Here we are at the dawn of private space flight, and it seems we’re going to Mars. There’s already the Mars One project, which plans to send 4 people to Mars in 2023 by making a reality show of it. Billionaire Elon Musk has also set his eyes on the mightiest of planets. He’s been quoted as saying “I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.”
With at least two private programs aiming for Mars by the 2020s (and perhaps a space race between them to help develop the necessary technologies), for the moment it seems that this is really going to happen. What’s exciting about both of these projects is that they’d be one way trips. We won’t just be exploring Mars, we’ll be settling it. This contrasts sharply with our all too brief dalliances on the Moon, which we stopped altogether over forty years ago.
Each of these programs plans to send a small group of only several pioneers to start with, and this is definitely a good idea. We know that microgravity is devastating to Human health, but we don’t really know what the effects of low gravity would be. Will Martian gravity be sufficient to maintain Human health in the long term? If not, could there be possible solutions? One solution could be having Martian settlers sleep in centrifugal beds that would simulate higher than Earth gravity, in conjunction with drugs and perhaps eventually gene therapy that might offset bone and muscle degeneration. It’s also occurred to me that maybe weighting their clothes so that they’ll weigh as much as they would on Earth might be helpful, but I have no evidence to support that. It’s just a notion.
Gravity will hardly be the only hazard faced by our intrepid pioneers. The Martian regolith can be as deadly as asbestos when inhaled, and of course with such a thin atmosphere and no magnetic field, the radiation on the surface of Mars will be more severe than here on Earth. All of these problems and more will have to be dealt with, but if they can be solved or at least mitigated, then the original settlers could set up the infrastructure for increasingly larger waves of migrants from Earth.
The threat of radiation and microgravity is also cause for us to reduce the travel time to Mars to as little as possible. Conventional rockets are too slow. Fusion rockets and solar sails could take us to Mars in a matter of weeks. Water, food, and the crew’s dried fecal matter could be used to shield the habitation modules from radiation. Since the food and water only block radiation, and don’t absorb it, they would still be safe to consume. The ship could also generate its own mini-magnetosphere to protect the crew from radiation. There’s no reason why these methods couldn’t also be used on Mars to protect the colonists, though the easiest solution would likely be to simply build the colony underground. The effects of microgravity on the voyage to Mars could be offset by having the crew sleep in centrifugal beds, or perhaps by making the habitation module a large centrifuge itself.
Elon Musk wants to charge 500 000 US dollars a ticket to go to Mars. While money will certainly be crucial for this ambitious project, it should hardly be the only criteria for deciding who gets to go. Obviously those with specific skill sets should be valued over unskilled individuals. All applicants should also be genetically, medically and psychological screened, as well as given thorough criminal background checks. No one who has, or is predisposed to having any serious medical, psychological or social problems should be chosen for Mars. This will no doubt bring about accusations of discrimination and eugenics, but the survival of the settlement will depend on the physical and mental wellbeing of its members. The challenges Mars will toss at us will no doubt cause a great deal of sickness, injury, and death. The first pioneers will have to be made of stern stuff indeed to endure frontier life. Once the greatest problems have been solved and colonial infrastructure well established, the criteria for Martian settlers can be relaxed.
With such expense and danger involved in settling Mars, you may very well be wondering ‘why should we bother?’. I happen to believe, along with many highly intelligent people (including Stephen Hawking), that it is vital for our long term survival as a species for us to establish self-sufficient breeding populations beyond Earth to mitigate existential threats. It is inevitable at some point in the future that the Earth will suffer a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions that will kill off the Human population. The only way for Humanity to survive such an event is if there are off world breeding populations. Consequently, I believe preferential selection should be given to young, fertile, heterosexual married couples in order to quickly establish a breeding population on Mars. This is not to say that non-breeders of any sort should be excluded from Mars, but I would like at least a thousand breeding pairs of Humans on Mars as soon as possible. If you take offence to this, then you’ll be glad to know that to my knowledge neither Mars One nor Elon Musk agrees with me on these criteria.
But what’s really amazing about a Martian Colony is that it seems inevitable that we will terraform the planet. While misanthropic eco-nuts curse our very existence for killing the Earth, we could bring life to Mars, and bring Mars to life.
“Do you feel guilty about killing the planet? Why not come to one that’s already dead?”
It’s often said that the Earth doesn’t need us, but Mars would. Not only does it need us to bring it to life, it would likely require us to maintain that life. Without being artificially protected or replenished, the solar wind would eventually strip away the atmosphere, leaving the surface to suffocate, freeze and irradiate. Without someone to actively keep Mars alive, it would revert to a lifeless rock in a matter millennia, a blink of geologically time. By becoming the only species in the entire history of the Earth to successfully establish ourselves on another world, we would prove that we are as unique and amazing as we’ve always known ourselves to be.
So to Elon Musk, Mars One, and all the other visionaries planning to take Human beings to the Red Planet, I give you my most sincere and heartfelt thanks. Because of you I may live not only to see Human’s walk on Mars, but a self-sufficient colony established there.
Godspeed to you all.