if we imagine them in the future, somewhere else,” she says. “Yes, there are the bills going in place in terms of space, but there’s a lot of things happening here on this planet that we have to reflect on regarding commercialization, and how the very science and the facts that we know are incorporated into those decisions, right now.”

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[Photo: courtesy of National Geographic]
How we successfully transition from exploring to colonizing and commercializing Mars will depend on an adaptive leadership. The hostile environment of space and Mars demands a hierarchical approach that can flatten as colonies mature into sustainable systems.

“Without policies or laws that say who owns what, there has to be good leadership, because both have to exist in a way that’s harmonious or everyone falters–or dies,” says shuttle astronaut Leland Melvin.

“You have to act in a way that’s systematic, taking control, and being able to shut other things down to solve a problem,” he says. “On a spaceship or space station, the commander is able to trump what everyone else says. When I was in the space station, I was in charge of moving the robotic arm and could tell anyone, ‘This is what you need to do to support me, or go away because you’re not helping me.'”

“When you get to a place where the criticality of decision making doesn’t cause people to die, then you can go horizontal [toward fewer management layers],” he adds. “There’s a tipping point between the two, based on the criticality of what people are doing.”

[Photo: courtesy of National Geographic]
The Mars documentary participants are equally, if not more good-naturedly, split as to humankind’s ability to learn from its mistakes.

“We’re doomed,” says historian Susan Wise Bauer,  author of The History of the World series. “We’ll keep repeating the same mistakes, they’ll just look different. The problem with Mars colonization, and the conflict between the scientific and commercial enterprises, is the scientific community needs the commercial side. There’s no way we can afford pure research. Those doing so have sponsorships from drug companies, universities, etc. Mars won’t be any different. It’s going to have the same entanglements, the same profit mongering at work, and people compromising themselves without even knowing it.”

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The Martian author Andy Weir is more optimistic, at least in the sense that the quest for financial gain can lead to good.

“The relentless pursuit of profit causes companies to sink huge amounts of money into the research,” he says. “If there was a way to turn a profit going to Mars, then companies would spend billions of dollars figuring out how to get to Mars cheaply, which would, in turn, enable people to get to Mars. The best analogy I can come up with is the much-maligned pharma industry. Yeah, they’re in it to make a buck, but the relentless pursuit of that dollar is creating a lot of medications for people.”


Related: NASA’s Wild Plan To Build McMansions On Mars–Out Of Fungus


Petranek says the harsh Martian environment may not offer a choice between commercial and scientific priorities. “We’re going to be a lot smarter on Mars than we have been on Earth, because survival depends on it,” he says. “You can’t just have commercial interests pursuing purely commercial interests the way we allow on Earth. When you are forced to recycle everything, it completely changes the attitude of how people have to cooperate with each other, whether they’re scientists or industry barons.”

Season Two of Mars premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.

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About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio

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