TONIGHT: Life on MARS - An MTSU Vice Provost Chimes in on the idea

Mar 21, 2018 at 09:27 am by bryan

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 in terms of distance from the sun.

Since September 2017 and at the invitation of 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 (billionaire Space X CEO Elon Musk and others), the Blue Mars project is exploring the human experience of inhabiting Mars -- that's 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.

"Human kind is uniquely and dependently a product of Earth," he said. "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.

Topics and concepts that have been discussed include agriculture, health and medicine, water, building and infrastructure and more.

Butler has 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."

Regarding conception of Blue Mars, Butler "looked for large trends in research and then conceive ideas that can be inclusive with as many faculty at MTSU as possible."

MTSU's Claudia Barnett is an English professor and playwright at heart. Her Blue Mars involvement stems from a keen interest in science. She write plays "inspired by science," including "Aglaonike's Tiger," a play about astronomy.

"Because what playwright's 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," said Barnett, who has not defined a formal project.

Barnett'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," she added. The issues include both practical -- how to recycle a dead body (keep reading) -- and philosophical -- what it means to be human -- and if that would change on Mars along with our DNA, Barnett said.

Professor Tony Johnston is a scientist in the School of Agribusiness and Agriscience. His involvement as director with the year-old fermentation science program led to proposing to research the use of fermentation to recycle wastes, including the 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,'" he said.

"In reality, our bodies are loaded with minerals and elements we'll need to create soils on Mars," he added. "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 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 (grant funding) and time (to conduct the research) to see them through to fruition."

There has been student involvement from the beginning. Butler and his staff invited doctoral students for the first round of Blue Mars discussions and, "as the projects mature, there are plans to increase participation from all levels."

This semester, communications studies lecturer Lori Kissinger has an organizational communications class involved with a Blue Mars Festival, which was rescheduled to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 21, in Cantrell Hall of the Tom H. Jackson Building because of inclement weather March 19.

Engineering technology, marketing, journalism, criminal justice, sociology and anthropology, geosciences, human sciences and philosophy have been among the many cross-disciplines participating in the enterprise.

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