Iam reading a fascinating bit of science fiction. It is the beginning of a series of books that outline the hypothetical future exploration and colonization of Mars.The Author Kim Stanley Robinson has crafted a fast-paced tightly woven story that keeps the reader engaged. The books themselves are called "Red Mars," "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars." In this futuristic tale, 100 colonists are chosen to start human habitation on Mars.
I suppose that it never really occurred to me that there might be some moral issues with such travels to our neighboring world.
What might those be, you ask? Well, it depends upon your school of thought, as most moral issues seem to be. If you are of the persuasion that the universe is extant for our perusal, use, exploration and ultimate exploitation, then your thought processes might lead you down the path in one direction.
On the other hand, if you are of the school of the "look, but don't touch" or the "do no harm" school, the road you would choose might be different.
Let's posit that we have the technology to go to Mars, and in the future we go and would like to stay there. We know that the atmosphere is too thin to breath, that the temperatures too frigid and, at best, the planet too arid. All in all, what we might call inhospitable.
Let's say that we've gotten all the way to the Red Planet and we have the technology. Should we go about doing a planetary makeover? More atmosphere might provide greater protection from the radiation that bombards Mars now. A higher moisture content would make Mars more hospitable to more organisms. Perhaps biogenetically engineered organisms, to break down Martian rock into something more useful, could be introduced.
The same hypothetical technology that got us there in the first place might tempt us to divert the orbit of a comet or two to crash land on the red planet to provide water. It's an interesting thought that more than one scientist postulates was the source of water for our own planet. How about covering the Martian polar regions with dark material to promote melting the ice caps?
The question might then be if you could, would you? Do we own all the worlds of the universe? The Galileo space probe to Jupiter revealed that one of the planet's major moons, Europa, very likely has water beneath its icy exterior. If that ice or water were found to contain organisms, micro or otherwise, would we be right in taking the water as our own anyway? Would that be like stealing land back on good old Earth? Hmmm.
That water sure would make the trip out a lot easier since we would only have to carry enough water for a one way trip. Would it be all right to leave any space "garbage" behind? It's awfully expensive to take it back with us.
These musings may seem to deal with things in the far future, but not necessarily.
Since the early space program, all nations have characteristically sterilized any object that was/is to land on another body in space. There are actually treaties to that effect that are administered through the United Nations. Back in 1968, the late Carl Sagan was one of the architects of the treaties, as well as one of the folks instrumental in raising consciousness about the problem of contaminating other planets with Earth organisms. This problem has been given the name "Forward Contamination." There is a "Backward Contamination" as well. Most people actually didn't know that the astronauts who went to the moon were placed, along with their cargo of rocks, in isolation until they were deemed safe to be back in contact with Earthlings again. I wonder how careful we'll have to be if astronauts have an extended stay on Mars?
I don't pretend to have the answers to the questions that I posed earlier, but these are questions that I think deserve answers. Will this controversy spawn a group of "planet huggers?"
I don't know. Perhaps we should think about what it might mean to be stewards of our own solar system.