Landscape view of Salsberry Peak in the Pahrump Hills region, Gale Crater, Mars. Inset: Curiosity Rover “selfie.” Credit: NASA
Part 1. Full speed ahead
2021 will be a busy year for space exploration and commerce with the promise of great advances in science and technology. NASA Highlights will include landing the Mars Perseverance Rover and launching the long-awaited Webb Space Telescope. NASA will also nudge a local smallish asteroid with a probe in order to test the feasibility of preventing a future catastrophic Earth-asteroid collision. SpaceX will continue to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and Boeing will try to catch up to SpaceX with their own ISS ferry. There will be more tests of rockets designed for “space tourism” from SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, perhaps even the first crewed flights. And that’s just from the US! China, Russia, India, and even the UAE will make space headlines this year.
Perseverance Rover is currently in the news because it’s scheduled to land on Mars this week (February 18, 3:51 p.m. EST, coverage on NASA TV). After a journey of some six months, the rover will drop into Jezero Crater. And what a drop! Only 40% of landing attempts on Mars have been successful. According to NASA’s Perseverance website, the capsule protecting the rover approaches the thin Mars upper atmosphere at over 12,000 mph. A parachute and rocket engines slow the capsule down to about 2 mph. Next, a rocket powered sky crane in the capsule lowers the rover on three cables to land softly on six wheels. The flight manual identifies this as EDL (Entry Decent Landing), but mission controllers call it “seven minutes of terror” for both the rover and the mission team. I asked mission scientist Roger Wiens how he personally copes with the anxiety of EDL. Roger is a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist invested in two instruments on the rover: SuperCam and SHERLOC. “I pray, I claim Romans 8:28 [in all things God works for the good], and I try to surround myself with supportive people. I appreciate your prayers too.”
Perseverance was built to document conditions in Mars’ ancient history that could have promoted life, one of Curiosity Rover’s ongoing tasks, as well as seek direct evidence of fossil life preserved in Martian bedrock. Previous landers have detected complex organic molecules in the Martian soil and methane in the air that could be related to life. There are also instruments and experiments on the new rover to test technologies and determine environmental suitability for future manned exploration and potential colonization of the Red Planet.
Part 2. Is Mars the kind of place to raise your kids?
Oh, we are going! And, if you listen to Elon Musk it’s sooner than you might think. He expects SpaceX will achieve a manned landing on Mars by 2026, beating NASA there by at least a decade. NASA intends only to explore Mars. Musk is preparing to colonize it ASAP, with the prospect of one million earthlings living there within the next 50 to 100 years. Clearly, his goal is to make humans a multi-planet species.
But, potential dangers and even horrors are typically missing from dreamy depictions of life on Mars. Most of these have physical-medical consequences. What if we contaminate Mars with Earth bacteria or Earth with a Toxin from Mars (I get first dibs on the latter for a movie title)? There’s the problem of excessive exposure to radiation and other physiological effects of living weightless during the nine-month deep space transit (many of these challenges are being studied on the ISS). Bounding along on the Martian surface will require rugged suits, boots, gloves, and helmets that hold Earth atmospheric pressure, resist tears and punctures, insulate from the extreme cold, and tolerate dust, lots of dust. Even vision will need assistance because to the human eye, the landscape will appear dim and bland, often indistinguishable from the sky. Those brilliant photos released by NASA are enhanced to appear as if they were taken on Earth. And what about your kids? How will the gravity field of Mars (38% of Earth’s) affect fetal development and the neural-muscular-skeletal growth of children? There are suggestions that genetic engineering might be required to ensure survival. And, as with any challenging and dangerous exploration, there will be accidents and fatalities. Even Elon Musk has stated that he hopes to die on Mars, “but not on impact.” In all, there is a good chance that the first attempt to colonize Mars will end in utter failure.
Part 3: What does all this matter to Christian faith?
Surely, there are philosophical and ethical questions to be asked about “if, why, how, and when” humans should actually make this kind of interplanetary migration. What can Christian theology and teachings contribute to this discussion? Roger Wiens is one Christian deeply involved in the current exploration phase of planetary science. There are many others like him. I agree with his conviction that exploration is a form of worship, “just as reading the Bible,” he says. “The natural world tells us about its creator; that God has given us a mind that enables exploration, and so we ought to do it. This is supported by Psalm 19 and indirectly by many other scriptures. It is also supported by the Belgian Confession and a whole line of theology about the “two books” of God’s revelation.”
In our conversation, Roger reminded me about Christians who doubt God would have created life beyond Earth. Indeed, polls show meager support for space exploration by evangelicals. Roger told me he started out as a skeptic on microbial extraterrestrial life, but now sees this thinking as a kind of geo-ego-centric bias and not particularly supported in scripture.
“Why wouldn’t God create (or endow the creation/evolution of) life elsewhere? …And from a scientific perspective, it is very logical to think that if life exists here, it certainly ought to exist elsewhere. So, I have wholeheartedly joined the search for life elsewhere and the efforts to understand the creation/origin of life on our own world. After all, these are some of the most fascinating questions that one can ponder.”
The strongest objection to intelligent extraterrestrial life among Christians goes something like, “Jesus would have to die on a cross somewhere else.” Obviously, these people have not read C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy!
Rhiannon Blaauw Erskine is an Assistant Lecturer in Physics at Wheaton College. For seven years, she studied the meteoroid environment as it pertains to spacecraft engineering and operations at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Last summer, out of concern for a pandemic-induced lack of student research internships, she invited a group of Wheaton physics and engineering students to enter The Mars Society’s Mars City State Design Competition to plan a “Mars city state of 1,000,000 people, focusing on making a sizable human urban settlement on the Red Planet as self-supporting as possible and developing the city state’s economy, politics, society, culture.” The team settled on calling the city state Malacandra (because they had read The Space Trilogy). Roger, a Wheaton physics alumnus, and I were invited to be consultants to the project. We each joined one of their weekly Zoom sessions. I invited Rhiannon and project student Emma Henschel to chat about the difference Christian faith could or should make if humans become a multi-planet species.
Topics in our conversation included the application of Christian teachings on ethics, stewardship, and missions. A Wheaton Bible scholar corresponding with the team, offered his interpretation that the creation mandate in Genesis to subdue and rule creation could apply to anywhere in the cosmos, but only to participate in God’s work of bringing order to it (as described in Genesis 1) and not for our own benefit. Thus, in Emma’s mind, there was no prohibition against Christians exploring and living on Mars. In fact, she felt it an obligation, you might call it a vocational missionary obligation, to participate.
Should the Moon and Mars be designated for research only, like we protect the continent of Antarctica? The team report was keen to keep its residents confined to the various outposts within a limited perimeter and protect the rest of the planet from development, something like a global national park. What about terraforming Mars (transforming the planet to sustain a breathable atmosphere)? The team proposed a gradual transition supported by extensive geological and environmental study.
We talked about the messaging from NASA and the likes of Elon Musk, echoing Carl Sagan in the last century, that exploring space is a humanistic imperative. Ironically, Rhiannon noted that Sagan envisioned an almost messianic hope that contact with ET would be humanity’s salvation. Christians will continue to remind our culture, earthbound or beyond, of the futility of purely humanistic hope. Human behavior will not change off the home planet, so one might expect the same influence of biblical teaching on social justice, creation care, ethical behavior, and hope. We talked about how living off the Earth might change how Christians and Jews view scripture. So much of our understanding of the Bible is embedded in the landscape and ecosystems of the Holy Lands. Yet, images of Martian landscapes are eerily similar to deserts of the Levant.
As the myriad technological challenges are overcome, there will be Christians working and living in space, on the Moon, and on Mars. They will have their Bibles with them, too. Perhaps permanent residents of Mars will discover in the Bible the enduring link they need to remind them of their origin and identity as earthlings, like immigrants and their descendants cherish memories of their homelands. They will believe that the Bible’s God is there with them and cling to David’s words of security in Psalm 139. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
But for now, let us all pray with Roger for a successful landing of Perseverance Rover!
David Buller, Escaping Earth: To Love It, or Leave It?
Leslie Wickman, The Space Race and exploring the unknown
Jonathan Merritt, Why Christians should get on board with space exploration
Press release from Wheaton College about the Mars City State Design Competition