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Lucianne Walkowicz: Should We Be Using Mars As A Backup Planet?

Dec 21, 2018
Originally published on December 21, 2018 7:48 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Next Frontier.

About Lucianne Walkowicz's TED Talk

Lucianne Walkowicz is all for space exploration, but says we shouldn't expect Mars to save us from a damaged Earth. She warns us not to lose sight of preserving the home we already have.

About Lucianne Walkowicz

Lucianne Walkowicz is an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. She studies planet habitability and the ethics of Mars exploration.

From 2017-2018, she was the Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, where she worked on a project called "Fear of a Green Planet: Inclusive Systems of Thought for Human Exploration of Mars."

She has been involved in several missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA's Kelpler mission. She helps lead the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a project that will regularly photograph the entire night sky when completed.

Walkowicz is the founder and director of the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program and a TED Senior Fellow. She is also a multimedia artist. She received her PhD from the University of Washington.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Does the idea of space as a frontier, does that inspire you?

LUCIANNE WALKOWICZ: That's a good question. I don't think the framing of space as a frontier is really what inspires me. I think it's just space itself.

RAZ: This is astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. Lucianne is one of many scientists searching for habitable places in the universe.

WALKOWICZ: One of the interesting things about astrobiology, which is the name for this field of study of, you know, life, the universe and everything in it, (laughter) it touches on questions that are both scientific and both fundamentally human about wanting to understand where human beings fit in the larger context not only of our own world, our planet Earth, but where planet Earth fits in the larger context of the universe. And that, to me, is inspiring.

RAZ: Yeah.

WALKOWICZ: For me, the word frontier is a little sticky, in that I don't think that a lot of things that we think of as having been frontiers on Earth were actually frontiers for the people that were already living there.

RAZ: Sure. Sure.

WALKOWICZ: So you know, when we think about going to space, I actually think it's unnecessary to think of it that way, just to be excited by it.

RAZ: So when you hear people say things like, you know, we have to send humans to explore space, or we should colonize Mars, what do you think about that?

WALKOWICZ: Yeah. I think it's wonderful to talk about going into space. I think that there are some very compelling reasons, scientifically, for wanting to go to Mars and even for sending humans there. The thing that I find really problematic is when people kind of preach this existential anxiety narrative about going to Mars. You know, that the human species will be extincted (ph) tomorrow by a, you know, asteroid from outer space, and all this stuff. I think that that fear-driven narrative is actually really harmful on a couple of different levels.

RAZ: Lucianne Walkowicz explains more from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WALKOWICZ: We're at a tipping point in human history, a species poised between gaining the stars and losing the planet we call home. Even in just the past few years, we've greatly expanded our knowledge of how Earth fits within the context of our universe. NASA's Kepler Mission has discovered thousands of potential planets around other stars.

Unfortunately, at the same time as we're discovering this treasure trove of potentially habitable worlds, our own planet is sagging under the weight of humanity. Glaciers and sea ice that have been with us for millennia are now disappearing in a matter of decades. These planetary-scale environmental changes that we have set in motion are rapidly outpacing our ability to alter their course.

Now, as somebody who is deeply embedded in the search for life in the universe, I can tell you that the more you look for planets like Earth, the more you appreciate our own planet itself. Consider our neighbor, Mars. It's possible that Mars was habitable in the past. And, in part, this is why we study Mars so much. Our rovers, like Curiosity, crawl across its surface, scratching for clues as to the origins of life as we know it. Orbiters like the MAVEN Mission sample the Martian atmosphere, trying to understand how Mars might have lost its past habitability.

Private spaceflight companies now offer not just a short trip to near space, but the tantalizing possibility of living our lives on Mars. I worry. I worry that this excitement about colonizing Mars and other planets carries with it a long, dark shadow. The implication and belief by some that Mars will be there to save us from the self-inflicted destruction of the only truly habitable planet we know of - the Earth.

As much as I love interplanetary exploration, I deeply disagree with this idea. There are many excellent reasons to go to Mars, but for anyone to tell you that Mars will be there to back up humanity is like the captain of the Titanic telling you that the real party is happening later on the lifeboats.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: So as we've heard in this episode, there are plenty of people out there who not only say we are going to get to Mars, but we will be able to build communities there. Like, we'll be able to spend a long time there. I mean, do you think trying to get a human to Mars is a worthy goal?

WALKOWICZ: I think it depends a lot on what the motivation is. You know, a lot of the ideas that are being put forward, for example, by companies like SpaceX. You see these, like, images of humans going to Mars in order to, like, transform the environment, this idea of, like, terraforming...

RAZ: Right.

WALKOWICZ: ...That we're going to take an entire planet and globally engineer its environment to be more hospitable to humans. For an astrobiologist, I look at that and I see giving up. Even if humans go to Mars, even if we have, like, a base of humans living on Mars at some point in the near future, the Earth is still the cradle of our species. And it's still ultimately our best platform for space exploration in general because space exploration is resource intensive. It involves having enough resources and enough support for your basic needs that you can send some of it, literally, off your planet to support life where there is - or none of those resources exist.

So people believe that going to Mars is sort of this viable second option, when in fact, what we really need to be doing, even if we want to go to Mars, even if we have the best possible reasons for going, we still need to maintain the habitability of Earth and the ability of our environment to support not only spacefaring nations but also the many people on Earth whose basic needs are not met.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WALKOWICZ: The goals of interplanetary exploration and planetary preservation are not opposed to one another. No, there are, in fact, two sides of the same goal - to understand, preserve and improve life into the future. If we can understand how to create and maintain habitable spaces out of hostile, inhospitable spaces here on Earth, perhaps we can meet the needs of both preserving our own environment and moving beyond it.

I leave you with a final thought experiment, Fermi's paradox. Many years ago, the physicist Enrico Fermi asked, that given the fact that our universe has been around for a very long time and we expect that there are many planets within it, we should've found evidence for alien life by now. So where are they? Well, one possible solution to Fermi's paradox is that, as civilizations become technologically advanced enough to consider living amongst the stars, they lose sight of how important it is to safeguard the home worlds that fostered that advancement to begin with.

It is hubris to believe that interplanetary colonization alone will save us from ourselves. But planetary preservation and interplanetary exploration can work together. If we truly believe in our ability to bend the hostile environments of Mars for human habitation, then we should be able to surmount the far easier task of preserving the habitability of the Earth.

RAZ: If we start to have a serious conversation about the next frontier, about becoming a spacefaring species, about colonizing Mars, one of the big points you make is that we can be inspired by space exploration, but we can't lose sight of the crazy things that are happening here - I mean, the melting of the ice caps and the increasingly warm temperatures and extreme weather events.

WALKOWICZ: Yeah. I think, over the past couple of years, something that has been a really emerging theme for me has been that of human responsibility and also the human process of science, as well. That we can be inspired by going to space, but it doesn't necessarily absolve us of the hard work that it takes to really become who we think we can be.

You know, I think a lot of times, people will just sort of casually say, like, well, we're going to go to Mars and then - then we will look back at the Earth. And, you know, world peace will break out (laughter). And, you know, all these wonderful things will come to pass. We'll really understand our place in the universe. OK. We actually already did that experiment.

You know, we already sent people to space and took a picture of the Earth. Did human nature suddenly (laughter) change right after that? Well, we had a new profound understanding of the Earth. That was certainly true. But it's not like there's something magical in Mars dust that will solve all of the problems that we have.

And so, you know, I can both love space exploration and hold it to a higher standard, that we shouldn't assume that we will solve things like climate change and our, you know, fundamental human survival questions that we have. We can do both of those things at the same time, but not if we don't really talk about it and really grapple with what our challenges are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Lucianne Walkowicz. She's an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and former chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. You can find her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEDAY, LITTLE CHILDREN")

LORETTA LONG: (Singing) Someday, little children, someday soon. Someday soon. There's going to be a lot of people, yeah. And they'll going to be living on the moon. Living on the moon. Yeah, people living on the moon someday.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on The Next Frontier this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye and J.C. Howard, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Daryth Gayles. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.