Should We Colonize Mars?
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by Causes | 8.20.18
Amid much recent discussion about sending humans to Mars, one proposal goes farther, saying we should colonize the red planet.
Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and co-founder of The Mars Society, advocates for the establishment of a permanent settlement on Mars, and harshly criticizes what he considers NASA's stagnant human spaceflight program.
Zubrin argues that the most important questions about Mars center on the search for life, past and present, and that robotic landers and rovers can’t compete with human abilities in hunting for evidence:
“As far as looking for extant life, we just discovered subsurface water on Mars — a subsurface lake. If there's life on Mars today, it's in the subsurface water. So you’d need to set up drilling rigs. Drilling down a kilometer — that's like drilling a deep oil well on Earth. These rovers can't do that. And bringing up the water, and putting it on culture mediums and trying to culture any organisms that are in it and then examining them under microscopes and doing biochemical testing — this is light-years beyond the capability of robotic rovers.”
Zubrin also thinks that a Mars colony would help to establish a new branch of human civilization.
Hopes of colonizing Mars rest on the premise that we could terraform the red planet, making it habitable for humans with a breathable atmosphere and tolerable temperatures. However, a recent study cast doubt on the idea, concluding that terraforming is impossible with existing technology.
Others argue that we need to start with the moon before going to Mars. They offer the following reasons:
- The moon could serve as a staging post in space. Because the moon’s gravitational pull is so much weaker than Earth’s, it takes much lower speeds – and thus much less fuel – to break free of its atmosphere. The moon also has mineral resources that include rocket fuel ingredients. Establishing a lunar base from which to launch deep space missions would massively increase the payload-to-fuel ratio, allowing us to explore the solar system at a fraction of the current cost and effort.
- The moon could fuel the future. It contains an abundant supply of an isotope called Helium-3 that will power nuclear fusion, if/when we figure out that technology. Helium-3 is rare on Earth.
- The moon offers ideal conditions for observing the universe. Because its atmosphere is far less dense than Earth’s, it doesn’t suffer from the radio chatter we have here on Earth, nor is short wavelength light blocked like it is here.
- It’s a safer place to test out long-term health impacts of space travel on humans. If something bad happens on the moon, Earth is three days away. Mars is more than two years away.
One thing scientists seem to agree on is that if we’re going to walk on Mars, we need to get serious about planetary protection. Basically, that means we need to figure out how to keep our germs to ourselves, and how to protect ourselves from any life we might find there.
NASA already has planetary-protection guidelines in place for robotic missions, although a recent National Academy of Sciences report called those measures “inadequate.” No such requirements exist for crewed missions, which will entail much more stringent processes.
In 2016, NASA put together a list of 41 draft requirements as part of a review of the current state of planetary-protection rules for human missions. However, NASA is not a regulatory agency, and would have no authority over commercial space expeditions.
President Donald Trump wants to send astronauts to both the moon and Mars, and issued a space policy directive late last year ordering NASA to focus on that mission.
The Senate Commerce Space Subcommittee recently held a hearing on sending humans to Mars.
Trump has also proposed a new branch of the U.S. military – the Space Force – which would be tasked with protecting America, and American assets, from threats occurring beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
What do you think?
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—Sara E. Murphy
(Photo Credit: iStock.com / Polina Shuvaeva)
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