Colonizing Mars: Dreams, Dilemmas, and Dollars

The desire to colonize planets other than our own has a mighty hold on the hearts of scientists, entrepreneurs, and the general public. It has promised us scientific insights for years and has seduced many into believing that it would fulfill a manifest destiny of sorts: “We must explore!” Why? Because of the many virtues that bespeak our finding “another place just like home”—and none more virtuous than the idea of becoming a duplicate Earth. Excitement naturally arises at the idea of coming across new minerals or technology that could completely transform the way we live right here on Earth. But in the same breath, we must also be conscious of the fact that the push outward into space demands of us not just a hard scientific look, but also an ethical accounting and a precise moral compass. If our species is to grow and evolve by spreading to other worlds, then that world and those who already dwell there will have to pay a price, both for our ingress and our staying. And doing this has to make for some pretty good moral and ethical justifications or paybacks. This essay will make the case that human colonization of other planets is full of inspiring prospects for the advancement of our species. However, for this argument to feel valid, I will need to give equal time to some sticky ethical problems that would accompany any exodus to, say, Mars or beyond, and to raise a few of the serious environmental implications that would be involved in establishing any sort of sustainable human settlement off-Earth. I think it has always been the wrong way to approach this subject to grant that one side of the argument is ethically superior without seriously considering what any mission to another world would actually consist of and imply.

Moreover, when we consider the imperative to colonize other planets, especially Mars, the issue of morality looms large. This is an enormous undertaking, after all, involving untold trillions of dollars and an incalculable human toll. It is the descendants of those poor souls who will pay the price, in all likelihood. And for what? To maintain the status quo—profitable, for some; brutal, for many—on one small rock, now almost tapped out of its vital resources? It is difficult to understand what, exactly, makes this kind of imperialism both necessary and right (von Braun, 2018). Moreover, there is a clear ethical reason to think hard about whether we humans should even try to establish large human communities in space. Philosophically, space colonization seems to many to be no different from colonialism. If one society has the right to impose its rules and ways of life on another society, then why not on another planet, which also has its own sets of natural resources, indigenous life-forms, and the like? Nevertheless, if we try to talk about the problems of space colonization from this angle, we quickly run into the huge problem of what constitutes a better society. Additionally, von Braun (2018) underlines the major technical difficulties that stand in the way of establishing safe bases on Mars, where the main challenge is the “fiercely ionized radiation environment” (p. 42). Moreover, the large year-to-year fluctuations in the Martian day and night side temperatures—more so than anything else, these forces make life inhospitable to humans on Mars. The author, a medical doctor with a space background, notes a danger for the human explorers from the kinds of cosmic rays that Earth’s magnetic field deflects (238). Put simply, even though the idea of living on Mars may seem very exciting, people need to think about the effects it will have on the environment and ethics to create a responsible plan for biology in space. That was the message Jane Poynter—the CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation and a founder of some well-known NASA initiatives—delivered during a Wilson Center panel discussion event held on May 23, 2019.

To compound these ethical and environmental concerns, the economic practicability of colonizing Mars merely adds another stratum of difficulty. As the statute of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel says, “one space-faring vehicle capable of taking more than one person to Mars, with the necessities of life to last for the duration of the astronaut’s stay and the supplies to set up a base on Mars… could cost at least $100 billion.” Given investors’ well-founded concerns about the return on such a fantastically expensive investment, one might wish to see colonization prospects as being limited. But the plans of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the now-defunct Mars One project are anything but limited. These are very important funding questions: Should we take all this money that we’re spending on our own Earth, and send it to outer space—where a lot of people would like to go, but can’t? On the other hand, the relatively few who will get to make that trip probably will not be paying for it with their own personal funds, nor will the trip be itself a realistic enough near-term prospect to justify diverting funds from current terrestrial concerns. Who is to say that the funding of a mission to Mars will not amount to stealing diversionary funds from the very kinds of efforts that might cure diseases? Hence, though Mars is a scientific and resourceful destination like no other, we must deal with the ethical problems, environmental downsides, and financial impracticalities it might harbor if we are to make it a just and sustainable place for mankind to settle.

Additionally, the attraction of colonizing Mars may seem to promise spectacular scientific advances and the acquisition of vast new stores of resources. Nonetheless, it is important to realize that long-term feasibility can only be assessed properly through critical examination of the myriad difficulties and potential risks presented by the Red Planet and its conditions. Morton (2018) reminds us that the very act of attempting to project ourselves permanently beyond Earth’s protective belt into the uncanny and still-mysterious space environment is a huge step into the unknown and carries incalculable dangers. The way in which we comprehend Martian weather conditions and geological events is still quite basic. Because of this, there is a prevalent probability that when human settlers arrive on Mars, they might experience massive failure in regard to their intended way of living there. The kind of oversight which Earth’s past environmental managers have displayed in the way they ran this planet before humans arrived must necessarily serve as an Earth-to-space cautionary tale. Moreover, for humans to establish a sustainable presence on Mars, a key issue is figuring out what can be done about the unpredictable dynamics of human living and working together over the long term—especially within the closed systems that a self-sustaining community on Mars will necessarily become. Predicting behavior, responses to stress, and other factors of human psychology and sociology over the long term and at a great distance from Earth is a prime focus of current research. Plants and multiple generations of living things will need to function in these closed systems, too. Unprecedented teamwork of humans and machinery will be necessary (Morton). Integrating full-risk assessments and adaptive strategies into the colonization plan is not just a smart move but an essential one if we want to avoid tragedy in our push to fill outer space.

The desire to send people to Mars offers an exciting promise of future human activity in a new place, of scientific investigations possible only there, and of growth into untapped territory. This aspiration captures the collective imagination in many fields, from aerospace engineering and physics to architecture and design. Such a mission is not easy and would take many years to complete, but it builds on an awe-inspiring vision of what humans can do together. At the same time, it raises complex questions of ethics, of the impact on Mars, and of the bottom line—the economic might to pull it off now and into the foreseeable future. The establishment of human-occupied bases on Mars would result in the direct contamination of the Martian environment by Earth life forms. Would this have a serious detrimental effect on Martian life, if it exists? Aside from that scientific concern, let us consider the ethical aspects of giving Earth contingents the right to colonize another planet. Doesn’t the right of a planet to maintain its own ecosystems without human intervention carry any weight? If we are not willing to let another planet occupy its universe unimpeded, what does this bode for the payoff in first-take undertaking for human-occupied bases? As we teeter on the verge of turning into a species that populates more than just one planet, it becomes especially important that our turn toward “next” not be a stumble in the direction of “wrong.” These ventures have to be looked at as a whole, because just as with any big, hopeful, but new, thing that humans do when they’re together, there’s a lot of margin for error. And the author (me!) certainly hopes humans will use what I’ve written here to get into a seriously scrutinizing mode before we try to inhabit the oh-so-businesslike ventures toward becoming an interplanetary species. In the end, the voyage to Mars must not be seen as just a hunt for new places. It is also a deep mitosis into how we like Earth will have to muddle through decisions from which there is no turning back. These are at their core stewardship decisions, and despite our best efforts to leave things as we found them, we will be making major changes to the Martian environment.

von Braun, W. (2018). The ultimate challenge: the exploration and colonization of extrasolar planets. The Political Economy of the Space Age: How Science and Technology Shape the Evolution of Human Society, 189.

Billings, L. (2019). Colonizing other planets is a bad idea. Futures, 110, 44-46.

Morton, A. (2018). Should we colonize other planets?. John Wiley & Sons.

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