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Mars as Canvas

KK: Mars has always been a projection screen, a canvas portraying human desires and very Earth-based fantasies. This was the case with Schiaparelli’s ‘canali’, but it still holds true today. If we look at Curiosity’s photos of Mars we see red valleys with canyons and rocks on the horizon. Not unlike images of the Nevada desert and the Arizona and Utah canyons. This is no coincidence in my view. Not only because Mars happens to look that way. This picture is selected from all the pictures made by Curiosity. Such images fuel the narrative of a place that we can go to and colonize - a new pristine landscape that we can conquer and then inhabit.

JV: It helps, in the sense that you could imagine settlers, horses and carriages and project it on to Mars. It so happened that Mars conveniently provided a similar landscape. But if you take a look at the pictures from the Phoenix landing site from 2007, which was sub-polar, things are very different. Basically this is a flat landscape with absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see, except for some polygonal frozen formations. The phoenix lander was a fixed lander and did not rove. It made a very important discovery: perchlorate salts, which were found there for the first time.

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KK: There seem to be three more or less distinct scenarios at play today. One of them follows the scientific approach. It unfolds around a very careful presence on Mars and is concerned with not contaminating it.  Another is a more Wild-West type of narrative: Mars as the place to conquer and colonise. This one is also rather mythological - it is humankind’s manifest destiny to become a multi-planetary species. This is commonly the story told by the new private space companies. Many of these organisations are based in California and are backed by money from Silicon Valley. They take a primarily economic approach, seeking to mine asteroids for platinum and other materials and use them to build a spacefaring infrastructure outside the Earth’s gravitational field , which would make it much easier to interact with Mars on a regular basis. They see Mars as a potential mining facility, too. They almost operate from a gold rush perspective.  A third sees Mars as an experimental place, as a free zone for technological post-human development. Evolutionary robotics, genetically altered species, and urgent political independence for Mars. Looking at this from a cultural perspective, what is your opinion about colonizing the solar system and perhaps beyond?

JV: SpaceX is very much coloured by Elon Musk’s vision and might not be representative for what other companies think. Planetary Resources is maybe even more radical, but they focus primarily on mining asteroids. The Mars One vision is still far off.

The approach of SpaceX seems reasonable to me, because they take steps incrementally. A large colony of a thousand people sounds overly complex but SpaceX’s plan to put a Dragon capsule on Mars seems achievable. Due to their close collaboration with NASA, SpaceX also has to apply to the United Nations planetary protection plan. This everything together will form this convergence. If we found out that Mars is as dead as the Moon I am not against terraforming or para-terraforming Mars, but we would have to do it in a responsible way.

To get a good idea of where we are, we could compare this project with the Apollo space programme. The Apollo programme had the benefit of a strong political commitment that could engage several consecutive government administrations. I would say a human mission to Mars at this moment is about as difficult and as expensive as the Apollo programme was in its time.

Delany Boutkan, Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Setareh Noorani
Alex Walker