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The Martians: The Quest to Colonize Mars

Since humankind’s beginning, our ancestors have looked to the sky for answers to their most pressing questions. At first, we wondered if the stars held messages from the Gods about how to live life on Earth. Today, we wonder if we could one day live amongst the stars.

Over the past century, as science fiction and reality have melded together, the possibility of building cities on Mars has become ever more realistic. It seems likely now that the first human to step foot on Mars may do so in the next decade or two at most. 

As much of an achievement as that will be, it’s just one small step towards mankind’s ultimate goal of colonizing Mars. Government space agencies and private companies alike have set their sights on building cities on the Red Planet. 

Some of these organizations speak of this task as a short-term inevitability, something we can achieve by 2040. But, in the eyes of many experts, that’s simply not the case. Some argue that it could be a century before we’re anywhere near ready to build a new home on Mars. For others, it’ll never happen. 

The question of when we’ll build the first city on Mars is the subject of contentious debate. But that’s not the only question here. 

While many people are asking whether we can colonize Mars, others are asking whether we should. While some ask why others ask why not?

Let’s explore.

The 20th-century was a time of unprecedented technological advancement. Before the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in 1903, many humans doubted that our species would ever leave solid ground. Less than 60 years after the first flight, humankind reached space for the first time.

First manned spaceflight
First manned spaceflight by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC

Even before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, before Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, the most ambitious scientists and dreamers spoke of placing humans on Mars. There were still doubters, as there are today, but for some, landing on and colonizing Mars became the ultimate goal.

The Red Planet is the fourth from the sun, right next to Earth in our solar system. Yet, at first glance, Mars might not seem like the best planet to settle on. Both Mercury and Venus are closer to Earth. Venus is remarkably similar to Earth in both size and surface gravity.

But, the obsession with Mars began with a huge misunderstanding. 

In the 1950s and 60s, some scientists believed that the rusty red planet’s dark spots came from chlorophyll, meaning Mars must be covered in vegetation just like Earth. This theory stoked the belief that perhaps Mars was home to other forms of life. 

The claim that Mars was home to lush forests was quickly disproven, but many scientists still believed it may harbor some sort of life. This belief was bolstered by the discovery of some key similarities between the Blue Planet and the Red Planet.

For one, a Martian day lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes, requiring only the slightest change in the human circadian rhythm. 

Also, despite Mars being smaller than Earth, the two planets have almost equal land area. Mars is 28% Earth’s size, and 29% of Earth’s surface is land. 

Mars has a similar axial tilt, creating seasons like those we experience on Earth, with sometimes dramatic temperature changes. Of course, these seasons last twice as long because a Martian year is 1.9 times the length of an Earth year.

Yet, the most important similarity is the presence of Earth’s favorite life-giving liquid: water. Of course, it isn’t a liquid on Mars—almost all of the water is frozen. Most of it is found in two polar ice caps on the planet’s north and south poles. But, many scientists believe that huge reservoirs lie beneath the planet’s surface.

Ice and dust at Martian north pole
Ice and dust at Martian north pole by European Space Agency is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Water is THE critical detail. Without it, a human settlement on Mars would be out of the question. With it, it becomes an incredibly challenging possibility.

Given that possibility, many organizations are aiming toward the goal of settling Mars. For some, like NASA, this is seen as a distant target, but one that the agency is continually progressing towards. For others, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it is a primary short-term ambition. Musk has stated his goal to place a human on Mars by 2026. He wants a colony of 1-million people on the planet by 2050, and he has even expressed his desire to one day die on the Red Planet.

The justification for this expensive undertaking differs between these organizations. For some, it’s purely a scientific venture—it would allow humans to better understand the origins of life and advance science. 

For others, it’s a profitable one. Not only is Mars full of valuable ore, but it’s the nearest planet to the asteroid belt, which scientists believe holds priceless quantities of iron, nickel, magnesium, gold, and platinum. Colonizing Mars is a clear step towards that mining operation.

Finally, some people view settling on Mars as the only solution to maintaining human life in the face of climate change on Earth.

Each of these justifications has weaknesses. But, the most critical rebuttal to any of these plans is that settling on Mars may be impossible.

The first problem is that placing a human on Mars will require considerable advances in technology. But, many organizations are already developing that technology.

For instance, the spacecraft will need a propulsion system that reduces the time to get from Earth to Mars. The 140-million mile trip would currently take up to 9 months. The goal is to cut that closer to 6. Most organizations agree that the only way to do this is with nuclear power. But, just how to harness that nuclear power is less clear. 

Once they reach Mars, the next step is safely landing on the planet. NASA is also currently developing this technology which they call an inflatable heat shield. The contraption works almost like a high-tech hot air balloon or parachute, allowing a spacecraft to land safely near a predetermined location.

These technological problems exemplify the questions that we know the answers to. It’s simply a matter of time before these technologies are invented. Their development will delay any potential trips to Mars, but it’s a matter of when, not if.

However, for many of the questions about colonizing Mars, there are no known answers.

That’s because, despite the handful of relative similarities, Mars and Earth have many more differences.

For instance, the planet’s surface is freezing cold. In the middle of a Martian summer, near the equator, the average temperature is about -5 degrees Celsius or about 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures regularly plummet to almost -100 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the planet’s warm area is also the furthest point from the known location of water. 

Speaking of water, it’s scarce. The wettest portion of Mars is drier than the Sahara Desert. A Martian colony would depend on the hope that water exists beneath the planet’s surface, which, to be fair, is entirely possible.

The cold weather, combined with the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere, low pressure, and toxic air, would require advanced pressure suits. Not only would these suits need to sustain life, but they’d need to be highly mobile, allowing humans to move throughout the planet and complete regular day-to-day tasks. Again, NASA is working on developing such suits. 

Yet, the thin atmosphere causes another colossal problem: radiation. Mars’s thin atmosphere doesn’t filter out ultraviolet light, and the planet’s radiation levels far exceed NASA’s safety limits. These levels would cause the likelihood of cancer to skyrocket to catastrophic levels. 

There are two theoretical solutions to this problem. One is to build a sort of man-made Ozone layer to deflect ultraviolet light. Of course, no such technology currently exists. The other potential solution is to place habitats underground, cutting down on the amount of radiation exposure.

But, that solution also has its drawbacks. For one, most of the work required to truly capitalize on settling Mars would require spending time on the surface. But, perhaps more importantly, this combination of challenges could wreak havoc on mental health. 

People often forget to consider mental health when discussing the possibility of settling Mars, but NASA and other space agencies haven’t forgotten. These agencies understand that placing people in such unnatural, sterilized environments can lead to severe depression. Astronauts have encountered this phenomenon while living at the International Space Station for just a few months. Multiply that experience over a lifetime, without the respite of ever returning to Earth, and the average person’s psychological health would deteriorate dramatically. After all, it’s hard enough to preserve mental health on our own home planet, let alone one that’s 140-million miles away.

Even as their minds broke down, their bodies may do so even faster. That’s because spending long periods in low gravity leads to muscle loss and bone demineralization. The primary way to counter this is with exercise, but even that can be ineffective over the long term.

Yet, perhaps the biggest threat to building a sustainable settlement on Mars is reproduction. According to NASA, humans have never had sex in space, though some Russian cosmonauts say it’s been done. But, we know for sure that no woman has ever given birth in outer space. 

Pregnancy can be dangerous. Even within the safe confines of Earth’s atmosphere, pregnant mothers require increased nutrition and regular medical help to ensure that their children are delivered safely. Giving birth on Mars would bring up countless new challenges.

For one, gravity plays a huge role in pregnancy. It allows a fetus to sit low enough in the womb to not press on the mother’s diaphragm. On Mars, the fetus may sit up higher, restricting the mother’s breathing. Similarly, animal fetuses developed in space showed that the lack of gravity led to an underdeveloped vestibular system. This system is critical for balance and allowing humans to stand upright. Throw in hazardous radiation levels, and there’s no knowing just how dangerous giving birth on Mars could be. 

Without the ability to reproduce, settlements on Mars would depend on constant migration to the faraway planet. Without it, a Mars colony’s extinction would be a mere eventuality.

Frankly, we could go on for hours about all of the many potential dangers of life on Mars. There are countless more hazards that we don’t yet know about. So, let’s think about it another way. If we could solve all of these problems, what would humans need to survive on Mars?

A colony would need essential utilities like oxygen, power, local communications, waste disposal, sanitation, and water recycling. As we’ve discussed already, they would require habitats that hold breathable air and protect from radiation. Colonists would need storage facilities for their goods and workspaces for mining or other activities. Speaking of mining, vast amounts of industrial and transportation infrastructure would be required just to draw water from beneath the surface. 

Residents would need food and refrigeration, not to mention the technological means to grow food on a planet with toxic air and soil. Of course, they would need equipment for moving across the surface—Mars suits, crewed rovers, and launch vehicles—as well as fuel for those vehicles. And finally, they would need technology for off-planet communication.

These challenges may seem insurmountable. Perhaps they are. But maybe they could be solved with time, money, and effort.

Currently, the financial incentives aren’t there. Launches are expensive, and a human settlement would require dozens of them to place supplies on the planet before any settlers arrive. But hope is not lost. In recent years, SpaceX has developed shockingly affordable rockets, rockets that are capable of multiple launches. We’re talking millions per launch instead of billions. 

To put the possibility of colonizing Mars into a simple capitalistic equation, humans will settle on Mars when the value gained from being there is less than the cost of getting and living there. With billionaires like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos setting their sights on the Red Planet, the finances to test that equation may have finally arrived.

With that in mind, one final question must be asked. Is colonizing Mars moral?

Within the last 100 years, humankind finally began decolonizing Earth. Yet, our obsession with planting our flags wherever possible is unceasing. Do we have the right to invade our neighbor planet? 

After all, the rise and spread of humans on Earth has coincided with the destruction of life and biodiversity on our own planet. We know nothing of the potential harm that we could cause to Martian lifeforms. Furthermore, the resources required for this venture could be used here on Earth or left unused for the sake of our own environment. 

To those who say that colonizing Mars is the only way to escape an increasingly uninhabitable Earth, the answer is quite simple. The cost and difficulty of rescuing Earth from climate change pale in comparison to that of building a long-term home on Mars. After all, the toxic air on Mars can kill you in mere seconds. Here on Earth, it still takes a lifetime.

Despite all of that, perhaps Mars holds the keys to scientific advances that would allow us to build a safer and more sustainable Earth.

Altogether, building a colony on Mars seems practically impossible. Yet, what is human history, if not a gradual journey to prove that things that once seemed impossible will one day become attainable? 

To our most ambitious Earthly compatriots, we could place humans on Mars within the next five years. As we stated earlier, Musk and SpaceX plan to do so by 2026. They hope to establish long-term settlements in the following decades.

NASA is eyeing 2028 as a possible date to send humans to the Red Planet. They haven’t vocalized any timeframe for establishing long-term colonies.

The United Arab Emirates has stated its goal to build a Martian city of 600,000 occupants by 2117.

Some scientists say 2050 is a safe target date to begin colonization. Others say the twenty-second century. Still, others say never. 

No one can agree on when a Martian colony will be possible. One thing is for sure, though. Humankind will continue to strive towards this goal. 

If you came to this video hoping for a definitive answer, then we’re sorry. But, now that you have the information, what do you think? Will humans ever colonize Mars? If so, when? Assuming it can be done, what’s the best justification for such an undertaking? Are the moral questions enough to deter our quest to place a human on Mars? Would you want to live and die on the Red Planet?

Let us know what you think in the comments, and as always, thanks for watching.

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