Elon Musk wants to die on Mars, and maybe you can too.
In a few decades, space travel could become routine, writes Chris Impey in his new book, “Beyond: Our Future in Space.”
Impey, who heads up the astronomy department at the University of Arizona, thinks we’re in a phase of exponential innovation comparable to the beginnings of the Internet age in the 1990s.
“Beyond” makes the case for Mars in a creepily interesting chapter entitled “Our Next Home.” Eventually, microscopic robots -- whole waves of them -- will venture much further, sending back images of Earth-like planets in distant galaxies.
Even as Impey envisions -- happily and eloquently -- space elevators to whisk people and cargo aloft and terraforming to make other planets hospitable for humans, he also looks back in time to the early pioneers. There’s a nice tribute to Russia’s famous space dog, Laika, which died from overheating and stress before eating the poisoned meal that was meant to spare her a fiery death.
I talked with Impey over lunch at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Hoelterhoff: Virgin Galactic had a fatal crash last fall. You’re pretty definite we have a future in space?
Impey: Yes. Musk also had a setback when he tried to soft land his rocket. But he was happy. He said, “We’re getting there.” These people are in it for the long haul. They know there will be setbacks and people will die.
Hoelterhoff: He’s said he wants to die on Mars.
Impey: It’s possible. He’s in his early forties and young enough.
Hoelterhoff: Scott Kelly just left for a year on the Space Station. Is that the model for the settlements you envision?
Impey: The space station is actually a hard place to be because you’re dealing with zero gravity and the medical consequences of that. And you’re in this environment where micro-meteorite impacts are a real danger.
It’s safer to be on a surface of a planet or a moon than on the space station. On even a rudimentary base, you will have gravity and create an environment to make yourself immune from the worst radiation and particle effects.
Hoelterhoff: Why is the moon not so popular anymore? Everyone seems obsessed with Mars.
Impey: I think it’s partly the fact that we’ve been there and then we drew back. The moon has become this slightly indistinct, cultural memory of a different time.
Because it’s considered to be a dead rock -- no atmosphere, nothing to do on a Saturday night -- the moon seems a little boring.
Mars is quite plausibly alive under the surface and possibly not very far under the surface. It resonates with a half of century of science fiction and people thinking about Mars. There’s this enthusiasm now: Let’s go to Mars!
Hoelterhoff: Over the weekend, I saw a movie called “The Europa Report.” I think it went straight to TV, but anyway, these astronauts land on one of the moons of Jupiter, the cold one. It ends badly. They crash through the ice, and discover an angry creature with tentacles.
Isn’t that a concern? You land on Mars, dig through the layers of dirt, and return with hostile microbes that kill everyone on Earth?
Impey: It’s a good point. NASA has actually taken its responsibility in this regard seriously. I met a guy at a conference with a badge that said “Planetary Protection Officer” and thought: that’s just a cool job title. NASA and the Europeans try to sterilize their spacecraft as they reach a target.
Hoelterhoff: Rich entrepreneurs seem to be taking the lead in space exploration. What’s the payback?
Impey: I think that the projection of an economic activity based on tourism, recreation, sex motels or whatever is pretty robust. I’m teaching 150 18 to 19-year olds at the University of Arizona and I do a little economic model. I ask them what they’d spend on a three-day orbital vacation of a lifetime, and then I project it to the Millennials. Depending on a few assumptions, you get an economic activity of $20 to $30 billion a year. That’s more than Hollywood box office receipts.
Hoelterhoff: Going beyond Mars or the moon will require shipping humans off in a different form, maybe freeze-dried and then reconstituted.
I was fascinated that you mention the microscopic tardigrade as maybe holding some keys to epic travel. A model of the tardigrade is a real showstopper at the “Life at the Limits” exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. It looks like a vacuum cleaner bag with little feet.
Impey: It’s found in many of the world’s biomes. And it’s very diverse, so it has its own phylum. There’s like 1,500 species. It can go down to about 1 percent water content of its normal state, sort of shutting down.
The best analog, though, are the experiments replacing the body fluids of pigs and dogs and seeing how well they do.
Hoelterhoff: What? How do you do that?
Impey: You replace their body fluids with a glycol sort of composite that allows you to take them to a chilled state and then you wake them up. Mostly they’re not fine. In general, they die, but many seem to be functioning quite normally.
Hoelterhoff: There seems to be an emerging consensus that finding life elsewhere is almost imminent.
Impey: Some of my colleagues who work on this stuff have come up with this amazing number: 20 billion habitable, Earth-like worlds in the Milky Way, just one galaxy. And that means they have all the ingredients: energy, liquid water, carbon rich material. And time, because you could have had Earths, some fraction of those 20 billion, formed billions of years before the Earth formed.
So, if you say, well, it takes a long time to make intelligent life, well, yes, you got a lot of time. You got a head start on us by billions of years.
This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.