Our 12-year-old daughter who, like us, is a big fan of The Martian by Andy Weir, said, “I can’t stand that people think we’re all going to live on Mars after we destroy our own planet. Even after we’ve made the Earth too hot and polluted for humans, it still won’t be as bad as Mars. At least there’s plenty of water here, and the atmosphere won’t make your head explode.”
What makes The Martian so wonderful is that the protagonist survives in a brutally hostile environment, against all odds, by exploiting science in clever and creative ways. To nerds like us, that’s better than Christmas morning or a hot fudge sundae. (One of us is nerdier than the other—I’m not naming any names, but his job title is “Captain of Moonshots.”) The idea of using our ingenuity to explore other planets is thrilling. Our daughter has a good point about escaping man-made disaster on Earth by colonizing Mars, though. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Mars has almost no surface water; a toxic atmosphere that is too thin for humans to survive without pressure suits; deadly solar radiation; temperatures lower than Antarctica; and few to none of the natural resources that have been critical to human success on Earth. Smart people have proposed solutions for those pesky environmental issues, some of which are seriously sci-fi, like melting the polar ice caps with nuclear bombs. But those aren’t even the real problems.
The real problems have to do with human nature and economics. First, we live on a planet that is perfect for us, and we seem to be unable to prevent ourselves from making it less and less habitable. We’re like a bunch of teenagers destroying our parents’ mansion in one long, crazy party, figuring that our backup plan is to run into the forest and build our own house. We’ll worry about how to get food and a good sound system later. Proponents of Mars colonization talk about “terraforming” Mars to make it more like Earth, but in the meantime, we’re “marsforming” Earth by making our atmosphere poisonous and annihilating our natural resources. We are also well on our way to making Earth one big desert, just like Mars.
Maybe a silver lining is that we have already proven ourselves capable of one aspect of terraforming Mars—heating up the planet. We have been warming Earth at a good clip by dumping enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. On the other hand, the atmosphere of Mars is already 95% carbon dioxide, and despite centuries of vigorous efforts to deforest our planet and burn all of the fossil fuel we can lay our hands on, humans have raised carbon dioxide levels by a paltry 0.01% on Earth. It may be enough to cook us all to death, but staging a second industrial revolution on Mars—or exploding a few nuclear bombs (we’ve tried that here)—probably won’t raise those chilly temperatures much.
A second problem presented by human nature is that we don’t enjoy prolonged periods of extreme duress, and we don’t function particularly well under those conditions. It seems romantic to grow potatoes in a “hab” on Mars, but when you look at harsh environments on Earth, a different picture emerges. Antarctica has the closest temperatures to the red planet, an average of -56°F (-49°C) compared to an average of -67°F (-55°C) on Mars. Despite having a completely breathable atmosphere and plenty of fresh water, Antarctica has no permanent residents. Nobody wants to live there. Scientists who work at Antarctic bases suffer from a mental health disorder called Winter-Over syndrome, characterized by symptoms such as depression, irritability, aggressive behavior, insomnia, memory deficits, and the occurrence of mild fugue states known as the “antarctic stare.” Since it must be a bit like living with a colony of zombies, it’s no wonder that they want to stay drunk all winter (pdf). Living on Mars would be way, way more miserable than living in Antarctica. Imagine how much more expensive it would be to stay drunk for your entire life on Mars.
This brings us to the economic problem with colonizing Mars. It is extraordinarily expensive to ship goods to Mars, and at least right now, Mars has nothing to offer in return. There are no cod, no beavers to make hats from, no gold, no forests, none of the treasures that drew Europeans to colonize new continents. The wealth required to fund the colonies would need to come exclusively from here. We haven’t even colonized the Sahara desert, the bottom of the oceans or the moon, because it makes no economic sense. It would be far, far easier and cheaper to “terraform” the deserts on our own planet than to terraform Mars. Yet we can’t afford it. What makes us think that we could afford to colonize a barren rock 250 million miles (402 million km) away after we have used up all of our local resources?
Astro spends his days evaluating audacious ideas at X, Alphabet’s (formerly Google’s) “moonshot factory.” About six months ago, an ex-DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program manager pitched a moonshot proposal: he wanted to set up a permanent manned colony on Mars. Astro suggested that for the amount of money and creativity necessary to set up a colony on Mars, we could help thousands of times as many people here on Earth. Sadly, this scientist wasn’t interested in projects on Earth. He said that he was a “space cadet,” and that nothing that didn’t have to do with space exploration interested him.
There is nothing wrong with being excited about exploring space. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming about setting up colonies in space either. But a colony on Mars would need to be a nearly perfectly self-contained, resource neutral system that harvests energy from the sun and is rarely or never re-supplied. That is currently beyond the reach of science and human ingenuity. Yet we are hurtling through a vast emptiness right now on a giant space station, and we won’t survive unless we learn to live in a resource neutral way. Our space station is way less boring than Mars—it is teeming with fascinating life forms and covered with mind-blowing geographic features. It even comes equipped with snacks that aren’t freeze-dried. The problems our space station faces aren’t boring either. To quote Mark Watney from The Martian, to avoid catastrophe, we’re going to have to science the shit out of this. Maybe if we got excited enough to treat Earth as though it were Mars, some of the energy currently pointed towards the stars could be repurposed to doing something even more audacious—ensure that the space station we already have can take us into the next millennium.