Say the word “terraforming” amidst a gathering of space enthusiasts and it’s a bit like upending your beer mug in an Australian pub. It means you’re ready to duke it out with anybody in the joint.
And the fight usually breaks out along these lines: One team sees the quest to replicate the biosphere of Earth on other planets as a moral imperative, an inevitable destiny, or both. Others — equally passionate — recoil at such pretension, proclaiming with surety that humans have no right to interfere with Nature as writ large upon the face of other worlds. Both viewpoints are, of course, so fraught with self-defeating conflicts as to be, well, flat out wrong.
Weird, isn’t it, that an enterprise that no one now alive can remotely hope to see fulfilled should arouse such fire and fury? [Nobody quibbles much about warp drives, wormholes or what we’re actually going to reply to ET.] But there seems to be something about the notion of taking a planet upon whose surface you did not evolve and changing it to suit yourself that catalyzes all audiences immediately to one pole or the other.
Bind yourself to the nearest mast and try to listen dispassionately to the combatants and you’ll start to hear these discussions for what they really are: religious conflicts. Disagreements rooted in faith, belief and longing. What you won’t hear, usually, is good science. Not often sound engineering tips. And not much of immediate practical use to those of us who want to expand Humankind’s range to include the resource base of space, a primary goal of the membership of the National Space Society.
Equally odd, if you think about it, the terraforming tirades seem to swirl solely around Mars. The asteroids are much easier to work with. Earth’s Moon is closer, better known and sports a more fun-friendly gravity field. Europa, and (likely) other moons of the gas giants, may have lots more liquid water and could harbor more complex life. Comets have mega-tons of water and organics and they visit us predictably. And, as long as we’re talking technology that doesn’t yet exist, we might imagine (as Carl Sagan, and a generation of science fiction writers before him, did) thinning and cooling the atmosphere of Venus — a virtual twin of Earth in size and mass — as least as easily as we could cause a thicker and warmer atmosphere to magically stick to the low mass of Mars.
Yet Mars is where the terraforming battle rages now. So let’s face it.