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In early 2021, The Atlantic ran the headline, “Mars Is a Hellhole.” The thrust of which was that—contrary to the schemes of rocket-building billionaire Elon Musk—the Red Planet is, in fact, not that great a place to hang out. Musk had announced that his visionary new Starship rocket would fly within a week, and the science writer Shannon Stirone saw the opportunity to skewer SpaceX’s mission and Musk’s obsession to colonize Mars for the good of humanity. “It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans,” Stirone wrote. “Mars will kill you.”

Nevertheless, if Musk manages to build a cheap-enough road, people will travel. At least that’s what astrophysicist Martin Rees, author of The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration, argues in a new episode of Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, and a Nautilus contributor, says that by 2100 humanity will have a small colony on Mars made up mostly of adventurers—people willing, on their own dime, to risk death for glory or simply a strange new life. There won’t be permanent research outposts or military bases that humans occupy and that national governments on Earth run—at least not in the near term. NASA and other government space agencies will have long moved on from counting on taxpayers to fund missions that expend great sums of money to ensure human astronauts stay safe while exploring space and planets like Mars: Sending sophisticated robots out to explore will be much less risky and more affordable with just as much scientific reward. For Rees, this means the vast majority of humans in space will be adventure-seeking colonists. Far away from any regulatory bodies on Earth that would crack down on radical human experimentation, the scrappy denizens of Mars will take full advantage of the most-advanced technology they can get to enhance themselves into genetically modified cyborgs better suited to Mars’ harsh conditions. As a result these “crazy pioneers,” Rees says, “will become a different species within a few hundred years.”

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The cosmos could be teeming with electronic life we simply don’t understand how to see.

But the changes wouldn’t necessarily stop there. The Martians might do away with flesh and blood bodies altogether and transition to electronic ones. In that form, they wouldn’t need an atmosphere to survive and their bones wouldn’t need the tug of Mars’ gravity to stay strong. “They’d be near immortal,” Rees says, “and would go off into interstellar space. The far future would be one in which our remote descendants, mediated by these crazy adventurers on Mars, will start spreading throughout the Milky Way.” 

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If our electronic progeny encounter spacefaring beings out there, according to Rees, they’ll likely be some sort of inorganic intelligence, too. In his 2015 Nautilus story “Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic,” Rees makes the case that organisms capable of reaching the stars are only briefly biological beings. They soon transcend fleshy limitations, and that may be the—or at least an—answer to the Fermi (“Where are all the aliens?”) paradox: We’re not detecting them because we’re not looking for the right kinds of signatures. The cosmos could be teeming with electronic life we simply don’t understand how to see. “A radio engineer familiar only with amplitude modulation might have a hard time decoding modern wireless communications,” Rees wrote. “Indeed, compression techniques aim to make the signal as close to noise as possible—insofar as a signal is predictable, there’s scope for more compression.”

This all would be somewhat of an ironic outcome for Musk. He claims to be going to Mars for humanity, and values human life over other forms. In other words, a proud speciesist. Yet, if Rees is right, humans living on Mars will quickly opt for a decreasingly human future. The machines are coming, and we are them—“the transient precursor,” Rees wrote, “to the deeper cogitations of another culture.”

Biologist Scott Solomon struck the same note in his Nautilus story on the evolutionary consequences of moving to Mars. “Should some disaster occur on Earth, colonizing Mars might be necessary for our long-term survival,” he wrote. “Yet the strategy meant to preserve our species might ultimately change us forever.”

Lead image: Tithi Luadthong / Shutterstock

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