The people who settle the Red Planet may not look like us.
To understand why genetic engineering is the only way humanity can conquer Mars and the rest of the solar system, consider what the current version of Homo sapiens will have to endure on a trip to the Red Planet. Any crew dispatched on the 18-to-30-month mission to Mars will face highly elevated risks of cancer, tissue degradation, bone density loss, brain damage, pharmaceutical spoilage, and other health threats. The journey outside Earth's magnetic field will expose astronauts to solar flares and cosmic radiation at levels that have not been surveyed since the end of the Apollo missions (the longest of which lasted just 12 days). Arrival on Mars, a geologically inert body with one one-hundredth of Earth's atmosphere and no shielding from solar radiation, will provide little relief and will probably introduce some secondary radiation risk from solar rays reflected off the Martian surface.
While the worst radiation exposure and microgravity risks can be reduced through bulky shields and equipment, the expense of outfitting such a spaceship does not appear to be within the means of private industry. It is hard to justify spending all that money to investors, given Mars' unattractiveness as a resource or destination. Our second-closest planetary neighbor features no life, no mineral value (the surface of the planet is basically rust), no organic chemistry, no temperate regions, no energy sources, and no canals.
On the plus side, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Phoenix robot in 2008 did detect the presence of water molecules. Phoenix also took photos that hinted at the presence of ice below the surface of a planet so forbidding that liquid water evaporates immediately on the rare occasions when the temperature rises above freezing.
That's about as attractive as Mars gets. So why would anybody want to go there?
They might not. Gregory Stock, CEO of My Mercury Risk, a firm that researches the role of genetics in vulnerability to environmental toxins, and an advocate of ambitious genetic experimentation, says rapid improvements in science and communication right here on Earth have made the "inner journey" a more interesting avenue of exploration while making travel to other places less compelling. "You can see what's happened in terms of funding of space programs," Stock says. "Moving out is not at the center of our sense of exploration, of excitement about the future."
As for the possibility of designing humans for long-term extraterrestrial living, Stock is skeptical. "If we get to the point of doing that kind of design work," he says, "there are so many things that are far more interesting than making yourself radiation resistant so you can sit on Mars."
But the romance of sitting on Mars is pretty powerful. Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin (see "How Much Is an Astronaut's Life
Worth?" page 28) tells me the radiation risk is "overdrawn" by NASA to dodge the exploratory imperative. Pointing to the long missions that have been conducted on Mir and the International Space Station (both within the planet's magnetic field), Zubrin says a Martian round trip would not expose astronauts to much more solar radiation than they are already getting in low Earth orbit. And while he foresees a state-sponsored Mars project that would not hinge on turning a profit, he believes the value of Mars should not be measured in minerals.
"The real profit of the New World didn't come from a spice route to India, nor did it come from looting Aztec gold," Zubrin says. "It came from a new society and a new branch of humanity that built a democracy and invented the airplane. The value is going to come from people born on Mars. There is a reason that a frontier culture is connected to a culture of invention."
This is getting closer to my way of thinking. A future for humans on Mars requires us to clear a conceptual hurdle, to accept that the human form is not a norm or an ideal or even a default. It's how intelligent life adapted, with many inefficiencies, to a particular place. The good green Earth is no more standard than is the atmosphere of Venus or a moon of Saturn. "Terraforming" remains a popular concept in science fiction, where other worlds usually come with pressurized, breathable atmospheres and so many "desert planets" and "ice planets" have weather suspiciously close to that of Terran countries with low film production costs. In reality it's not easy to effect climate change even on Earth, and settlers on an alien body will need to adapt themselves to the planet before they can adapt the planet to themselves.
Zubrin sees that happening once Mars settlement gets under way. "If human society is restricted to one planet, you're probably not going to see much in the way of human enhancement because there is disagreement over whether it's a good or bad idea," he says. "But if human beings break out of this planet and become a spacefaring species, you might see that—just as ideas that were not accepted in the Old Country were given consideration in the New World. Mars isn't going to be a utopia; it's going to be a laboratory."
Still, if you're looking to generate private or public interest in a Mars voyage, it's probably a bad idea to say the astronauts may look like the cast of Freaks. Mars aficionados are not eager to discuss human enhancement. When I ask X Prize Foundation CEO Peter H. Diamandis about the topic, he punts, but he does have some interesting thoughts on genetic engineering in general. "There's no question that we will soon be in a position to genetically develop specific strains of bacteria and perhaps algae that can live under Martian conditions," Diamandis says. "The X Prize has been looking at a $1 million competition [for] the first team to adapt an Earth-based single-cell life form that can grow under the pressure, temperature, and atmospheric CO2 levels of Mars."
But getting people to explore deep space will involve enhancing more than just one-celled organisms. Looking around the solar system, we see nothing but worse planets. If we want to live there, we're going to need better humans.
Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of reason.com.