Scientific exploration of the solar system planets constitutes one of the most exciting achievements of the human race. However, the idea of colonizing Mars may prove to be one of the most misleading, creating an impression that an alternative exists to planet Earth, which is a unique haven of life in the solar system, perhaps even in the Milky Way, and which is currently suffering from dangerous heating, rising oceans, extreme weather events, mass extinction of species and a growing risk of a nuclear calamity.
Microbial life may exist on Mars, or has existed in the past. According to NASA: “Among our discoveries about Mars, one stands out above all others: the possible presence of liquid water on Mars, either in its ancient past or preserved in the subsurface today. Water is key because almost everywhere we find water on Earth, we find life. If Mars once had liquid water, or still does today, it’s compelling to ask whether any microscopic life forms could have developed on its surface. Is there any evidence of life in the planet’s past? If so, could any of these tiny living creatures still exist today?”.
The Moon contains water ice at the poles, but neither the Moon nor Mars betray, at present, evidence of a livable atmosphere in which plants or animals may survive. The density of the atmosphere on the Moon is comparable to the density of the outermost fringes of Earth’s atmosphere and includes trace amounts of sodium and potassium, not found in the atmospheres of Earth, Mars or Venus.
Mars’ thin atmosphere is less than 1% of Earth’s, consisting of 95% CO2, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and trace oxygen and water vapor, which provide little protection from the sun’s radiation, nor allow retention of heat at the surface.
Suggestions that biological-like textures in a Martian meteorite (ALH84001) signify ancient fossils have not been confirmed.
In July 2017, researchers reported that the surface on the planet Mars may be more toxic to micro-organisms than thought earlier, especially to a common terrestrial type, Bacillus subtilis. This is based on studies with perchlorates, common on Mars, in a simulated Martian ultraviolet atmosphere.
Further, once a colony is established it will take continuous efforts and expense to keep it supplied, including rescue missions. Further, long term isolation may have its costs “Those sent to live and die on the red planet face untold risk of mental illness“
But dreams stay alive: “Even if Mars is devoid of past or present life, however, there’s still much excitement on the horizon. We ourselves might become the “life on Mars” should humans choose to travel there one day”
Most recently in the 68th Annual International Aeronautics Congress in Adelaide, thousands appear to be inspired by the visions of Elon Musk, who suggested airline-like communications between Earth and Mars. Musk unveiled ambitious plans to colonize Mars at the last space congress in Mexico in September 2016: “Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body, which would be the kind of moon base, and then getting people to Mars and beyond — that’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for”. Lockheed Martin also plans to send humans to Mars in the next decade.
According to Stephen Hawking: “It is essential that we colonize space” . Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA, stated “”If we stop doing the hard things, I think we stop being human“. This definition of what it means to be human does not accord with that of many great humanists and moral figures in recent history.
A space industry budget of about $400 billion in 2016 means that space colonization dreams are not entirely devoid of mercenary considerations. A poignant observation is that engineers and entrepreneurs who stand to gain from space travel and colonization tend to promote those endeavours, rather than biologists and medical scientists who understand the limitations of the human body.
There can be little doubt that, given modern and future computer and space technologies, space stations could be constructed on the Moon and on Mars, where a few privileged humans may be able to live for periods of time.
The ethical polarity between those who dream of conquering space and those hoping to defend Earth from global heating and a nuclear calamity could not be greater. The billions and trillions required to develop and maintain a Mars colony would approach what is currently spent on the military (US$1.57 trillion in 2016).
Colonization of space scenarios question the sanity of a species prepared to abandon billions of its members on a planet in distress for the sake of the temporary glory of a privileged few destined to live and die in lifeless space.
Dr Andrew Glikson is a scientist at the Australian National University