Space Cadets can save the Earth

Whenever the topic of establishing a base on Mars comes up [1], a frequent response from environmentalists and scientists is: how about we save Earth instead?

This was the subject of a recent post by Tanya Samman and Alina Fisher for Science Borealis. They make a number of good points: in particular, a stark look at the technical hurdles, as well as an introduction of some difficult ethical problems. Still, I had to respond with some objections: Earth vs Mars is a false dichotomy. Technical solutions could potentially get us to Mars, but solving climate change is more than a technical issue. Becoming a multiplanetary species offers unique protection against certain existential risks.

I could happily go on, but that’s not the purpose of this post. This post is meant to introduce my over the top radical plan that shows not just how awesome it could be to go to Mars, but how it could save the Earth at the same time.

First, we create many Mars design challenges, baked into the curriculum at every level, from middle school through university. This would include everything from habitat design to waste recycling to landing sites to large-scale terraforming logistics to social structures and programs. The winners of each stage of the contest will see their ideas advance, perhaps all the way into the actual operation on Mars.

This will ensure the talent pool is as large as possible. We need to get ideas from everyone on the planet. In addition, their input has to mean something. Not just in terms of the design challenge having real stakes, but in terms of having a participatory process that gets all humanity to actually be invested in getting to Mars.

So far, we’ve only talked about Mars. What about the Earth? The first answer is technical spinoffs. All of the innovation required to build a successful mars base would give us technologies we don’t currently have – in energy use, miniaturization, robotics, and other areas.

Unfortunately, that answer is limited and boring. You’ve heard it before. It’s also highly uncertain; while it might bring huge technical transformation, it seems like the benefits to Earth are unlikely to justify the cost.

That’s why it’s just part of the puzzle. The other pieces are the concern for Earth it can engender, and the training of skilled scientists with the resources to tackle Earth’s problems.

Astronauts who have been to space report a cognitive shift in awareness, seeing the Earth as a fragile ball of life “hanging in the void”. This phenomenon is called the Overview Effect [2]. While it’s most known from astronauts’ experiences, and from a few photographs (“Earthrise” and “Pale Blue Dot”), the hope is that working seriously on the challenges of supporting life in space and on Mars would engender some of this same cognitive shift. The program would be a major success if even a fairly small fraction of students carry this ethos into future lives in politics, business, or other sectors of society.

This inspiration can’t be allowed to burn in isolation, or it will fizzle out. A full range of naturalists and scientists of all kinds – biologists, ecologists, geologists, taxonomists, ecological economists, rocket scientists, surgeons, wastewater engineers, structural engineers, roboticists, sociologists, urban planners, and others – should form part of the support network not only for the Mars design challenge, but to support and guide students afterwards. A steady influx of motivated students to teach, along with two major, urgent projects that use their knowledge (i.e. getting to Mars and saving Earth), should help provide a fruitful direction for these skilled professionals. As it stands, too many of them are struck trying to ineffectually raise the alarm and influence an uncaring society that continues to burn through the Earth’s resources and capacity for resilience.

These pillars – universal, fully participatory Mars design challenges, technological spinoffs, judicious harnessing of the overview effect, and a well-developed pipeline for talent – form the basis of a Mars strategy that can save the Earth at the same time.

But we can go much, much further. Nothing so far has been particularly radical, in my view. It’s time to introduce the craziest fact I know.

Here is the craziest fact I know:

A trip to space produces less carbon emissions than a flight across the Atlantic. [3] [4]


What are we to do with this fact? Well, the obvious. Ban (or almost totally eradicate) air travel. And give every teenager a free ride to space.

Though it sounds radical, air travel is actually a pretty good sector to target if we’re serious about climate change. If you’ve ever used a carbon footprint calculator, you will know that a single trip can easily dwarf your emissions from other sources. And collectively, we’re flying more and more.  Based on current trends, aviation alone is projected to account for all or nearly all of the planet’s emissions budget by 2050 [5]. Various schemes to reduce the amount we fly are already being considered: eliminating frequent flyer rewards, ensuring universal (interjurisdictional) fuel taxes, and promoting teleconferencing instead of travel.

Personally, I think we can go much further. Virtual Reality is getting good. When it fully arrives, it will be hugely disruptive in a number of industries, and aviation should be one of them. Virtual reality could cut down on travel for conferences, business meetings, and even family time. While we’re at it, we could invest much more into trains (especially in North America). Going back to passenger travel by ship could be a necessity. Yes, it’s a much rougher voyage, and it takes much longer. But maybe it should involve some inconvenience to get halfway around the world, if we still want there to be a world left. Who knows, maybe we could use the time to learn something about the language and culture of our destination, instead of passing the time with Hollywood movies from five years ago.

Decommissioned airports could be turned into spaceports. If the plan to get to Mars involves orbital refueling (which seems likely, since barring a space elevator, this is probably the best way to beat the tyranny of the rocket equation), then it will be necessary to have a lot of active spaceports – for capacity and weather issues, if nothing else. And if we have all these rockets going to orbit and back, and all these kids who have been studying Mars systems, couldn’t we…let the kids ride on the rockets?

This trip to space could serve as a culmination of the time spent on the Mars design project. It could fill an important psychological role as a rite of passage into adulthood. We could end voluntourism, and wealthy kids’ trips to Europe or various tropical locales. Instead, give all kids a chance to see Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Antarctica. The oceans. New Zealand, and Greenland, less than 20 minutes apart. See both auroras. Watch day and night chase each other around the planet. See the distant stars, and the cosmos.

Of course, there are a ton of issues involved. First of all safety, but also accessibility of all kinds. It would certainly be expensive, but the truly mind-boggling thing is that ­in terms of the real cost – the cost to the planet – it would be much cheaper than what we’re currently doing. We spend inordinate amounts of energy and money shuttling ourselves back and forth across the surface. Harnessing that together could get us a very long way.

In the NatGeo article I linked above, astronaut Karen Nyberg said “If I could get every Earthling to do one circle of the Earth, I think things would run a little differently.” I don’t know if anyone until now has considered that this might actually be possible – and cheaper than business as usual.

It will take much more than a series of joyrides to motivate systemic action in caring for the Earth. No matter what miraculous cognitive shifts may occur, this isn’t Uber for orbit. The Mars design challenges – especially their participatory nature – and talent development system, though much less sexy, are crucial to the functioning of this plan.

Discussions of “protecting Earth vs head to Mars” often echo the rhetoric of “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” The problem is that, for the Earth, we don’t really even have an oxygen mask – and we certainly don’t have a way to get everyone to agree to it. Yelling ourselves hoarse doesn’t work. We need technical problem solving, but more importantly we need a full cognitive shift – like the overview effect that comes from a trip to orbit. With some luck, we can change our outlook to one that encompasses all of humanity, and considers the inhospitable Martian environment as our antagonist, instead of one another.

Life on Earth is meaningful for many reasons, but one of them is that we’re constantly looking outwards into the universe. Life in space is often bleak and empty – but finds meaning when we turn our gaze back to Earth. This is the story of Earthrise, and the Pale Blue Dot [6]. More recently, it’s the story of high-quality satellite imaging and the InSight lander’s seismic mission on Mars. It could be the story of a Mars base too.

We are wrecking our planet. Some drastic intervention is necessary, and it’s understandable to have a strong reaction against riding flamboyantly into the sunset. But a well-crafted Mars plan may be key to saving Earth. We claim to be a space-age civilization, but many of our biggest accomplishments in that domain are decades behind us, and down here we’re still worsening many of our same old problems. One thing we can agree on: kids are the future. I believe we will truly be a space-age civilization when those kids are tagging along a Mars vehicle refuelling mission at 28000 kilometers an hour, on the cusp of adulthood, staring out at the stars and pondering the problems of two worlds.


If I get around to it, and depending on the response, I might like to do a Part II. This would cover more of the social and moral questions — who goes to Mars, how do we pick, how do we avoid repeating structural problems on Earth, who pays for it, should we extricate this from SpaceX/private enterprise, and how?

[1] I want to avoid the phrase “Mars colonization” because of the terrible parallels it invokes. I hope this can be part of a broader language shift

[2] A longer article like this one can convey much more emotional depth than the Wikipedia page. To my slight dismay, it never once mentions the term “overview effect”.

[3] Source:

Some explanation of how this could be: a rocket engine is much larger and burns much more fuel, but it’s only switched on for a couple of minutes. By comparison, the plane’s engines are burning for several hours.

[4] See this post for similar calculations. Even if this claim turns out to be incorrect, it shouldn’t be by more than on order of magnitude or so, which is all we need, as you will see.


[6] Carl Sagan understood this very well. It’s not only the Pale Blue Dot photograph, but also the Golden Record and basically his entire public career.