Melting Mars (Supervillain Style)

Only twenty days until the adaptation of The Martian hits theaters! The sci-fi survival tale will undoubtedly fuel interest in the feasibility of real-life trips to the Red Planet. NASA head Charles Bolden anticipates such a mission could occur in the 2030s, although Martian author Andy Weir thinks 2050 is a more reasonable timeline. In either case, it would take a long time to make Mars habitable for humans. But everyone’s favorite mad scientist, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, has proposed a solution to expedite the process, one that has the ring of bad foreign policy: bombing Mars.

On last night’s episode of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”, Musk called Mars “a fixer-upper of a planet”. Its frigid climate poses challenges to colonization. One solution is the introduction of greenhouse gases, which would warm the planet over a span of years (hey, it worked on Earth, right?). Musk’s alternative could heat things up much more quickly: detonating thermonuclear weapons over the poles. The radical idea prompted Colbert to dub his guest a “supervillain”. (Of course, if he really were a supervillain, he probably wouldn’t have joined Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak this summer in calling for a ban on AI weapons; what supervillain doesn’t love evil robots?)

Combine all these themes—a Martian colony, murderous androids, nuking an alien planet—and you’ve got a sci-fi spectacular that might give The Martian a run at the box office. But beneath the outlandish implications lie some serious questions. If Earth’s environments continue to decline, colonizing another world may no longer be a matter of novelty science, but one of species survival. How ironic if we accomplish it with the tools that put us in such dire straits to begin with!

Humanity’s track record of controlling these things isn’t exactly stellar. We’ve glimpsed the devastation of nuclear fallout, and even now we’re failing to control the effects of greenhouse gases. Could we really employ these methods for “good” instead of “evil” in a terraforming effort? Musk may not be a supervillain, but his vision exposes some superhero-caliber questions of technological power and the Promethean hubris of those who wield it.

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