Our Future On Mars



Image taken by NASA orbiter

Since antiquity, our species has been a race of explorers.

We are pioneers; enraptured with the unknown, the inventors and the lofty-thinking, the travelers who willingly leave the familiar for the sake of pursuing the next frontier. Our nation, a portion of the Americas that was populated by the individuals who would become Native Americans and later the European explorers, is living proof that for better or for worse humans are obsessed with novelty.

But where is left for us to explore? We have settled all but the most severe of places on this world, and even in the face of extremes, we are constantly sending out emissaries in the form of researchers or machines. Granted, our oceans still hold innumerable mysteries and unknown organisms, but we know them well enough to turn our gaze from the sea of blue to the sea of stars. Since the early sixties and the space race to the moon, American citizens, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and other space corporations and companies have been fascinated with the idea of sending people into the inhospitable regions beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

To contemplate the sheer size of the universe is near crippling for the average human brain; nonetheless, we and other nations are constantly pushing our limits as evolving equipment and science allow us more knowledge and freedom to travel through the mysterious blackness crowding close around our pale blue dot.

Celestial bodies have fascinated stargazers for a millennia, but we may soon be able to accomplish what has been only dreamed of: sending people to another planet.

While the science fiction enthusiasts (and scientists seriously contemplating interstellar travel) may dream of warp drives, hyperspace, and alien worlds beyond our solar system, the truth is that we are ‘confined’ to our nearest neighboring planets for the time being when it comes to exploration, at least in person. Mars in particular has drawn our attention. NASA’s rovers are roaming its rust-hued surface even as you read this article.

In October 2016, President Barack Obama discussed the ‘Mars race’ and the future of space exploration, stating that “we have a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

This time frame may sound big, but that’s actually quite an ambitious statement, considering that America has stopped sending astronauts into space independently and relies on Russia as a vehicle to the International Space Station. Budget cuts to NASA pose a problem as well. With all the unrest in the world, absorbed by the grim sights the news confronts us with every day, American taxpayers and government officials have little time for Mars or outer space.

Perhaps, however, the road to our rocky neighboring planet is not paved by NASA, but by private corporations, an idea explored by Elon Musk, CEO and cofounder of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation). According to Airspacemag.com, Musk highlighted plans to construct the largest rocket ever built, with a few test flights to Mars and eventually transporting settlers to Mars by 2024. Tickets, as you can imagine, are a bit of a black hole in one’s wallet, as it were.

However, Musk detailed a future in which traveling to Mars is relatively easy–even a commercial enterprise. While NASA is described as scientifically contributing to this venture, the entrepreneur and investor all but declared it obsolete, claiming “SpaceX is a 21st-century company, not a 20th-century bureaucracy with all its attendant inefficiencies and entrenched ways of doing business.”

How can an administrative quagmire send people to Mars within a reasonable budget and time? In other words, can NASA manage?

Mars One (see Marsone.com for more details on it) also wants in, aiming to “establish a permanent human settlement” populated by “carefully selected and trained crews.” Who are these crewmembers, these unknowns willing to risk life and limb to see a Martian sunrise and step foot in Martian soil? Mars One is combing through applicants from all over the world, interdisciplinary individuals with the right temperament for a confined space and an extended stay, sensible decision making, etc etc. They are not all talk either. The group and others have been looking into crops compatible with Martian soil, released books on colonization, and explicitly mapped out the extent of their plans, with the hope of having people there by 2023, a marked one year sooner than SpaceX. Corporations claim that cooperation and unity will be necessary, but they seem to be butting heads in ideologies, ambitions, and their plans for colonizing.

You may ask, is it all worth it? 

The astronomical price tag associated with missions to Mars excluded, recent research has shown that prolonged exposure to particles on magnetic-field-deficient Mars might be detrimental to settlers’ and astronauts’ health. As in, really bad. These particles have been shown to inflame brain tissue and increasing likelihood of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

This necessitates drugs and medicines designed specifically for this environment, a project that might takes years in and of itself. There are other dangers; planet-wide dust storms, an oxygen deficient atmosphere, and of course the isolation. Aid and equipment are a three month’s trip away; that is, almost thirty four million miles. The Earth is a speck in the sky, just a part of a Martian constellation. Even the sun looks fainter to the cameras of our intrepid rovers.

With every step a Mars explorer takes into the dangers of the unknown, the rocks their boots disturb could have not moved for a million years.

But exploration is born of risk. How can we, as a civilization, ever advance if we cling to fear of the unknown? Better yet, how can we ever hope to become the interstellar species we idealize in our fiction? It’s true, progress is not a lonely venture; to reach Mars, we must first be strong enough in our unity to start out…but that alone, naive or not, is a goal worth having. Whether it is a national or international effort, the journey to Mars will not be without its fruits.

Technological furtherance, first of all. You may not realize it, but to put the spotlight on NASA again, NASA’s innovation and inventions are benefiting our lives even beyond expanding our awareness about our place in the universe. It has played a part in the development and improvement of LED lights, artificial limbs, highway safety techniques, video enhancing, fire resistant gear, harnessing solar energy, and water purification, to name a few. Mars missions will again push our technology to new heights, likely resulting in more advancements beneficial to all.

Also, we must consider the survival of our species. It is an out-there concept to say the least, but in the long run (and I mean hundreds to thousands of years, assuming we manage to maintain some kind of structure in our society for that long) the endurance of the human race will depend on our ability to transplant ourselves from planet to planet. As it is, there is evidence the damaging of Earth has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution, but climate change and its credibility aside, the sun will not always be our friend. In the distant cosmic future it will engulf the planets that huddle around its gravity, boiling the oceans off of Earth and eventually giving it a suitably dramatic fiery death.

Even without painting grim futures…we have to leave home someday. Allowing me a quote from one of my favorite movies, Interstellar, maybe “mankind was born on Earth, it was never meant to die here.” And maybe this departure, or at least its genesis, begins in the next decade. Maybe we begin our move next door.

To wrap up, let us not forget one of our driving motivations for space exploration, and particular Mars exploration, since the advent of NASA and its ilk. Are we alone in the universe? Every week we discover new exoplanets–that is, planets beyond our solar system–with promising environments for life. Perhaps, however, it is much closer to home than we think. Since the discovery of liquid water on Mars in 2015, the chances of the existence of organisms on Mars, at least microbial ones, increase. The question cannot go unanswered forever.

Whoever takes us to Mars, be it NASA, SpaceX, Mars One, or an up and coming organization (dare I say aliens? extraterrestrial taxi services?), our impending arrival on the Red Planet looks to be probable, maybe even inevitable. There is no question that, barring some unforeseen disaster in the near future, our generation will be the Mars generation.  

The first human being to step foot on another planet is in school right now.

Is it you?