A new fictional episode for you! A billionaire planning to nuke Mars send two hapless idiots to confirm that the planet is sterile. What could go wrong? We are also joined by Anuradha Damale to talk about nuclear weapons & space policy.

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Welcome to another episode of the Astroholic explains. We have a new fictional story for you.

This is a work of fiction. While inspired by the real world, every character and event in the story is a product of the author’s imagination and does not represent any real individual, living or dead.

Sit back, relax, abd enjoy: Number 2 violates the prime directive.

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NARRATOR

Space. Science-fiction taught us that it is the final frontier. A vast expanse full of possibilities. In reality, it is a never-ending desolate emptitude. Well, that’s not fair. There’s plenty of stuff in space. And you could almost believe that all this stuff was designed with the precise intent of killing humans. 

For this reason, space agencies around the world have slowed down the efforts to make the next big leap to Mars, leaving that to private companies. In 2032, Billionaire Jeb Tusk managed to land people on Mars. Wait, let’s hear from him..

[Cheers]

JEB TUSK

Humanity is finally interplanetary! Our crew has reached the Red Planet and their job is simple. Prove without any doubt that Mars is sterile. If there’s no bacteria living there, I’m going to terraform it into a paradise by nuking it and releasing all that sweet carbon dioxide!! [more cheers]

NARRATOR

Let’s stop there for a minute.. Tusk is not one for facts but I want to explain what he plans. He hopes to release carbon dioxide and start a greenhouse effect, warming the planet and making it more tolerable for us. But just so you know, nuking mars would turn the planet from a frigid dry desert to a frigid dry desert that is also radioactive. 

TUSK

This mission will be a success. I’ve got my best people on it

NARRATOR

He really really didn’t.

TUSK

You’ll soon be booking tickets to go to Mars

[More cheers]

NARRATOR

You really really won’t. The two-year mission to Mars is fraught with risks and danger that Tusk didn’t bother to address, and the government was just too happy to ignore for the promise of outcompeting other nations. Only a complete idiot would take part in such a terrifying endeavour. Tusk found two. And this is their story. 

[Music]

ANDREW 

Hey hey space heads! This is Andrew, your favourite Martian. We are on day 30 of our mission and the life sensing probes are all travelling around the planet. They are currently a number of kilometres away from us. We only check their data once a week but so far no life signals. Which is good! If there’s no life, we can terraform this rock!

[Com-link noise]

JOE

Oh no, oh no, oh no. This is bad. Oh no. Andrew come in. We have a problem 

ANDREW

This better be important! I’m doing a video for my fans!

NARRATOR 

Just so you are all aware. Andrew is a self-important influencer with  half the online followers of NASA’s robotic rover Perseverance. Feedback from Mr Tusk PR firm suggests that Perseverance is more relatable, funny, and interesting.

A particularly harsh comment stated that Perseverance’s automatic science updates from Mars show a depth of thought and a humanity that Andrew lacked. That was from Janine, Andrew’s mother. Anyway… 

JOE

Repulsed, wretching, ham it up – Something is happening to the waste unit

ANDREW 

What’s up with it?

JOE 

I can’t say

ANDREW 

Ok…Then how do you know something’s happening?

JOE 

I can see it happening, I just can’t say what’s happening

ANDREW 

Oh! You mean you don’t understand it?

JOE 

No, I know what it is!

ANDREW

So you know what it is but you can’t explain it in words? Ohh is this like a riddle, or, like a feeling? What was that word of the day last week? E-e-enema? 

JOE 

Ennui! And no the waste disposal hasn’t got ennui, I think only people and horses get that. Oh how do I explain it??? [Big breath] The waste disposal is spluttering… spluttering a lot of… I can’t say it

ANDREW 

Oh [realization] Shiiiit!

NARRATOR 

Shit indeed!

I think it is important, dear listener that you are introduced to a crucial piece of information. Joe can’t say the word shit. He can’t even discuss anything to do with going number 2. But don’t feel sorry for him. He deserves it. 

About ten years ago, our astronaut Joe here, was a teenager who hated opinionated women who disagreed with the things he liked. He hated it so much that whenever a woman reviewed a movie differently from him, he would take to livestreaming himself to explain why she was so wrong. 

In 2022, influencer Jessica Kennedy posted a 30 second video saying that she enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy 3 but it wasn’t her favourite. Joe took upon himself to broadcast a soliloquy on why she was the worst person on the planet. At about 15 hours into his broadcast, having only consumed hot Cheetos and Mountain Dew, his bowels betrayed him. Still broadcasting from his phone without realising, his explosive diarrhoea, mixed with his cries and complaints about Ms Kennedy, quickly went viral. The memes of Angry Nerd Shits Himself Over Difference Of Opinion took literally years to die out.

He hasn’t been able to say the word poop or crap or any synonym since. But on the plus side he stopped bothering women on the internet. Apparently Tusk admired a man who’d been through some shit in his life, and wanted to award him with a fecal-free trip to Mars. Or so he’d planned.

ANDREW

Ok, no panic. Nothing can survive here, right?

JOE

Nothing. I think. I hope. I don’t know, I’m only in charge of the probes.

ANDREW 

The Probes! You genius, Joe! Let me see what the one near the base says…. Oh no! Oh no! It says there’s bacteria growing all over the ground around the waste unit. Shit. The planet’s not sterile!

JOE 

What are we going to do?? Tusk will fire us!

ANDREW 

Don’t you worry, my friend. I have a brilliant plan. We collect all the contaminated ground. We pack the waste disposal unit. We put all of that on the sample return rocket. We close the base, claim that we had a leak in the main tent and we were worried it might contaminate the environment. We get in our rocket. Launch. We launch the other rocket from orbit, and let it fall back into the atmosphere and everything will burn up. Bam! No evidence.

JOE 

Gosh, Andrew this is brilliant! 

ANDREW 

I know. That’s why people call me a genius all the time!

NARRATOR 

Correction: Joe was the first person ever to call him that…

ANDREW 

Right. Start digging and packing.

[Noises of spades? Something that feels like they are working]

NARRATOR 

One of the most inspiring features about space missions is their precision. NASA’s New Horizons reached Pluto after travelling for 9 years, 5 months, 24 days, 16 hours, 49 minutes, 57 seconds. That was just 72 seconds earlier than it was planned at launch. 

Equally, small errors can have bad consequences. Several missions to Mars have failed for this precise reason. The sample return rocket was designed to take about 100 kilograms worth of samples. This was clearly stated in the mission manual. But Andrew was never one for reading instructions.

ANDREW

Ok, all it’s packed. I had to really stuff the rocket. The door barely closed!! I sent the leak alarm, and got the go-ahead to get back into orbit

JOE 

I checked the probe. We did a good job at clearing things. It is not registering any thing

ANDREW 

Well, let’s get back to space buddy, I can do a video of us leaving Mars, fans will love that.

NARRATOR 

We will spare you the inane social media updates, and move you along to the more interesting part of the story.

JOE

Ok, the launch is set up but there’s a weight warning sign. It says the rocket is packing over 1000 kilograms and it’s too much

ANDREW 

That’s even better! We don’t even have to cut the engines to let it crash back into Mars. It’ll go up and then back down by itself. 

JOE 

Oh yeah. That is good. 

NARRATOR 

Is it though? Really?

ANDREW 

Ok, let’s go. Launch.

[Electronic voice]

Sample rocket launch in 10, 9, 8. [fading into the distance]

[electronic sounds]

JOE 

Andrew, it’s not looking good. It’s acceleration is not enough to hit escape velocity. I don’t think it’ll make it. It’s also sort of veering.. to the left?

ANDREW 

No, no, it’s going to pick up soon! Don’t worry! 

[a few moments of silence] 

Look, its speed is picking up. Another one of my classic successes!

NARRATOR 

In a manner of speaking, this was on par with Andrew’s previous successes. You just need to have a broad definition of success. 

In reality, what they couldn’t see was that the hatch door of the sample rocket had burst open and the contaminated soil began raining down an actual shit-storm on the planet below.

ANDREW 

We can just relax. Our job here is done!

NARRATOR

As our two brave explorers traveled back to Earth, the Bacteria they help spread quickly took over the planet. An unexpected and unplanned miracle. 

The probes deployed by the dynamic duo began to detect life signs and so did the rovers roaming the planet. These detections stopped the plans to nuke Mars. 

And so this HG Wells fiction turned to reality. Bacteria really were the enemy that Mars could not stop. 

Andrew’s last social media message from the red planet was almost prophetic. It read: Day 29 – evening. Did such a big smelly poo. Sorry, Joe. Sorry Mars! LOL 

The machine learning algorithm on board Perseverance wrote this about the first detection of human faecal bacteria on Mars: Many would consider the bacteria’s birthplace distasteful, but as they spread on this once sterile planet, carving new niches for themselves, they have earned their place as a space-faring species just as much as humans. 

You can now understand what Janine was talking about.

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This episode starred Sacha Coward as Andrew, Sheldon Goodman as Joe, Chris Carpineti as the Narrator, Trip Galey as Jeb Tusk, and Anne Jones as Janine. It was written by Alfredo Carpineti, and produced and edited by Chris Carpineti.  

Chris
Today, we have a special guest, who is going to talk us through some of these topics.

Alfredo
Yes, a little bit about the science and policy and whatnot, that sort of underpin what I’ve written. So our special guest: if you’d like to introduce yourself.

Anuradha Damale
Hi, my name is Anu or Anuradha. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really flattered that you invited me; a really interesting topic. For context, I’m a research assistant at the verification research, Training and Information Center or VERTIC, which is an NGO that focuses on the implementation of international security treaties, on how to use science and technology to verify and monitor the behavior of countries in terms of international security and safety, and also focuses on sanctions and illicit trade. So my area that I work on currently is largely to do with nuclear weapons, and looking at how we can holistically model how a country might be producing them illegally, but also on space and on behaviors in space and so on and so forth. So yeah, this entire topic is very, very interesting to me.

Chris
Welcome to the show. It’s fantastic to have you.

Alfredo
Yeah, I don’t think it’s much flattery: is just like “Oh, we know somebody that is perfect for this, hit all the right boxes!” So thank you very much Anu to join us.

Chris
So So yeah, within the little audio drama that you just listened to, we have a character called Jeb Tusk who is based..

Alfredo
on no one

Chris
On absolutely no one. He’s a completely original creation.

Anuradha Damale
He didn’t sound familiar at all to me, so.

Chris
Anyway, let’s talk about the concept of nukes in space going by your expertise. If, hypothetically speaking, someone were to try and nuke Mars or use a nuke in space, what’s going on there? What’s the rules? Is that a good idea? Is it a bad idea?

Anuradha Damale
So, from content to tone to delivery: bad, bad, bad. Not a good idea at all several reasons why. Now, in my capacity at Vertic, I’m neutral, and I don’t advocate for anything but for the upholding of treaties. Outside of my position at VERTIC, please don’t nuke things. Stop dumping them. It is a bad idea. You cannot just nuke things and accept that to solve everything. In history, the use of a nuclear weapon did not solve anything. It may have abruptly brought the end of a war. But it also caused a lot of pain to a lot of communities. It caused a lot of ripples through time, which still permeate our current societal structures and cultural relationships with others. countries. So first things first, a nuclear weapon is not just a nuclear weapon, it is a symbol. That means different things for different countries. For some countries, it means we are part of a very unique cohort of countries who are considered the kings and queens of security and our ability to legally have nuclear weapons because we had them before anyone else did. And before it became illegal to build them means that we’re special. For some countries, it means this is our symbol of unity. And this is a representation of the technology and capability our country has to be able to provide security for our country. More and more as we go forward, this idea of a nuclear deterrent blows my mind, because we’re not using it in that way anymore. Some countries are trying to make them more usable, so smaller and “tactical”. So in security speak, there is strategic and tactical. Strategic has more to do with a grander, sort of large, scale plan and tactical is more to do with immediate impact or specific groups. And the moment you start building “tactical nuclear” weapons, it stops being a deterrent, so that the whole concept of nuclear weapons is really interesting and one that we could talk about for a while. However, there are strict rules surrounding their use for good, good reason. You know, there’s a whole group of people in and around Japan, who are still suffering from the impact of the use of nuclear weapons. And so you can see that even, however, many years later, there are still issues surrounded with their use. There are still issues of health, of environment, of economy that have had an impact due to the use of the nuclear weapon.

The other side of this is it’s straight up illegal. So if you try to, well, yeah, there’s there’s two things I sort of can think of off the top of my head. The first is something called the Nuclear Weapon Test Ban Treaty. And it means in in the text of the treaty in 1963, it said the purpose of the treaty is that countries involved must prohibit, prevent, and not carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion, even in outer space. So carrying out a nuclear weapons explosion in space, on Mars, is against that treaty. Now, there’s an interesting question there because Jeb Tusk does not necessarily represent a country, say for instance, the United States as a country, so he doesn’t represent that country necessarily, it could be argued. However, in some, the reason why the treaties are written that the way they are, is that they allow for interpretive flexibility slightly. Now this is a problem usually because we want things to be outlined pretty strictly. But some could say that in order for JeB Tusk to be able to carry out this test, there would have to be reviews done through national systems that exist before that thing could go out into outer space. And so they are complicit in that test, almost. Now the other Treaty, which which completely shuts this down is called the Outer Space Treaty. So Outer Space Treaty was in 1967. And it reiterates that countries should not be placing anything, any weapons of mass destruction in outer space. So, particularly it says that the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all straight parties to the treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. Nuking a planet: I don’t know how you spend that to be peaceful, in my opinion. In my opinion, it really isn’t. Article six of that treaty requires states so governments to authorize and supervise the activities of their citizens. A company arguably is a citizen of that country, so they have to comply with the provisions of that treaty. There’s a whole paper about this in the Columbia space journal, I think it’s called, or something along those lines. And it really details of, you know, all the things that could come could go wrong. And even one step before that, say you, you shoot a nuclear weapon on a rocket into space. What happens if it goes critical? Or what happens if the bomb explodes while it’s still within the Earth’s atmosphere? While it’s just outside of Earth? What is the debris from that… which this happens regularly, debris from spacecraft falls onto Earth, and debris from space falls on earth. And imagine that but nuclear in our seas on our countries, it’s just, it’s not great. It’s not very safe. And furthermore, trying to nuke Mars would, would leave Mars an environment that still has the aftermath of a nuclear weapons explosion for a while. And so if you wanted to send people to Mars or animals to model living things to Mars, you’re putting them at risk of radiation poisoning or putting them at risk of interacting with things that are nuclear on Mars.

Chris
So it’s a really bad idea in terms of terraforming somewhere.

Alfredo
It is.. As Anu described it phenomenally, if I can add, not only is illegal not only will create an environment that is extremely radioactive, but there’s actually been studies on how if if there was a billionaire out there that was planning to nuke Mars to terraform it..

Chris
I haven’t heard of one

Alfredo
Yeah, I haven’t heard a one. That will not happen. It cannot happen. Like Mars hasn’t got enough carbon dioxide stored in its rocks to magically like just release it. So to me and the reason why I wrote this in a way, very negatively because I picture a future in which a billionaire can privately plan to launch nukes to another planet and nobody is stopping it. But at the same time, that is completely ridiculous. And the fact that there is this sort of generation and unfortunately, mostly our, my generation that grew up with this 1980s/1990s idea of the power of nuclear weapon can do terrible as well as aamzing things and I think it’s, as you mentioned about the cultural differences. Like in the West, the power of nuclear weapons, the power of nuclear is seen so positive as nuclear gives you superpowers and you can teraform planets, but it’s absolutely absurd…

Anuradha Damale
Yeah, it’s it’s a really difficult thing, right? One other thing I wanted to add really quickly was that if Jeb Tusk you know, argued that actually it doesn’t fit within the article. So there’s another article… there’s many articles in the Outer Space Treaty… You know, applies only to states as an argument that could be made. So article four if I just remind myself is about I think I said six earlier but it was for a country cannot place a weapon of mass destruction now to space. Now Tusk. I was about to say a word that rhymes with Tusk. but doesn’t exist, may argue that that article only applies to states but because it’s not going into Earth’s orbit it won’t be stationed. But if it’s launched from Earth, it will be in Earth orbit for a little while. And this is a really great space lawyer outlined all of these all of these points and that it’s going to be really hard, but I don’t think and this is the thing, this is where it becomes tricky and it opens up a whole new discussion. That’s actually happening a lot within the Space Policy world: Is it time that we move away from this treaty style regulation of space? Because treaties are designed for countries. And at the moment space is, you could say, moving faster in in terms of non-state or non-governmental actors than it is in terms of state actors. And so is it time that we look at different forms of regulation so that these lines are clearer, so that we know exactly what we can and can’t do? Because companies are popping up everywhere, you know, this, you know, like, they’re popping up everywhere within space and, and launching missions and wherever you stand in terms of whether these missions are good or bad. I think most people can agree that there needs to be some kind of agreed standard operating procedure or thing. And that doesn’t seem to exist fully at the moment. And it’s dangerous to continue to accelerate and play proliferated in this direction of populating space and doing loads of amazing different things without having considerations for possible aftermath or where accountability or agency lies. And by agency, I mean the responsibility of the action, because an example of this is a launch that we know will keep countries out of it. But a country launched a one stage rocket into space a few months ago, with no re-entry mechanism to serve their new space station that they’re building. Because it was one stage when it fell. It was so big that it broke into big, big chunks and it had a really unstable orbit around Earth. And a large piece of that rocket missed New York City by 15 minutes and fell into the Côte d’Ivoire, into the Ivory Coast. A similar thing happened again with the same country A month later, but because the court of law the Côte d’Ivoire weren’t signatories to the Outer Space Treaty, if anything had happened, and luckily, it didn’t, as far as we know, they couldn’t hold that country liable for their actions. And that’s just state and state when you start getting companies involved. It becomes a bit crazy. And this is why it’s so important that we need to work towards having multi-disciplinary not just companies and countries, but insurers, researchers, academia, you know, astronomers are impacted by all of this stuff as well, because Earth based observation is being interrupted by a lot of stuff that’s going on in space at the moment.

Alfredo
I was about to say, what’s happening with mega-constellation of satellites that are impacting by observations, ground based observation, as you mentioned, and there’s been a meeting a couple of months ago, and now there is a report on just how bad things is and they’re planning to do another meeting next year to suggests laws and regulation and I’m just like: “this is already happening!” We’re past the point of just chatting and giving suggestion. This should have been already in the work but obviously the companies that can do the loan should they can bypass the current laws and treaties. And you’re right, we need to put something in place so that the future that I’ve dreamt in my little silly story doesn’t come to pass.

Anuradha Damale
Yeah, I mean, the good thing is that lots of different people are now you know, working on this and have been working on it. And, and the conversations are increasing more and more. And so there is an interest there as there should be, but we just need to be, I think there needs to be more action, which is easier said than done. There’s a lot of different people that need to be convinced of a lot of different things in different ways here. But, you know, this is a really interesting thing that I heard was space and nuclear weapons. What both, you know, both are very, very dangerous things and have the potential to be dangerous. But we see gorgeous photos of space all the time. And it’s made it so like, Okay. And and you think of it as this wonderful place in it is, but the fact is space was always militarized. And people are sick and tired of repeating it because, you know, people will ask, Well, what about the militarization of space or space was already militarized in different ways. It’s just that we, as a civilization.. that word. But, you know, we we’ve been conditioned to see spaces this only beautiful thing, whereas nuclear weapons, you know, we’ve seen the impact we’ve had the discussions and so nuclear technology as a whole gets put under that category of dangerous and and it can be, you know, don’t get me wrong nuclear power when not regulated and you know, there’s a reason why and some Countries this big discussion about civil-military nuclear interdependencies. And you know, how we need to draw lines so that we can optimize nuclear power for use, rather than to help the military nuclear complex that it’s the more and more we talk about these things in a way, it’s really good because nuclear dialogue has often remained siloed, within, you know, just thinking about nuclear and not thinking about how it connects to other things. And I think over the past few years, there has been a bit more talk about emerging technologies, but it’s very much been about Earth based things, dialogues about space, given the conversations that are happening, even if they are hypothetical, when they’re happening by people like Jeb Tusk, who have a lot of hold and a lot of semiotic power. They really need to be taken seriously because otherwise, one day it’s just talks and then another day, it’s a country freaking out, because this company in a rival country is doing something and they need to do something about it and you end up with this pasive of escalation. And we just don’t need that. Not in the year of our lord 2020. Well, I say year of our lord, but yeah.

Alfredo
Absolutely. And completely agree. And I thank you very much for your time. This was absolutely illuminating. And I hope that our listeners enjoy both the fiction side and a lot more terrifying reality of what is happening and what might happen.

Chris
Although I’m still quite glad that it does sound like there’s at least currently, a lot of rules and regulations that don’t seem to be easily bypassed.

Anuradha Damale
Touch wood. I’m touching three different words offices right now.Thank you for having me.

Alfredo
Thank you so much.

Chris
Thank you so much.

Anuradha Damale
No worries.