SF authors, fans and media love to talk about Terraforming… the process of altering a planet’s composition, elements, atmosphere and weather to be just like Earth, ready for colonists to live in a shirtsleeve environment.  Taking dead old worlds and making new Earths out of them… sure sounds cool.  But, like so many things, the devil is in the details, and rarely are terraforming fans looking past the trees to see the whole forest.  We’re talking urban renewal on a planetary scale, unlike anything we can ever imagine or have ever done before.

A lot of good points against terraforming Mars are made in the Phys.org article The future of space colonization – terraforming or space habitats?

Such were the questions dealt with by two papers presented at NASA’s “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” last week (Mon. Feb. 27th – Wed. Mar. 1st). The first, titled “The Terraforming Timeline”, presents an abstract plan for turning the Red Planet into something green and habitable.

To save you a bit of reading, I’ll just spoiler it and say that the paper suggests making Mars a warm and oxygen-rich planet humans could live on, ala Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy of books, would take about 170,000 years.

And that’s assuming we actually have the technology and know-how to start the process of warming the planet and adding oxygen to the atmosphere, and turning off both processes at the right time to achieve the desired result.  I emphasize this, because the ability to exercise that kind of global environmental control has so far proven elusive right here on Earth, where we have runaway global warming and environmental degradation right now.  It’s one thing to say we know how to do it… but with nothing to back up our claims, it’s hard to take that at face value.

air pollution

Before we even lightly consider terraforming schemes, therefore, what we really need is a concerted effort to terraform Terra; to demonstrate that we can evaluate and project environmental conditions on Earth, formulate methods to make changes on a global scale, show the willingness to actually make those changes, and hit our target goals within a narrow margin of acceptance.  Counteracting global warming would be a good first goal, as it has a significant number of influential and consequential variables that have to be taken into account, and any remedies will have to be balanced against those factors to guarantee a safe system and reliable outcome.  If we can do that, then terraforming a dead planet should be child’s play.

Here’s the other reason we should work on terraforming Earth first: If, as the papers suggest, it would take between 100,000 and 200,000 years to terraform a planet, we need a more immediate solution to this world’s problems.  At least Earth has a head-start, already having an environment, oxygen, life, etc… it just needs relative tweaking to correct the environmental damage done to it over the last few centuries.  There’s little point speculating about one thousand century projects, if we can’t undo 300 years worth of damage… is there?

habitatThe article also mentions another paper, Mars Terraforming – the Wrong Way, that suggests an alternative to terraforming Mars… building orbital habitats instead.  This paper emphasizes the relatively easier process of building biospheres in space, maybe the size of a good city (as opposed to an entire planet and a few orders of magnitude in scale), and the ability to rotate the biosphere at one Earth gravity (1 gee) in order to preserve the biologies of life forms—like humans—that are already optimized to 1 gee.  The more practical scale of the habitats and their resource needs alone make this the more sensible approach to moving people off of Earth; reforming planets is a romantic, Manifest Destiny-type notion, but as I pointed out above, we’re hardly in a position to pull that off.

As an author of posts and novels about orbital habitats, I agree that they are much more practical than terraforming concepts, and a good way to create new biospheres for Man to venture beyond Earth.  They have short-term functions too: Giving Man a way to remove himself from Earth’s surface to make Earth’s restoration quicker and easier.  Then we can live more lightly on the Earth, taking small amounts of resources as needed in a more environmentally manageable way.  And if, down the line, the habitats ever achieve functional independence, then they can become the first independent spacefaring ships, following our probes out into deep space and seeking out new distant outposts for Man.

So, as we consider incredible projects that will take Man away from Earth, we should keep an eye towards practicality too.  Having eyes bigger than our stomachs is what put us in the state we’re in today; we need to seriously consider the future, but not bite off more than we can chew.