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A Lack of Tact(ile): What Future Martians Will Miss

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 4, 2022
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The white sands of White Sands. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As my bare feet sank into the soft white sand, I realized the park ranger at the gate had been right — for the most part.

The ranger had told me that in contrast to the hot sands on the beaches of my native California, the dunes at White Sands National Park would be cool enough to walk on barefoot. My first steps — on a relatively flat area — were a little warm, but far from scorching. As I struggled up the dune into deeper sand, the heat slowly vanished. It wasn’t cool, per se, but it was comfortable.

As I reached the top, I could see the dunes — made up of fine gypsum sand — stretching out in all directions. They are so bright in the afternoon sun that I couldn’t focus when I first got out of the car. It was if I had my eyes dilated at the optometrist. The dunes were in the top three things I had seen on my trip across the American Southwest, a region not lacking in spectacular sights. Not as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon, or as dramatic as Meteor Crater, but stunning in their own unique way.

There are sand dunes like this all over Mars — not bright white, but a rusty red. It’s very easy as you drive through the Western deserts at 75 miles per hour, windows closed and air conditioning blasting to battle the heat, to think that the Red Planet is merely the worst parts of the Southwest where nobody and nothing lives, albeit a bit colder.

But, that’s a false impression. And there was evidence all around me. All measures of plants survive in this harsh environment. Monsoon rains fill low areas between the dunes with water, providing substance to a variety of animals as it seeps below the surface during dry periods. I saw a couple of lizards scurrying around earlier, as well as the tracks that a half dozen other animals had left in the sand.

What really struck me was walking barefoot on the dunes. The sand between my toes, the hot sun on my face and the cool in my hair. The sights and sounds. Earth is a tactile experience. You experience it in ways that astronauts on the moon and Mars will never be able to do.

Astronauts will stand with jaws dropped on the rim of Valles Marineris, which dwarfs anything on Earth, without fully experiencing it the way people do when they see the Grand Canyon. They will never be able to dig their toes into the sand dunes of Mars as a lizard goes about his day, or leave footprints on a beach that get washed away as the waves come in.

They will live in enclosed habitats, possibly underground to protect them from dangerous radiation. They won’t be able to simply go outside for a walk. Their view of nature will be from inside a pressure suit. Mars’s BFF, Elon Musk, has warned that the early days in his future colony will be difficult, cramped and dangerous. It will be a lot of hard work without much time or space for leisure.

At some point there will probably be recreation areas on Mars — a pressure dome over a dune field, for example — that would give Martians an approximation of life on Earth. But, it won’t quite be the same. In the far future, it might be possible to terraform the Red Planet into a smaller version of Earth.

In the meantime, early explorers of the moon and Mars will face a dearth of tactile experiences that people on Earth take for granted.