Stop Trying to Nuke Mars. Start Trying to Fix Earth.

Elon Musk has been in the news talk­ing about nuk­ing Mars. Again. Sigh. This is a pro­found­ly bad idea, and I wish some­one who oth­er­wise seems seri­ous about actu­al­ly send­ing humans to that plan­et would stop even jok­ing about it. Not only has this been tried before, here on Earth, but on Mars it wouldn’t do near­ly enough to make that plan­et hab­it­able. It is a dis­trac­tion. But let’s dig into why any­way.

Engineering our planet with nuclear weapons

There is, as you might expect, a lit­tle bit of his­to­ry around using nukes like this that is worth perus­ing here. Name­ly, that trans­form­ing the land­scape with nukes — rely­ing on their hor­rif­ic destruc­tion to act as a sort of “easy but­ton” for large projects — is as old as the bomb itself. This mind­set was oper­a­tional­ized in the U.S. and Sovi­et Union under the con­cept of Peace­ful Nuclear Explo­sions, or PNEs.

In the U.S., the gov­ern­ment called their scheme Oper­a­tion Ploughshare and from 1961 to 1977 it blew up 35 nuclear bombs see­ing how nuclear bombs might be used to ter­raform the land­scape to make it more ame­lio­ra­tive to indus­tri­al exploita­tion. The project, which Ben­jamin Sova­cool esti­mat­ed cost over $770 mil­lion, was named after the Book of Isa­iah, where in chap­ter 2 the prophet pre­dicts that the com­ing of the son of God will prompt mankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares” and give up war. The scope of the project was grandiose: nukes would widen the Pana­ma Canal, carve rail­ways through the Rocky Moun­tains, exca­vate har­bors, and expand aquifers, even drill for nat­ur­al gas.

One 1958 scheme to build a mas­sive har­bor at Cape Thomp­son on the North Slope of Alas­ka by chain­ing togeth­er five ther­monu­clear explo­sions.

The most viable project for Oper­a­tion Ploughshare’s bombs was to stim­u­late nat­ur­al gas pro­duc­tion — some­thing they tried in a trio of explo­sions called Gas­bug­gy, Ruli­son, and Rio Blan­co. Despite pub­lic oppo­si­tion, espe­cial­ly to the test in Ruli­son, Col­orado, the Supreme Court declined to hear chal­lenges to the explo­sions and ruled that the explo­sions could pro­ceed. It was a dis­as­ter for the area.

Think of it like nuclear frack­ing, in that sense: it is a mechan­i­cal­ly effi­cient way of break­ing apart deep rock for­ma­tions, but by break­ing apart those rocks you desta­bi­lize the sur­round­ing land­scape which can com­pli­cate extrac­tion. Nat­ur­al gas was cer­tain­ly released by these explo­sions, but it con­tained radioac­tive mate­r­i­al from the bomb and thus use­less in a com­mer­cial set­ting. The ini­tial excite­ment about nuclear frack­ing fiz­zled out quick­ly and the exper­i­ments were nev­er repeat­ed. Under­ground nuclear explo­sions are not harm­less, though they are less harm­ful than explo­sions in the atmos­phere. These test det­o­na­tions still spread spread radioac­tive dust into the envi­ron­ment, and many of the Ploughshares sites have been effec­tive­ly quar­an­tined by the Depart­ment of Ener­gy over fears of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion.

Sci­en­tists low­ered a 13-foot by 18-inch­es diam­e­ter nuclear device into a New Mex­i­co gas well. The exper­i­men­tal 29-kilo­ton Project Gas­bug­gy bomb was det­o­nat­ed at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alam­os Lab pho­to.

The U.S. final­ly aban­doned Oper­a­tion Ploughshare once it proved to be extra­or­di­nar­i­ly expen­sive, polit­i­cal­ly trou­bling because of the radi­a­tion leak­age, and some­what inef­fec­tive at its intend­ed pur­pose. Put sim­ply, indi­vid­ual explo­sions were fine, but not big enough to be use­ful on an indus­tri­al scale — you would have to use a lot of nukes to get the job done. Tra­di­tion­al exca­va­tion was more cost effec­tive, and no one want­ed a bunch of under­ground nuclear explo­sions hap­pen­ing near their com­mu­ni­ties.

The Sovi­ets had their own PNE project called Nuclear Explo­sions for the Nation­al Econ­o­my (Ядерные взрывы для народного хозяйства, if you want to look it up). Unlike in the U.S., the scale of the Sovi­et test­ing was aston­ish­ing­ly broad: between 1965 and 1989 they con­duct­ed 156 PNE tests on every­thing from cre­at­ing under­ground aquifers to build­ing dams to reflec­tive seis­mol­o­gy. How­ev­er, much like in the U.S., the tests demon­strat­ed that con­tain­ing the radi­a­tion after these explo­sions was dif­fi­cult and often spoiled the intend­ed results (why cre­ate a radioac­tive water reser­voir?). The cost of drilling and set­ting the nuclear bombs was not low enough to make it a viable alter­na­tive to tra­di­tion­al exca­va­tion projects (plus the largest of the Sovi­et PNE det­o­na­tions, Cha­gan, in 1965, also like­ly vio­lat­ed the Par­tial Test Ban Treaty of 1963). Last­ly, the USSR was dis­tinct­ly neg­li­gent in how it han­dled the com­mu­ni­ties near its test sites, and the region near Semey, Kaza­khstan, where many explo­sions occurred, has been a clus­ter for radi­a­tion-induced can­cer for decades.

So the whole idea of PNE was dis­cred­it­ed and aban­doned by the major nuclear pow­ers decades ago. It is too expen­sive, dif­fi­cult, and unpop­u­lar to both­er with. Why would you want to res­ur­rect it on Mars?

Engineering another planet with nuclear weapons

At a con­cep­tu­al lev­el, nuk­ing Mars sounds sort of fun but only if you don’t think about it for more than a few min­utes. There’s no rea­son to, it is heinous­ly expen­sive, and won’t do the job any­way.

One of the biggest prob­lems humans on Mars face is ion­iz­ing radi­a­tion — the plan­et has no mag­net­ic shield the way Earth does (its core is too solid­i­fied to gen­er­ate one), so the solar wind bathes the planet’s sur­face in radi­a­tion while it strips away the atmos­phere. Why would you want to add more radi­a­tion into that mix? (Yes, I know, peo­ple will say mod­ern ther­monu­clear war­heads release rel­a­tive­ly less radi­a­tion than old­er designs, but again: when radi­a­tion is already a major prob­lem for humans on the sur­face why would you add to that prob­lem?)

The scale of what is need­ed mat­ters here as well. Oper­a­tion Ploughshare was can­celed, in part, because far too many nuclear explo­sions would have been need­ed to make the pro­gram finan­cial­ly viable. And that’s for some­thing as rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple as frack­ing for gas — an indus­tri­al project we have known how to do for decades and at which we have become very good.

No one is real­ly sure how to ter­raform anoth­er plan­et — espe­cial­ly not with bombs. Musk sup­pos­ed­ly wants to nuke the planet’s polar ice caps to release water into the atmos­phere and warm the plan­et. Melt­ing the ice caps isn’t the worst idea, but it’s a non-starter on Mars.

Think of what it’s tak­en to change our own plan­et. Humans worked dili­gent­ly for 150 years to warm the plan­et by about 1 degree cel­sius through mas­sive, plan­e­tary indus­tri­al out­put. In order to just to release Mar’s frozen water and sol­id car­bon diox­ide you would have to explode thou­sands of nuclear war­heads over many decades. And even then, it won’t mat­ter much! Last year, Nature released a study that demon­strates Mars sim­ply does not have enough car­bon diox­ide to thick­en and warm the atmos­phere in any mean­ing­ful way. So even if you do spend decades blow­ing up bombs over the Mar­t­ian poles, there won’t be enough gas released to do the job. Oth­er, less explodey options, like releas­ing high­ly engi­neered microbes to eat the per­chlo­rates in the soil and release green­house gas­es that way, face sim­i­lar prob­lems of scale — you’d need to get microbes to eat the entire sur­face of the plan­et down to a depth of 100 meters to release enough gas into the atmos­phere. For all intents and pur­pos­es, Mars is a vac­u­um — to give it an atmos­phere would require a LOT of gas.

All of this is to say noth­ing of the mon­u­men­tal expense and risk of launch­ing thou­sands of nuclear war­heads into space. Send­ing thou­sands of nukes across inter­plan­e­tary dis­tances is hard, and things go bad and explode, and even SpaceX does not have a suf­fi­cient launch suc­cess rate to ensure that an abort­ed launch won’t scat­ter radioac­tive waste across Flori­da.

One last con­sid­er­a­tion, because even the idea of plan­e­tary scale geo­engi­neer­ing is a process we under­stand so poor­ly: there is also a like­li­hood that rapid­ly cre­at­ing enor­mous clouds of super­heat­ed gas and dust in the atmos­phere will have the oppo­site of its intend­ed effect.

One of the big wor­ries about glob­al ther­monu­clear war­fare on Earth, apart from ren­der­ing the sites of the explo­sions unin­hab­it­able for cen­turies, is that the com­bined clouds, dust, and ash thrown into the atmos­phere would cre­ate a nuclear win­ter — a con­cept pop­u­lar­ized by Carl Sagan in 1983. When exten­sive explo­sions kick up so much dust and debris they can com­plete­ly shroud the sun and impose an unnat­ur­al win­ter on the plan­et that dis­rupts ecosys­tems and could even ends food pro­duc­tion. By explod­ing huge amounts of mate­r­i­al to try to thick­en the atmos­phere, Elon Musk’s lust for cool ‘splo­sions might actu­al­ly make the plan­et less hab­it­able in the process.

Space travel is neat, but these grandiose plans are not

So why would the very smart man who found­ed a suc­cess­ful and inno­v­a­tive rock­et com­pa­ny be so hung up on such a bad idea that he repeats it over and over again over the course of sev­er­al years?

I don’t have a clear answer. Musk’s pen­chant for grandiose think­ing to fire up Twit­ter accounts that stan him is part of his bril­liance at mar­ket­ing — was there any pur­pose to sell­ing those not-a-flamethrow­ers, for exam­ple, beyond cre­at­ing hype and “cool­ness?” I don’t mean to dis­count the role of mar­ket­ing here (it’s a field I work in often!), but it is impor­tant to rec­og­nize the dis­tinc­tion between hype and real­i­ty. Nuk­ing Mars is hype.

How­ev­er, I think it’s also some­thing else. The obses­sion with turn­ing Mars into a back up plan­et for Earth is a dri­ving ide­ol­o­gy for wealthy indus­tri­al­ists and star­ry-eyed sci­ence fic­tion fans in the 21st cen­tu­ry — a potent mix­ture that make media cov­er­age and dis­cus­sion all but inevitable vital if you need to sell stock based pure­ly on your [per­son­al brand!). The chal­lenge with this think­ing is that there is no back up plan­et for Earth — espe­cial­ly not Mars. It sim­ply can­not ever replace our own home — it isn’t big enough, the atmos­phere is too thin and poi­so­nous, the ground is tox­ic, there’s no fea­si­ble way to guard our DNA against the solar radi­a­tion, and we have no known tech­nol­o­gy that could cre­ate a thick atmos­phere and replen­ish the water that has been stripped away over bil­lions of years.

Nor, let us for­get, is there any viable eco­nom­ic argu­ment for a space colony on any time scale — micro­grav­i­ty is far eas­i­er to reach in Earth orbit, but we can’t man­u­fac­ture things there (or even do the laun­dry!) and Mars has noth­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able to export we can’t find much more eas­i­ly some­where much eas­i­er to reach and return from. The Gobi desert is far more hab­it­able and eco­nom­i­cal­ly pro­duc­tive than any Mar­t­ian colony will ever be. As a des­ti­na­tion for teams of researchers, Mars is an excit­ing des­ti­na­tion. But as a colony loca­tion, it is a dud, one so awful the excite­ment peo­ple feel about liv­ing there is a bit wor­ry­ing.

The stan­dard rejoin­der to this naysay­ing is “what if some­thing destroys the Earth? Then human­i­ty is destroyed too.” This is absolute­ly true — but it will still be true even if there is a Mars colony as well. Most of the dis­as­ters that could destroy the plan­et (solar flares, aster­oids, nuclear war­fare, cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change, etc.) can be mit­i­gat­ed and sur­vived by even a small pop­u­la­tion with polit­i­cal will, mas­sive invest­ment, and inter­na­tion­al diplo­ma­cy. More over, should some­thing be unavoid­able, like that ter­ri­ble Moon breakup vapor­iz­ing the sur­face of the plan­et in Sev­en­eves, it is far more fea­si­ble to sur­vive on Earth itself (under­ground in caves or deep under­wa­ter, both of which hap­pen in that book) than it is to try to sur­vive in the even more hos­tile envi­ron­ment of space.

Maybe in some dis­tant future a self-sus­tain­ing colony will be fea­si­ble with some pret­ty fun­da­men­tal changes in our tech­no­log­i­cal prowess, but for now it isn’t, and it won’t be for any fore­see­able future. In the mean­time, our cur­rent world is fac­ing cat­a­stroph­ic changes and those changes are fix­able. We can halt cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change, if we want. But we, as a species, don’t want that, and nei­ther do our bil­lion­aires.

I sus­pect what’s going on with all the grandiose space stuff (and sigh, I love space stuff!) is the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of Fred­er­ic Jameson’s famous adage “it is eas­i­er to imag­ine the end of the world than the end of cap­i­tal­ism.” Peo­ple like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos think invest­ing the enor­mous resources need­ed to build space colonies is a bet­ter use of their mon­ey than invest­ing their resources to address cli­mate change, de-car­bonize the econ­o­my, and address grind­ing human pover­ty. Build­ing space colonies lets them stay in charge, make deci­sions, dic­tate labor poli­cies, and avoid tax­es on their extra­plan­e­tary schemes (assum­ing this is ever an eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable project at all). The polit­i­cal log­ics of this dri­ve are, in a word, ter­ri­fy­ing.

For many of the indus­tri­al­ists furi­ous­ly build­ing space­ships, they can eas­i­ly imag­ine endgame sce­nar­ios for the plan­et, but not for the destruc­tive eco­nom­ic sys­tem that made them unfath­omably wealthy. And because they aren’t will­ing to com­pro­mise on their per­son­al wealth (there’s a rea­son they are build­ing space­ships through for-prof­it com­pa­nies), they aren’t will­ing to do the hard work need­ed to fore­stall the very cat­a­stroph­ic changes they say they want to flee.

For a group that fash­ions them­selves dream­ers, the rich men who advo­cate despair and accep­tance rather than fix­ing cli­mate change are remark­ably short on dream­ing. De-car­boniz­ing the econ­o­my is not some impos­si­ble pipe dream; it will just make some extra­or­di­nar­i­ly wealthy men (yes, men) less wealthy. Inequal­i­ty is at the heart of cli­mate change, and it is a struc­tur­al arti­fact of the glob­al econ­o­my. Chang­ing that will be hard­er than build­ing a colony on Mars — it requires more imag­i­na­tion, it requires more patience and per­sis­tence, and the polit­i­cal changes need­ed can­not be algo­rith­mi­cal­ly pro­grammed with grid fins to con­trol its descent.

Earth needs us far more than Mars needs nukes. Instead of chuck­ling at the inane schemes tweet­ed out by the hyper-wealthy, let’s instead refo­cus on fix­ing what’s going wrong with our own plan­et first.

A gen­er­ous and sin­cere thank you to Cheryl Rofer for help­ing me get the details of Oper­a­tion Ploughshare right. Fol­low her on Twit­ter.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.