Elon Musk's ambitious and far-out plan to build cities on Mars may be evoking skepticism, but the colonization of Mars might not be too far off, according to a new book that explores what it may take to send humans to the Red Planet and have them stay there safely for generations.
Backed by extensive research and written by veteran space journalist Leonard David, "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," is part of a major National Geographic Mars initiative launched this fall that takes an in-depth look at the planet.
Christopher McKay, planetary scientist at Mountain View's Ames Research Center -- and one of the 14 space exploration "heroes" spotlighted in the book -- has spent more than 30 years exploring some of Earth's most extreme environments that parallel Mars to gain a better understanding of how life might exist beyond our planet.
He will join David at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Saturday, Oct. 29 to talk about the book and the challenges of colonizing Mars.
National Geographic published "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," as a companion volume to its six-part science fiction television series "Mars," by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard that premieres Nov. 14 on National Geographic Channel. Set in 2033, the series chronicles the tribulations of the first manned mission to the planet, mixing in interviews with today's top experts, including Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, Apollo 13 commander James A. Lovell and entrepreneur Musk, who founded Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors and space transport services company, SpaceX.
The lavishly illustrated volume is less a behind-the-scenes look at the television production than an examination of the science and technology designed to turn humanity into a multiplanetary species.
Each chapter coincides with an episode of the series, offering a brief plot summary and a look at the science, engineering and ethical challenges that come with exploring and inhabiting Mars.
Reached by phone in Colorado, David said he came to the project after his collaboration with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
"When I set out with the editor, I said that I really didn't want to write a book about throwing some tin cans down on Mars and shoving people in there. I really wanted to get into the sociological and physiological limitations and the ethics," David said.
Both David and McKay emphasize that there's a lot we still don't know about visiting or settling on Mars. Unknown factors include: the physical effects of constantly living in gravity one-third that of Earth's; being cut off from view of our home planet; and dealing with biological or chemical hazards.
"We were surprised to learn the soil of Mars is full of perchlorates," McKay said, referring to a toxic substance that damages the thyroid if inhaled. "I would be surprised if perchlorates were our last surprise."
Both David and McKay are intrigued by the proposal presented by Musk, who intends to bring colonists to Mars by the hundreds, starting in the 2020s.
Although he noted that Musk's proposal is "a bit short on details," David said, "I look at Elon as a little on the Walt Disney side. He seems like a visionary guy, and he is one person who has put his money where his mouth is."
McKay said he thought Musk's presentation in September at the 67th International Astronautical Congress was a key moment. "He has correctly identified the problem -- that it costs so much to get things to Mars -- and immediately jumped to the solution: 'I'm going to cut the cost of going to Mars by a factor of ten thousand.' That's ridiculous, but ridiculous in an inspiring sort of way."
McKay continued, "Musk is good at presenting inspiring visions, and he has a track record that is such that people take him seriously. I think that's good. Whether he actually does it or not is a separate question."
When asked about the probability that there's some kind of life on Mars, David said, "I'm already convinced it's there. We've probably already (encountered) it and don't even know it."
Searching for any kind of life on Mars raises a host of ethical issues. David said he sees an oncoming collision between the impulse to look for extraterrestrial life and the dangers of either contaminating Mars' ecosystem or unleashing a so-called "Andromeda Strain."
McKay has proposed that Musk's SpaceX unmanned mission in 2018 expand the search for life.
"I've been advocating that one of the things they ought to do is take a sample of the dirt and check it for life," he said. "We know what instruments to send and what to search for. We can search for amino acids, DNA and the lipid mass distribution."
When asked what surprised him most while writing his book, David said, "I think what surprised me was how far along we are on planning this kind of adventure. This is not just a U.S. enterprise; it's a global reach for Mars. "
No matter which route is pursued to Mars, it would be a long, arduous, expensive enterprise. When so much on Earth needs fixing, why head off to another planet?
"People have every right to question the value of space exploration," David said. "But if you look at what's happened in the last 50 years or so, there's a legacy there that looks pretty good, in terms of working with other countries, of the technological spin-offs that come out of the program. (Some people) couldn't care less. I care a lot."
David, who will soon turn 70, said, "I'm getting old and cranky and would kind of want to see a manned Mars mission happen before I drop over."
Freelance writer Mike Berry can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Leonard David in conversation with Dr. Christopher McKay
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Info: Go to Kepler's or call 650-324-4321