Image: Jeff Barton and Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts & Sciences
This week two scientists, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, suggested in the Journal of Cosmology that it is time for humans to start colonizing Mars. Humanity needs some intrepid explorers to "boldly go" on a one-way mission to the red planet in order to ensure the conservation of our species in the event of the catastrophic devastation of our blue planet. The risks would be high, and the likelihood of return to Mother Earth would be low to nil. But the way would be laid, promising a growing colony of humans on Mars. Would you volunteer to leave Earth and join the first colonists to settle on another planet?
Why Colonize Mars?
Readers of this site have long concerned themselves with harnessing human ingenuity to ensure we do not make ourselves extinct by ravaging the one planet we have. Schulze-Makuch and Davies also count runaway global warming, ecological collapse, and nuclear or biological warfare among the potential disasters that justify taking the risk of leaping onto neighboring planets. But primarily they reference mega-catastrophes completely outside of human control -- such as asteroid impacts, supernova explosions, or monster volcanic eruptions -- as incentives to ensure the continuity of mankind by hedging our bets with a home-away-from-home.
Schulze-Makuch and Davies argue that Mars presents an ideal base for colonization because it probably supports, or at least once supported, life. From a scientific perspective, this opens the door to entirely new fields of evolutionary biology, comparative planetology, and Martian geology.
Plans for human travel to our neighbor Mars are already on the books, but the two-way trip currently foreseen is expensive, would entail years of rehabilitation for the astronauts returning to Earth's gravity, and would probably be a one-off like our excursion to the Moon. Colonization, on the other hand, encourages continuity of support for and growth of the mission to Mars.
Is This a Suicide Mission?
Schulze-Makuch and Davies propose three steps for colonizing Mars. In the first step, a suitable location for the Mars base would be found. The site must shelter colonists from both the environmental conditions of Mars and radiation from space. Ideally, it would be located near to water (in the form of ice) and minerals. Second, unmanned spacecraft would deliver essentials such as power sources, communication relays, and scientific equipment. Robotic probes could prepare a station for the arrival of the manned flights.
Only in the third phase would two manned spacecraft take off in tandem for the six month journey to the Red Planet. In case of problems on one ship, the second ship could effect a rescue. The first colonists would have much in common with early humans who ventured across Earth's seas to establish communities on far-away islands or distant continents.
But these first humans on Mars would not be Earth's tired, poor, huddled masses. They would be carefully selected for their survival skills and psychological suitability. They would possess critical scientific and medical knowledge. They would probably be beyond older, or self-selected for having no desire to have children, due to the risks of extended space travel on reproductive health.
Upon arrival on Mars, these four intrepid explorers would establish a bio-sphere capable of sustainably supporting themselves as well as growing to support the bold colonists that would follow their space trail to the doorstep of humanity's first off-planet adventure.
Would Humans Destroy Life on Mars?
Schulze-Makuch and Davies also explore the ethics of the reverse of the question of human survival: would we threaten any life on Mars? This would be a double tragedy, extending our unintended consequences to entirely new planets and perhaps even wiping out the best examples of biodiversity ever encountered.
The two scientists point out that insufficiently sterilized probes sent from Earth have already landed on Mars, so a mission to Mars is nothing new in that regard. Furthermore, they argue, it is unlikely that lifeforms from Earth can compete successfully with indigenous Martian organisms anyhow. Finally, we humans could use our advanced understanding of the importance of biodiversity to ensure that indigenous life, if found, is adequately protected.
Would You Travel One-Way to Mars?
Schulze-Makuch and Davies summarize the case for a one-way mission to Mars:
Self-preservation considerations in a dangerous universe and the human exploratory spirit compel us to explore space and colonize other planets. Mars is the planet in our solar system, which is reasonably close and provides an abundance of resources and shelter for such a colonization effort.
Would you want to be among the first colonists of another planet? Would you support the mission to spread humanity out into our solar system? Or do you think it is the ultimate in human hubris to need more than the lovely blue and emerald Earth we now call home?