Rockstar Physicist Brian Cox On Why Mars Is The Future
Mars has terrified humans for millennia. Back in 3000 BC, the ancient Sumerians peered at the blazing red dot in the sky and believed it to be Nergal, their fiery god of the underworld. The Romans thought along similar lines and gave the planet its current appellation, named after their murderous, battle-hungry god of war. Even today Mars is generally presented as forbiddingly hostile when it appears in films or novels—but physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox thinks we need a change of perspective.
“It’s not science fiction any more to say, ‘If we’re going to continue to expand as a civilisation, how are we going to do it without damaging this planet?’” says Cox. “To me, there’s only one answer—if we want to expand, we have to expand upwards. And we will go to Mars because there’s nowhere else to go.”
Cox would know. He is first and foremost a scientist—currently a professor at Manchester University in the UK—but he has found global fame as a presenter of documentaries, taking millions of viewers on virtual journeys through the galaxy, from the towering ice mountains of Pluto to the frozen lakes of Mars, where astronomers are searching for the first signs of extraterrestrial life using remote-controlled rovers.
To Infinity And Beyond
Soon, scientists might be able to study these lakes in person. “SpaceX [Elon Musk’s aerospace company] wants to go to Mars within a decade,” says Cox.
“It’s possible that you could, if you had the investment. More likely two decades, I guess. The great change in the last few years is the development of reusable rockets, and SpaceX is in the lead there. For the first time in history we can fly into space and then bring the thing that took us into space back again.”
These rockets could carry astronauts, scientists and, eventually, anyone who wanted or needed to move from Earth. “There’s a plan called Mars Direct, which is basically a plan to send the stuff first,” explains Cox. “You send the base first, without the people, then once the base is working you send people. Then it’s a permanent settlement and it grows.”
Colonising Mars is just one stage in what Cox sees as humanity’s journey to becoming a “space-faring civilisation.”
“If you talk to [Amazon’s] Jeff Bezos, he wants to zone the Earth residential. It’s a very good idea,” says Cox, who thinks it’s only a matter of time until we rid the world of heavy industry and its associated pollution by generating power through sprawling solar farms in space and mining elements such as zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold from asteroids. “The power and resources are not here on Earth—they’re up there in the asteroid belt. The power is a few hundred miles above our heads.”
This might sound like a utopian vision, but it’s underway. “There are already asteroid mining companies, and ask yourself why three of the most dynamic entrepreneurs in the world—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and [Virgin’s] Richard Branson—have rocket companies. One is purely economic— there’s loads of money in it. And without space exploration, we would not function as a civilisation now. Our whole civilisation is already built on aerospace infrastructure, from weather forecasting to communications to navigation. We have already industrialised Earth’s orbit.”
See also: Yuri And Julia Milner: Breakthrough Prize Founders On Philanthropy, Science And The Search For Alien Life
Among the Stars
Cox’s belief in the importance of a mission to Mars was touched on in his latest TV series, The Planets, which premiered this summer, and in his latest live tour, which saw him present theories about space, time and the planets to audiences in cities including Hong Kong, Singapore and London earlier this year.
In the British capital, all tickets sold out to his show at Wembley Arena—a 12,500-seat venue that even stars such as Taylor Swift have struggled to fill it.
If we want to expand, we have to expand upwards. And we will go to Mars because there’s nowhere else to go.
— Brian Cox
“I’d like to push the live shows a bit more,” says Cox. “It’s a new form, really. It’s half public lecture, half spectacle.” Beyond that, he doesn’t know what’s next. He’d like to get a commercial flight into space—but what about Mars? “I wouldn’t go to Mars,” he admits. “It’s too far. That’s a different sort of person to me.”
Maybe beneath all the hope and excitement surrounding a mission to Mars, a little fear still lingers.
See also: The Space Race: 3 Billionaires Who Are Conquering The Cosmos