“There is no planet B. There can be no Plan B because there is no planet B,”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his Stanford University Address.
Since my early years as an amateur astronomer when Sir Patrick Moore, the famous British Television presenter, writer and astronomer, allowed me to use his telescopes, I have been obsessed with the Red Planet, Mars. Gazing through the telescope’s eyepiece at the Red Planet’s image shimmering like a reflection in the celestial ‘lake’ caused by atmospheric turbulence, I could clearly make out the multicoloured mosaic markings across the vivid red of its central deserts, and the shinning white polar ice caps. Outside the planet’s halo of brightness, two pinpricks of light marked the position of the two diminutive moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.
In those far-off days, Mars was thought to be a dead, water-less planet and its exploration and colonization the stuff of science fiction. What a difference a few decades has made: an armada of NASA orbiters and landers has confirmed that water flows on its surface, and is also locked in both the planet’s ice cap and probably in subterranean reservoirs; methane, possibly of organic origin is released periodically into its atmosphere; and possible micro-fossils have been discovered in Martian meteorites arriving on Earth. Neither is landing human explorers a distant dream: Elon Musk’s plan is to land at least two cargo ships on Mars in 2022 loaded with supplies for future ‘manned’ missions to the planet.
The aim of today’s blog is to use the possibility of Mars colonization to summarize the previous arguments on the links between Science and Religion: for many astronauts, space travel has been a spiritual, life changing experience.
Is There a Planet B?
Footprints are amongst the most evocative traces of past life. The 3.7-million-year-old footprints discovered in volcanic ash at the Laetoli Site, Tanzania, Africa by Dr Mary Leakey have been interpreted as oldest evidence for bipedal locomotion by human’s distant ancestors. Perhaps, it is conjectured, a mother and child walked hand-in-hand across the still warm ash deposited on the mountain by a distant volcano.
Another set of footprints, space-boot impressions left on the regolith larval flows of the lunar surface by Neil Armstrong recorded the first human steps on the Moon in July, 1969. The bipedal hominid had made it out into space.
The diagram below refers to the moon as planet B since many astronomers argue that the moon’s mass is much larger relative to that of Earth than the mass of a regular satellite. They prefer to view the Earth-Moon system as a double planet.
The first footprints left by the first astronaut to set foot on Planet C, Mars, is slated to be the third in humankind’s momentous Walk of Fame.
Perhaps I should have left a fourth box blank for Planet D – footprints to be made hundreds or thousands of years in the future when a human being first treads the soil of an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting a star light years from our star, the sun.
The Pros and Cons of Colonizing Mars – A ‘Backup’ Earth.
The Cons of the Space Game.
The advisability of space flight in general, and exploration of the Red Planet in particular, has been a contentious issue for many years. Sending humans into space is a waste of precious resources its opponents argue – we should solve problems on Earth before venturing off our home planet. This argument misses that point that not only has space technology resulted in many highly beneficial medical and technological spinoffs such as communication and Earth surveillance satellites, but also provided the opportunity for international cooperation which has helped to combat humans’ unfortunate jingoistic tendencies. No national frontiers carve up our planet’s continents and oceans when it is viewed from space – all humans are aboard the same ‘spaceship Earth.’
In the much longer term, the question will arise as to whether we should terraform Mars into a second home planet where future generations will be able to breathe oxygen from its engineered atmosphere, and drink water derived from rivers, lakes and oceans that have not flowed on the Red Planet for 3.5 billion years.
Perhaps the most cogent argument against colonizing Mars is that there is a very real danger of humans quite literally ‘trashing’ yet another planet. The wise quotes of American Indians on the fate of our home planet, Earth come to mind here and speak for themselves
“When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.” – Cree Prophecy
“If America had been twice the size that it is, there would still not have been enough for them.” – Sitting Bull Hunkpapa Lakota leader.
Will native Martian microbial life meet a similar fate as the American Indians? Will another world suffer infinite exploitation of its finite resources?
The next section explores what future Martian colonists must leave behind them when they live permanently on their brave new world.
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” – Carl Sagan – Cosmos
The advantages of establishing a permanent human colony on Mars in the next one hundred years are many and varied:
* Things to Leave Behind – Humanities Chance for a ‘New Start’.
Colonization of Planets B and C (the Moon and Mars) will provide perhaps the most important turning points in the history of human kind since the earliest hominid bipeds ventured down from forest trees onto the African savannah. The colonists will have the chance of applying the lessons learned from the many mistakes in humankind’s long, Earth-bound, planetary history.
Careful quarantining of the initial settlers and subsequent visitors to off-Earth colonies could free humans from infectious diseases that have plagued them for over sixty-six million years.
The colonists would also be wise to apply ‘green’ eco-friendly agriculture on the Red Planet and ban the use of non- biodegradable plastics and other material on their new home planet.
* Cosmic Insurance Policy
Earth is statistically long-overdue for a collision with an asteroid of the size of the Chicxulub asteroid that crashed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula wiping out the dinosaurs sixty six million years ago clearing the Palaeogene Era’s stage for the evolution of humankind. Even if the threat from space is detected in time, the existing planned response might not be sufficient to deflect the next killer asteroid or meteor. Until the first self-staining colonies are established on Mars, humans will literally have all their eggs in one planetary basket.
* Political Opportunities.
Mars colonists will have the unique opportunity of eradicating the petty territorial disputes, war- mongering tendencies and political acrimony that have marred human’s otherwise brilliant achievements.
Comments on the democracy attributed to Winston Churchill and other politicians come to mind – “Democracy is a very bad form of government, but I ask you never to forget, all the others are so much worse.” In a very real sense, a democracy ruled by the majority is a dictatorship for the minorities.
One interesting political experiment, a system of city-states, seems not to have been repeated since the days of Ancient Greece over two thousand years ago. Each of the over 1,000 city-states in ancient Greece such as Athens, Sparta and Corinth ruled itself applying their own political systems, laws and religious beliefs. It is possible to envisage, for example, separate Democratic, Republican, Socialist/Communist systems thriving in separate dome colonies but linked together to achieve the economy of scale that such fragmentation would otherwise endanger. Future Martian colonists could, after an upbringing and education in one dome colony, move as an adult to spend the rest of their lives in a colony that was the best match for their religious and political beliefs.
* Philosophical/Religious – Journeys into Inner Space.
It is very likely Lunar and Martian colonists would have a different view of their lives and the cosmos than their earth-bound forebearers. Dr Edgar Dean Mitchell, the sixth person to walk on the moon had a spiritual experience in space when gazing out of his spacecraft window at the Earth on his way back from the moon that changed his life. In a blinding instant, he came to the realization that everything and everyone is interconnected and originates from the same source. In an interview, he commented “The descriptions of Samadhi, Savikalpa Samadhi (in Eastern philosophy), were exactly what I felt: it is described as seeing things in their separateness, but experiencing them viscerally as a unity, as oneness, accompanied by ecstasy. I came to the realisation that the atoms of both my body and the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. I acquired a deep knowing that we are all connected and an understanding that we humans are consumed by greed and ego and are missing the big picture.” Inspired by his experiences, the late Dr. Mitchell established his ‘Institute of Noetic Sciences’ to promote research into the nature of consciousness, human potential and spirituality. He was particularly interested in applying the findings of quantum physics to the understanding of spirituality. Travelling and living in space and on another planet might well be the cure for the egotism and its extension tribalism that still haunts technologically-advanced humans.
Studying the cosmos and exploring space therefore brings with it a new perspective on religion and spirituality. I was reminded when sitting on a sandy Mediterranean beach this week of the Carl Sagan quote I included in an earlier blog – “The Cosmos is rich beyond measure: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” I picked up just a single grain of sand from the pile in front of me to represent the sun that has now dipping down through a blaze of glorious sunset colours to the ocean horizon. How can traditional organized religions reconcile human kind’s unique role in God’s creations with the mind-numbing immensity of a university, let alone the possibility of their being a multiverse. The Kepler planet-hunting satellite has now detected nearly 4 000 exoplanets of which around 30 may be terraform, Earth-like, and whose temperature could allow life to evolve on the liquid water that could exist on their surfaces. Based on Kepler’s initial mission data, astronomers estimate that there could be as many as 40 billion rocky Earth-size exoplanets orbiting in the habitable zones of red dwarfs and Sun-like stars within just our own Milky Way Galaxy. This estimate does not take into account similar numbers of exoplanets that might be orbiting stars in the other approximately 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The quote from the Greek Philosopher Protagoras, and renaissance paradigm that “man is the measure of all things”, is now a thing of the distant past.
Is it really still possible to believe out of all those hundreds of billions of stars and planets that humans are the only advanced, sentient life forms in the universe? The only question in my mind is, given the vast cosmic light-year distances and billion-year time scales, is it likely that UFO’s visiting our planet when humans are living in the ‘backwaters’ of our Milky Way Galaxy. The recent declassification of radar images and cockpit voice recordings of US naval pilots encountering flying objects that defy even the most advanced human aeronautical engineering, however, lends considerable evidence that such extraterrestrial visitations might indeed be happening. What un-imaginable insights into science, engineering, philosophy and engineering might stem from a ‘Close Encounter of the Fifth Kind’ in which there is direct communication between humans and aliens from an extraterrestrial world. Such contact would also have far-reaching implications for our traditional Earth-based religions
This final blog in the present series, argues that is it not just advances in modern science that have important implications for religious beliefs, but also space flight and future colonization of other planets. Previous blogs have highlighted the very numerous ‘Goldilocks’ properties of matter and astronomical events such as Earth orbiting in the habitable zone, the moon-forming Theia Impact, and Chicxulub-dinosaur-destroying asteroid that had to be ‘just right’ for intelligent humans to evolve on planet Earth.
As we argued in a previous blog, the atheist’s attempted answer to the Goldilocks problem is to cite the multiverse hypothesis. This defence surely lands them in deeper hot water since they then have to admit they are basing their ‘religious-like’ beliefs on an analysis, using limited human cognitive senses and the idiosyncrasies of brain neurotransmitters, on a one millionth or even billionth fraction of the actual cosmos. It is absurd as my expecting to understand the geology of the entire planet Earth after a detailed chemical and mineralogical investigation of the single beach sand grain sticking to my finger.
As the sun set on that recent visit to the beach vacating the vault of the sky to the star sand of the dark night, I pondered the connection between the vast cosmos out there, and human existence in the solar system represented by the single grain of sand that still clung absently to my finger. The words of the Jain Dharma Scholar, Virchand Gandhi bubbled up into my consciousness –
“The universe is not for man alone, but is a theatre of evolution for all living beings. Live and let live is its guiding principle.”
There can surely be no better way of ending this blog than leaving you with Carl Sagan’s sonorous and evocative narration of a short animation of human kind’s future exploration of the universe. Please play this vide. I guarantee you’ll find it well worthwhile and goose-bump generating.
Join Carl Sagan and marvel at humankind’s evolution and attempts to understand the structure and possible meaning of the perhaps infinite and eternal magnificence of the cosmos.
I would like to acknowledgment the main useful comments and suggestions I have received from my readers in particular from the Reverend Elizabeth Barton (Transformative Therapy Center), and Tom Miles (Director of the Dover Paranormal Research Team).
Any comments, however critical, would be gratefully received and I look forward to hearing any blog-improvement suggestions.