Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


Happy DNA Day!

dna_cancerThough I am a week late in expressing this sentiment, I feel I must acknowledge this rather interesting of events. As it stands, this past April 22nd was the sixty-first anniversary of the molecular structure of DNA being revealed to the world. What began as a publication in the magazine Nature has now become emblematic of the programming language of life, and our understanding of DNA has grown by leaps and bounds over the past six decades.

To commemorate such an important landmark in the history of humanity, a look back at some of the more recent developments in the field of genetic research would seem to be in order. For example, it was on April 22nd of this year that a rather interesting study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead on this study was none other than Svante Pääbo – the world’s foremost expert in Neanderthal genetics.

humanEvolutionBased on the genomes of three neanderthals that were found in disparate locations in Eurasia, Pääbo and his colleagues have concluded that the genetic diversity in Neanderthals is significantly less when compared to present-day Homo sapiens. It also appears as if the Neanderthal populations were relatively isolated and tiny, so gene flow was extremely limited for these groups. In short, our homonid cousins didn’t get around and interbreed quite as much as we’ve done, which may shed some light on their disappearance.

On the very same day, an article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that proposed that skin cancer from the sun’s damaging UV rays was actually a driving force in the national selection for dark skin in early humans. In the article, Mel Greaves delivers a compelling argument that the deadliness of skin cancer in young albino children in Africa and Central America demonstrates just how vital it was for early humans to develop dark skin.

GenoChipAnd on April 25th, National Geographic and Family Tree DNA teamed up to announce the release of a brand new version of the human Y-DNA tree. This new tree of Y chromosome mutations has over 1,200 branches — almost double the number of branches that the Genographic Project was displaying before. With this much refinement, it’s now even easier to track the historical migrations of your distant ancestors.

To celebrate this monumental roll-out, Family Tree DNA offered a 20% discount on the 37-marker Y-DNA test and all individual Y-DNA SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) tests, an offer which sadly expired on April 27th. However, interested parties can still have this cutting-edge anthropological genetic test performed for $200. And it’s something to keep in mind for next year certainly. What better way to celebrate DNA day than to have a full genetic profile of yourself made?

encodeAnd let’s not forget, 2012 was also the year that the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Consortium – an international collaboration of research groups funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) – released the world’s most complete report on the human genome to date. Unlike the Human Genome Project, which released the first catalog of human DNA back in 2003, ENCODE was not only able to catalog the human genome’s various parts, but also what those components actually do.

Among the initiative’s many findings was that so-called “junk DNA” – outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences – are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height. As I’ve said before, these findings will go a long way towards developing gene therapy, biotechnology that seeks to create artificial DNA and self-assembling structures, and even cloning.

Tree-600x405Yes, it’s an exciting time for the field of DNA research, and not just because of the many doors its likely to open. Beyond medical and bioresearch, it helps us to understand of ourselves as a species, our collective origins, and may perhaps help us to see just how interconnected we all truly are. For centuries now, a great many evils and prejudices have been committed in the name of “racial superiority” or racial differences.

Armed with this new knowledge, we might just come to realize that this great organism known as humanity is all fruit of the same tree.


Apollo Rocket Engines Recovered from Seafloor

apollo_rocketThis past week, history was made when Jeff Bezos (founder of and his privately funded company, Bezos Expeditions, announced that they had successfully retrieved pieces of the very engines that had once launched Apollo astronauts to the moon. Using remotely operated vehicles and a series of slings, the crew members recovered enough parts to reconstruct the majority of two F-1 rocket boosters.

Bezos Expeditions announced last year that using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, that they had discovered the remains off the coast of Cape Canaveral off the coast of Florida. And this past Thursday, and with NASA’s help, Bezos located the fragments at a depth of almost 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) and began hauling them to the surface. Bezos claims they belonged to the historic Apollo 11 spaceflight, but further study and restoration will be needed before their identity can be confirmed.

apollo_rocket1Regardless, this is an exciting find, and the nature of the rocket boosters confirms that they were at least part of the Apollo program. Between 1968 and 1972, ten missions were conducted that flew out of the Kennedy Space Center, each one using the Saturn V rocket, that used five F-1 engines to boost them into orbit. Once the rockets had spent their fuel, they were detached and fell into the sea.

That means that approximately sixty five F-1 engines reside in the ocean off the coast of Florida. No telling which of those these ones could be, but it is hoped that serial numbers will be retrieved from the engines that can connect them to a specific Apollo mission. But regardless, this is an exciting find, and could not have come at a better time since NASA is looking to embark on a renewed era of exploration.

saturn-v-rocket-engines-recovered-ocean-installed_65442_600x450All told, Bezos and his team spent three weeks at sea, working almost 5 kilometers below the surface. During this time, Bezos claims that his team found so much:

We’ve seen an underwater wonderland – an incredible sculpture garden of twisted F-1 engines that tells the story of a fiery and violent end, one that serves testament to the Apollo program. We photographed many beautiful objects in situ and have now recovered many prime pieces. Each piece we bring on deck conjures for me the thousands of engineers who worked together back then to do what for all time had been thought surely impossible.

Naturally, NASA was pretty impressed with the find as well. After the find was announced, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made the following statement on behalf of the Agency:

This is a historic find and I congratulate the team for its determination and perseverance in the recovery of these important artifacts of our first efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit. We look forward to the restoration of these engines by the Bezos team and applaud Jeff’s desire to make these historic artifacts available for public display.

Apollo_11Needless to say, this is an exciting find, regardless of whether or not these rockets were the same ones that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. Naturally, I hope it is. I can think of no greater tribute to Armstrong’s memory so soon after his passing. I can imagine him looking down on this from the stars, where he now resides, with a big old smile!

And be sure to check out this video taken by the Bezos Expedition of the undersea find:


The Future of Space Exploration

spacex-icarus-670Back in January, National Geographic Magazine celebrated its 125th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, they released a special issue which commemorated the past 125 years of human exploration and looked ahead at what the future might hold. As I sat in the doctor’s office, waiting on a prescription for antibiotics to combat my awful cold, I found myself terribly inspired by the article.

So naturally, once I got home, I looked up the article and its source material and got to work. The issue of exploration, especially the future thereof, is not something I can ever pass up! So for the next few minutes (or hours, depending on how much you like to nurse a read), I present you with some possible scenarios about the coming age of deep space exploration.

MarsOneSuffice it to say, National Geographic’s appraisal of the future of space travel was informative and hit on all the right subjects for me. When one considers the sheer distances involved, not to mention the amount of time, energy, and resources it would take to allow people to get there, the question of reaching into the next great frontier poses a great deal of questions and challenges.

Already, NASA, Earth’s various space agencies and even private companies have several ideas in the works or returning to the Moon, going to Mars, and to the Asteroid Belt. These include the SLS (Space Launch System), the re-purposed and upgraded version of the Saturn V rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Years from now, it may even be taking crews to Mars, which is slated for 2030.

ESA_moonbaseAnd when it comes to settling the Moon, Mars, and turning the Asteroid Belt into our primary source of mineral extraction and manufacturing, these same agencies, and a number of private corporations are all invested in getting it done. SpaceX is busy testing its reusable-launch rocket, known as the Grasshopper, in the hopes of making space flight more affordable. And NASA and the ESA are perfecting a process known as “sintering” to turn Moon regolith into bases and asteroids into manufactured goods.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines and Golden Spike are planning to make commercial trips into space and to the Moon possible within a few years time. And with companies like Deep Space Industries and Google-backed Planetary Resources prospeting asteroids and planning expeditions, it’s only a matter of time before everything from Earth to the Jovian is being explored and claimed for our human use.

Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere
Space Colony by Stephan Martiniere

But when it comes to deep-space exploration, the stuff that would take us to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond, that’s where things get tricky and pretty speculative. Ideas have been on the table for some time, since the last great Space Race forced scientists to consider the long-term and come up with proposed ways of closing the gap between Earth and the stars. But to this day, they remain a scholarly footnote, conceptual and not yet realizable.

But as we embark of a renewed era of space exploration, where the stuff of science fiction is quickly becoming the stuff of science fact, these old ideas are being dusted off, paired up with newer concepts, and seriously considered. While they might not be feasible at the moment, who know what tomorrow holds? From the issues of propulsion, to housing, to cost and time expenditures, the human race is once again taking a serious look at extra-Solar exploration.

And here are some of the top contenders for the “Final Frontier”:

Nuclear Propulsion:
The concept of using nuclear bombs (no joke) to propel a spacecraft was first proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project. Preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947, and the actual project – known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

In short, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a “pusher”. After each blast, the explosive force is absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the proposed design offered a way of delivering the explosive (literally!) force necessary to propel a rocket over extreme distances, and solved the issue of how to utilize that force without containing it within the rocket itself. However, the drawbacks of this design are numerous and noticeable.

Orion SchematicF0r starters, the ship itself is rather staggering in size, weighing in anywhere from 2000 to 8,000,000 tonnes, and the propulsion design releases a dangerous amount of radiation, and not just for the crew! If we are to rely on ships that utilize nuclear bombs to achieve thrust, we better find a course that will take them away from any inhabited or habitable areas. What’s more, the cost of producing a behemoth of this size (even the modest 2000 tonne version) is also staggering.

Antimatter Engine:
NASA_antimatterMost science fiction authors who write about deep space exploration (at least those who want to be taken seriously) rely on anti-matter to power ships in their stories. This is no accident, since antimatter is the most potent fuel known to humanity right now. While tons of chemical fuel would be needed to propel a human mission to Mars, just tens of milligrams of antimatter, if properly harnessed, would be able to supply the requisite energy.

Fission and fusion reactions convert just a fraction of 1 percent of their mass into energy. But by combine matter with antimatter, its mirror twin, a reaction of 100 percent efficiency is achieved. For years, physicists at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva have been creating tiny quantities of antimatter by smashing subatomic particles together at near-light speeds. Given time and considerable investment, it is entirely possible this could be turned into a form of advanced propulsion.

In an antimatter rocket, a dose of antihydrogen would be mixed with an equal amount of hydrogen in a combustion chamber. The mutual annihilation of a half pound of each, for instance, would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, confined within a magnetic nozzle similar to the type necessary for a fission rocket, would fly out the back at one-third the speed of light.

antimatter_shipHowever, there are natural drawback to this design as well. While a top speed of 33% the speed of light per rocket is very impressive, there’s the question of how much fuel will be needed. For example, while it would be nice to be able to reach Alpha Centauri – a mere 4.5 light years away – in 13.5 years instead of the 130 it would take using a nuclear rocket, the amount of antimatter needed would be immense.

No means exist to produce antimatter in such quantities right now, and the cost of building the kind of rocket required would be equally immense. Considerable refinements would therefore be needed and a sharp drop in the cost associated with building such a vessel before any of its kind could be deployed.

Laser Sail:
solar_sail1Thinking beyond rockets and engines, there are some concepts which would allow a spaceship to go into deep space without the need for fuel at all. In 1948, Robert Forward put forward a twist on the ancient technique of sailing, capturing wind in a fabric sail, to propose a new form of space travel. Much like how our world is permeated by wind currents, space is filled with cosmic radiation – largely in the form of photons and energy associated with stars – that push a cosmic sail in the same way.

This was followed up again in the 1970’s, when Forward again proposed his beam-powered propulsion schemes using either lasers or masers (micro-wave lasers) to push giant sails to a significant fraction of the speed of light. When photons in the laser beam strike the sail, they would transfer their momentum and push the sail onward. The spaceship would then steadily builds up speed while the laser that propels it stays put in our solar system.

Much the same process would be used to slow the sail down as it neared its destination. This would be done by having the outer portion of the sail detach, which would then refocus and reflect the lasers back onto a smaller, inner sail. This would provide braking thrust to slow the ship down as it reached the target star system, eventually bringing it to a slow enough speed that it could achieve orbit around one of its planets.

solar_sailOnce more, there are challenges, foremost of which is cost. While the solar sail itself, which could be built around a central, crew-carrying vessel, would be fuel free, there’s the little matter of the lasers needed to propel it. Not only would these need to operate for years continuously at gigawatt strength, the cost of building such a monster would be astronomical, no pun intended!

A solution proposed by Forward was to use a series of enormous solar panel arrays on or near the planet Mercury. However, this just replaced one financial burden with another, as the mirror or fresnel lens would have to be planet-sized in scope in order for the Sun to keep the lasers focused on the sail. What’s more, this would require that a giant braking sail would have to be mounted on the ship as well, and it would have to very precisely focus the deceleration beam.

So while solar sails do present a highly feasible means of sending people to Mars or the Inner Solar System, it is not the best concept for interstellar space travel. While it accomplishes certain cost-saving measures with its ability to reach high speeds without fuel, these are more than recouped thanks to the power demands and apparatus needed to be it moving.

ringworld2Here we have a concept which has been explored extensively in fiction. Known as an Interstellar Ark, an O’Neill Cylinder, a Bernal Sphere, or a Stanford Taurus, the basic philosophy is to create a ship that would be self-contained world, which would travel the cosmos at a slow pace and keep the crew housed, fed, or sustained until they finally reached their destination. And one of the main reasons that this concept appears so much in science fiction literature is that many of the writers who made use of it were themselves scientists.

The first known written examples include Robert H. Goddard “The Last Migration” in 1918, where he describes an “interstellar ark” containing cryogenic ally frozen people that set out for another star system after the sun died. Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky later wrote of “Noah’s Ark” in his essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind” in 1928. Here, the crews were kept in wakeful conditions until they reached their destination thousands of years later.

enzmann_starshipBy the latter half of the 20th century, with authors like Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paradises Lost, the concept began to be explored as a distant possibility for interstellar space travel. And in 1964, Dr. Robert Enzmann proposed a concept for an interstellar spacecraft known as the Enzmann Starship that included detailed notes on how it would be constructed.

Enzmann’s concept would be powered by deuterium engines similar to what was called for with the Orion Spacecraft, the ship would measure some 600 meters (2000 feet) long and would support an initial crew of 200 people with room for expansion. An entirely serious proposal, with a detailed assessment of how it would be constructed, the Enzmann concept began appearing in a number of science fiction and fact magazines by the 1970’s.

RAMA2Despite the fact that this sort of ship frees its makers from the burden of coming up with a sufficiently fast or fuel-efficient engine design, it comes with its own share of problems. First and foremost, there’s the cost of building such a behemoth. Slow-boat or no, the financial and resource burden of building a mobile space ship is beyond most countries annual GDP. Only through sheer desperation and global cooperation could anyone conceive of building such a thing.

Second, there’s the issue of the crew’s needs, which would require self-sustaining systems to ensure food, water, energy, and sanitation over a very long haul. This would almost certainly require that the crew remain aware of all its technical needs and continue to maintain it, generation after generation. And given that the people aboard the ship would be stuck in a comparatively confined space for so long, there’s the extreme likelihood of breakdown and degenerating conditions aboard.

Third, there’s the fact that the radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth’s surface or in low earth orbit. The presence of high-energy cosmic rays would pose all kinds of health risks to a crew traveling through deep space, so the effects and preventative measures would be difficult to anticipate. And last, there’s the possibility that while the slow boat is taking centuries to get through space, another, better means of space travel will be invented.

Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel:
???????????????????????Last, we have the most popular concept to come out of science fiction, but which has received very little support from scientific community. Whether it was the warp drive, the hyperdrive, the jump drive, or the subspace drive, science fiction has sought to exploit the holes in our knowledge of the universe and its physical laws in order to speculate that one day, it might be possible to bridge the vast distances between star systems.

However, there are numerous science based challenges to this notion that make an FTL enthusiast want to give up before they even get started. For one, there’s Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which establishes the speed of light (c) as the uppermost speed at which anything can travel. For subatomic particles like photons, which have no mass and do not experience time, the speed of light is a given. But for stable matter, which has mass and is effected by time, the speed of light is a physical impossibility.

Galactica_newFor one, the amount of energy needed to accelerate an object to such speeds is unfathomable, and the effects of time dilation – time slowing down as the speed of light approaches – would be unforeseeable. What’s more, achieving the speed of light would most likely result in our stable matter (i.e. our ships and bodies) to fly apart and become pure energy. In essence, we’d die!

Naturally, there have been those who have tried to use the basis of Special Relativity, which allows for the existence of wormholes, to postulate that it would be possible to instantaneously move from one point in the universe to another. These theories for “folding space”, or “jumping” through space time, suffer from the same problem. Not only are they purely speculative, but they raise all kinds of questions about temporal mechanics and causality. If these wormholes are portals, why just portals in space and not time?

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.And then there’s the concept of a quantum singularity, which is often featured in talk of FTL. The belief here is that an artificial singularity could be generated, thus opening a corridor in space-time which could then be traversed. The main problem here is that such an idea is likely suicide. A quantum singularity, aka. a black hole, is a point in space where the laws of nature break down and become indistinguishable from each other – hence the term singularity.

Also, they are created by a gravitational force so strong that it tears a hole in space time, and that resulting hole absorbs all things, including light itself, into its maw. It is therefore impossible to know what resides on the other side of one, and astronomers routinely observe black holes (most notably Sagittarius A at the center of our galaxy) swallow entire planets and belch out X-rays, evidence of their destruction. How anyone could think these were a means of safe space travel is beyond me! But then again, they are a plot device, not a serious idea…

alcubierre-warp-drive-overviewBut before you go thinking that I’m dismissing FTL in it’s entirety, there is one possibility which has the scientific community buzzing and even looking into it. It’s known as the Alcubierre Drive, a concept which was proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre in his 1994 paper: “The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity.”

The equations and theory behind his concept postulate that since space-time can be contracted and expanded, empty space behind a starship could be made to expand rapidly, pushing the craft in a forward direction. Passengers would perceive it as movement despite the complete lack of acceleration, and vast distances (i.e. light years) could be passed in a matter of days and weeks instead of decades. What’s more, this “warp drive” would allow for FTL while at the same time remaining consistent with Einstein’s theory of Relativity.

In October 2011, physicist Harold White attempted to rework the equations while in Florida where he was helping to kick off NASA and DARPA’s joint 100 Year Starship project. While putting together his presentation on warp, he began toying with Alcubierre’s field equations and came to the conclusion that something truly workable was there. In October of 2012, he announced that he and his NASA team would be working towards its realization.

But while White himself claims its feasible, and has the support of NASA behind him, the mechanics behind it all are still theoretical, and White himself admits that the energy required to pull off this kind of “warping” of space time is beyond our means at the current time. Clearly, more time and development are needed before anything of this nature can be realized. Fingers crossed, the field equations hold, because that will mean it is at least theoretically possible!


In case it hasn’t been made manifestly obvious by now, there’s no simple solution. In fact, just about all possibilities currently under scrutiny suffer from the exact same problem: the means just don’t exist yet to make them happen. But even if we can’t reach for the stars, that shouldn’t deter us from reaching for objects that are significantly closer to our reach. In the many decades it will take us to reach the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and Jupiter’s Moons, we are likely to revisit this problem many times over.

And I’m sure that in course of creating off-world colonies, reducing the burden on planet Earth, developing solar power and other alternative fuels, and basically working towards this thing known as the Technological Singularity, we’re likely to find that we are capable of far more than we ever thought before. After all, what is money, resources, or energy requirements when you can harness quantum energy, mine asteroids, and turn AIs and augmented minds onto the problems of solving field equations?

Yeah, take it from me, the odds are pretty much even that we will be making it to the stars in the not-too-distant future, one way or another. As far as probabilities go, there’s virtually no chance that we will be confined to this rock forever. Either we will branch out to colonize new planets and new star systems, or go extinct before we ever get the chance. I for one find that encouraging… and deeply disturbing!


Candidates for De-Extinction

Woolly Mammoth Replica in Museum ExhibitIt’s no secret that humanity’s success on this planet we call Earth has come at a high cost. Since our ancestors began migrating out of Africa some 70,000 years ago, their passage and settlement have left marks on the natural environment and its species. In short, our ability to grow has always meant extinction for other species, be they other forms of high-order primates (such as Neanderthals) or animals hunted for their pelts and meat (such as wooly mammoths).

In fact, the Neolithic Revolution, which began some 15,000 years ago with the adoption of farming, was believed to have been motivated by the mass extinction of animals that were once hunted by our ancestors. And since that time, countless more species have been pushed to the brink or killed off entirely by our ever-expanding, consuming, and polluting ways. However, recent innovations in biology and bio-medicine might just be able to reverse this trend.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Last Friday, at a at a National Geographic-sponsored TEDx conference, scientists met in Washington, D.C. to discuss which animals we should bring back from extinction, as well as the means and ethics involved in doing so. They called it “de-extinction”, and considered which species they would consider restoring to existence. The conference resulted in a list of 24 species that were selected for restoration, as well as some guidelines for the selection process.

Those chosen were based on the following criteria and future selections will be determined the same way:

  1. Are the species desirable — do they hold an important ecological function or are they beloved by humans?
  2. Are the species practical choices — do we have access to tissue that could give us good quality DNA samples or germ cells to reproduce the species?
  3. And are they able to be reintroduced to the wild — are the habitats in which they live available and do we know why they went extinct in the first place?

As you might imagine, dinosaurs didn’t make the cut. In addition to no longer serving and important ecological function, the habitats they once had access to are long gone (Earth’s climate and ecology have changed drastically since the Cretaceous Period), and most importantly, we no longer have access to their DNA.

TEDxDeExtinctionYes, despite what Michael Crichton told us, the DNA of dinosaur fossils is so far degraded that something like Jurassic Park would never be possible. And of course, despite being beloved by humans, they aren’t exactly safe customers to have around! But rest assured, the list of candidates is still very long.

Of the 24 species selected, the majority were families of birds which were pushed to extinction due to hunting, deforestation, urban sprawl, pollution, and loss of habitat. In addition, the famous Auroch, a species of cattle that is commemorated in myth but which actually existed until 1627. And then there’s the equally famous DoDo bird, the fearless bird which was rendered extinct by Portuguese settlers in its native Mauritius.

woolly-mammoth1And then there’s the venerable Wooly Mammoth, the great shaggy member of the Elephantidae family which went extinct some 4000 years ago. Not only is this animals demise directly associated with humanity’s ascendance to the top of the food chain, it is something which may now be entirely reversible. Thanks to frozen, preserved carcasses of Mammoths, which are still found in the north to this day, scientists have access to well-preserved strands of their DNA.

And as already noted, the issue of cost, ethics and desirability featured pretty prominently in the conference. For starters, those present had to consider whether or not it would be a good idea to bring animals back from the brink seeing as how it was human agency that led to their extinction in the first place. Is the world any better off than it was hundreds or even thousands of years ago? Would these animals find new purchase, or just end up dying off again?

sabre-tooth-tiger-_1117360cSecond, there was the question of housing them and reintroducing them into the wild. Not only is it a question of them being able to find habitats again, it’s a question of whether or not we can ensure the kind of transition that would be needed. Sure, we’d all love to see Sabre-Tooth tigers alive and well again, but its not like we can just clone them and send them back out into the wild. Who’s to say how their reintroduction will impact species that are currently roaming about in the wild?

And of course, there was the consideration of what all this tampering amounts to. Given that human agency is responsible for all this loss of life, would resurrecting them simply be more of the same? Would we be, in effect, playing God and tampering with forces best left to nature? All good questions, and they force us to consider an alternative proposition.

Perhaps what would be best for the natural world and its remaining species would be for us to stop behaving so irresponsibly. Perhaps we should focus on sustainable living, cleaning up pollution, ending climate change, and getting our own population under control before we start trying to repopulate other species. Still, it is an intriguing possibility, and provides some reassurance that no matter how much damage we end up doing, that we might be able to undo some after the fact. Perhaps we just need to wait…

Too bad about Jurassic Park though. In the course of everything else discussed at this TED conference, I’m sure that the announcement that dinosaurs were as good as gone shattered the dreams of many an eccentric billionaire!