A tale of two camps and possibly two planets | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 10.05.2017
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A tale of two camps and possibly two planets

What's better than one planet? Two planets. And Stephen Hawking wasn't the first to say it. Pioneering astrophysicist J. Richard Gott says colonizing Mars will double humankind's chance of survival.

DW: Are these good times for astrophysics and space exploration? You've spoken about President Kennedy's support for the Apollo mission and that when Nixon cut the funding, the mission was dead. And now President Trump has just recently signed new legislation in support of NASA. Trump says he wants the US to be the first on Mars and that NASA should continue its work. How confident do you feel about that?

J. Richard Gott: Time will tell. Realize that I saw Apollo 11 take off. I went to see it, and it was the most amazing thing. Now if you had asked people in 1969 when we would be landing on Mars, they would have all said 1985. 1985! And [Wernher] von Braun had plans to land astronauts on Mars by 1982. Nixon cancelled the program after it landed on the moon; he just cut it off.

They said, "Well, can you give us something?" and he said, "A shuttle. At least there won't be much money during my administration. It'll all just be in the development stage."

We were churning out Saturn rockets, two a year. We could have used those later, but we don't even have the plans, we lost [them]. We need a heavy-lift vehicle today.

Well, you've got SpaceX coming up with that, haven't you?

Well the exciting thing that has just happened is that NASA said, "Oh, we've got this heavy-lift vehicle we're building - we think we'll use it to send astronauts around the moon in 2018. And this is really fast, okay! [laughs] And Mr. Musk said, "I think I can do it too!" This is the first time people have even been talking about going out of low-Earth orbit.

 J. Richard Gott (Denise Applewhite)

J. Richard Gott is known for his research into the structure of the universe and its "cosmic web"

And here's why this stuff is important. We live on one tiny planet in the universe. Species that live on an island, isolated, go extinct.

Ah, I had a feeling you might branch out to this. Stephen Hawking has just been saying …

The best way for a species to survive is to spread out and multiply.

So you agree with Hawking that we have 100 years to get "off-planet"?

Yes, but listen, I've been saying this for many years, even, I think, before Stephen came on the scene with it! Here's the thing. The timescale that's relevant here is that the space program has only been around for 55 years or so. You're a citizen of the space-faring empire. How long is it going to last? We've had this highly advanced space technology for only 55 years, it's expensive, and the danger is that someone like President Nixon will cut it off.

But that's just it. President Trump has said publicly: I'm backing this. I want America at the front …

That's good news, and it's a program that might actually appeal to him [laughs]. If you want to "make America great again," which is what he says he wants to do, sending people to Mars would change human civilization.

Donald Trump unterzeichnet NASA Haushalt (picture alliance/dpa/Newscom)

President Donald Trump signing a new law in March 2017, backing NASA and effectively ordering the agency to go to Mars

It would change human history. It would no longer be "world history," because we'd have two planets. It would perhaps double our long-term survival chances, because we'd have two chances instead of one. And if you go to the Natural History Museum [in London], you can see the Tyrannosaurus Rex standing there …

I did just a few weeks ago, and they've turned it into a robot …

… it was king of the world, and it's gone now. Do catastrophes occur on the Earth and cause your species to go extinct? You bet! So a smart thing for us to do right now, when we have a space program and a chance, is to try and plant a colony on Mars. We have the ability to do that. You know, make copies and store them elsewhere. This is how life has been fighting extinction.

I've spoken with evolutionary biologists in Germany who have said we're unlikely to go extinct because we're intelligent and able to adapt, or that we evolved on Earth, this is where we belong ...

There's a disconnect here, and this is what my work on this topic has been about. If you talk to various evolutionary biologists, they'll say things like, "Well, of course we're going to go extinct; we're not going to last hundreds of millions of years like the dinosaurs," …

USA Stephen Hawking in New York (picture alliance/dpa/EPA/J. Szenes)

Stephen Hawking says we have 100 years to get off planet Earth before we either wipe each other out or get wiped out

But, realistically, we're not suited to life off-planet. Astronauts on the International Space Station have trouble with bone loss, sickness, blindness. It's nice to dream about getting to Mars, building rockets, and having this commercial endeavor. But we haven't dealt with all these other issues that will hit us when we get there, have we?

Well, Mars has a carbon dioxide atmosphere. You can get oxygen out of that. It's got plenty of water, and if you're worried about radiation, you can live underground on Mars. Our ancestors were cave-dwellers. They were perfectly happy. And the problem with bone loss - that's to do with weightlessness, but Mars has gravity.

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Building houses on Mars with 3-d printers?

Some people say, "Mars isn't very habitable, it's not as good as the Earth, so why would you want to move there?" Well, if amphibians had listened to that argument, they would still be in the ocean. Nothing would be on land. On Mars, we would have to have spacesuits. Okay. A chicken egg is a spacesuit for the embryo, to keep its liquid in, because it's evolved from something that came out of the sea. So when you see a chicken egg, that's a little spacesuit for this creature to reproduce the underwater conditions that life started with.        

J. Richard Gott is known for his work on the architecture of the universe. He was one of the first cosmologists to propose the idea that it's structured like a sponge made up of clusters of galaxies intricately connected by filaments of galaxies - a "cosmic web." He is a professor of astrophysics at Princeton University, and his most recent books include "The Cosmic Web" and "Welcome to the Universe," which he co-wrote with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michael Strauss. Both are published by Princeton University Press.

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