man on mars 1

Most of the 400+ articles I’ve written on this blog are about the past, in one way or another. I rarely talk about the future, but I’m going to do that tonight.

I’ll state my argument very bluntly: I believe that we, the human race, need to send one or more of our kind (preferably more) to Mars. There are a number of compelling reasons–scientific, environmental, economic, and moral–why we should do this. But before we do, we’re going to have to change our thinking, particularly in the United States, about what a mission to Mars really means, what its implications are, and what choices we need to make as a society in order to make it happen.

I’m sorry to say that I believe space exploration in the United States is dead for the foreseeable future. The political and societal will simply doesn’t exist in our country to achieve anything noteworthy in the field of large-scale space exploration. Oh, we will probably continue to shoot an unmanned probe off into space every few years or so; such missions are comparatively low-cost and high-return, but there’s only so much you can do with unmanned probes. As far as manned space flight, though, the U.S. has deliberately chosen to check out and leave the table. We retired our space shuttle program in 2011 after 30 years of accomplishing very little of what the space shuttle was supposedly designed to do. (Remember when NASA told us it was the key to building a self-sustaining space colony? What happened to that?) Americans who do go into space now have to hitch rides on other countries’ space programs, notably the Russians.

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Scientists and engineers have been studying the idea of landing on Mars for decades. This conception of a Mars mission was drawn in 1963, even before humans landed on the Moon.

Why? Is it because Americans don’t care about exploring space anymore? I really don’t think so. The question is rarely polled, but the polls that have been taken on the subject do show that Americans support space exploration and are willing to devote resources to do so. Politically, though, federal funding for space exploration is a lukewarm commitment at best. The last time a national leader proposed significant new investment in space exploration was when President George W. Bush mentioned the Vision for Space Exploration in his 2004 State of the Union address. Congress threw a little money at it, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm for the plan, which had at its centerpiece a return to the Moon rather than an all-out effort for Mars. President Obama has made some noises about a Mars mission in the 2030s, but his space policy has not been front-burner either. Voicing support for Mars exploration is good PR for a single news cycle, but there’s obviously no political will toward achieving this goal.

It’s easy to see why. Right now the major political battles in the U.S. are fought on one side or the other of a question about how “big” or “small” government should be–which is essentially a battle about the legitimacy of government itself. When one major political party cheers at deliberately shutting down the federal government, how could you ever expect a political system to unite behind the vast government expenditures it will take to put a human colony on Mars? Because, make no mistake, that is what it will take. Government spending. Billions upon billions upon billions of dollars of it. We, as a society, must unite behind the power of democratic government to achieve big dreams, rather than distrust of it, or the big dreams simply won’t happen.

Private companies cannot get us to Mars. Why would they even want to? There’s no significant profit in it; at least, not in anything that isn’t cheaper and more cost-effective here on Earth. Thus, while it seems attractive to ask the Googles, Apples, Lockheed-Martins and Raytheon Corporations of the world to pitch in with some of their vast funds to conquer the enormous technical and engineering challenges needed to put a human colony on Mars, their hearts will never be in it, at least not for the reasons that going to Mars makes sense. The material profit they might get out of such a venture would never justify the commission of the resources that would be needed to achieve it.

climate change

It is my hope that solving the problems inherent in going to Mars might help us solve environmental problems back on Earth–like this one.

The second reason why governments, rather than private companies, must do the heavy lifting is because no one country can do it alone. A successful mission to Mars must almost by definition be a multinational endeavor. Whatever human being first sets foot on the red planet will undoubtedly get there thanks to American technology, but also probably Chinese manufacturing, Indian engineering, European finance, Japanese management and Russian muscle. Who can coordinate all of this? Only a government can do that. A diplomatic offensive on Earth is a prerequisite to an effort to reach Mars.

Going to Mars is not a boondoggle, a prospecting mission or a publicity stunt. It is nothing less than a fundamental reimagining of the human species and humanity’s relationship to its environment–which, after a landing on Mars, would now include the environment of two planets, not just one. This reimagining must happen on a philosophical level. We must reevaluate our place in the universe. Going to Mars will force us to do that.

Why do I think I’m right about this? Because right now the leading contender for a Mars mission plan is the “Mars to Stay” plan, championed enthusiastically by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the Moon. “Mars to Stay” envisions halving the difficulties of sending humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth by throwing away the second half of the mission–by sending people to Mars with the expectation that they will stay, live out their lives and ultimately die there. Once you eliminate “guaranteed safe return” from the mission parameters, the mission suddenly becomes a whole lot more feasible, technically and financially. There would be no shortage of volunteers for such a mission. If I could take my husband, I would go. Wouldn’t you?

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This artists’ conception of a Mars base is part of the “Mars to Stay” school, which envisions a series of one-way trips to Mars by permanent settlers from Earth.

Now, with the “Mars to Stay” plans, we’re not talking about landing on the planet, planting a flag, collecting a few rock samples and coming home to a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. We’re talking about colonizing. That’s a huge environmental commitment, and one that I believe will give us insight to the rest of us left behind on how to live better on Earth and fix our very serious problems on this planet, such as man-made climate change. For my (tax) money, this is what I would most like to “buy” by committing resources to a publicly-funded Mars mission. This is what I, and you, and everyone would get out of it. Don’t you see? This is why we should go!

In our current political system, outright denial of the proven scientific fact of man-made climate change is a position that is, shockingly, actually taken seriously in some quarters. Can you really imagine a political system afflicted by this sort of problem is going to produce the political commitment and financial resources to accomplish a goal that has, at its heart, the most complex scientific and engineering challenges that the human race has yet faced? This is why, unless something changes, the United States will not get behind a serious Mars mission any time soon.

I believe the United States will not get to Mars on its own. I also believe that the citizens of any other country will never get there without the serious, sustained commitment of the United States–a commitment that is publicly-funded and directed by governmental institutions. Until we fix our own political system and begin trusting in the power of our collective will, as citizens, to accomplish big things, the idea of human beings living on Mars will remain what it’s been for the past 150 years–science fiction. I would like to change that, but we must change our minds first.

The photo of the polar bear is by Wikimedia Commons user Agrant141, and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The other images are created by NASA and are public domain.