After Space X’s recent vertical rocket landing, it feels like we’re finally living in the future. Humans will soon be setting foot on Mars, companies will start mining asteroids, and we’re finding Earthlike planets by the dozen. Hooray for progress!
But life in the future comes with its own set of questions that we’ll need to answer before they even arise. Here are some of the craziest sci-fi quandaries our experts are currently working on.
10 Writing The Constitution Of Mars
Who wants to live on Mars? Roughly 90 percent of you just shouted, “I do!” Living on the red planet has been every space nerd’s dream for decades. But setting up a human colony on Mars isn’t just a logistical nightmare. It has the potential to be a political one, too.
Remember the bad guy in Total Recall who cut off the oxygen to rebel-held parts of Mars? Turns out that’s a real problem. The London-based International Extraterrestrial Liberty Conference (ELC) thinks there’s a chance that a power-hungry colonist might one day seize the oxygen supply on Mars, giving himself unlimited power.
There are other concerns, too. What if your corporation fires you while you’re stuck on Mars? How do organizers keep political apathy at bay? The ELC thinks it has the solution: a Mars constitution.
First drafted in summer 2014 by a collection of 30 scientists, philosophers, and lawyers, the template constitution for Mars aims to address all these issues and more. Broadly based on the US Constitution (with hints of the Icelandic, Mongolian, and Japanese ones), it sets out principles like a right to oxygen and a “right to leave.”
It also suggests a political class modeled after ancient Greece, where part of the government is elected and part is chosen by lottery. This is intended to keep political apathy at bay and stop vested interests from taking over.
Although their current draft carries no legal weight whatsoever, the ELC intends it to be a possible template for a real Martian constitution. Their hope is that it might inspire governments to start considering the question for themselves.
9 How To Deal With A Martian Revolution
The Martian constitution isn’t the only area the ELC is interested in. In summer 2015, they gathered at the British Interplanetary Society to discuss a troubling scenario: What would happen if Mars became a dictatorship?
A Martian dictatorship has the potential to be even worse than one on Earth. A tyrant could threaten people by withholding water or oxygen. A Martian revolution could also be catastrophic. Just one aggrieved citizen could smash the colony’s walls or blow up its water supply, and everyone inside could be killed. At a distance of 225 million kilometers from Earth, the likelihood of humanitarian intervention would be minimal, if not nonexistent.
Unlikely as this may sound, it’s not impossible. Which is why the ELC has been publishing academic books on the subject. Aside from a strong constitution, they’ve suggested practical ideas like a colony that has redundant water, air, and power systems in multiple locations.
There are other considerations, too, like how strong a Martian government should be. No one wants to be stuck with an overbearing state, but Mars’s hostile climate wouldn’t support a libertarian utopia. If you fail to get the balance right, you’re likely to breed resentment and revolution.
8 How To Perform Serious Surgery In Space
How many of you reading this have ever broken a limb? You probably remember the experience as intense pain, followed shortly after by the sweet embrace of anesthetic and possibly a day or two in the hospital. In deep space, things would be different. Break a leg there, and you would experience a relentless nightmare of blood and pain.
Right now, there’s no one deep enough in space for this to be an issue. On the International Space Station, the procedure is basically “get that person to Earth as quickly as possible.” On future deep-space missions, though, that won’t be an option. Since 1991, NASA has been trying to figure out how to perform a lifesaving operation without gravity. The experiments have been gory, to say the least.
Tests done on rabbits during zero-g aircraft flights have shown that blood tends to cling to the operating surface rather than pooling out, which makes surgery difficult. Cutting an artery may cause blood to spray into the air and hang there, obscuring everyone’s view. Then there’s the massively increased risk of infection. Since particles can’t settle, air in a space station is crawling with bacteria.
One method might involve operating on a patient through a small, fluid-filled dome, keeping blood contained and the wound clean. But there are still problems. Weight issues mean surgery kits are likely to be basic, and there might not be a specialist surgeon among the crew. Figuring out work-arounds now could save lives in the future.
7 Asteroid Property Law
In November 2015, the US Senate voted to legalize asteroid mining. This was a massive departure from previous space law, which suggested that celestial bodies belonged to everyone on Earth. While US citizens still can’t own an asteroid, they can now lay a claim to mining it and then keep what they extract. Whether you agree with this or not, it has certainly opened up some interesting questions.
For example, what happens if two competing companies make a claim on the same asteroid? If both are US companies, then a trip to the US courts should suffice. But what if one company is based in the US and the other is based in China? As the Senate’s bill may already override current space law, there’s no international legal framework for dealing with such disputes.
There are also questions concerning how you “obtain” an asteroid. Do you have to physically land on it, or is it sufficient to survey the asteroid from afar? If the latter, some space lawyers are worried that it might lead to a tsunami of unusual intellectual property claims as companies stake their rights to asteroids they have no physical ability to mine themselves.
6 How To Make A Warning Last 100,000 Years
Deep in the frozen heart of Finland, the underground Onkalo waste plant harbors a deadly secret. As the final destination for the country’s most dangerous nuclear waste, it stores radioactive material that won’t be safe for another 100,000 years. In 2010, Onkalo was the subject of Danish documentary Into Eternity, which raised an intriguing question: How do you make sure people stay away from a place for 100,000 years?
It might sound simple, but the ancient Egyptians tried doing that with the tombs of certain pharaohs by covering them with stark warnings. They lasted anywhere from four years to 2,000 years before we smashed them open, and we could read hieroglyphics.
There’s no guarantee that our descendants will speak any of our languages. Pick up a copy of Beowulf, and try to read the Anglo-Saxon. That’s how much English evolved in 1,000 years. Multiply that by a factor of 100, and you can start to see the problem.
As the documentary notes, there’s no reason to assume that international signs like our symbol for radiation will still be around. More direct signs involving skulls and images of death might just encourage further exploration. For the teams tasked with designing a “Keep Away” sign that can last for eternity, these are fascinating and maybe even unanswerable questions that we need to resolve as soon as possible.
5 How To Preserve Our Culture For The Future
Digital culture is far from immortal. Systems are upgraded, data rots, links break, and websites go offline. One day, everything from your digital photos to your favorite list-based website will likely be lost forever. For future archaeologists, this will be one heck of a problem. As a result, modern scientists are trying to find a way to preserve our digital data for hundreds of thousands of years.
One solution might be to preserve it in DNA. In 2012, scientists proved that you can take a megabyte of data, convert it into DNA, read it back, and recreate the original data. As DNA is so important, it stands to reason that a future civilization will still know how to read it. But we need to make sure it survives that long because DNA typically decays quickly. As the BBC recently reported, the current plan is to place it inside fossils.
We’ve already read DNA from fossils that are over 700,000 years old. Although ancient bone has its advantages, glass is even better for preserving DNA. Right now, Robert Grass in Switzerland is creating a library of “synthetic glass fossils” to store as much of our culture as he can.
However, questions still remain. For example, how do we leave instructions for future civilizations on how to extract the DNA? Even more basic, how do we let them know how valuable it is? There’s an outside chance that even if it survives for the next 700,000 years, a future archivist may mistake it for junk and throw the whole lot away.
4 The Flags Of Mars And Earth
Make no mistake, we humans value our flags. They’re a symbol of everything we love about our countries. If you don’t believe us, feel free to try setting your nation’s flag on fire in the middle of town. We’ll make sure to come visit you in the hospital.
As our species prepares to live in the realms of space, the idea that we might need a flag for use on a planet-sized scale has become more mainstream. As a result, dozens of respectable people have spent countless hours trying to create the flags for Earth and Mars.
The most famous of these is probably the Martian flag designed by Pascal Lee. A scientist working on NASA’s Haughton Mars Project (HMP) in the Antarctic, Lee jokingly designed a flag for a terraformed Mars based on the French Tricolor. To his surprise, it caught on and was flown from the HMP base. In December 1999, astronaut John Grunsfeld even took it into space, making it the closest we have to an official Martian flag.
Others have tried to do the same with Earth. In the 1970s, James Cadle created his Flag of Earth. It became heavily associated with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and still flies at SETI locations worldwide. More recently, a Swedish team designed an Earth flag with the specific intention of having it planted on Mars. The team has high hopes that it will be flying on the red planet by the 2030s.
3 Turning London Into A City-State
Not all great questions of the future belong to the realms of space. Some are firmly rooted in Earth’s near future. In the UK, one such question is whether to separate London from the UK and turn it into a city-state.
The idea has been kicking around since about 2012 when London escaped the recession at high speed, leaving the rest of Britain wallowing in penury. Although it wouldn’t happen any time soon, outlets as respectable as the BBC have considered it, and in some circles, it’s a popular talking point.
The basic plan would be to redefine Greater London as a sort of European Singapore. The rest of England would be a separate nation, and London would be freed (as some Londoners see it) from subsidizing the rest of the country.
Interestingly, many UK analysts have given this serious thought. Their ideas include boosting England’s manufacturing base to offset the economic shock of losing the capital and introducing a “London pound.” While there are no serious plans in the government for turning London into a modern-day Venice, it’s interesting to speculate where the future might lead.
2 The Ethics Of Raising Children In Space
In November 1620, Peregrine White became the first English child born to the Pilgrims in America. It’s likely we’ll see the first off-world child born in the near future, either on Mars or on a multigenerational spaceship setting off to establish a new Earth. Although that moment is probably still decades away, it raises a host of tricky questions that people are already trying to answer.
One issue focuses around consent. For example, a child born on a working spaceship would have had no say about its life there. Much as Peregrine White couldn’t decide for himself to return to England, the first “star human” won’t have the freedom to choose to return to Earth. Of course, the big difference is that getting home from our nearest Earthlike neighbor is much more difficult than getting from America to England.
Another question is how much freedom these children will have in their lives. Trapped on a colony eking out an existence on the dusty plains of Mars would effectively remove most of a child’s life choices. The chances to go to a decent school, to study what they want, to do a job they want, and even to move away would all be nonexistent.
Other questions are less ethical and more anthropological. Say a multigenerational spaceship takes 500 years to reach a planet for colonization. What sort of people would emerge on the other end? Would the grandchildren of the original crew’s grandchildren feel any connection to Earth? Would they still want to colonize the new planet? If not, what happens then? These questions are considered important enough to warrant academic attention. Mars One has even established a rule to stop the first colonists from reproducing.
1 The Independence Of Mars
Let’s assume that a Mars colony will happen in our lifetimes and grow big enough to become self-sustaining, with a permanent population rather than a rotating team of scientists. At that point, we need to ask the question: “To whom does Mars answer?”
This is an important point. History shows that colonies tend to start resenting their owners after only a few generations, often leading to revolution. It’s the same process that gave us the US, made India independent, and forced the Spanish crown to relinguish control of 90 percent of Latin America. If this process happens frequently on Earth, there’s no reason to assume that it won’t happen in space, too. Unless we can find a way to avoid it.
Some academics are already taking steps in that direction. Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science has suggested that Mars should be independent from day one. His plan is for colonists to surrender their Earth citizenship the moment they land on Mars. They would keep their equipment, take control of Mars, and be left alone by Earth until their society has built up to the point that they decide to establish a trading relationship with Earth.
However, this comes with its own problems. The mutineers on the HMS Bounty were left to their own devices after they secretly landed on Pitcairn Island in 1789, and nearly all of them died in bloody infighting. Given what we know of human nature, it’s easy to imagine something similar happening on Mars.