Mars One: Should humans colonize Mars?

Should humans colonize Mars?

Updated: June 8, 2012 11:56 AM EDT
Mars One wants to have 20 astronauts living on mars by 2033. (Image courtesy of Digital Trends) Mars One wants to have 20 astronauts living on mars by 2033. (Image courtesy of Digital Trends)

By Digital Trends Staff
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The next frontier could be within reach. A private Dutch company recently announced its plants to colonize Mars, turning the red planet into an alternative society for humans. It's a bold plan, and one that comes at the same time and more and more private sector firms are launching their own galactic efforts. Despite the undeniable interest -- and maybe shock -- at these plans, we had to ask whether colonizing Mars is in our (and Earth's) best interests or not. 

Q: Should humans colonize Mars?

Molly: For a few reasons, yes, humans should colonize Mars. First of all, it's not as if we're sending humans out to space without preparation or planning; it's an incremental idea. Rovers go, then a couple of astronauts go, then more astronauts, until a suitable living environment for people is built. This plan doesn't include moving a large portion of civilization to Mars (by 2033, Mars One wants to have 20 astronauts living there), it's about laying the foundation for a future that will need to incorporate living alternatives.

Does the idea of moving to space sound scary? Sure! You know what else is scary? What's happening to this planet. Overpopulation and resource scarcity might sound like new-age, hippie-talk, but they are real threats. Recent projections say that the human population could reach 10 billion by 2050 (the year at which there are expected to be more than 300 million people suffering from chronic hunger) and 15 billion by 2100. And researchers have said time and time again that we will run out of land, food, and water. Unless you can retool the world to better distribute income and resources (which, for the record, is a losing battle -- the wealth gap is growing, rapidly), you need another solution.

Whether you like it or not, that's eventually going to be space. Stephen Hawking recently said that the human race has no future unless we go into space -- to be more specific: "I don't think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years unless we spread into space."

Andrew: You're absolutely right: The day is coming when Earth will no longer be able to sustain life. But that day could still be billions of years from now, no matter what Dr. Hawking has to say about it. Because of this, I believe it is unwise to essentially abandon our own planet by pumping energy, money, and intellectual resources into fleeing for another.

If humanity begins to set its sights on the stars, rather than being forced to clean up the mess we've created here on Earth, our home -- the place of our evolution and origin -- doesn't stand a chance. Global warming may already be irreversible, but there is still plenty we can do as a people to remake our planet into a habitable place for thousands of years to come.

I am not trying to imply that all the resources would sudden shift from fixing the problems here on Earth to colonizing Mars, just that the mindset of humanity could be such that we write off our home planet in the same way rock stars write off hotel rooms.

Of course, all of this assumes that colonizing Mars is even possible. If we can't figure out how to fix the problems with our own planet, which already has a (mostly) habitable atmosphere, then how can we tackle the gargantuan task of terraforming a dead planet that has no oxygen, no water, and no magnetic field?

But that's beside the point. All I'm saying is: If we're inventive enough to create a livable planet out of a dead one, then we can figure out how to keep a living planet alive.

Molly: First of all, no one said anything about abandoning Earth. Let's get a little perspective here: the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. The first man didn't get into space until 1961. So if we start colonization efforts now -- and by now, again, I mean have a handful of astronauts on Mars by 2033 -- we might actually have a shot at a viable, attractive living arrangement within the next 100-200 years.

If you were somehow able to convince me that there were a feasible way to fix the "mindset" of humanity, than I suppose I could see your point that perhaps we're jumping ship a bit too early. Here's the thing though: I think you're wrong. The way we are living and using resources today isn't an outside symptom or current trend, it's a pattern. We've been on this path for a long, long time. Right now, the world's consumption levels are operating at an unsustainable level: we use resources faster than the planet can create them. At the same time, we're causing enormous stress on our environment. All while widening the gap between have and have-nots, which has plenty of effects on overpopulation, overcrowding, and malnourishment rates. It's all a really sick cycle that has been in the makings for a very long time, and it is going to take something bigger than "changing our mindset" to offset the damages.

You know what's an inventive approach to dealing with this? Space colonization, something we've talked about for a very long time but haven't committed to.

Saying we're inventing ways to keep living here isn't a great argument, because a) you live in a developed country where your living conditions have probably only been slightly worsened (pollution, gas prices) but nothing dramatic -- not like the loss of physical space in India that citizens there have experienced on a yearly basis, or the permanent toxic cloud that has formed over Southeast Asia… and b) because it's all relative. Sure, we're living now, but at degrees worse than it used to be, and that's a slope I don't want to be around to see the bottom of.

Andrew: I already conceded that colonizing space is an idea worth exploring to the fullest extent our abilities will allow. But there are so many things fundamentally wrong with your argument that it's hard agree with anything else.

First of all, your defeatist attitude toward sustainable life on Earth is exactly the problem I believe would become widespread if space flight is suddenly thrust into the human conversation as a solution to our temporal woes. You've clearly already given up on fixing the problems that plague all of us -- not just those in developing nations. Their problems are our problems, as far as global warming is concerned, whether stuck up elitists like myself have realized it or not. You say "inventing ways to keep living here" with clear disdain on your lips. But we do live here, and I would like to know that humanity can continue to live here until the Sun implodes in a few billion years from now. (Which, incidentally, would be just as big a problem on Mars as it is here.)

As far as the "poor people" in India and Southeast Asia for whom you fein compassion goes, space flight is not going to serve as their salvation. In fact, the less money you have, the less chance that you or your descendants will ever touch foot on another planet. Space travel is as expensive an endeavor as it gets, and they aren't just going to start shipping the masses off to Mars.

Furthermore, the fact that I (and you, too) live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world is not a notch against my argument; to the contrary -- we are the ones who need to lead the march toward environmentally sound, sustainable lifestyles. We in the US use as much oil every year as the next five thirstiest users combined -- a group that includes industrial powerhouses like China and Brazil. (Two countries that are also laying waste to Earth.)

As I said before, colonizing Mars is a fine goal -- I hope the private sector manages to make that a reality in less than 100 years. But what I hope they do not do is advertise fleeing Earth as an alternative to fixing it.

Molly: Jumping to "fleeing Earth" seems incredibly reactionary: just because the option is starting to enter the bounds of reality doesn't mean we're all running for the hills (of Mars). In fact, I don't imagine that many people are all that interested in leaving our planet to take up on a new one. It's not exactly an attractive option, leaving all of the luxuries we've accrued here for a space station. The first inhabitants of this environment are looking at a downgrade.

Which is why we need to instill some optimism in this project. We're instinctually scared of the unknown, which it seems like much of your antagonism for Mars colonization is coming from. I'm sorry, Andrew, I know you'd have to give up the lifestyle you've become accustomed to were you to live on the Mars space station, but you don't have to get that mad about it.

The general attitude about Mars One has been anything but "Well sign me up!" It's been skeptical -- as per usual with space colonization -- at best. And if we give it some sort of "okay well maybe within the next hundred years or so we can do this…" we're simply passing the buck to the next generation -- again.

Why can't moving part of Earth's population be part of the solution? No one's suggesting this is the entirety of the plan, but it's certainly an incremental piece of it. But it can't be until we actually start doing it and yes, that means some people (again, robots, then astronauts,then citizens) will have to actually be part of the effort and live on the proposed Mars space station. And this is all currently being headed by the private sector, which space exploration increasingly is these days, so the issue of public money being reassigned to this cause is currently moot.

It's really easy to keep space colonization nothing more than an idea for as long as possible, but if we were able to start taking action, we could simultaneously try to fix this planet while cultivating another.

Andrew: Perhaps I've not been clear: I am not antagonistic toward the idea of colonizing Mars, or any type of space travel, regardless of where the money comes from. And I agree that this should be part of the way we relieve Earth of the burden of humanity -- at least, it's an option worth exploring to the fullest. Mars One is an ambitious plan (which is a primary reason for the skepticism), but I applaud its outlandishness and bravado. That's what we need to push humanity forward.

All I'm saying is that we as a people need inspiration right now. Everything, it seems, is falling apart around us. Capitalism -- the foundation of the modern world -- is nothing more than a tectonic plate constantly shifting beneath our feet. Meanwhile, we've abused our planet to such a degree that it's starting to fight back with heat and rising tides. I realize that I may be wrong, but my gut tells me that if the possibility of space colonization becomes even a distant -- but conceivable -- reality, all of the people we need to get behind efforts to reverse our haphazard pattern of environmental destruction and overpopulation will simply think, "problem solved," and never make the changes everyone on Earth so desperately needs to make.

You're saying this is not going to happen, that the colonization of Mars won't have such a drastic effect on our collective psyche. And maybe you're right. But I doubt it.

In Case You Missed It:

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