Red planet. Blue Mars.
Call it a brand or merely a clever, catchy phrase, but this is how MTSU’s scientific and academic communities are approaching the future and potential colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from our sun.
Since September 2017 and at the invitation of Dr. David Butler, vice provost for research, MTSU scholars have been considering many avenues in the quest to assist human life once it begins to populate Mars.
With all the futuristic talk from both NASA and the private sector, including billionaire Space X CEO Elon Musk and others, MTSU’s Blue Mars project is exploring the human experience of inhabiting Mars — including all things biological, social, philosophical and technological, Butler said.
“Our goal is to generate innovative and future-looking scholarship by building a critical mass of thought leading to publications, accompanied by grant funding,” added Butler, who also is dean of the College of Graduate Studies.
“Humankind is uniquely and dependently a product of Earth. The human condition, our understanding of and approaches to ourselves, Earth and the universe comes from our sole vantage point: life on Earth looking outward.”
“Investment and innovation toward human travel to and from Mars is accelerating with human landing and eventual settlement,” Butler added.
Butler said organizers of the initiative “looked for large trends in research and then [plan to] conceive ideas that can be inclusive with as many faculty at MTSU as possible.” Topics and concepts that have been discussed for the project include agriculture, health and medicine, water, building and infrastructure.
Butler said he’s so far found faculty “very receptive. The interest is large and varied. The goal now is for these faculty to narrow their areas of interest into projects that are achievable.”
MTSU’s Claudia Barnett, a professor in the Department of English and a playwright at heart, said her Blue Mars involvement stems from a keen interest in science. She writes plays “inspired by science,” including “Aglaonike’s Tiger,” a play about astronomy.
“Because what playwrights do is create worlds, and the idea of going to Mars — that’s basically the same thing — we’re talking about creating a world on a different planet,” she said, adding that she’s “intrigued by the diverse perspectives of my colleagues in various fields and how they’re approaching issues I’d never have thought of on my own,.”
The issues include both practical — how to take care of a dead body — and philosophical — what it means to be human — aspects of life on Earth and if those would change on Mars along with our DNA, said Barnett, who’s still defining her formal project.
Professor Tony Johnston is a scientist in MTSU’s School of Agribusiness and Agriscience. His involvement as director with the university’s new fermentation science program led to proposing to research the use of fermentation to recycle wastes, including processing of whole human bodies.
“Once we get to Mars, we’ll not be sending dead humans back to Earth for burial. and it’s even too expensive to ‘throw them out to space,’” Johnston said.
“In reality, our bodies are loaded with minerals and elements we’ll need to create soils on Mars. We need to be doing research now to prepare for permanent settlement, and that includes taking care of ourselves after death.”
For this to occur, Johnston said actual research can be conducted on Earth “by simply recreating the atmospheric conditions on Mars.”
“Since there is no oxygen in the (Martian) environment, there are many anaerobic organisms here on Earth to take to Mars and to experiment with here before we depart,” he said.
“In fact, I argue that we need to do this research now for Earth’s own purposes,” he added. “We are not long for running out of space to bury our dead, and cremation is energy intensive. Microorganisms can do the job for free.”
Johnston said he considers MTSU faculty “a fantastic brain trust. We just need to focus on a task. The ideas presented thus far are excellent. We now need money and time to see them through to fruition.”
MTSU students have been involved from the beginning. Butler and his staff invited doctoral students for the first round of Blue Mars discussions and, he said, “as the projects mature, there are plans to increase participation from all levels.”
Engineering technology, marketing, journalism, criminal justice, sociology and anthropology, geosciences, human sciences, organizational commnunications and philosophy have been among the many cross-disciplines participating in the enterprise.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)