To Reach Mars, Head North

[Image: An early design image of Fermont, featuring the “weather-controlling super-wall,” via the Norbert Schonauer archive at McGill University].

I’ve got a new column up at New Scientist about the possibility that privately run extraction outposts in the Canadian north might be useful prototypes—even political testing-grounds—for future offworld settlements.

“In a sense,” I write, “we are already experimenting with off-world colonization—only we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north.”

For example, when Elon Musk explained to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine last year that cities on Mars are “the next step” for human civilization—indeed, that we all “need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization”—he was not calling for a second Paris or a new Manhattan on the frigid, windswept plains of the Red Planet.

Rather, humans are far more likely to build variations of the pop-up, investor-funded, privately policed, weather-altering instant cities of the Canadian north.

The post references the work of Montréal-based architectural historian Alessandra Ponte, who spoke at a conference on Arctic futures held in Tromsø, Norway, back in January; there, Ponte explained that she had recently taken a busload of students on a long road trip north to visit a mix of functioning and abandoned mining towns, including the erased streets of Gagnon and the thriving company town of Fermont.

Fermont is particularly fascinating, as it includes what I describe over at New Scientist as a “weather-controlling super-wall,” a 1.3km-long residential mega-complex specifically built to alter local wind patterns.

Could outposts like these serve as examples—or perhaps cautionary tales—for what humans will build on other worlds?

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing.

Go check out the article in full, if it sounds of interest; and consider picking up a copy of Alessandra Ponte’s new book, The House of Light and Entropy, while you’re at it, a fascinating study of landscape, photography, mapping, geographic emptiness, the American West, and the “North” as a newly empowered geopolitical terrain.

Finally, don’t miss this interesting paper by McGill’s Adrian Sheppard (saved here as a PDF) about the design and construction of Fermont, or this CBC audio documentary about life in the remote mining town.

Life on the Subsurface: An Interview with Penelope Boston

A landscape painting above Penny Boston’s living room entryway depicts astronauts exploring Mars.

Penelope Boston is a speleo-biologist at New Mexico Tech, where she is also Director of Cave and Karst Science. Her work examines subterranean lifeforms, often found very deep within cave systems, including the larger subterranean ecosystems those creatures are connected to. Her research focuses primarily on what are known as extremophiles for their ability to survive in seemingly inhospitable micro-environments here on Earth; these bizarre forms of life, thriving in acidic, anoxic, or highly pressurized situations, offer compelling analogies for the sorts of lifeforms and ecosystems that might exist, undetected, on other planets.

But the flip side of her research are those environments themselves: the caves, tunnels, and other underground spaces inside of which unearthly life might thrive. As you’ll see, this is an interview obsessed with space: how to define space, how space is formed geologically, and what sorts of speculative underground spaces and structures can form under radically different gravitational regimes, deep inside the polar glaciers of distant moons, or even in the turbulent skies of gas giants.

Boston has worked with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) to develop protocols for both human extraterrestrial cave habitation and for subterranean life-detection missions on Mars, life which she believes is highly likely to exist.

On a hot summer afternoon, she graciously welcomed me and Nicola Twilley, traveling for our Venue project, into her home in Los Lunas, New Mexico, where we arrived with design futurist Stuart Candy in tow, en route to dropping him off at the Very Large Array later that day.

Over the course of our conversation, Boston told us about her experiences working at Mars analog sites; she explained why she believes there is a strong possibility for life below the surface of the Red Planet, perhaps inside billion-year-old networks of lava tubes; she detailed her own ongoing cave explorations beneath the U.S. Southwest; and we touched on some mind-blowing ideas seemingly straight out of science fiction, including extreme forms of extraterrestrial life (such as dormant life on comets, thawed and reawakened with every passage close to the sun) and the extraordinary potential for developing new pharmaceuticals out of cave microorganisms.

An edited transcript of our conversation appears below.

• • •

The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island, courtesy of the Mars Society.

Geoff Manaugh: As a graduate student, you co-founded the Mars Underground and then the Mars Society. You’re a past President of the Association of Mars Explorers, and you’re also now a member of the science team taking part in Mars Arctic 365, a new one-year Mars surface simulation mission set to start in summer 2014 on Devon Island. How does this long-term interest in Mars exploration tie into your Earth-based research in speleobiology and subterranean microbial ecosystems?

Penelope Boston: Even though I do study surface things that have a microbial component, like desert varnish and travertines and so forth, I really think that it’s the subsurface of Mars where the greatest chance of extant life, or even preservation of extinct life, would be found.

Nicola Twilley: Is it part of NASA’s strategy to go subsurface at any point, to explore caves on Mars or the moon?

Boston: Well, yes and no. The “Strategy” and the strategy are two different things.

The Mars Curiosity rover is a very capable chemistry and physics machine and I am, of course, dying to hear the details of the geochemistry it samples. A friend of mine, for instance, with whom I’m also a collaborator, is the principal investigator of the SAM instrument. Friends of mine are also on the CheMin instrument. So I have a vested interest, both professionally and personally, in the Curiosity mission.

On the other hand, you know: here we go again with yet another mission on the surface. It’s fascinating, and we still have a lot to learn there, but I hope I will live long enough to see us do subsurface missions on Mars and even on other bodies in the solar system.

Unfortunately, right now, we are sort of in limbo. The downturn in the global economy and our national economy has essentially kicked NASA in the head. It’s very unclear where we are going, at this point. This is having profound, negative effects on the Agency itself and everyone associated with it, including those of us who are external fundees and sort of circum-NASA.

On the other hand, although we don’t have a clear plan, we do have clear interests, and we have been pursuing preliminary studies. NASA has sponsored a number of studies on deep drilling, for example. One of the most famous was probably about 15 years ago, and it really kicked things off. That was up in Santa Fe, and we were looking at different methodologies for getting into the subsurface.

I have done a lot of work, some of which has been NASA-funded, on the whole issue of lava tubes—that is, caves associated with volcanism on the surface. Now, Glenn Cushing and Tim Titus at the USGS facility in Flagstaff have done quite a bit of serious work on the high-res images coming back from Mars, and they have identified lava tubes much more clearly than we ever did in our earlier work over the past decade.

Surface features created by lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Twilley: Is it the expectation that caves as common on Mars as they are on Earth?

Boston: I’d say that lava tubes are large, prominent, and liberally distributed everywhere on Mars. I would guess that there are probably more lava tubes on Mars than there are here on Earth—because here they get destroyed. We have such a geologically and hydro-dynamically active planet that the weathering rates here are enormous.

But on Mars we have a lot of factors that push in the other direction. I’d expect to find tubes of exceeding antiquity—I suspect that billions-of-year-old tubes are quite liberally sprinkled over the planet. That’s because the tectonic regime on Mars is quiescent. There is probably low-level tectonism—there are, undoubtedly, Marsquakes and things like that—but it’s not a rock’n’roll plate tectonics like ours, with continents galloping all over the place, and giant oceans opening up across the planet.

That means the forces that break down lava tubes are probably at least an order of magnitude or more—maybe two, maybe three—less likely to destroy lava tubes over geological time. You will have a lot of caves on Mars, and a lot of those caves will be very old.

Plus, remember that you also have .38 G. The intrinsic tensile strength of the lava itself, or whatever the bedrock is, is also going to allow those tubes to be much more resistant to the weaker gravity there.

Surface features of lava tubes on Mars; images via ESA

Manaugh: I’d imagine that, because the gravity is so much lower, the rocks might also behave differently, forming different types of arches, domes, and other formations underground. For instance, large spans and open spaces would be shaped according to different gravitational strains. Would that be a fair expectation?

Boston: Well, it’s harder to speculate on that because we don’t know what the exact composition of the lava is—which is why, someday, we would love to get a Mars sample-return mission, which is no longer on the books right now. [sighs] It’s been pushed off.

In fact, I just finished, for the seventh time in my career, working on a panel on that whole issue. This was the E2E—or End-to-End—group convened by Dave Beatty, who is head of the Mars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [PDF].

About a year ago, we finished doing some intensive international work with our European Space Agency partners on Mars sample-return—but now it’s all been pushed off again. The first one of those that I worked on was when I was an undergraduate, almost ready to graduate at Boulder, and that was 1979. It just keeps getting pushed off.

I’d say that we are very frustrated within the planetary and astrobiology communities. We can use all these wonderful instruments that we load onto vehicles like Curiosity and we can send them there. We can do all this fabulous orbital stuff. But, frankly speaking, as a person with at least one foot in Earth science, until you’ve got the stuff in your hands—actual physical samples returned from Mars—there is a lot you can’t do.

Looking down through a “skylight” on Mars and into a Martian sinkhole; images via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twilley: Could you talk a bit about your work with exoplanetary research, including what you’re looking for and how you might find it?

Boston: [laughs] The two big questions!

But, yes. We are working on a project at Socorro now to atmospherically characterize exoplanets. It’s called NESSI, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument. Our partner is Mark Swain, over at JPL. They are doing it using things like Kepler, and they have a new mission they’re proposing, called FINESSE. FINESSE will be a dedicated exoplanet atmospheric characterizer.

We are also trying to do that, in conjunction with them, but from a ground-based instrument, in order to make it more publicly accessible to students and even to amateur astronomers.

That reminds me—one of the other people you might be interested in talking to is a young woman named Lisa Messeri, who just recently finished her PhD in Anthropology at MIT. She’s at the University of Pennsylvania now. Her focus is on how scientists like me to think about other planets as other worlds, rather than as mere scientific targets—how we bring an abstract scientific goal into the familiar mental space where we also have recognizable concepts of landscape.

I’ve been obsessed with that my entire life: the concept of space, and the human scaling of these vastly scaled phenomena, is central, I think, to my emotional core, not just the intellectual core.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Manaugh: While we’re on the topic of scale, I’m curious about the idea of astrobiological life inhabiting a radically, undetectably nonhuman scale. For example, one of the things you’ve written and lectured about is the incredible slowness it takes for some organisms to form, metabolize, and articulate themselves in the underground environments you study. Could there be forms of astrobiological life that exist on an unbelievably different timescale, whether it’s a billion-year hibernation cycle that we might discover at just the wrong time and mistake, say, for a mineral? Or might we find something on a very different spatial scale—for example, a species that is more like a network, like an aspen tree or a fungus?

Boston: You know, Paul Davies is very interested in this idea—the concept of a shadow biosphere. Of course, I had also thought about this question for many years, long before I read about Davies or before he gave it a name.

The conundrum you face is: how would you know—how you would study or even conceptualize—these other biospheres? It’s outside of your normal spatial and temporal comfort zone, in which all of your training and experience has guided you to look, and inside of which all of your instruments are designed to function. If it’s outside all of that, how will you know it when you see it?

Imagine comets. With every perihelion passage, volatile gases escape. You are whipping around the solar system. Your body comes to life for that brief period of time only. Now apply that to icy bodies in very elliptical orbits in other solar systems, hosting life with very long periods of dormancy.

There are actually some wonderful early episodes of The Twilight Zone that tap into that theme, in a very poetic and literary way. [laughs] Of course, it’s also the central idea of some of the earliest science fiction; I suppose Gulliver’s Travels is probably the earliest exploration of that concept.

In the microbial realm—to stick with what we do know, and what we can study—we are already dealing with itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny things that are devilishly difficult to understand. We have a lot of tools now that enable us to approach those, but, very regularly, we’ll see things in electron microscopy that we simply can’t identify and they are very clearly structured. And I don’t think that they are all artifacts of the preparation—things that get put there accidentally during prep.

A lot of the organisms that we actually grow, and with which we work, are clearly nanobacteria. I don’t know how familiar you are with that concept, but it has been extremely controversial. There are many artifacts out there that can mislead us, but we do regularly see organisms that are very small. So how small can they be—what’s the limit?

A few of the early attempts at figuring this out were just childish. That’s a mean thing to say, because a lot of my former mentors have written some of those papers, but they would say things like: “Well, we need to conduct X, Y, and Z metabolic pathways, so, of course, we need all this genetic machinery.” I mean, come on, you know that early cells weren’t like that! The early cells—who knows what they were or what they required?

To take the famous case of the ALH84001 meteorite: are all those little doobobs that you can see in the images actually critters? I don’t know. I think we’ll never know, at least until we go to Mars and bring back stuff.

I have relatively big microbes in my lab that regularly feature little knobs and bobs and little furry things, that I am actually convinced are probably either viruses or prions or something similar. I can’t get a virologist to tell me yes. They are used to looking at viruses that they can isolate in some fashion. I don’t know how to get these little knobby bobs off my guys for them to look at.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Twilley: In your paper on the human utilization of subsurface extraterrestrial environments [PDF], you discuss the idea of a “Field Guide to Unknown Organisms,” and how to plan to find life when you don’t necessarily know what it looks like. What might go into such a guide?

Boston: The analogy I often use with graduate students when I teach astrobiology is that, in some ways, it’s as if we are scientists on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and we are trying to write a field guide to the birds of Earth. Where do you start? Well, you start with whatever template you have. Then you have to deeply analyze every feature of that template and ask whether each feature is really necessary and which are just a happenstance of what can occur.

I think there are fundamental principles. You can’t beat thermodynamics. The need for input and outgoing energy is critical. You have to be delicately poised, so that the chemistry is active enough to produce something that would be a life-like process, but not so active that it outstrips any ability to have cohesion, to actually keep the life process together. Water is great as a solvent for that. It’s probably not the only solvent, but it’s a good one. So you can look for water—but do you really need to look for water?

I think you have to pick apart the fundamental assumptions. I suspect that predation is a relatively universal process. I suspect that parasitism is a universal process. I think that, with the mathematical work being done on complex, evolving systems, you see all these emerging properties.

Now, with all of that said, the details—the sizes, the scale, the pace, getting back to what we were just talking about—I think there is huge variability in there.

Caves on Mars; images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS.

Twilley: How do you train people to look for unrecognizable life?

Boston: I think everybody—all biologists—should take astrobiology. It would smack you on the side of the head and say, “You have to rethink some of these fundamental assumptions! You can’t just coast on them.”

The organisms that we study in the subsurface are so different from the microbes that we have on the surface. They don’t have any predators—so, ecologically, they don’t have to outgrow any predators—and they live in an environment where energy is exceedingly scarce. In that context, why would you bother having a metabolic rate that is as high as some of your compatriots on the surface? You can afford to just hang out for a really long time.

We have recently isolated a lot of strains from these fluid inclusions in the Naica caves—the one with those gigantic crystals. It’s pretty clear that these guys have been trapped in these bubbles between 10,000 and 15,000 years. We’ve got fluid inclusions in even older materials—in materials that are a few million years old, even, in a case we just got some dates for, as much as 40 million years.

Naica Caves, image from the official website. The caves are so hot that explorers have to wear special ice-jackets to survive.

One of the caveats, of course, is that, when you go down some distance, the overlying lithostatic pressure of all of that rock makes space impossible. Microbes can’t live in zero space. Further, they have to have at least inter-grain spaces or microporosity—there has to be some kind of interconnectivity. If you have organisms completely trapped in tiny pockets, and they never interact, then that doesn’t constitute a biosphere. At some point, you also reach temperatures that are incompatible with life, because of the geothermal gradient. Where exactly that spot is, I don’t know, but I’m actually working on a lot of theoretical ideas to do with that.

In fact, I’m starting a book for MIT Press that will explore some of these ideas. They wanted me to write a book on the cool, weird, difficult, dangerous places I go to and the cool, weird, difficult bugs I find. That’s fine—I’m going to do that. But, really, what I want to do is put what we have been working on for the last thirty years into a theoretical context that doesn’t just apply to Earth but can apply broadly, not only to other planets in our solar system, but to one my other great passions, of course, which is exoplanets—planets outside the solar system.

One of the central questions that I want to explore further in my book, and that I have been writing and talking about a lot, is: what is the long-term geological persistence of organisms and geological materials? I think this is another long-term, evolutionary repository for living organisms—not just fossils—that we have not tapped into before. I think that life gets recycled over significant geological periods of time, even on Earth.

That’s a powerful concept if we then apply it to somewhere like Mars, for example, because Mars does these obliquity swings. It has super-seasonal cycles. It has these little dimpled moons that don’t stabilize it, whereas our moon stabilizes the Earth’s obliquity level. That means that Mars is going through these super cold and dry periods of time, followed by periods of time where it’s probably more clement.

Now, clearly, if organisms can persist for tens of thousands of years—let alone hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly even millions of years—then maybe they are reawakenable. Maybe you have this very different biosphere.

Manaugh: Like a biosphere in waiting.

Boston: Yes—a biosphere in waiting, at a much lower level.

Recently, I have started writing a conceptual paper that really tries to explore those ideas. The genome that we see active on the surface of any planet might be of two types. If you have a planet like Earth, which is photosynthetically driven, you’re going to have a planet that is much more biological in terms of the total amount of biomass and the rates at which this can be produced. But that might not be the only way to run a biosphere.

You might also have a much more low-key biosphere that could actually be driven by geochemical and thermal energy from the inside of the planet. This was the model that we—myself, Chris McKay, and Michael Ivanoff, one of our colleagues from what was the Soviet Union at the time—published more than twenty years ago for Mars. We suggested that there would be chemically reduced gases coming from the interior of the planet.

That 1992 paper was what got us started on caves. I had never been in a wild cave in my life before. We were looking for a way to get into that subsurface space. The Department of Energy was supporting a few investigators, but they weren’t about to share their resources. Drilling is expensive. But caves are just there; you can go inside them.

Penelope Boston caving, image courtesy of V. Hildreth-Werker, from “Extraterrestrial Caves: Science, Habitat, Resources,” NIAC Phase I Study Final Report, 2001.

So that’s really what got us into caving. It was at that point where I discovered caves are so variable and fascinating, and I really refocused my career on that for the last 20 years.

The first time I did any serious caving was actually in Lechuguilla Cave. It was completely nuts to make that one’s first wild cave. We trained for about three hours, then we launched into a five-day expedition into Lechuguilla that nearly killed us! Chris McKay came out with a terrible infection. I had a blob of gypsum in my eye and an infection that swelled it shut. I twisted my ankle. I popped a rib. Larry Lemke had a massive migraine. We were not prepared for this. The people taking us in should have known better. But one of them is a USGS guide and a super caving jock, so it didn’t even occur to him—it didn’t occur to him that we were learning instantaneously to operate in a completely alien landscape with totally inadequate skills.

Lechuguilla Cave, photograph by Dave Bunnell.

All I knew was that I was beaten to a pulp. I could almost not get across these chasms. I’m a short person. Everybody else was six feet tall. I felt like I was just hanging on long enough so I could get out and live. I’ve been in jams before, including in Antarctica, but that’s all I thought of the whole five days: I just have to live through this.

But, when I got out, I realized that what the other part of my brain had retained was everything I had seen. The bruises faded. My eye stopped being infected. In fact, I got the infection from looking up at the ceiling and having some of those gooey blobs drip down into my eye—but, I was like, “Oh my God. This is biological. I just know it is.” So it was a clue. And, when, I got out, I knew I had to learn how to do this. I wanted to get back in there.

ESA astronauts on a “cave spacewalk” during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Manaugh: You have spoken about the possibility of entire new types of caves that are not possible on Earth but that might be present elsewhere. What are some of these other cave types you think might exist, and what sort of conditions would be required to form them? You’ve used some great phrases to describe those processes—things like “volatile labyrinths” and “ice volcanism” that create strange cave types that aren’t possible on Earth.

Boston: Well, in terms of ice, I’ll bet there are all sorts of Lake Vostok-like things out there on other moons and planets.

The thing with Lake Vostok is that it’s not a “lake.” It’s a cave: a cave in ice. The ice, in this case, acts as bedrock, so it’s not a lake at all. It’s a closed system.

Manaugh: It’s more like a blister: an enclosed space full of fluid.

Boston: Exactly. In terms of speculating on the kinds of caves that might exist elsewhere in the universe, we are actually working on a special issue for the Journal of Astrobiology right now, based on the extraterrestrial planetary caves meeting that we did last October. We brought people from all over the place. This is a collaboration between my Institute—the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, where we have our headquarters—and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The meeting was an attempt to explore these ideas. Karl Mitchell from JPL, who I had not met previously, works on Titan; he’s on the Cassini Huygens mission. He thinks he is seeing karst-like features on Titan. Just imagine that! Hydrocarbon fluids producing karst-like features in water-ice bedrock—what could be more exotic than that?

That also shows that the planetary physics dominates in creating these environments. I used to think that the chemistry dominated. I don’t think so anymore. I think that the physics dominates. You have to step away from the chemistry at first and ask: what are the fundamental physics that govern the system? Then you can ask: what are the fundamental chemical potentials that govern the system that could produce life? It’s the same exercise with imagining what kind of caves you can get—and I have a lurid imagination.

From “Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments,” P. J. Boston, R. D. Frederick, S. M. Welch, J. Werker, T. R. Meyer, B. Sprungman, V. Hildreth-Werker, S. L. Thompson, and D. L. Murphy, Gravitational and Space Biology Bulletin 16(2), June 2003.

One of the fun things I do in my astrobiology class every couple of years is the capstone project. The students break down into groups of four or five, hopefully well-mixed in terms of biologists, engineers, chemists, geologists, physicists, and other backgrounds.

Then they have to design their own solar system, including the fundamental, broad-scale properties of its star. They have to invent a bunch of planets to go around it. And they have to inhabit at least one of those planets with some form of life. Then they have to design a mission—either telescopic or landed—that could study it. They work on this all semester, and they are so creative. It’s wonderful. There is so much value in imagining the biospheres of other planetary bodies.

You just have to think: “What are the governing equations that you have on this planet or in this system?” You look at the gravitational value of a particular body, its temperature regime, and the dominant geochemistry. Does it have an atmosphere? Is it tectonic? One of the very first papers I did—it appeared in one of these obscure NASA special publications, of which they print about 100 and nobody can ever find a copy—was called “Bubbles in the Rocks.” It was entirely devoted to speculation about the properties of natural and artificial caves as life-support structures. A few years later, I published a little encyclopedia article, expanding on it, and I’m now working on another expansion, actually.

I think that, either internally, externally, or both, planetary bodies that form cracks are great places to start. If you have some sort of fluid—even episodically—within that system, then you have a whole new set of cave-forming processes. Then, if you have a material that can exist not only in a solid phase, but also as a liquid or, in some cases, even in a vapor phase on the same planetary body, then you have two more sets of potential cave-forming processes. You just pick it apart from those fundamentals, and keep building things up as you think about these other cave-forming systems and landscapes.

ESA astronauts practice “cavewalking”; image courtesy ESA-V. Corbu.

Manaugh: One of my favorite quotations is from a William S. Burroughs novel, where he describes what he calls “a vast mineral consciousness at absolute zero, thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

Boston: Oh, wow.

Manaugh: I mention that because I’m curious about how the search for “extraterrestrial life” always tends to be terrestrial, in the sense that it’s geological and it involves solid planetary formations. But what about the search for life on a gaseous planet, for example—would life be utterly different there, chemically speaking, or would it simply be sort of dispersed, or even aerosolized? I suppose I’m also curious if there could be a “cave” on a gaseous planet and, if so, would it really just be a weather system? Is a “cave” on a gaseous planet actually just a storm? Or, to put it more abstractly, can there be caves without geology?

Boston: Hmm. Yes, I think there could be. If it was enclosed or self-perpetuating.

Manaugh: Like a self-perpetuating thermal condition in the sky. It would be a sort of atmospheric “cave.”

Twilley: It would be a bubble.

ESA astronauts explore caves in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–R. Bresnik.

Boston: In terms of life that could exist in a permanent, fluid medium that was gaseous—rather than a compressed fluid, like water—Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter made an attempt at that, back in 1975. In fact, I use their “Jovian Gasbags” paper as a foundational text in my astrobiology classes.

But an atmospheric system like Jupiter is dominated—just like an ocean is—by currents. It’s driven by thermal convection cells, which are the weather system, but it’s at a density that gives it more in common with our oceans than with our sky. And we are already familiar with the fact that our oceans, even though they are a big blob of water, are spatially organized into currents, and they are controlled by density, temperature, and salinity. The ocean has a massively complex three-dimensional structure; so, too, does the Jovian atmosphere. So a gas giant is really more like a gaseous ocean I think.

Now, the interior machinations that go on in inside a planet like Jupiter are driving these gas motions. There is a direct analogy here to the fact that, on our rocky terrestrial planet, which we think of as a solid Earth, the truth is that the mantle is plastic—in fact, the Earth’s lower crust is a very different substance from what we experience up here on this crusty, crunchy top, this thing that we consider solid geology. Whether we’re talking about a gas giant like Jupiter or the mantle of a rocky planet like Earth, we are really just dealing with different regimes of density—and, here again, it’s driven by the physics.

ESA astronauts set up an experimental wind-speed monitoring station in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA/V. Crobu.

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a tectonics class that one of my colleagues at New Mexico Tech was giving, which was a lot of fun for me. Everybody else was thinking about Earth, and I was thinking about everything but Earth. For my little presentation in class, what I tried to do was think about analogies to things on icy bodies: to look at Europa, Titan, Enceledus, Ganymede, and so forth, and to see how they are being driven by the same tectonic processes, producing the same kind of brittle-to-ductile mantle transition, but in ice rather than rock.

I think that, as we go further and further in the direction of having to explain what we think is going on in exoplanets, it’s going to push some of the geophysics in that direction, as well. There is amazingly little out there. I was stunned, because I know a lot of planetary scientists who are thinking about this kind of stuff, but there is a big gulf between Earth geophysics and applying those lessons to exoplanets.

ESA astronauts prepare for their 2013 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA-V. Crobu.

Manaugh: We need classes in speculative geophysics.

Boston: Yeah—come on, geophysicists! [laughs] Why shouldn’t they get in the game? We’ve been doing it in astrobiology for a long time.

In fact, when I’ve asked my colleagues certain questions like, “Would we even get orogeny on a three Earth-mass planet?” They are like, “Um… We don’t know.” But you know what? I bet we have the equations to figure that out.

It starts with something as simple as that: in different or more extreme gravitational regimes, could you have mountains? Could you have caves? How could you calculate that? I don’t know the answer to that—but you have to ask it.

ESA astronauts take microbiological samples during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Twilley: You’re a member of NASA’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee. Could you talk a little about what that means? I’m curious whether the same sorts of planetary protection protocols we might use on other planets, like Mars, should also be applied to the Earth’s subsurface. How do we protect these deeper ecosystems? How do we protect deeper ecosystems on Mars, assuming there are any?

Boston: That’s a great question. We are working extremely hard to do that, actually.

Planetary protection is the idea that we must protect Earth from off-world contaminants. And, of course, vice versa: we don’t want to contaminate other planets—both for scientific reasons and, at least in my case, for ethical reasons—with biological material from Earth.

In other words, I think we owe it to our fellow bodies in the solar system to give them a chance to prove their biogenicity or not, before humans start casually shedding our skin cells or transporting microbes there.

That’s planetary protection, and it works both ways.

One thing I have used as a sales pitch in some of my proposals is the idea that we are attempting to become more and more noninvasive in our cave exploration, which is very hard to do. For example, we have pushed all of our methods in the direction of using miniscule quantities of sample. Most Earth scientists can just go out and collect huge chunks of rock. Most biologists do that, too. You grow E. coli in the lab and you harvest tons of it. But I have to take just a couple grams of material—on a lucky day—sometimes even just milligrams of material, with very sparse bio density in there. I have to work with that.

What this means is that the work we are doing also lends itself really well to developing methods that would be useful on extraterrestrial missions.

In fact, we are pushing in the direction of not sampling at all, if we can. We are trying to see what we can learn about something before we even poke it. So, in our terrestrial caving work, we are actually living the planetary protection protocol.

We are also working in tremendously sensitive wilderness areas and we are often privileged enough to be the only people to get in there. We want to minimize the potential contamination.

That said, of course, we are contaminant sources. We risk changing the environment we’re trying to study. We struggle with this. I struggle with it physically and methodologically. I struggle with it ethically. You don’t want to screw up your science and inadvertently test your own skin bugs.

I’d say this is one of those cases where it’s not unacceptable to have a nonzero risk—to use a double negative again. There are few things in life that I would say that about. Even in our ridiculous risk-averse culture, we understand that for most things, there is a nonzero risk of basically anything. There is a nonzero risk that we’ll be hit by a meteorite now, before we are even done with this interview. But it’s pretty unlikely.

In this case, I think it’s completely unacceptable to run much of a risk at all.

That said, the truth is that pathogens co-evolve with their hosts. Pathogenesis is a very delicately poised ecological relationship, much more so than predation. If you are made out of the same biochemistry I’m made of, the chances are good that I can probably eat you, assuming that I have the capability of doing that. But the chances that I, as a pathogen, could infect you are miniscule. So there are different degrees of danger.

There is also the alien effect, which is well known in microbiology. That is that there is a certain dose of microbes that you typically need to get in order for them to take hold, because they are coming into an area where there’s not much ecological space. They either have to be highly pre-adapted for whatever the environment is that they land in, or they have to be sufficiently numerous so that, when they do get introduced, they can actually get a toehold.

We don’t really understand some of the fine points of how that occurs. Maybe it’s quorum sensing. Maybe it’s because organisms don’t really exist as single strains at the microbial level and they really have to be in consortia—in communities—to take care of all of the functions of the whole community.

We have a very skewed view of microbiology, because our knowledge comes from a medical and pathogenesis history, where we focus on single strains. But nobody lives like that. There are no organisms that do that. The complexity of the communal nature of microorganisms may be responsible for the alien effect.

So, given all of that, do I think that we are likely to be able to contaminate Mars? Honestly, no. On the surface, no. Do I act as if we can? Yes—absolutely, because the stakes are too high.

Now, do I think we could contaminate the subsurface? Yes. You are out of the high ultraviolet light and out of the ionizing radiation zone. You would be in an environment much more likely to have liquid water, and much more likely to be in a thermal regime that was compatible with Earth life.

So you also have to ask what part of Mars you are worried about contaminating.

ESA teams perform bacterial sampling and examine a freshwater supply; top photo courtesy ESA–V. Crobu; bottom courtesy ESA/T. Peake.

Manaugh: There’s been some interesting research into the possibility of developing new pharmaceuticals from these subterranean biospheres—or even developing new industrial materials, like new adhesives. I’d love to know more about your research into speleo-pharmacology or speleo-antibiotics—drugs developed from underground microbes.

Boston: It’s just waiting to be exploited. The reasons that it has not yet been done have nothing to do with science and nothing to do with the tremendous potential of these ecosystems, and everything to do with the bizarre and not very healthy economics of the global drug industry. In fact, I just heard that someone I know is leaving the pharmaceutical industry, because he can’t stand it anymore, and he’s actually going in the direction of astrobiology.

Really, there is a de-emphasis on drug discovery today and more of an emphasis on drug packaging. It is entirely profit-driven motive, which is distasteful, I think, and extremely sad. I see a real niche here for someone who doesn’t want to become just a cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, someone who wants to do a small start-up and actually do drug discovery in an environment that is astonishingly promising.

It’s not my bag; I don’t want to develop drugs. But I see our organisms producing antibiotics all the time. When we grow them in culture, I can see where some of them are oozing stuff—pink stuff and yellow stuff and clear stuff. And you can see it in nature. If you go to a lava tube cave, here in New Mexico, you see they are doing it all the time.

A lot of these chemistry tests screen for mutagenic activity, chemogenic activity, and all of the other things that are indications of cancer-fighting drugs and so on, and we have orders of magnitude more hits from cave stuff than we do from soils. So where is everybody looking? In soils. Dudes! I’ve got whole ecosystems in one pool that are different from an ecosystem in another pool that are less than a hundred feet apart in Lechuguilla Cave! The variability—the non-homogeneity of the subsurface—vastly exceeds the surface, because it’s not well mixed.

ESA astronauts prepare their experiments and gear for a 2013 CAVES (“Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills”) mission in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–V. Crobu

Twilley: In your TED talk, you actually say that the biodiversity in caves on Earth may well exceed the entire terrestrial biosphere.

Boston: Oh, yes—certainly the subsurface. There is a heck of a lot of real estate down there, when you add all those rock-fracture surface areas up. And each one of these little pockets is going off on its own evolutionary track. So the total diversity scales with that. It’s astonishing to me that speleo-bioprospecting hasn’t taken off already. I keep writing about it, because I can’t believe that there aren’t twenty-somethings out there who don’t want to go work for big pharma, who are fascinated by this potential for human use.

There is a young faculty member at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose graduate student is one of our friends and cavers, and they are starting to look at some of these. I’m like, “Go for it! I can supply you with endless cultures.”

Twilley: In your “Human Mission to Inner Space” experiment, you trialed several possible Martian cave habitat technologies in a one-week mission to a closed cave with a poisonous atmosphere in Arizona. As part of that, you looked into Martian agriculture, and grew what you called “flat crops.” What were they?

Boston: We grew great duckweed and waterfern. We made duckweed cookies. Gus made a rice and duckweed dish. It was quite tasty. [laughs] We actually fed two mice on it exclusively for a trial period, but although duckweed has more protein than soybeans, there weren’t enough carbohydrates to sustain them calorically.

But the duckweed idea was really just to prove a point. A great deal of NASA’s agricultural research has been devoted to trying to grow things for astronauts to make them happier on the long, outbound trips—which is very important. It is a very alien environment and I think people underestimate that. People who have not been in really difficult field circumstances have no apparent understanding of the profound impact of habitat on the human psyche and our ability to perform. Those of us who have lived in mock Mars habitats, or who have gone into places like caves, or even just people who have traveled a lot, outside of their comfort zone, know that. Your circumstances affect you.

One of the things we designed, for example, was a way to illuminate an interior subsurface space by projecting a light through fluid systems—because you’d do two things. You’d get photosynthetic activity of these crops, but you’d also get a significant amount of very soothing light into the interior space.

We had such a fabulous time doing that project. We just ran with the idea of: what you can do to make the space that a planet has provided for you into actual, livable space.

From Boston’s presentation report on the Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments, NIAC Phase II study (PDF).

Twilley: Earlier on our Venue travels, we actually drove through Hanksville, Utah, where many of the Mars analog environment studies are done.

Boston: I’ve actually done two crews there. It’s incredibly effective, considering how low-fidelity it is.

Twilley: What makes it so effective?

Boston: Simple things are the most critical. The fact that you have to don a spacesuit and the incredible cumbersomeness of that—how it restricts your physical space in everything from how you turn your head to how your visual field is limited. Turning your head doesn’t work anymore, because you just look inside your helmet; your whole body has to turn, and it can feel very claustrophobic.

Then there are the gloves, where you’ve got your astronaut gloves on and you’re trying to manipulate the external environment without your normal dexterity. And there’s the cumbersomeness and, really, the psychological burden of having to simulate going through an airlock cycle. It’s tremendously effective. Being constrained with the same group of people, it is surprisingly easy to buy into the simulation. It’s not as if you don’t know you’re not on Mars, but it doesn’t take much to make a convincing simulation if you get those details right.

The Mars Desert Research Station, Hanksville, Utah; image courtesy of bandgirl807/Wikipedia.

I guess that’s what was really surprising to me, the first time I did it: how little it took to be transform your human experience and to really cause you to rethink what you have to do. Because everything is a gigantic pain in the butt. Everything you know is wrong. Everything you think in advance that you can cope with fails in the field. It is a humbling experience, and an antidote to hubris. I would like to take every engineer I know that works on space stuff—

Twilley: —and put them in Hanksville! [laughter]

Boston: Yes—seriously! I have sort of done that, by taking these loafer-wearing engineers—most of whom are not outdoorsy people in any way, who haunt the halls of MIT and have absorbed the universe as a built environment—out to something as simple as the lava tubes. I could not believe how hard it was for them. Lava tubes are not exactly rigorous caving. Most of these are walk-in, with only a little bit of scrambling, but you would have thought we’d just landed on Mars. It was amazing for some of them, how totally urban they are and how little experience they have of coping with a natural space. I was amazed.

I actually took a journalist out to a lava tube one time. I think this lady had never left her house before! There’s a little bit of a rigorous walk over the rocks—but it was as if she had never walked on anything that was not flat before.

From Venue’s own visit to a lava tube outside Flagstaff, AZ.

It’s just amazing what one’s human experience does. This is why I think engineers should be forced to go out into nature and see if the systems they are designing can actually work. It’s one of the best ways for them to challenge their assumptions, and even to change the types of questions they might be asking in the first place.

(This interview was previously published on Venue).

Comparative Planetology: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

[Image: The face of Nicholson Crater, Mars, courtesy of the ESA].

According to The New York Times Book Review, the novels of Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson “constitute one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern science fiction.” I might argue, however, that Robinson is fundamentally a landscape writer.
That is, Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but his novels are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

In his most recent trilogy – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting – we see the earth becoming radically unlike itself through climate change. Floods drown the U.S. capital; fierce winter ice storms leave suburban families powerless, in every sense of the word; and the glaciers of concrete and glass that we have mistaken for civilization begin to reveal their inner weaknesses.
The stand-alone novel Antarctica documents the cuts, bruises, and theoretical breakthroughs of environmental researchers as they hike, snowshoe, sledge, belay, and fly via helicopter over the fractured canyons and crevasses of the southern continent. They wander across “shear zones” and find rooms buried in the ice, natural caves linked together like a “shattered cathedral, made of titanic columns of driftglass.”
Meanwhile, in Robinson’s legendary Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars – the bulk of the narrative is, again, complete planetary transformation, this time on Mars. The Red Planet, colonized by scientists, is deliberately remade – or terraformed – to be climatically, hydrologically, and agriculturally suited for human life. Yet this is a different kind of human life – it, too, has been transformed: politically and psychologically.
In his recent book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson devotes an entire chapter to Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Jameson writes that “utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them.”
Across all his books, Robinson is never afraid to imagine these radical alternatives. Indeed, in the interview posted below he explains that “I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms.”

In the following interview, then, Kim Stanley Robinson talks to BLDGBLOG about climate change, from Hurricane Katrina to J.G. Ballard; about the influence of Greek island villages on his descriptions of Martian base camps; about life as a 21st century primate in the 24/7 “techno-surround”; how we must rethink utopia as we approach an age without oil; whether “sustainability” is really the proper thing to be striving for; and what a future archaeology of the space age might find.
This interview also includes previously unpublished photos by Robinson himself, taken in Greece and Antarctica.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in the possibility that literary genres might have to be redefined in light of climate change. In other words, a novel where two feet of snow falls on Los Angeles, or sand dunes creep through the suburbs of Rome, would be considered a work of science fiction, even surrealism, today; but that same book, in fifty years’ time, could very well be a work of climate realism, so to speak. So if climate change is making the world surreal, then what it means to write a “realistic” novel will have to change. As a science fiction novelist, does that affect how you approach your work?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I’ve been saying this for a number of years: that now we’re all living in a science fiction novel together, a book that we co-write. A lot of what we’re experiencing now is unsurprising because we’ve been prepped for it by science fiction. But I don’t think surrealism is the right way to put it. Surrealism is so often a matter of dreamscapes, of things becoming more than real – and, as a result, more sublime. You think, maybe, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and the way that he sees these giant catastrophes as a release from our current social set-up: catastrophe and disaster are aestheticized and looked at as a miraculous salvation from our present reality. But it wouldn’t really be like that.

I started writing about Earth’s climate change in the Mars books. I needed something to happen on Earth that was shocking enough to allow a kind of historical gap in which my Martians could realistically establish independence. I had already been working with Antarctic scientists who were talking about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and how unstable it might be – so I used that, and in Blue Mars I showed a flooded London. But after you get past the initial dislocations and disasters, what you’ve got is another landscape to be inhabited – another situation that would have its own architecture, its own problems, and its own solutions.

To a certain extent, later, in my climate change books, I was following in that mold with the flood of Washington DC. I wrote that scene before Katrina. After Katrina hit, my flood didn’t look the same. I think it has to be acknowledged that the use of catastrophe as a literary device is not actually adequate to talk about something which, in the real world, is often so much worse – and which comes down to a great deal of human suffering.

So there may have been surreal images coming out of the New Orleans flood, but that’s not really what we take away from it.

[Image: Refugees gather outside the Superdome, New Orleans, post-Katrina].

BLDGBLOG: Aestheticizing these sorts of disasters can also have the effect of making climate change sound like an adventure. In Fifty Degrees Below, for instance, you wrote: “People are already fond of the flood… It was an adventure. It got people out of their ruts.” The implication is that people might actually be excited about climate change. Is there a risk that all these reports about flooded cities and lost archipelagoes and new coastlines might actually make climate change sound like some sort of survivalist adventure?

Robinson: It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.

[Image: New Orleans under water, post-Katrina; photographer unknown].

BLDGBLOG: Mars has a long history as a kind of utopian destination – and, in that, your Mars trilogy is no exception. What is it about Mars that brings out this particular kind of speculation?

Robinson: Well, it brings up an unusual modern event that can happen in our mental landscapes, which is comparative planetology. That wasn’t really available to us before the modern era – really, until Viking.

One thing about Mars is that it’s a radically impoverished landscape. You start with nothing – the bare rock, the volatile chemicals that are needed for life, some water, and an empty landscape. That makes it a kind of gigantic metaphor, or modeling exercise, and it gives you a way to imagine the fundamentals of what we’re doing here on Earth. I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth – because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time. We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things. In some ways, there have been improvements, in terms of human support systems, but there’s still so much damage, damage that’s gone unacknowledged or ignored, even when all along we knew it was happening. People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.

[Images: Mars, courtesy of NASA].

Mars is an interesting platform where we can model these things. But I don’t know that we’ll get there for another fifty years or so – and once we do get there, I think that for many, many years, maybe many decades, it will function like Antarctica does now: it will be an interesting scientific base that teaches us things and is beautiful and charismatic, but not important in the larger scheme of human history on Earth. It’s just an interesting place to study, that we can learn things from. Actually, for many years, Mars will be even less important to us than Antarctica, because the Antarctic is at least part of our ecosphere.

But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.

Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, your lifestyle may now be carbon neutral – but was it really any good in the first place?

Robinson: Right. Especially if it’s been encoding, or essentially legitimizing, a grotesque hierarchy of social injustice of the most damaging kind. And the tendency for capitalism to want to overlook that – to wave its hands and say: well, it’s a system in which eventually everyone gets to prosper, you know, the rising tide floats all boats, blah blah – well, this is just not true.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.

[Images: (top) Michael Reynolds, architect. Turbine House, Taos, New Mexico. Photograph © Michael Reynolds, 2007. (bottom) Steve Baer, designer. House of Steve Baer, Corrales, New Mexico, 1971. Photography © Jon Naar, 1975/2007. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, from their excellent, and uncannily well-timed, exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas].

BLDGBLOG: When it actually comes to designing the future, what will permaculture look like? Where will its structures and ideas come from?

Robinson: Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought – and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms – was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design?

As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time. And I think it is.

[Image: American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels, 20 June 1979. Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

This is one of the reasons I’ve been talking about climate change, and the possibility of abrupt climate change, as potentially a good thing – in that it forces us to confront problems that we were going to sweep under the carpet for hundreds of years. Now, suddenly, these problems are in our face and we have to deal. And part of dealing is going to be design.

I don’t think people fully comprehend what a gigantic difference their infrastructure makes, or what it feels like to live in a city with public transport, like Paris, compared to one of the big autopias like southern California. The feel of existence is completely different. And of course the carbon burn is also different – and the sense that everybody’s in the same boat together. This partly accounts for the difference between urban voters and rural voters: rural voters – or out-in-the-country voters – can imagine that they’re somehow independent, and that they don’t rely on other people. Meanwhile, their entire tech is built elsewhere. It’s a fantasy, and a bad one as it leads to a false assessment of the real situation.

The Mars books were where I focused on these design questions the most. I had to describe fifteen or twenty invented towns or social structures based around their architecture. Everything from little settlements to crater towns to gigantic cities, to all sorts of individual homes in the outback – how do you occupy the outback? how do you live? – and it was a great pleasure. I think, actually, that one of the main reasons people enjoyed those Mars books was in seeing these alternative design possibilities envisioned and being able to walk around in them, imaginatively.

BLDGBLOG: Were there specific architectural examples, or specific landscapes, that you based your descriptions on?

Robinson: Sure. They had to do with things that I’d seen or read about. And, you know, reading Science News week in and week out, I was always attentive to what the latest in building materials or house design was.

Also, I seized on anything that seemed human-scale and aesthetically pleasing and good for a community. I thought of Greek villages in Crete, and also the spectacular stuff on Santorini. One of the things I learned, wandering around Greek archaeological sites – I’m very interested in archaeology – is that they clearly chose some of their town sites not just for practical concerns but also for aesthetic pleasure. They would put their towns in places where it would look good to live – where you would get a permanent sense that the town was a work of art, as well as a practical solution to economic and geographical problems. That was something I wanted to do on Mars over and over again.

[Image: Photos of Greece, inspiration for life on Mars, taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Mondragon, Spain, was also a constant reference point, and Kerala, in southern India. I was looking at cooperative, or leftist, places. Bologna, Italy. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance, in a different kind of way. Also, cities where public transport on a human scale could be kept in mind. That’s mostly northern Europe.

So those were some of the reference points that I remember – but I was also trying to think about how humans might inhabit the unusual Martian features: the cliffsides, the hidden cities that I postulated might be necessary. I was attracted to anything that had to do with circularity, because of the stupendous number of craters on Mars. The Paul Sattelmeier indoor/outdoor house, which is round and easy to build, was something I noticed in Science News as a result of this fixation.

There was a real wide net I could cast there – and it was fun. If you give yourself a whole world to play with, you don’t have to choose just one solution – you can describe any number of solutions – and I think that was politically true as well as architecturally true with my Mars books. They weren’t proposing one master solution, as in the old utopias, but showing that there are a variety of possible solutions, with different advantages and disadvantages.

[Image: A photograph of Santorini taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of archaeology, one of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was that some archaeologists are now speculating that sites like the Apollo moon landing, or the final resting spot of the Mars rovers, will someday be like Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: they’ll be excavated and studied and preserved and mapped.

Robinson: Yes, and places like Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, will be quite beautiful. They’ll work as great statuary – like megaliths. They’ll have that charismatic quality and, in their ruin, they should be quite beautiful. As you know, that was one great attraction of the Romantic era – to ruins, to the suggestion of age – and there will be something nicely contradictory about something as futuristic as space artifacts suggesting ruins and the ancient past. That’s sure to come.

The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.

So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.

Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.

[Image: Two painted views of a human future on Mars, courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: That’s the same situation as with these lakes in Antarctica buried beneath the ice: to study them, we have to drill down into them, but by drilling down into them, we might immediately introduce microbes and bacteria and even chemicals into the water – which will mean that there’s not much left for us to study.

Robinson: They’re already having that problem with Lake Vostok. The Russians have got an ice drill that’s already maybe too close to the lake, and in the sphere of influence of the trapped bacteria. And now people are calculating that the water in Lake Vostok might be very heavily pressurized, and like seltzer water, so that breaking through might cause a gusher on the surface that could last six months. The water might just fly out onto the surface – where it would freeze and create a little mountain up there, of fresh water. Who knows? I mean, at that point, whatever was going on, in bacterial terms, with that lake in particular – that’s ruined. There are many other lakes beneath the Antarctic surface, so it isn’t as if we don’t have more places we could save or study, but that one is already a problem.

[Image: Architecture in Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Also, I do like the archaeological sites in Antarctica from the classic era. Those are worth comparing to the space program. Going to Antarctica in 1900 was like us going into space today: as Oliver Morton has put it, it was the hardest thing that technology allowed humans to do at the time. So you could imagine those guys as being in space suits and doing space station-type stuff – but, of course, from our angle, it looks like Boy Scout equipment. It’s amazing that they got away with it at all. Those are the most beautiful spaces – the Shackleton/Scott sites – even the little cairns that Amundsen left behind, or the crashed airplanes from the 1920s: they all become vividly important reminders of our past and of our technological progress. They deserve to be protected fully and kind of revered, almost as religious sites, if you’re a humanist.

[Image: Shackleton’s hut, Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

So archaeology in space? Who knows? It’s hard enough to think about what’s going to go on up there. But on earth it’s very neat to think of Cape Canaveral or Baikonur becoming like Shackleton’s hut.

Thinking along this line causes me to wonder about the Stalinist industrial cities in the Urals – you know, like Chelyabinsk-65. These horribly utilitarian extraction economy-type places, incredibly brutal and destructive – once they’re abandoned, and they begin to rust away, they take on a strange kind of aesthetic. As long as you wouldn’t get actively poisoned when you visit them –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Robinson: – I would be really interested to see some of these places. Just don’t step in the sludge, or scratch your arm – the toxicity levels are supposed to be alarming. But, in archaeological terms, I bet they’d be beautiful.

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson, not only for his ongoing output as a writer but for his patience while this interview was edited and assembled. Thanks, as well, to William L. Fox for putting Robinson and I in touch in the first place.
Meanwhile, the recently published catalog for the exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas offers a great look at the “big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print” that Robinson mentions in the above interview. If you see a copy, I’d definitely recommend settling in for a long read.

Mars Bungalow and the Prison of Simulation

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

Following a few links from the perennially great things magazine, I discovered this new attempt at a future Martian architecture.

Meant to house “visitors,” we read, at the Martian north pole, “ANY Design Studios has designed a robot on legs built of Martian ice.” It comes complete with padded walls and a nice little bed.

Note, however, that the walls (on the right) have been painted to look like the Pacific northwest: even on Mars, we will live within simulations.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

“What would it be like to spend nearly two Earth years at the Martian north pole,” we’re asked, “a place where darkness falls for nine months of the year, carbon dioxide snow flutters down in winter and temperatures drop to a chilly minus 150 centigrade?” I, for one, think it would be wonderful.

[Image: ANY Design Studios, via Building Design].

The architecture itself is “a self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs.” It’s thus a cluster of smaller buildings that, together, “would allow for ten people to live indefinitely at the pole.”

The architects behind the project go on to explain that they “have also been exploring the possibility of reproducing programmable Earth environments in a room we have called the ‘Multi Environment Chamber’. Settlers on Mars may well be able to make themselves a cup of tea and settle into a chair with the sun gently warming their skin, cool breezes, and the sound of songbirds of an English orchard on a warm July afternoon” – assuming that such an experience wasn’t precisely what you were trying to get away from in the first place.

These “programmable Earth environments,” though, should undoubtedly include a setting in which you are sitting in a room in southern California, which has been kitted out to look like a Martian base – inside of which a man sits, reminiscing about a room in southern California that he once decorated to look like a Martian bungalow… Which would be referred to as the interplanetary architecture of et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Phrased otherwise, of course, all of this would simply be an inversion of what William L. Fox describes in his recent book, Driving to Mars. There, Fox writes about “the idea of practicing Mars on Earth” – which means simply that, even as I write this, there are teams of astronauts on a remote base in northern Canada, acting as if they are already surrounded by Martian topography.

It’s a form of psychological training: act as if you have already arrived.

So you simply turn that around and find, here, that anyone living inside this “self assembling six module robotic design on tracked landing legs” will really be “practicing Earth on Mars.”

Act as if you never left.

But why not practice, say, Jupiter, instead? Why not be even more ambitious and use each planet in this solar system as a base from which to simulate the rest?

Or you could just abandon simulation altogether, of course, and experience Mars as Mars.

It’s interesting, though, in this context, to look at the naming practices used by NASA through which they claim – or at least label – Martian territory. Landscapes on Earth toponymically reappear on the Martian plains; there is Bonneville Crater and Victoria Crater, for instance; there is Cape Verde and a cute little rock called “Puffin.”

Mars is an alien landscape, then, in everything but name.

Even more fascinating, at least for me, is the small range of Martian hills now “dedicated to the final crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.” Accordingly, these hills now appear on maps as the Columbia Hills Complex. An entire landscape named after dead American astronauts? Surely there’s a J.G. Ballard story about something exactly like this?

Then again, according to one reviewer: “A story by J.G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think.” Uh oh.

(Note: For more on Martian architecture don’t miss the unbelievably weird proposal behind Mars Power!, discussed earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Mars Rover: A New Film by BLDGBLOG


While editing a recent post about the Mars rover, I got to thinking – as you would – about how to make an animated, feature-length children’s film, starring another such rover, set in the immediate future…


In the film, the rover would go tootling around in its cute little animated way, wheeling across unbelievable landscapes, snapping Ansel Adams-like photographs of alien tectonics, volcanoes and basins, systems of canyons that redefine the sublime.


Hills, arches, gorges; mountains surrounded by clouds of methane. Erosion; windstorms; evidence of ancient floods.
Plus, it’s a cute little rover. Kids love the thing. They pressure their parents to name family pets after it. Burger King sells a small plastic version of it with their happy meals, or whatever they make there. T-shirts. Pajamas.


In any case, our erstwhile hero, the little rover, is Artificially Intelligent – and he’s funny. Maybe his voice is by Paul Giamatti. And he gradually sort of wakes up, comes to consciousness, and falls head over heels – monitor over wheels – in love with the world, in love with landscapes, with everything – with emotion and memory – in love with love, and hope, and fear – and he starts to wax poetic over a radio-link back to mission control, his friends and creators, they’re cheering, and to television viewers sitting on sofas at home, going on about how wonderful everything is.
How beautiful that world, in which he travels alone, can really be. It’s not lonely, see. He’s on fire inside. His own little robot mind is as deep as the canyons he explores.
He smiles.


Kids in the cinema aren’t blinking at this point; it’s too amazing. Everyone’s in love with this little rover. It’s like bloody Dead Poets Society out there; everyone’s feeling it. Everyone’s alive. Cynics are vomiting into popcorn boxes.
But then the Martian seasons change, and the rover has to shut down – to be shut down, by mission control. The kids in the cinema start to worry. Frowns appear. Dads grow nervous, re-crossing their legs, only vaguely reassured that the film is rated PG.
You see people on-screen, back at mission control, wringing their hands, preparing to remotely shut off the rover – but the rover loves life, damn it, he loves what he’s seeing, he wants to see more! He wants to live – and he’s funny – and he’s got a friend back at mission control who has to push the button, but she can’t because she loves him – what do you mean shut him down?! – she loves his silly robot eyes, and his enthusiasm, and his stupid voice, and these amazing things he’s been showing to everyone back on earth, and she can’t do it.
She can’t kill the little guy.


Some kids are crying now; she’s crying. Not the little guy! With his tiny wheels pushing further into life and alien landscapes.
Not him!
Enter some sinister, technocratic boss figure – with a voice by Robert Duvall – and he forces her: the button is pushed, mission control sends the command, and our friendly, naive robot hero of off-planet landscape exploration, in the midst of a sad why are you doing this to me? weepy monologue, his AI-eyes wide and worried and scared of that darkness into which his circuits will go – overlooking the most beautiful canyon he’s discovered so far – suddenly he is no more.


The rover’s little eye-lights fade. Martian winds erase his tracks. Grown men wipe away tears before their wives can see them.
The credits roll.
Kids leave the cinema howling. Moms give out hugs left and right. Oscar nominations roll in. I retire to Arizona on the proceeds and begin carving strange topological forms into the desert floor.
Movie producers: you know where to find me.

Mars and its stunt double


[Images: A “faux Mars” being air-brushed and constructed in a lab in southern California “to simulate the environment” on the red planet. Contrast that with a photo taken by Spirit, the robotic Ansel Adams of Mars, showing “Larry’s Lookout, a pit stop along the robot’s uphill trail as it explores the red planet.”

“Instant City” on Mars

MIT’s Mars Homestead Project plans on one-upping Archigram and Buckminster Fuller both with its plans for high-tech, locally-fabricated homes on Mars. Each home will be outfitted with a garden, library, greenhouse, and private parking space, exporting middle class comforts deep into space; and all of it will be made locally, farmed from elements occurring naturally in the atmosphere and soil. Or ‘the surface,’ I should say…

After “a seven-month journey inside a container the size of a minivan” hopeful colonists will decamp into “a comfy home – made with locally produced red brick, metal and fiberglass”. The homes may even be built directly into Martian hillsides, forming Tolkien-esque towns accessible through multiple airlocks. The airlocks, in tandem with reinforced building materials, will prevent explosive pressure leaks: “Materials such as brick and stone will have to be lined or sealed with plastic or fiberglass, and sufficiently reinforced with soil or other materials to prevent the buildings from exploding.”

Meanwhile, the Mars Society has already constructed a prototype Martian city on Devon Island, Canada, called the Flashline Arctic Research Station. Even more interestingly, due to the very real fear of “cabin fever” and extreme claustrophobia – or other, as yet undiscovered, architectural pathologies – in Martian settlers, “‘we have added a psychiatrist to the project team, to evaluate those issues’,” claims Mark Homnick, co-founder of the Mars Homestead Project. (All quotations from Mark Baard, “Builders in a Strange Land,” 18 June 2004, Wired online; see also ExploreMarsNow.org).