Space Time

The ‘Escape to Mars’ Plan Has a Fatal Flaw

Elon Musk and other futurists are missing something big

Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library/Getty

MMars, our neighboring red dot, has been the focus of human exploration for hundreds of years. Science fiction writers, scientists, and explorers alike have spent decades imagining what life would be like if humankind could pick up and move there. Never mind the radiation, lack of oxygen, and inhospitable atmosphere. According to some billionaires and scientists, Mars is our future.

The private space industry has exploded, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all designing spacecrafts to bring people to the cosmos and orbit the earth as tourists, or, in SpaceX’s case, to set up a massive settlement of humans on Mars.

But the field of space exploration is at an ethical impasse.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that space travel is difficult and risky, and that people could die on the journey. Critics of privatized space travel also take issue with the implications these companies are built on. What does it mean when a company makes it their goal to colonize an entire planet?

The desire to become interplanetary harkens back to the 19th century, when colonizers believed it was their God-given right to expand out to the west and take over land and communities. The adoption of Mars as a second home is the Manifest Destiny of the 21st century. Even the language is problematic. “Colonize Mars” is one of the phrases private companies use most often to describe their grand plans. SpaceX sells a T-shirt that reads “Occupy Mars.”

“These issues intersect with so many lessons that we have here on Earth, be it the rights of indigenous people or the way we even think about a wild environment,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA Chair of Astrobiology at the Kluge Center, and astronomer at the Adler Planetarium who studies the ethics of Mars exploration.

Throughout history, colonization has resulted in mass deaths, the spread of disease, and the decimation or suppression of native cultures. Yet these issues are rarely discussed among Mars colonization planners. Some think Mars is a dead planet, covered in a fine layer of rusty dirt, rocks, and some frozen water. But despite our constant and steady exploration of Mars over the past 50 years, it’s unknown whether life exists there, or ever did. “We don’t know whether there is a history that we could study there or learn about,” Walkowicz says. “We don’t know whether there is life under the surface. There could be microbial communities. There could be more complicated stuff. We just don’t know.”

Space moguls like Elon Musk brush off the issue. During a panel interview at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in 2015, Musk was asked about planetary protection measures. “I think the reality is that there isn’t any life on the surface of Mars,” he responded. “There may be microbial life deep underground, where it’s shielded from radiation and the cold. That’s a possibility, but in that case, anything we do on the surface is not going to have a big impact on the subterranean life.”

Experts don’t necessarily agree with Musk’s view and argue that more research is needed before declaring that there’s nothing worth preserving on the planet.

“Just because there are some multibillionaires who have ideas about how we should go to space doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of us with other ideas.”

Mars remains an untouched environment. Landing hundreds of people on the surface would be the equivalent of walking into a controlled laboratory and dousing everything with grime and dirt. For space scientists, the experiment would be ruined. Not to mention the fact that humans don’t have a great track record when it comes to environmental preservation. The health of our own planet — one that has clean water, breathable air, and an atmosphere that keeps us alive — is in crisis. We’ve done a terrible job taking care of the Earth. Why would Mars be any different?

The fact is that scientific exploration is not the goal for wannabe Mars dwellers, and issues related to space preservation largely fall to NASA. While companies like SpaceX work closely with the agency, their goals are not necessarily aligned. It is the job of NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection to promote responsible exploration of the solar system and protect any indigenous life form, even if it’s ancient and no longer alive. Walkowicz says she worries that the current administration may be too lenient, policy-wise, toward business interests.

Musk and others stand by their intentions to transport humans to Mars as a way to save the species in case of a disaster, like an asteroid or the repercussions from a massive world war. If we are wiped out, at least we have some extra human stock on Mars. But this logic is flawed, Walkowicz says, because it is “spreading the idea that global annihilation due to an asteroid could happen at any moment.”

“It injects an urgency into human beings going to Mars that doesn’t actually exist,” she adds. “They’re always talking about the asteroid strike or in a billion years the sun is going to expand and make the earth too hot. Nobody ever brings up climate change.”

If there is going to be a backup plan for humanity, who gets to be backed up? Mars settlement plans are likely to be offered to a select group of people, like those who can afford a $200,000 ticket on a SpaceX rocket. Although Musk paints a picture of a comfortable space life, anyone who takes that journey should know the risks. They might not get to come back. Mars could become home to a lot of unhappy wealthy people.

If we have a chance to do this all again, experts argue, we should be careful and put a lot more thought and consideration into both the ethics and logistics of sending people to Mars. As part of her Kluge fellowship, Walkowicz recently held a conference called Decolonizing Mars that brought together scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, ethicists, and engineers to begin discussions on alternative plans. Walkowicz says she isn’t totally against sending humans to Mars, but she thinks the prospect needs to be approached more inclusively. “There are certainly aspects of learning about Mars — both its present and its history — that are way more efficient if you have humans there locally,” she says. “So I think there are compelling scientific reasons for humans to go.”

Mars is by no means a realistic backup plan for our survival. It is, however, a hot spot for scientific exploration. Those who dream of setting up large communities in the cosmos need to work in tandem with those who have different goals and perspectives.

“Just because there are some multibillionaires who have ideas about how we should go to space,” Walkowicz says, “doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of us with other ideas.”

Freelance writer in the Bay Area

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