Last month many of us tuned in to see the successful landing of a spacecraft to the Jezero crater of Mars. Perseverance was the fifth rover to be sent to the red planet by NASA. Its mission is to collect core sediment samples from the Jezero, an area speculated to have been a deep lake about 3.5 billion years ago. This is around the same time that life evolved on Earth, and if it evolved here why couldn’t it do so on Mars?
Whilst the Perseverance mission is undeniably a huge scientific achievement, I personally believe that we should be moving away from searching for extra-terrestrial life. I’m not alone in this thinking. A quote by the eminent British ornithologist Nigel J. Collar stands out in my mind:
‘We spend billions of dollars in the quest for evidence of life on other planets when we have it here in superabundance and at levels of sophistication that we have barely even begun to comprehend, all of it haemorrhaging out into oblivion as we turn our faces to the dead night sky and our backs on the rainforests and the reefs, the deltas and the deep.’
There are an estimated 10-100 million species living on planet Earth. This estimate varies for a number of complex reasons but what is evident is how much there is still left to discover. If this question were to come up in a pub quiz, would you be able to answer it? How many species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms have scientists described? In total, approximately 1.5 million species have been described by science. Whilst this seems like a lot (and it is), compared to the estimated levels of biodiversity out there, this is just a drop in the ocean. In the best case scenario we know around 15% of species we share our planet with, but it could be as little as 1.5%.
Earth from space by Frank Kiesel
Habitat destruction confounds our ability to discover and describe new species; we are destroying the natural world at concerning rates and in the process could be eliminating plants and animals before we’ve even discovered them. These species likely play vital roles in the ecosystems to which they belong, and have a huge potential for our own sustenance and survival. From a selfish viewpoint, in a world with growing antibiotic resistance and emerging diseases such as COVID-19 (linked to our destruction of natural habitats), some species awaiting discovery may hold miraculous new drugs & solutions. New therapies may be found in the leaves of a flower, on the skin of a frog, or the venom of an insect. With that in mind, why wouldn’t we want to help protect an ecosystem, especially seeing as only a tiny fraction of known species have so far been trialed for medicinal properties? Many people see drugs as artificial constructs, created by human hands but around 40% of the drugs on offer in a western pharmacy originated from plants.
Let’s talk numbers. The estimated cost of the Perseverance program is $2.9 billion; a large sum of money whatever way you look at it. This could have been invested into species recovery programs, protecting vulnerable habitats and untangling some of the complexities of biological life on earth. Species such as the Mauritian kestrel (Falco punctatus), golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) and Californian condor (Gymnogyps californianus) demonstrate that species recovery is possible – even from a limited number of founder individuals for a captive breeding program. The North Island kōkako (Callaeas wilsoni), an Endangered forest bird found only on the north island of New Zealand, can be used to demonstrate this point. With the same budget used to build and operate Perseverance for the first few years of its working life, we could have funded over 400 such ten-year long species recovery programs. Let that sink in. With that same $2.9 billion, 4,000 years worth of captive breeding of vulnerable species could be funded. In reality it is likely much more than this. The kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus), a Critically Endangered flightless parrot also endemic to New Zealand provides another example. Using the costs of this recovery project as a baseline increases the number of potential projects that could be funded to approximately 1,200. Not every project has the same costs or goals, so drawing strict comparisons is tough, but the benefits are clear. The biodiversity benefits held within the budget of a space mission - if the funds were redistributed elsewhere - are huge.
kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus) by Jake Osborne
Other than the rampant loss of biodiversity, we’ve altered earth’s atmosphere like no species has before us and this has irreversibly changed the climate. These are enormous problems that need novel solutions to overcome. Based on the criteria set out by the Kardashev scale, we are nearing a Type I civilisation but we need to do more to create renewable energy before we should go wandering through the stars. The billions of pounds also being pumped into the idea of colonising distant planets as a ‘Plan B’ seems very misplaced. Our house is literally on fire and it seems that the privileged few wish to flee the sinking ship, whilst the rest of us face the consequences of 170 years of our addiction to fossil fuels.
I wonder what Wernher von Braun thought when he looked up to the sky on October 3, 1942, following the first successful launch of the V-2 rocket, the first artificial object to enter space. Since then, humankind’s achievements in space have been phenomenal and they’re one of the many things that make me proud to be alive at this moment in time. However, I think it is time to take a step back from everything. We’re stuck in a runaway reaction that was initially fuelled by the Cold War. It’s time to look up at the night sky in wonder as the ancients did, instead of trying to colonise new worlds. Only when we’ve solved the multitude of ecological and societal problems facing humankind here on the biosphere, should we return to exploring the heavens.
The future is a very curious thing, it is always in front of us yet we cannot see it. Whilst we’re pumping billions of dollars into trying to discover life on Mars, species are going extinct before our very eyes. In most cases these aren’t even noticed due to shifting baseline syndrome or a lack of engagement among the public. It’s always great to feed curiosity and answer big questions, but should those actions take precedence over much larger ones that may even threaten our own existence? The apathy shown in recent times to the wildfires in Australia and the Amazon demonstrate our need to reconnect people with the wonders and multitudes of life they share their planet with. Otherwise, Mars’s present will very much resemble our future. A cold and desolate planet with no signs of life.