Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight

Here I thought the Solar Impulse was a breakthrough in solar powered flight, but NASA, the University of Washington, and Elon Musk of SpaceX (among others) have turned it to 11. With a new Fusion Driven Rocket (FDR) design, engineers may be able to cut the trip to Mars from 8 months to somewhere between 30 and 90 days. And what’s more: the engine operates via “magnetic inertial confinement fusion,” which, thankfully its designers explain, means that the rocket’s fusion reactor could be run by solar power alone–200 KW to be exact (an extremely feasible number). If flying from California to New York on solar energy as the Impulse team intends is impressive (and it is), then the FDR team’s plan for solar powered space flight is out of this world.

Colonizing Mars–part of Musk’s plan for making life multi-planetary to ensure that “the light of consciousness is not extinguished”–is undoubtedly among the more fantastical utopian visions of the future of humanity. Moreover, the team hopes to eventually make interplanetary travel so efficient that it’s commonplace. Skeptics and detractors (myself sometimes among them) may question the endeavor on “realist” or ethical grounds, claiming that either resource scarcity or social collapse is likely to preclude any significant opportunities for interplanetary migration, or that leaving the Earth behind is a defeatist reaction to socio-ethical challenges here at home, like stabilizing the modern ecological crisis. Indeed, I still think these points have some validity.

But Julian Simon’s infinite resource of human innovation again rears its head. The FDR is already in the pipeline, so to speak. And I’ll be the first to champion the triumphs of solar technology–especially when space travel is involved. Like so many others I’m sure, the prospect of an interstellar humanity speaks volumes to my inner Lewis and Clark–the passion for adventure and discovery too often squelched by the pervasive impact of human activity on and ubiquitous presence in what remains of natural world.

Interplanetary exploration and colonization promise new environments, mysteries, challenges, and questions–philosophical and otherwise. Should we leave Earth in the first place? What is the purpose of colonizing another planet? What would “environmental philosophy” mean if/when we depart from our environment of origin? What new responsibilities do we have to the non-human if and when we undertake massive martian geo-engineering projects like terraforming? If human beings create a living ecosphere on Mars, should we see ourselves as eco-constituents subsumed by a greater natural cycle as we are here on Earth, or, in a sense, should we regard ourselves as semi-gods, directly responsible for the martian natural cycle’s very existence? How should we organize a new society on Mars? Do Earthly political philosophies still apply? Once society on Mars is established, what responsibility will Martian humans have to their Earth-dwelling counterparts, and vice versa, if any? And should we today move further into the final frontier by small precautionary steps or giant proactionary leaps? Barring any unforeseen fatal design flaws or socio-political roadblocks, we could soon have our generation’s Neil Armstrong moment on the red planet. And we’d get there on solar power no less. To the sun god!



Wilson’s time machine

Re-reading Biophilia, one of E. O. Wilson’s many seminal eco-philosophical works, I was pleasantly reminded of an important quadripartite distinction laid out in chapter three, “The Time Machine.”

The time machine, Wilson tells us, is biological spatio-temporal thought experiment. Imagine we have the ability to accelerate and decelerate the passage of time without restriction, as well as to magnify and minimize the Earth from a bird’s eye view to any extreme. We could observe every detail of biological phenomena ranging from nearly instantaneous microscopic biochemical reactions to the vast evolutionary manifolds of deep time. Along the spatio-temporal continuum, Wilson makes an ascending, yet non-hierarchical, four-way distinction: biochemical time, organismic time, ecological time, and evolutionary time—each referring to different perspectives about life on Earth.

Start the thought experiment by almost freezing time at the microscopic level: biochemical time allows us to imagine and comprehend biochemical reactions occurring inside living cells that no naked eye could ever see—e.g., an electrical impulse travelling along a neuron or an enzyme catalyzing protein division. These reactions, even if somehow made visible to a normal human perspective, would be utterly indiscernible, for they begin and end in the span of a thousandth of a second. In biochemical time, we organisms appear completely motionless—so next we speed the passage of time slightly and zoom out.

Organismic time is the time and space that we and other macroscopic bio-phenomena experience. The crucial activities of organismic time take place in seconds and minutes—sentences are spoken and comprehended, gestures and decisions are made, breaths are taken, and paths are walked. Obviously, organismic time is the perspective with which people are most familiar, so without a second thought it becomes the default spatio-temporal point of view from which we assess the relative importance of biological phenomena. But it’s not so clear that organismic time, in any normative sense, is the best or only perspective worth taking on the natural world. Our species is, after all, just one of innumerable ecological constituents.

So fast-forward the passage of time and zoom-out from the spacio-temporal scale of organisms to that of the ecosystem. Days pass as quickly as seconds did from the organismic perspective and become indistinguishable from night, their respective brightness blending to yield a dim, constant glow. The seasonal cycles of ecosystem growth and retreat now take on the speed previously reserved in organismic time for daily animal cycles of sleep and activity as regulated by the Sun. We time travelers now stand witnesses to ecological time. Spanning years and centuries, we experience the rise and proliferation of rich forests from barren sandy environs—the transformation of shallow creeks into wide rivers teeming with fish and other life—the maturation of simplistic ponds into thriving communities of birds, water dwellers, and lush vegetation. Thus we behold the profound interconnectivity of ecosystems by which biochemical and organismic space and time are subsumed.

Accelerate time’s passage again and zoom-out once more: years pass by the thousands as we look down from high above the continents—the apropos thresholds for distinguishing evolutionary time. Organisms dissolve into populations and communities, and, as the millennia proceed, the concept of “individuals” holds little meaning beyond that of their momentary roles as progenitors. Families and races blur as adaptation, mutation, and natural selection generate altogether new phylogenetic lines. From the perspective of evolutionary time, the Earth resembles Lovelock’s grand homeostatic organism with ecosystems as its internal organs, individual creatures as its cellular matrix, and biochemical reactions as equivalent to how we view particles of quantum physics from the organismic vantage.

The thought experiment is supposed to remind us that there are biological spatio-temporal perspectives other than our own organismic one worth considering—even worth keeping permanently in mind when assessing multi-generational ethics that correspond to ecological time more so than to organismic time, for example. What’s important in a normative sense from the ecological or evolutionary perspective may not be so obvious from that of organismic time: depending on the problem (e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc.) organismic time may be insufficient and inappropriate for its redress.

Depending on the spatio-temporal viewpoint one takes, moral priorities change. And this works in both directions. Ecological time and evolutionary time leave little room for anthropocentricism: not only are human beings situated in contexts too large for dogmatic humanism to make much sense, the importance of individuals (and therefore individualism—a corollary of neoliberal economics) is curtailed such that any subsequent ethic would entail ecosystems or the Earth itself as the appropriate unit of moral consideration

On the other hand, biochemical time re-substantiates humanism by stationing the organism as a unit of utmost importance—each organism acting as an ecosystem of biochemical reactions all its own, in a way. While ecological and evolutionary time are inconsistent with overly individualistic anthropocentricism, the perspective of biochemical time guards against eco-authoritarian anti-humanism.

Simultaneously, Wilson’s time machine reassures us of our humanitarian identities—the overwhelming sense of pride and privilege inspired simply by being human—while we are also humbly reminded that human beings are not the grand culmination—the glorious ultimate purpose—of all the cosmos.