Mars One – Aren’t We Going Too Fast?

Mars One is perhaps the hottest news in the aerospace and astrophysics fields. It gives hope to our species as a next step in becoming in a multi-planet civilization. This highly ambitious project of landing groups of brave men and women on the red planet does however have its fair share of critics some of whom include researchers at MIT and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I am curious to ask. Aren’t we going too fast with this project? Is 2024 the right time for human settlement in Mars?

Lessons from the Past

Every space mission prior to this have had several trial runs. For example the lunar missions involved first sending an orbiter around the moon followed by impactors/landers. While America went onto send humans to the moon the Soviet Union did unmanned sample returns. So it is clear that space missions to any celestial body should be done in stages.

NASA and other space agencies including India and Japan have achieved orbiting and landing capabilities on other celestial bodies. Therefore unmanned missions to Mars with the capability of returning samples from Mars in my opinion should be the next stage. Russia in 2011 attempted the Fobos-Grunt which was a sample return mission to the satellite of Mars called Phobos. The failure of the mission to even leave the Earth orbit proves how difficult it would be to pull off ambitious space programs.

When we talk about Mars missions, most of us only look at the success stories. We must all take a look at the number of Mars missions by both America and the Soviet Union which failed.

The Challenges

The challenges involved in long term spaceflight are quite different compared to missions to Earth orbit or even to the Moon. The biggest challenge is communication. Calculations show that the time delay for radio signals between Earth and Mars can vary from 3 minutes to up to 22 minutes depending on the position of the two planets at any given time. This makes all sorts of “real time” communication known to us useless. It is possible to have a web server orbiting around Mars that periodically synchronizes with servers on Earth. That way a copy of the world wide web can be provided for the astronauts in Mars. Emails can also be taken care with this solution.

However, the early astronauts going to Mars are not going there to use YouTube and Facebook. Their mission can go critical anytime and the time delay between the two planets will make a distress call an impossibility. Further, even if distress call does reach Earth, there is no way a rescue team can be sent and by the time a communication is sent back, the mishap could have already occurred.

This brings us to the second challenge – training. What type of training can equip a person to handle critical situations in an alien environment with no hope of getting help? Can the team be divided in qualifications or should every team member have all the qualifications. I remember one of my previous professors who said that a degree in medical sciences is important for every astronauts going to Mars despite their work. So dual degree specializations like engineering + medicine or physics + medicine should in his opinion become part of learning curriculum for astronauts to Mars. The justification he gave was that no crew would want to be in a situation where their only doctor is dead.

But is medicine the only compulsory specialization? How about instrumentation? Shouldn’t the astronauts who wishes to colonize Mars be masters in instrumentation? Teaching every crew member in everything will increase the cost and not teaching would be risky. So there is a tradeoff between cost and risk. According to Mars One website, the crew will undergo training starting this year until 2024. That is a total of 9 years training. It would be amazing if the crew does survive that training.

The Return

Some candidates selected for Mars One have told that many English people migrated to Australia and never returned. That may be true, but if they really want to return to England they can do that tomorrow. Christopher Columbus did return to Spain after his voyage to the West Indies. Vasco da Gama did return to Portugal after his voyage to India.

I am not being paranoid but let me give a scenario. Like in many science fiction movies, what if there is a life form on Mars that we haven’t yet found? What if this life form infects humans in negative ways? In such scenarios, the uninfected/unaffected crew members must have an option to escape the planet.

There is a difference between being brave and being foolhardy. A mission to Mars is amazing. But it shouldn’t be a suicide mission and definitely not a one-way trip. Even if the intention is to colonize the planet the crew members should have a chance to return home if the mission fails. And when it comes to Mars missions, the past teaches us that failure is part and parcel of it.

The Right Method

With all the problems described above, going to Mars is certainly the most risky and the most costly exploration program ever conceived. As Dr. Tyson already pointed out, private companies aren’t interested in investing in an endeavor with so many unknown parameters and huge risk. According to him this can cause Mars One to fail to get funding.

Should we then abandon the mission? Of course not! We are explorers by nature. Mars One or any other similar missions should never be abandoned. However, there must be some tweaks done to the existing methodology. As I said before, it should be done in stages. The following is a rough sketch of what can be done.

  • Sample Return – All space agencies in the world including the private ones should at least try one unmanned mission that involves going to Mars, taking samples and returning them to Earth. The more such missions we try, the better equipped we will become in preparing for a human spaceflight. This will also teach us about landing and take off with heavy payload on Mars.
  • Manned Orbiter Missions – It is a good idea to send a manned orbiter mission around Mars. Astronauts can spend a few orbits around the planet and return. This will simulate all the necessary physiological and psychological aspects in deep space missions. simulate long term manned spaceflight by send humans in an orbit around the Sun.
  • Space Stations – Orbiting space stations around Mars is a solution to the safety and return problem. The backup crew can live in the space station while the landing party conducts their business. Further, the landing party can come aboard the space station for the backup crew to go down. This will ensure better efficiency. In addition, during distress, the entire mission is not at risk. Perhaps a secondary landing party can be deployed to investigate problems. At least there will be one person to come back and tell the story.
  • Data Banks – Huge data banks with information crafted by specialists from around the world should form the primary reference of the astronauts in addition to the internet facility that I mentioned before. Every possible scenario involving medicine, engineering, planetary geology, biotechnology etc. that the astronauts might find themselves in should be thought out and the solutions must be given. It may take months, years or even decades to develop. But it needs to be done nevertheless.

Conclusion

Though a huge fan of Mars missions, I think we as a species are still not equipped with the technological prowess to pull off a manned trip like Mars One. I certainly believe that we are going too fast with the Mars One mission. 2024 is only 9 years away and we still haven’t fully understood the effects of long term manned space missions in deep space. The only data we have are from long term space station missions and the psychological impacts on the astronauts and cosmonauts who spend a long time in space are not that good. A well planned and well coordinated effort is the way to go. There is no need to rush. There is no space race between any superpowers these days.

References

The Four Roads to Atheism

I have met very intelligent religious people. I have also met very dumb religious people. Curiously however, I have never seen a dumb atheist. All atheists I know personally and all the ones I have read about and seen in the media happen to be exceptionally intelligent people. This is not a proclamation that I am very intelligent though I am an atheist. Rather from what I have observed, an atheist always comes out as a thinking person. I am yet to come across an atheist who does not think for himself or herself.

In this article, I wish to describe the four roads that one can take in order to discard their religious faith and become an atheist, if they so choose. These are also roughly the paths I took to convince myself and I think that any atheist who shunned his or her religion would have taken the same four paths. I hope that the reader will start thinking once he or she has finished reading this article. Please forgive me for including many quotes from famous atheists here. I hope they don’t bore or provoke you. 

Without much ado, the four roads to atheism are as follows:

The Road of Science

Let us begin with a quote from Bertrand Russell – “When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe but look only and surely at what are the facts.

Science is not just physics, chemistry and biology. Science is a way of thinking. It is not a product, but a process. It is a way of critically and skeptically looking at things. The interesting part is that you don’t have to be a scientist to think scientifically.  This basic understanding regarding science is necessary to understand the scientific path to atheism or even atheism itself. If you believe that science is just a bunch of theories written in textbooks, you are missing the point.

When we look at our civilization, we see that things that were not known at one point of time are known today. History is proof that what we do not know today will be known tomorrow. Ancient humans didn’t understand why seasons change, why water flows, why things fall, why lightning occurs and so on. They feared these phenomena and started associating divine and/or supernatural entities to them. However, as time went by our species eventually did find the right answers and discarded the divine entities associated with each phenomenon one by one. Today we have convincing and evidence based answers to all those questions that intrigued the minds of ancient humans. Except for a few extremely religious people, no one really worships the thunder god or the water god today. Similarly, when we understood that Sun is just another star undergoing nuclear fusion of hydrogen, the need to worship it as a God vanished (unfortunately there are still people in India who worship the Sun).

The point is that the more we understand nature, the more God becomes unnecessary.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.

Knowing and accepting evolution as a real scientific fact is the next step. I have written many posts on evolution that can brief you about its current status and why it is such an important scientific theory. Of course there have been people who read those articles and told me, “No matter what you say, I will still not believe in evolution.” I feel nothing but sympathy for them because they purposely are shutting themselves off the beauty and awe that science can inspire about our wonderful world.

Thinking as I said is an essential characteristic trait of an atheist. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All thinking men are atheists.” One must show the courage to think and question established beliefs. Only then intellectual growth will happen. You don’t need a genius level IQ in order to question religious beliefs or compare them with real science. All it takes is a little guts and willingness to learn.

The unknown is not supposed to be feared. It is supposed to be studied. I fully agree that all that we see in our universe must have an origin. Our quest as an intelligent species therefore should be to work hard enough to find out how things really originated or at least pay some respect to the people who are working on those big questions at this very moment rather than thrusting outdated, medieval, pre-medieval superstitions and Bronze Age myths on them and others.

It is very easy to say, “I don’t know the answer, therefore God did it.” It takes extraordinary courage and intellect to say , “I don’t know the answer, therefore let’s find out. That in my view is the real beginning of wisdom.

The Road of Philosophy

Philosophy is that branch of thought that asked questions like where do we come from, where are we going, what is the meaning of life, what is the purpose of life etc. Philosophy can be termed as the ancestor of scientific thought, even though today they are two distinct disciplines. Atheism born out of philosophy rejects the notion of a creator based on logical and philosophical arguments. Contradictions in the concept of a supreme creator is often the source of arguments against God. For instance, an all powerful and yet loving God wouldn’t allow evil to pervade in this world. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270 BC) once said:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Carl Sagan quotes Rig Veda beautifully in his epic documentary Cosmos, which you can listen to in this video. Statements such as these abound in philosophy so much that we can’t help wonder why the concept of God survived for so long. What I think is that philosophy, which was part of the then education system was available to only the very powerful people in the social hierarchy. It is possible that philosophical notions weren’t handed out to the common man as it is today. Sadly, even though all religious and philosophical texts are available for purchase, the mindset is still maintained by many.

Hinduism, the religion I left has profound atheistic notions. In fact, atheism exists at the core of many religious texts. The Rig Veda, the Upanishads such as Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Mundaka and Chandogya etc. are atheistic in nature. If you are interested, there are Wiki articles on Atheism in Hinduism and Irreligion in India which describe the origins and development of atheistic traditions in India. Many notable personalities in modern India such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, Amritya Sen, Javed Akhtar, Kamal Haasan and many more have been and are atheists.

I reiterate the fact that a thinking person will turn in to an atheist sooner or later. The only question is when he or she starts thinking.

The Social Way

I remember talking to a friend of mine. He told me that humans should respect someone or something and therefore believing in God is necessary. I asked him to respect other humans and he was dumbstruck by that reply. That is what we are lacking in our society today. We hardly are willing to treat another person with respect. Ironically, we whine a lot when people don’t treat us with respect. Anyway, the social way towards atheism stems from a historical and contemporary awareness about various aspects of societies in the world.

A person aware of societies will also be aware of the damage religion has done to the society. When I think about the evils of religion, a very unpleasant picture comes into mind. All organized religions in my opinion have caused great evil in this world. For instance, the organized religions of the world are so keen on oppressing and subjugating women, which is totally wrong. The aspect of respecting another human being comes into picture when I question religion in terms of society. The way religion has treated women without respect and dignity is unjustifiable. And it is not just women. The treatment of different races, homosexuals and even members of other religions has been pretty bad throughout history.

Richard Dawkins in his marvelous book The God Delusion has said:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

There have been people highly annoyed by this sentence of his. But when I think about it, there is no other better way to describe the God of the scriptures. And there are people who really take the evil things written in the scriptures literally and act accordingly. Religion has poisoned the minds of many and is still continuing to do so.

According to Steven Weinberg, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This pretty much summarizes the damage religion can do to the minds of people. The Crusades, mass conversions, terrorist attacks, honor killings and many such evil have been caused because of religion and not the lack of it. In fact, I have never seen an atheist going around burning trains, doing suicide bombings, taking part in communal violence,  doing honor killings or any such despicable evil acts.

Atheists are highly rational people whose only wish is the progress of humanity. We don’t threaten others to follow our way of thinking. All we do is to use logical reasoning to educate people about how things are and then leave it to them to make their own decisions. 

The Empirical Way

People are almost always surprised when I tell them that I do not believe in God. They look at me like someone who has just landed from another planet or as a messenger of evil who has come to attack and falsify their most cherished beliefs. The kind of questions they ask are sometimes very funny and I intend to make another post regarding that. There was this friend of mine who once asked  whether it was “science” that is holding everything together or not.  I was taken aback by her ill phrased question. She thinks science is some entity that atheists use to replace God. That is the main reason in the initial paragraphs, I defined what science really is.

The empirical way is all about testing and finding things for yourself.  Getting experimental data to prove or disprove something is critical in drawing conclusions. If you can test things yourself and find whether the God hypothesis is true or not, there is nothing else more entertaining and informative than that. You can start with thought experiments. For example, if you study for the exam and pray, you will pass. If you study and don’t pray, you will still pass. But if you don’t study and pray, there is no way you will pass. I have actually tested this in my life and I have found that it doesn’t work if you just pray and don’t study.

If you pray or really believe in something or someone, it ought to get your things done. It can be clearing an exam, getting job, marrying someone, buying a house etc. Unfortunately, events don’t work that way. Another experiment is checking out coincidences and studying the probability that those events would have happened anyway. The following video shows a young Prof. Dawkins doing a simple experiment to prove that coincidences do not mean anything in the supernatural realm:

It is not hard for us to find out instances in our daily life and make experiments out of them. I do that all the time. There are plenty of events in my life that allude initially to the possibility of a God. However, when I sit and think about it and start eliminating the most improbable causes, very soon I find that the events have nothing to do with a God at all. Therefore, I can confidently say that God is a highly improbable entity or just a figment of human imagination.

The key behind testing God is finding out natural explanations for things that happen. Only when you have exhausted all the natural explanations for a particular event, that you should consider the possibility of a supernatural (if you want to). What I do is, if I exhaust natural explanations, I leave it there until I find some new natural explanation later  because I believe that everything in the universe is knowable. It is only a matter of time before we figure them out. There is no such thing called a miracle. They are just happy coincidences that have very natural explanations if someone bothers to find them.

To conclude, being an atheist is a very intellectually fulfilling experience. It is a process of continuing growth and it is something that teaches us about how rare and precious we are as a species of extraordinary brilliance. But being an atheist can be hard if you are surrounded by religious people. My advice to those who want to follow these four paths to atheism would be to make sure that you make a good friend circle of people who are not afraid of thinking freely. As Phil Plait puts it, “Teach a man to reason and he’ll think for a lifetime.