Lucianne Walkowicz: So, our second panel today is called Mars on Earth. And this deals with the intersections between Mars as a planet, a real physical space, and the way that we think about environments in Earth history. And nowadays we know more than we ever have before about the Martian environment and some of the history there. But as I mentioned this morning, in many ways, we’ve still just scratched the surface. And so, we want to look in this panel at what we can do to think about the exploration of other worlds, or human beings living off-world, in light of the history that we’ve had here on our own planet.
So, without further ado, I will introduce our panelists, and if I can ask you to walk up as you saw this morning.
Dana Burton is a PhD student at George Washington University’s Anthropology Department. Her research follows the search for life on Mars, and seeks to understand the epistemologies of value and order which come to be applied to Martian life by various policymakers, scientists, and private entrepreneurs. With attention to feminist and multispecies literature, her work explores visions of life and living in space, and how it shapes our conceptions of the environment, sociality, and governance. Thus far, her work has taken her to myriad conferences, lectures, and laboratories, in DC, Texas, and California. She plans to be a part of projects further afield, whether they be space analog sites in Iceland or Chile, or beyond. Dana is also an avid fiction reader and enjoys blues dancing. And above all, she loves drinking tea and getting into conversations about affect, presence, and the intricacies of everyday life.
Nathalie Cabrol is the director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute, where she leads the strategic vision for science and exploration. She heads projects in planetary science and astrobiology, develops science exploration strategies for Mars, Titan, and the Outer Solar System icy moons, and designs robotic field experiments. She’s a member of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover science team. Nathalie explores high-altitude lakes in the Andes as analogs to early Mars. She documents life’s adaptation to extreme environments, the effect of rapid climate change on lake ecosystems and habitats, its geobiological signatures, and relevance to planetary exploration. Nathalie counts over 410 peer-reviewed publications and proceedings of professional conferences. She’s authored three books and ten chapters of books on the subject of planetary science and exploration, astrobiology, and terrestrial extreme environments. Her work is featured in US and international media as well as in popular books.
Bobak Ferdowsi is known for such things as Battlebots, Cupcake Wars, and Sharknado 3. But by day he’s the Fault Protection lead for the joint NASA-ISRO mission, an Earth-observing satellite evaluating global environmental change and hazards. His prior positions have included the Europa Clipper flight system engineer, Integrated Launch and Cruise Engineer on Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, and Science Planner on the Cassini mission. In addition, he served as flight director during Curiosity operations. Bobak earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2001 from the University of Washington, and subsequently his Master of Science in the same area from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bobak has always wanted to explore the universe. He plays shortstop in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory softball league, with a career 0.817 batting average, and usually rides his bike to work.
Margaret Huettl is a descendant of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibweg, Assyrian reve— Let me just try that entire thing again.
Margaret Huettl, a descendant of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibweg—oh. I practiced this and I apologize for what I’m currently doing. Ojibweg, Assyrian refugees, European settlers, is assistant professor in History and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, her MA in Native American History from the University of Oklahoma, and her BA from the University of Rochester. She’s a scholar of Native American history and North American Wests, and her research examines indigenous sovereignty and settler colonialism in a transnational context. Her current project, “Ojibwe Peoplehood in the North American West, 1854–1954,” explores Ojibwe and Anishinaabe sovereignty in the United States and Canada during the 19th and 20th centuries, centering her research on Anishinaabe ways of knowing.
Thank you so much to the panelists for joining us today. In this panel we’ll be directing questions to specific folks here on the panel, but I hope to hear from each one of you in turn about your thoughts.
So, the very first thing that I’d like to talk about again goes back to this theme of narratives that we have been revisiting here today. And my first question is for you, Margaret. So one of the things that often comes up in space is that we often use a comparison to the frontier. And I think oftentimes that’s invoked in a way that is not particularly critical, that invokes frontiers and the American West in a very positive sense, when in fact the exploration of the American West was harmful to many people. And given your scholarship, you know, how do you think the narratives that we use shape our understanding of history and the way that we envision the future?
Margaret Huettl: I think talking about space in that language of the frontier, one of the things that it does is it goes back to these settler fantasies about what the West was, what North America was, right. The language of the New World, the language of this virgin wilderness that is untouched by any real habitation—despite the fact, of course, that there’s, you know, millions, maybe even tens of millions, of Native Americans living in North America, not to mention South America. But the language of the frontier of discovery imagines virgin wilderness, untouched space, that exists for one purpose and that purpose is for the exploitation of the new commerce, the exploitation of the settlers, rather than as like a fully developed space, place, on its own.
Walkowicz: And do you see parallels to that in the way that we talk about space?
Huettl: I do. And the language comes up a lot like when various… I know there’s— I don’t remember who it was from SpaceX that was talking about not wanting space to be a Wild West. There’s lots of language about you know, going out and carrying on this narrative of exploration. When people talk about exploring space, the language that they use often references the past, using the language like “frontier.” I mean, that’s inherently invoking the story about the exploration of North America, the settling of North America that doesn’t actually match the reality of what happened but instead puts…you know, these fictional explorers in kind of a, you know, glowing light where they’re you know, doing good for the rest of humanity.
Walkowicz: Yeah. And if I can broaden this to the entire panel. You know, the use even of the word “colonization” was very heavily debated back in the 70s. There were all these meetings at NASA Ames about imagining life, human beings, living off-world, with one camp sort of exemplified by Stewart Brand being that you know, we should use colonization because it would help us remember in his words I think it was, “what was good and bad about colonization.” Which…we could dig into in and of itself. And then folks like Carl Sagan saying that we should use something like “space cities” because cities have a lot of different kinds of people.
But one of the things that I’ve really been wondering about is to what extent does our choice of wording matter? You know, many of the things that I think a lot of scientists, even, who shy away from saying colonization will use like “discovery” or “exploration” as sort of neutral words? And I’d love to hear from the panel how you choose your words when you talk about these things. I see Nathalie reaching for the—
Nathalie Cabrol: Yeah no, just—it reminds me—and Bobak might be also sensitive to that. Words are, you know, very important. But engineers and scientists, when they’re preparing missions to Mars, or where they have to operate a mission in Mars, well…for the Mars Exploration Rover team, we had to work on a dictionary. Because I was saying something, and I had somebody right next to me who was nodding and hearing the words, but we realized that sometimes we’re not saying the same thing at all. So, there is a perception. As an environmental scientist I can tell you that for me there is no negative connotation to say that bacteria colonized a rock. They do what they do; they are just expanding their territory, but for them, there is no negative connotation. I think that the negative connotation comes from the interaction of…in human history, when people actually did nasty things to each other. But, I think that this is the weight of history that we put behind the words. And we have to be, you know, acknowledging this. But you can also say well okay, we are colonizing Mars as the bacteria’s colonizing the next rock, because this is what they do. They need to grow and they are going to this other space. So, I would say yes, we need to be very sensitive to history but we also have to understand that sometimes we could go beyond the words themselves.
Dana Burton: Just to quickly follow up with that as well as… Also you know, along the line of being sensitive to words is also not hiding the fact that those histories happened, either, right? Exactly. So like, the idea that if we’re going to replace the word “colonization” with something else, is it actually changing the actions that are happening or is it just invoking a different kind of mask? And then what would get smuggled in with those different types of activities if we call it habitation or…something else?
Bobak Ferdowsi: So I also find it rather interesting because ten years ago I’m sure I was guilty of some of the Manifest Destiny sort of things as well. And you know, trying to be more aware of the situation as a representative of NASA. I think one of the things that’s interesting is a lot of this comes up from an American dominance in the space exploration field. You don’t necessarily hear the same words, in my experience, with some of the other space agencies that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. And so, as kind of the de facto owners of sort of this…you know, whether it’s NASA, whether it’s SpaceX, whether it’s, you know, kind of industry…going to Mars, that certainly does mean that we sort of tend to the familiar terms.
And you see even in the current administration, right, there’s sometimes some almost a religious-like aspect of divinity, of a sort of Mani—you know, Manifest Destiny but as imparted to us by a supreme being version of that in our conversations. But I think also to your point [Cabrol] is we definitely do strive, right, in engineering even. And we’re very technical people but we also work very hard to define the semantics of what we’re talking about. And that those things really do matter in our— You know, in our case oftentimes it’s just because if I make the wrong choice based on an interpretation of what you’re doing, we’ve lost you know, a billion dollar mission. But also because it’s…you know, it’s the way that we come to a common framework. So I’m willing to accept, of course, any term, but I think we also have to, you know, as a society agree on what the meaning of that term is and what the connotations are.
Walkowicz: So, if we can explore some of these narratives a little bit more. Dana, I wanted to particularly ask you, given your background in anthropology and your work. Another thing that I hear a lot when we talk about this stuff is not just necessarily references specifically to the American West or the frontier, but we also hear a lot about like what humans do and don’t do? And I wonder if you could speak to that.
Burton: So, I guess one of the first things you learn as an anthropologist is that people are very different. And it’s very difficult to wrap your head around difference, because often in so much of our everyday lives we’re trying to relate to each other, we’re trying to find similarities. Society and institutions are all about making categories and then fitting people or objects or beings into them. So, particularly with space exploration, you have to be very careful about the ways in which the human or personhood is evoked. Because it can also not give enough attention to the myriad different types of experiences that people have. So, I think a really good example would be from what we talked about in the first panel, which is you know, how people relate to their bodies. Humanity has multiple different types of ways in which we understand privacy, or intimacy, and the ways bodies get visualized, or recognized, or acknowledged. And so it will be interesting to see how these projects that push people outside of known and recognizable environments will shift how we understand bodies and people and humanity in relation with each other as well as relationship with the environment.
Walkowicz: What do you think— If there exists one, do you think that there’s a concrete effect to making statements about what humans do?
Burton: [laughs] A concrete statement to what humans do.
Walkowicz: Yeah, so I’m asking specifically about how these shape our ideas of…you know, to return to actually to that first panel of like who is an explorer or how we include or disinclude people. You know, I think oftentimes when that phrase of like “it is in human’s nature to explore,” I think that often shapes the way that we think about who an explorer is? So I wonder if anyone wants to speak to that. And I throw it out not only to you but to the whole panel.
Burton: I can start at least. It’s— I’ve also heard that a lot? in terms of you know, people want to explore, it’s human’s destiny to go forth and know the universe. But, I think that something that we could say with…that humans are is we relate to each other, we interact with each other, and we have these common experiences that deeply affect who we are. And it’s through these different experiences that we are able to comprehend a lot of the narratives around space. And so you know, the idea that even thinking of the word “exploration” is going to have different resonances with a lot of different people and yet at the same time we may be able to understand what those resonances are and where those common grounds are and have conversations that would promote, in theory, a respectful…or a type of exploration hopefully that isn’t all exploitative.
Walkowicz: Anyone else want to comment on that?
Cabrol: Obviously, you know, this aspect of anthropology and relationship, etc. is not my expertise. What I can relate to is, once again, going back to looking at life on this planet, we say humans are explorers. You can take this statement and take life is an explorer. And the reason why we’re still here today is because life has given itself a chance to adapt, and evolve, and survive by multiplying its environment and the habitat it has been colonizing for four billion years. So it’s not just humans. This is not something that is specific to us. What is specific to us is that now we have the technology to take it farther. We also have a society that allows humans to relate to each other. But it’s not specific to humans, it’s specific to life.
So, if you want to take the interaction between humans and how it’s going to color exploration, you can say this also of symbiotic systems of life. How you’re successful or less successful in an extreme environment is who you are going to associate yourself with and use the strength of the next body of yours, the next microorganism, to make the system function. As a human, we can see this this way, and it is that— And we were having this discussion just before the panel, and we had it even you know, a few days prior to that.
For me, I see all of you in this room not as gender, or races, or as an environmental scientist. I see you as the product of environment, climate, and history. The differences in our bodies, difference in our culture reflect where we have been evolving, where our history resides, what kind of climate we have been under. How we have perceived the environment and how we relate it structurally as organisms, we are all the same. The difference we are showing here is really about that.
And it’s true for all systems. What is really interesting is how are we going to use this reflection of who we are, which is a reflection of biodiversity and adaptation, into the next exploration. The same that is true for microorganic colonies is true for us as well, but on top of this we have brought what we call “intelligence.” And again, as an environmental scientist, I would say that you know, anybody who made it thus far on our planet has to be intelligent in some ways. But we brought a society, and we brought an interaction which is negative or positive, but we all have strength. Beyond our diversity, we are here, we are survivors, we’re adaptable. And I think that this is what is going to take us next, this is what we need to use beyond the terms of colonization, beyond the terms of you know, cultures, etc. We need to bring our strength like a symbiotic system if we’re going to make it.
Huettl: One of the things that this conversation makes me think about—and I’m sorry, I guess today finds me in a little bit of a pessimistic mood?—is the way that appeals to the public good or universal truths have been used to violate the rights of minority peoples throughout history. I think maybe an example that fits this space is I mean, not too far from here, there have been drawers full of native people’s bodies, ancestor’s bodies in drawers for decades, right. Stolen from graves, heads cut off by US military generals and reduced to data, for the public good. And when native people asked to have their ancestors returned to them, they were [told], “Well, you’re standing in the way of science. We all need this knowledge. This is something that is for everybody’s good and your objection doesn’t carry as much weight in this conversation.” And so I have questions about how this—you know, this appeal to a common humanity could potentially—not necessarily, but potentially—be used in a similar way, to override the perspectives of people who don’t necessarily agree with, you know…yeah, with people who are making decisions.
Ferdowsi: I think you… On kind of a similar theme to climate change, right, where we are making decisions on behalf of everybody, whether we like it or not. I think you hit an interesting point of technology, because you know, the technology that allows us to explore is also very similar to the technology that allows us to survive and thrive in our own environments, right. The fact that we can get crop yields that are hundreds of times what they were and also can you know, on the con side of that extract oil from sand essentially and make our cars go for years to come. It is an interesting dilemma, though, because right, those are things that both have the—you know, the benefits to some of us and not necessarily equal benefits to all people.
And it’s a really difficult challenge, you know. I was thinking about the earlier panel. From a narrative perspective it’s very easy for me to be like, ask all of you to close your eyes and imagine, for example, a world without homelessness. And for most of us in this room it really doesn’t change our life in a significant way. But if I ask you to close your eyes and imagine you’re living on Mars, the life story is a very dramatically different one. And I think that’s one of the problems that we sort of have, is the sort of ability to put ourselves in these other perspective and how do you tell the narrative of, well obviously if I was a homeless person, the life…homelessness is a significant difference to me. So how do I then put myself into that perspective, and I think that’s the challenge that each of us faces. I think the way that I’m slowly learning to do this is, right, through conversations like this and to kind of think about okay, what is it not to have my own experience but to have other people’s experiences. And amazingly, right, we slowly see, I think, over time that some of these differences come full circle, right? I think of LA, for example, where we used to have bike paths throughout the city that were torn out for freeways to be made and now we’re going back to bike paths, right? So what’s old becomes new again and it is an interesting thing. So to start thinking about some of that like, what are the things that we are missing out on because of so-called “progress” but as in return like sort of a cyclical process, you know. Not that we can cut corners but maybe there is a way for us to sort of think in those terms.
Walkowicz: Yeah you know, the point that you both have brought up about not everyone necessarily agreeing with space exploration I guess I would say as an enterprise, or even the language that we use around it, right. It makes me think actually of some of the questions that exist about astronaut health, and again returning to this idea of like bodies in space, right? That essentially for long-duration missions if we were to go to Mars or something like that, there’s no way for those health standards to actually be met. So the way that it’s currently done is that NASA has to evaluate whether they will violate the standards for astronaut health in every single mission case.
And so, there’s also this slightly more subtle issue, right, of informed consent. So you can say with astronauts individually could…you know, we love thinking about the individual, here in the United States a lot at least. And so you could say, well an astronaut can choose to undertake a mission that might create damage to them. However, when we think about things like Mars sample return, you—or even just private space industry being in charge of flight, you know, when you launch something into space you launch over other people. You have the potential for risk, in which people are not able to actually consent to being part of that. Either because they don’t know it’s going to happen or because they are…you know, space doesn’t obey national boundaries.
And then you also have things like planetary protection, which is this series of policies which we’ll get into momentarily, where you could bring something back into the Earth environment that would compromise us in some way. I wonder if we can turn to thinking about policy and treaties. So, the Outer Space Treaty, which dates from 1967, is this governing document of all of the things that one can and can’t do in space. I think my… Well, prior to this year, myself and my fellow scientists have a pretty warm, fuzzy feeling towards the Outer Space Treaty that it’s this very aspirational document. And we’ll dig into that in a moment. But first I wanted to look specifically at planetary protection. So maybe I’ll throw this to Bobak, can you talk about planetary protection, broadly what it is and then how it’s implemented in missions?
Ferdowsi: Yeah. So for those of you who don’t know, right, we do also have essentially kind of our own Prime Directive when it comes to exploring other places, which is as we go there we are… For…largely for—honestly, for selfish reasons, which is we are trying to preserve the environment as is so that if we ask additional scientific questions about those environments, then we haven’t compromised the readings. So what that boils down to for our missions is essentially places where we think there’s a credible chance of habitability—like Mars, like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn—we deliberately clean our traveling spacecraft and we do an assessment of how dirty they are from a biological perspective, and the probability that they reach an environment where they could contaminate that environment. And say you know, it has to be less than a certain combined chance, right. So say there is some number of spores, you know, essentially of various microbial life on my rover; the likelihood that it reaches a place that has water or something else where they can survive; the likelihood they survive the whole trip from Earth to Mars, etc.; and then I multiply that out and I figure okay, it’s less than one in a billion, that’s an acceptable risk.
That also of course, as Lucianne mentioned, comes back to Earth. Which when we talk about sample return, both from preserving the sample as a pure lunar or Martian environment, and as a preventative measure for us somehow you know, bringing back Andromeda Strain and like, taking over.
So with that regard, as an engineer, it’s one of my…it’s like one of those rules that we deal with, right? Like essentially as an engineer I don’t want to have to worry about how clean my parts are, because it makes my job a little harder. But as the big picture, we’re able to understand okay, the context of this is if we are looking for life on Mars, the last thing we want to find is life that we brought with us and be unable to answer the question. And to be fair that question’s very different difficult, in part because we’re not entirely sure of whether life could’ve originated on Mars or other places—panspermia, essentially; life propagates with or without us, like through asteroids and other means. And whether life would look the same in its origin. So meaning that even if it’s independently derived, does it have to be DNA-based, does it have to have other similar traits to our life?
So we use those rules in order to sort of protect those kind of boundaries and be able to ask scientific questions. But like I said, I think it’s purely selfish. I don’t think we are thinking of that “oh, from the good of Mars perspective,” that we’re thinking about it from the “good of the science” perspective.
Walkowicz: And you know, I think currently the current administration is very pro relaxation of regulation? And I know that there are some people, at least within like the scientific community as well as maybe new space companies and enterprises who don’t want have to pay for planetary protection, who have suggested that one should relax planetary protection. And you’ve written about this, Nathalie. Can you speak to what you think planetary protection requirements…how and if they should evolve as we move forward?
Cabrol: Yeah, well. You know, I like to flip questions on their head just to make sure that I’m looking at different perspectives. And I think there is a misperception right now about planetary protection. And I will go with Bobak on this. It makes his life very complicated, but that’s a good thing. We could discuss scientifically, you know, would it be difficult to recognize terrestrial life and Martian life? You look at coevolution and I think it would be pretty easy to see who is coming from where. Because the evolution of Mars and the Earth very early—even very early was very different. But given that we still want to send the cleanest spacecraft.
On the other hand there is this perception of planetary protection as you know, the bad guy who’s preventing you from going to the really cool place where you want to explore. [pointing at Ferdowsi:] See? See the smirk. Yeah. Well, you know, that’s a misperception. In fact, what planetary protection is doing…should be doing and should continue doing, is really to bring in front of you the questions, what they are, what are the potential issues…but not just to let you know that no you cannot go there. To put you to work and say, “How am I going to be able solve that question?” In fact this is a source of progress for me as somebody who is thinking in terms of exploration strategies. Now I’m just thinking in terms of what kind of technology can I develop to completely clean a spacecraft, to do penetration of the subsurface where life actually could be, that is completely clean. Or are there ways from biological experiments that I’m going to be able to recognize that life is coming from Mars or the Earth.
And we are running against time here, because as you said you know, there was a time where space exploration was NASA, or ESA, or the Russian agencies. That’s not the case anymore. I don’t know if you are aware of, there is a Tesla going to Mars right now. And there are no real policies in place at this point in time. And also as an astrobiologist, I would like to discover whether there is life on Mars, like native life on Mars, before humans go, because once we’re there, we will find life on Mars—I’m not being facetious, we’re just a microbial factory. And we already know that some microbes that we are carrying would survive to some extent in some places on Mars.
So, for me planetary protection has to become an enabler of exploration. Not something that prevents us from exploring. And I think that a lot of good can come out of this, because as usual you’re pushing the envelope of thinking, as planetary exploration does, and we can come back to the question of climate change where technologies we are developing for planetary exploration are actually helping us monitor faster and better environmental change on Earth.
So that would be my viewpoint on these things. And right now it’s still fuzzy, a fuzzy discipline, where we don’t have real policies. And we’re asking all the questions and everybody is going out there to the “final frontier of space” without real guidelines on what is harmful, what is not.
Walkowicz: Yeah, and if we can go to talk about that policy, you know, Margaret, given your scholarship with nationhood and sovereignty throughout history for indigenous people, I wonder if you could speak to the Outer Space Treaty as you know, should scientists be as sanguine about its aspirational nature as they perhaps are sometimes?
Huettl: So, I think one thing that the history of treaty-making in the United States specifically—and I think you could expand this to Canada, Australia, and other places where European nations have colonized. I think it teaches us to be cautious. We’re in a building that has hundreds of native treaties, treaties with native nations, and the United States has broken every. single. one.
And it’s especially bad when resources are involved, right? I think a good example of this is the Treaty of Fort Laramie from 1868, which was a treaty primarily with the Lakota people? And it protected the Black Hills. It said the Black Hills are Lakota territory, the United States can’t go here. And the United States’ responsibility is to make sure any US citizens who go into Lakota territory, the military will help remove them. But then, some of those white citizens who weren’t supposed to be in Lakota territory in the first place found gold. And as has so often happened in US history, it became a free-for-all, right? The US military ended up actually supporting the settler miners who were looking for resources, violating the treaty, starting a really terrible genocidal war, and completely violating the terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which they continue to violate to this day.
The pipeline controversy is also related to violations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. So when there’s resources at stake, these kind of really grandiose treaty terms often are not carried through. And part of the reason for that is that baked into the United States’ legal system is a legal system that privileges private enterprise, and both individuals’ and incorporations’ access to resources and access…and the United States’ right to certain territory, going back to the Doctrine of Discovery, which said that— It started out as a papal bull in the 15th century and says that whatever (Christian) nation “discovers” a territory has the rights to the territory and everything that is in that territory. And this concept is baked into the US legal system and makes it really easy to defend actions that would walk back, you know, like the Outer Space Treaty. And I mean, we saw it under the previous administration as well when Congress passed a law that said that the products of—I think it was asteroid mining and maybe more generally that whoever is mining that has the right to profit from those resources? And so you know, there’s already been some undermining of the principles of the Outer Space Treaty within just the United States, and that’s not talking about other nations around the world as well.
Walkowicz: I think one of the things that always strikes me is that a lot of the move to extract resources, so for example the Space Act from 2015 that you’ve just referenced, really clears the path for sure, you can’t own a celestial body—which is what the Outer Space Treaty says—but you can, you know, “own” its resources. And particularly, I was struck by the fact that water was explicitly included in the Space Act.
But, at the same time, a lot of the companies that are expressly interested in doing that will also use this rhetoric about how going to space will change us? And I wonder, Dana maybe you can speak to this. You know, I think there’s certainly the possibility for space to be something that challenges us and perhaps makes us grow, but what do you think of that assertion, you know, in light of things humans do and don’t do?
Burton: Well, I guess it depends on how people define being better? So, what protections make me think of is that there’s a certain type of valuation being put on whatever you’re trying to protect, and that there are certain people who are privileged to ensure that protection and/or break it. And particularly in terms of like, resource extraction, right, we have to ask the question of who would be benefiting, and how those benefits would be redistributed. If they are redistributed. And it seems as if…and this is something the first panel touched on as well, like if space is to become a place or a space where we can experiment with different types of socialities, where we can finally hopefully acknowledge personhood in a different way, or just being in different ways, then it’s going to also have to ask questions of like well, how do we value people? When people become objects, then what kind of different manners do we have in relating to them and using them? Who has all these different powers and privileges that can decide those things?
So, will space make us better? Hopefully it will make us actually ask these questions. And maybe even put into dialogue, with public forums. And that’s something that I feel as if I need to do more exploration of, which is like, how often do we engage in public events like this on these topics? Often they’re held in either scientific conferences or academic conferences—or at least those are the spaces that I’ve been in, so how can we expand these conversations so that it’s not just us talking to each other but actually talking about what we imagine space to be, and how it could help us to grow beyond just capitalist or extractivist dialogues and discourses?
Walkowicz: Yeah. I guess I’d be curious to hear from the whole panel or whoever wants to take it. What do you think of the rhetoric coming out of new space, or some of the plans that are thrown out there that are sometimes I think out of the realm of fiction? But what do you think the effect is of those ideas. Things like the Tesla in space that you mentioned, Nathalie, terraforming, some of these plans/ideas for these off-world environments?
Cabrol: Well you know, I think at this point in time we’re confronted with two things. There is the “I do this thing because I can,” you know. And there is a little bit of that. And this is great. Don’t get me wrong. I really do appreciate, and I think this is a great opportunity for us to have other people than necessarily the government who are capable now of putting assets in space and help the development of technologies and maybe moving humans around, etc.
On the other hand, there is also a little bit of catching up into you know, what it entails really to… (I’m sorry to utilize that word, “colonize,” but right now we are going with that.) to settle Mars, and really what happens when you are there. There is a little bit of a romantic vision of exploration, where we are going to land on Mars and you know, we are going to send 100 thousand people and they will stay there, and from there we are going to become an interplanetary species. Ultimately this is going to happen, but it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be messy. And it is going to humble us very much.
And I think that there is an understanding that going to Mars is not easy, it’s hard. It’s hard even to land robots on Mars. It’s hard to keep people alive during the flight to Mars. The first thing that’s going to happen when they land on Mars, they are going to be weakened by the travel. They won’t be able to get out of the habitat for at least a month. I think that the old studies were showing something like that. But when you’re an astronaut, you have plenty to keep you busy in your spacecraft before you go out.
But once you go out—and that’s the main difference between the romantic vision that is inherited from the exploration on Earth and the reality of going to Mars, is not even being on the moon. When you’re on the moon, you look up at the sky and you see your planet’s right there. You communicate in three seconds, alright? And if something goes wrong, well you’re back pretty fast. Once you’re on Mars, and especially when somebody is going to tell you you are going there and you are staying there, there is no ticket back. Then what happens? You’re in this confined environment. When you’re on Earth, wherever you are, even in the most lost place on Earth, if you want to take a walk because you are mad at the rest of the crew…you take a walk, alright. You go out and you walk.
And so on Mars, there is a limited amount of time that you can spend out per day, just because of the radiation environment. The people you are with, you better get along with them. Because you are going to be with them for a very very long time. You know, so the idea of going back to Mars, colonizing Mars, I think needs to be reframed into what we know of Mars, the reality of Mars. I think there is a little bit of romanticism right now that is infused into the vision of some corporate companies.
But at the same time the dream is the driver, you know. We first dream of things. It’s just like a kid who wants to be a firefighter. Why they want to do that, because there is a red truck, you know. And they are heroes. Well an explorer’ a little bit of that. There is no red truck, but if you survive, if you made it, you come back, you’ve discovered something new. And then as the kid grows up, they learn that they need to have skills, and they need to—you know, being a firefighter is not only the red truck. And this is going to be the same thing here with the romantic vision of exploration of a planet that is so far away that you cannot just take the next cab and come back home.
So, for me, this is what I— You know, right now this is a little bit of the danger because of the romantic approach to exploration. There are steps that are taken that might not be too wise or too smart. But if we work together, I think there is a great deal of good things that can come up with the merging of the experience that NASA or ESA or other agencies have with the “we can do” type of approach of corporate companies.
Ferdowsi: I mean, obviously I love new space. It enables us to do a ton of things that we weren’t able to do even, you know, ten years ago. Which is great. I think the big concern and sort of what you’re hitting on, right, which is the narrative as sort of being seized as a very romantic “oh these habitats” and these, you know, various… I mean, when I walked by the botany building on the way here and I kind of imagined like that could be like a Mars settlement, right, with the glass and I’m looking out and I’ve got plants growing inside, making air for me.
But I do think it’s concerning— Yeah. And to be fair, right, I mean my own institution is sometimes guilty of this, the romanticized vision of you know, astronauts walking on the surface of Mars for the first time. The challenges are real. I think that the big concern with that narrative is always that if you don’t want—if you don’t need it, you get discouraged. Which then sets back the legitimate—all the stuff that we’re trying to do. But also the setting of that precedent. And it was kind of— You know, I mentioned earlier where like, people talk about the time for doing things, and of course I think of so many people, including myself, right, the time is always now because, I’m only going to be alive for you know, n years more, and I want to discover life somewhere else in my lifetime. I want to see people do certain things. Or I want to accomplish certain things. And so it’s always this— And part of that is because I grew up on a vision of oh, these are achievable things in my lifetime, so therefore I want to achieve them. And I think that’s part of the issue with the narrative of this you know, “let’s expand to Mars” kind of thing, which is again, if we sell everybody on a very romantic narrative and we either don’t deliver or even if we do, it just sort of sets us up to have to do these things and not necessarily in the— And I don’t want to say like in a…calculating way, but in a sort of methodical, systematic way where we really appreciate what we’re doing. And as you know, someone like myself, the dream is very much alive with space. I love the challenge of it. So honestly at the end of the day if I don’t get to do all these things I’m going to be happy because it’s…the fun is in trying to do it? And you know, most of the time, we try to succeed. I mean, we always try to succeed; most of the time we succeed.
But if there wasn’t a little bit of a gamble or a risk to it it would certainly be a lot less exciting. But I think it’s one of the we’re really need to find, is what is the balance of storytelling that we strike between encouraging people to sort of want to tackle these seemingly insurmountable challenges and you know, dream big and do certain things, and how do we do that in a way that’s constructive for society, right? Is it focusing in on different areas? Is it telling a story that is more about the journey than the end? You know, I don’t necessarily have an answer for that but I think that’s kind of one other things that I’ve…you know, as you were talking, it sort of reminded me. And again, so I’m very optimistic about the work that’s being done. I think that’s incredible stuff. But I am concerned about the…sort of the vision of it all, or the sort of salesmanship of it all.
Walkowicz: [to Cabrol:] Do you have something…?
Cabrol: Yeah, just to add something. I think that with becoming interplanetary, there is something that, you know, that was not present for…in the exploration of our own planet, and which is that now you are adding a new world. And it’s not a new planet Earth. We’re not starting with that. We’re starting with a world that is very hostile in the first place. And I think this is— When you think about implications, you have to think at two levels. So the first implication is okay, how is this going to serve society as a whole you know, here and somewhere else? But there is also you know, what’s happening on this humankind that’s on Mars? What are they becoming? Especially if they are not coming back?
So we have to… You know, maybe this is where the big difference is between exploration here on Earth and what has happened with the exploration of Mars, is that when you’re on Mars, you are completely on your own—which you were somewhere you know, on Earth as well in some places. But here, you are in an environment that you…you are not the master of it. The environment is going to dominate you for a very long time. And you have to count on each other. You have to use each others’ smart[s]. It’s the big equalizer. The environment will completely dominate you for hundreds of time.
And by the way, those beautiful spheres that you see, you know as much as I do how many asteroids are falling at the surface of Mars every single year. So we better be under the surface for quite some time.
But what I’m saying is that unlike Earth, you just cannot take a walk and find the next spring, the next cascade and you know, live off the land right away. You’re going to have to count on each other. So this is where maybe differences between people and race and gender, etc. is going to be maybe a little less important because well, you are one against the environment.
Walkowicz: Well, I think— I actually wanted to spend the last couple of moments of our panel here talking about Mars as a physical environment. Because I think often we think of ourselves as masters of our environment, which we objectively on this planet are clearly not? And also the relationship of the environment as being something we can or should try to control I think is not shared by every culture. You know, one of the things that came up— And since I haven’t specifically mentioned it in this panel, all of us were co-creators of the things that we’re talking about here, so we did these pre-event calls. And one of the things you brought up, Margaret, was environmental personhood and some of the ways in which indigenous cultures have thought of environments but also engaged with the legal system and with policy. So maybe if you could speak to that.
Huettl: Yeah. So, I was thinking of an example from New Zealand where the indigenous people there were able to get legal personhood protections for a particular river, so that any violations of the river are the same as violations of like a human body, and they have legal recourse to environmental damage done to this like, physical entity that represents their relationship with this place. So that’s one way that indigenous people have used the legal system both to their advantage and to the advantage of the environment, right? I know India has also given personhood status to at least two of its rivers in order to fight pollution. And so you know, for me, the question is if there isn’t… Like there’s not necessarily other people, right, out on Mars. But does Mars, right, as an entity have the same right to some sort of status equivalent to the personhood status that this river in New Zealand has?
Walkowicz: Yeah. And this also came up in our call in the sense of… I think one of the ways I hear people sometimes split the difference, right, is well, we’ll be able to do whatever, or industry can do whatever to an environment after we’re sure that life is not there. And I don’t know when that could possibly ever actually happen. Yeah.
So, what are— And I’ll throw this out to the panelists as a whole just as a parting thought. What are your thoughts about how we should conceive of Mars as an environment, or even why we study other planets? And maybe I’ll give that to you first, Dana.
Burton: So, a couple of kind of branching thoughts with this is that Mars as an environment is as much an environment here on Earth. And in preparing to go to Mars, there are lots of different strategies and protocols and programs being put into effect that are changing the landscape. So just thinking of new space, right. They’re trying to create different types of rockets; so reusable rockets which could technically land in different places and don’t necessarily have to be launched from certain places—I don’t know. The science stuff I can leave to these guys.
But, just taking into consideration like what places are we then changing in order to fulfill these goals of space exploration. So, if we’re thinking about Mars then we need to understand principles of life or you know, is it organic, is it carbon-based. (Again the science.) We also have to think about what kind of tests are we performing on entities and bodies here, in order to understand that type of environment. So, I think these larger questions of like, the Mars environment, are as much a reflection of how we’ve treated the environment here on Earth. And I think that would…as a parting thought would be to really take a good reflection of how our search for knowledge and our understandings of life are impacting how we work with and see life here, and I wonder if we could…you know, maybe that would be a point of doing something better, is incorporating a more…a perspective that is respectful and incorporates…or, is collaborative with difference and understands difference better. Differently.
Cabrol: I’m going to take a slightly different take at this. Obviously I don’t have your expertise and I’m dealing more with the aspect of…well yeah, carbon-based and environment and things like that. So I think that we are doing our homework—astrobiology is doing its homework right now in trying to figure out what kind of environment and what kind of coevolution Mars could have been. Because if you’re looking for life on a planet you have to think about coevolution. You have to think of Mars as a biosphere. And that goes back a little bit to the personhood that you [Huettl] were mentioning, that is not exactly the same thing. I think I understand very well what’s happening here, where you’re giving you know, legal rights to a planet, to a river, etc.
But in terms of environment, where you are recognizing that we are part of a biosphere, we are not outside of a biosphere—we are part of a system. And then if you are hurting that system, you are hurting the entire biosphere. Then there is a little bit of that, too. There is a respect of the system you are part of. I think that what we are doing is trying to put ourselves outside of that. We’re seeing this with the environmental change right now.
But to go back to your question. As an astrobiologist going to extreme environments and looking at what we think could be the most evolved type of life that could be on Mars right now—which basically are microbes because there’s not enough energy to just sustain complex life on Mars. I’m looking at what these microbes are in an environment that is very relevant to what Mars was 3.5 billion years ago. And they are telling me something very profound about humans. Which is that in those places where we go, the earliest organisms we see are blue and green algae. And you see them, and they can thrive in places where the radiation is extremely strong. In places that are a little bit cold, where there is a lot of aridity, etc. etc. Fundamentally, they are the same, but they become a little different. They are developing different pigment. They are developing different capabilities to adapt because of the place they are at.
And so this is telling me something about our humanity, or a new evolution. We are adaptable. We are the product of our environment, of our history. Going back to Mars, I am wondering if going to a place that is environmentally completely different is going to help us finally figure out what it means to be human when you are removed from your planet of origin. And when you are getting you know, confronted [with] something that is completely different, if finally all of a sudden, what it means to be human is going to get to the surface, but being on another planet then all of a sudden you will lose your “humanity,” what was making you human in the first place. So it’s an interesting paradox that exploration of an environment and the Martian environment could bring humans to finally discover of who they are, what it means to be us.
Ferdowsi: So to one of your points, right, in terms of the developments, right, I do know for example that Mars Sample Return, which is a robotic mission, is effectively being very high prioritized—it’s always been a high priority from a scientific perspective but is being pushed forward very quickly because of the potential for humans to go to Mars and contaminate that environment. That is not obviously—you know, the dozen, two dozens samples that we’ll get back is certainly not what you would ideally want but I know that there is some pressure to do that. Because we’re afraid that if the environment gets contaminated then once that happens then there’s no going back.
I think for me the exploration—kind of the case for it as far as—and I work really in robotic exploration, is I think of it mostly as a kind of way of reflecting upon ourselves. There is sort of an inherent curiosity to me, of course, about whether we’re alone in the universe. Statistically speaking I would say it seems very unlikely. But there’s a sort of sense of looking at these other places as reflections upon like how did we…what is our origin story? How did we arrive here? How does a place like Earth form? What is the context for life showing up like ours? Mars is in so many ways a very obvious reflection, and from the fact that when we see pictures of it we can imagine ourselves there. There’s a gravity that’s similar to ours; there was a warmer, wetter environment in the past; there’s still a lot of things— As inhospitable as Mars is there are far more inhospitable places in our solar system.
So there is a fair amount of ability to sort of reflect on our own planet and I kind of hope that some of these are opportunities to do that. I think that our most powerful images of course of space exploration are often the once that show Earth in the context of the places that we’re visiting, whether it be Earth on the horizon of Mars, or the Pale Blue Dot picture from the Voyagers. So I do sort of see them as a way of looking at ourselves and being introspective. And I hope that many of the people who continue to do this will also see that as a motivating factor for this. It’s not necessarily to accomplish something there as much as to kind of accomplish something here about an understanding of ourselves, a deeper understanding of ourselves.
And I think on some level it speaks to the commonality of experience. I mean it’s very hard to imagine we’re very different when you see Earth as you know, a pixel on an image. It makes you feel a lot— I think a lot more— A lot more alone but also lot more connected. So I hope that that’s kind of the version of exploration that we take forward.
Huettl: I’m not really sure how to answer this question? But I think Nathalie when you were talking about you know, seeing everything as a system, that’s very similar to my own understanding of things from a slightly more—albeit you know— I’m not claiming this is a universal Ojibwe perspective but you know, that’s how I was taught to understand my relationship not just with things on Earth but with the sun, the moon, and the larger system as well, and things… You know, it’s important to maintain some sort of balance. And so I would think that… You know, it would be… And I guess my ideal situation, Mars would be viewed not just—again, as this blank slate resource for us to learn about ourselves—which I think is an important part of it—but also as an entity in itself that deserves respect and we can learn about as well. If that makes sense.
Walkowicz: Alright. [crosstalk]
Cabrol: That makes a lot of sense because when you look—
Walkowicz: Sorry we’re— I know we have a lot of wonderful comments to make but we have time for questions and answers now and I don’t want to cut into that so, let’s everybody thank our panelists.
And as in the morning we have mic runners, so if you have a question please just raise your hand and someone will bring a mic to you.
Audience 1: So first of all, great responses and answers. So it seems like there’s kind of like a talker or center point around us being connected as you know, one. How do you navigate— This can be for anybody on the panel. How do you navigate a political landscape or kind of media landscape now that is kind of not in that interest? It’s a bit more divided and kind of pitting people against each other. So maybe even through your work or even through your personal lives, how do you kind of navigate that component so that people can resonate with the fact that we have more of a connection on a fundamental base?
Bobak Ferdowsi: So I think for me personally, right, I definitely do try of connect at an individual level with what resonates with me and hopefully share that kind of excitement or passion. In terms of a more broad perspective, I think it has been an effort on my part, becoming easier over time, of trying to use more inclusive terminology in terms of— You know, of course NASA, right, we made the transition from “manned space-” to “human spaceflight and” things like that. But just trying to sort of bring that perspective into it.
And ultimately you know, I don’t necessarily expect that any of these things is going to connect with 100% of people. But in the interest of sort of including as many people as possible at least trying to convey what are the benefits to people. And I think while NASA does an incredible amount for Earth science, that’s not necessarily the vision that we always tell to the public. Whereas working with India now, right, the thing when they talk about their space program, they are literally talking in, “Okay, we are able to grow more crops. We’re able to better predict meteorological events, and evacuate areas so that even though the storms are getting worse we’re actually seeing fewer casualties,” in places like that. And that is a direct tangible thing, right, that benefits people directly. And I think that’s… To try and talk to those points is sort of where… I think that’s—again, it’s a newer thing for me but it’s kind of the direction that I feel like I’m going in.
Nathalie Cabrol: I will add to what Bobak’s saying. This is something that I presented a few years ago. When I’m making a public presentation I always talk about from the Earth to Mars and back. And it can be Mars or it can be something else—let’s say planetary exploration or exploration of worlds—is that… And I’m going to take the example of environmental change. In that case, you can see the climate change on Earth a little bit like a planetary mission where you have very finite resources, very limited amount of time to understand what you have— You have a scientific goal. You have very little bandwidth to communicate and very little time to gather as much data as you can to figure out the question, or the answer to your question, or articulate your question better.
And this is exactly what we have with climate change. We have something that’s upon us. I cannot even say now that it’s coming at us like a freight train—it’s there. It’s all over the place. And we have very very little time to understand what’s going on. And what people don’t realize is that with this mindset of having to solve a question really fast, very efficiently, planetary exploration is developing tools, new tools and new ways of approaching planetary environments, that you can take back to the Earth and use it for the benefit of everybody trying to understand you know, what is the next best thing to not only monitor the environment but maybe help, you know, slow down what’s going on.
So, I think this…even if people don’t realize it day-to-day, there are a couple of reasons for that. Everybody is busy doing their own thing. But as Bobak was saying, NASA is not doing a very good job at mentioning the good stuff that happens on Earth because of planetary exploration and what they are doing. And I think they should do that a lot more.
So, this is happening. This is not necessarily because it’s not happening, it’s because you don’t know about it. And so the effort maybe you should be about those agencies—and this is NASA and this ESA and this everybody else; maybe the Indian agency’s doing a better job at, is relating what we are doing as far as an endeavor for mankind. Which is actually true. It’s not like a small amount of people doing something for an elite. That’s not right. This is not how it should be presented. How many things you are wearing or using that are actually the result of planetary exploration. You don’t know it, you know. You don’t even know about it.
So, there is an effort for us to be made of. And of course, for people like us, go out and talk to the public, and say what’s happening. And also maybe, you know, take the kids and say well you know, “Be part of this. And also find on your way.” We were having this interesting discussion earlier on about how kids have their own judgment and mindset, etc. They probably have very good ideas on how we can make this exploration for humanity.
Burton: Very briefly also. Fiction and fantasy and imagination offer so many different ways of reimagining spaces. And as things are right now, probably if you just take cut and dry the political or commercial sector, you’re not going to really get that far. But if we start thinking…and I think the next panel will talk about this a lot too, right? If we start imagining different ways of relating to each other, resonating, and also knowing that consensus is not necessarily possible and that we don’t want to all agree with each other? that it’s through contestation that our best efforts and explorations and discussions occur. I think we can go at that, and hopefully that will build into something productive and generative and creative.
Walkowicz: Any questions? Chanda.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: So I guess, you know, obviously I’m reading things through the lens of the conversation we had on the first panel this morning, and thinking a little bit about vocabulary and you know, the word “explorer.” And I have been trying in just my everyday life to get away from “oh, I discovered this new artist” and to say I’ve learned about a new artist? Because often the artist existed before I discovered them, lo and behold. And so I’m kind of wondering…and maybe I’ll put this question particularly to Margaret because I think that this falls along some of the things that you’ve been thinking about and talking about. How does a transition like that shape the conversation that we have in terms of thinking about learning about Mars versus exploring Mars?
Huettl: I… Are you saying that like you—
Huettl: Okay. Yeah, I think that I like that shift to thinking not just about exploring but learning. And, I don’t— I think part of the reason why it’s so important is because language has power beyond just like the stories we tell. But I mean, I guess thinking about it from a legal perspective again, the way that this language gets embedded in the legal system also shapes people’s lives on a day-to-day basis as well. So I think that yeah, I’ve— I mean I don’t know what language would be best but I like the idea of using less exploring, more learning. Thinking about relationships. Yeah.
Walkowicz: Questions? Maybe one more?
Audience 3: I was wondering why Mars? Why not colonize the moon or some independent free-floating habitat?
Cabrol: Well, I’ll go first then you. Well, I think we are going back to the moon. And frankly as a scientist I think this is an excellent idea. This is next to home. This is a place where we can learn a lot about how to do things right. Which basically will mean messing up a lot before we learn how to make things right, but it’s closer to home so maybe the repercussions of that will be lesser.
And there are also different layers to that question. I would say that the moon makes a lot of sense to try technologies, habitat, and a number of things. As far as why Mars, then you go back maybe to the astrobiology question. And Mars is really about you know, this connection that we seem to have…you know, we have had for so long. Mars makes humanity dream. It was first the little green men, which turns out they are not there. The canals of Mars, etc. Why? Because when you are looking at the landscape of Mars, you don’t need to invent any vocabulary to describe the landscapes. You have mountains, you have sunset, you have sunrises, you have valleys, you have polar caps, and dunes, and wind. This is how we describe Earth. It’s Earth that’s dry now on and less alive than we are. We don’t know if there is life, actually, out there. But the fact is that early Mars was fairly close—was not the same, but fairly close to what we know early Earth was. And if there is life somewhere in the solar system that’s close to what we are, at least in theory Mars would be the place. And there is something that I really like that I repeat all the time. There is something special about Mars. And I still as an astrobiologist, don’t know if there is really a line between prebiotic chemistry and life. I really think there is a transition.
But what I know is that our planet is so dynamic that whatever happens between those two states of matter and something else is not recorded anymore on our planet. It’s gone. Erosion. It’s plate tectonics. This record is gone. Which means that if we want to understand how life started, what’s the process, we are not going to find it necessarily on our own planet. So now you have to imagine being an orphan and trying to figure out who your parents are. They are gone, alright? So where do you go to? You go to your next of kin—an aunt, an uncle or you know, somebody close to you. Mars is that. And there is not a plate tectonic. The erosion is less. Geological activity is lesser on Mars, too. And there are very very very old rocks on Mars that are still exposed at the surface. Just because of panspermia, because of planetary exchange, there is a good chance that the same material that created life on Earth may be somewhere on Mars. And it may be that Mars is going to be the place that gives us a response to you know, how life—our own life—formed, how we got started, who we are.
So, this is what’s special about Mars. This is the why behind Mars. This is the why behind at least the astrobiology part of it. As for the human part of it I think this is the—our old story of explaining from going to a rock to the next rock, to the next continent, to the next ocean. It happens so that the next rock is 50 million miles away from here.
Walkowicz: So I know we probably have other questions, but we have a break in the afternoon and a reception following this, and I don’t want to get us off track. But I want to thank all of our panelists again.