Thanks to a resurgence in public interest in space activities, there has been a lot of talk lately about going to Mars… and not just to visit.  People like Elon Musk talk regularly about setting up a colony or two on Mars, where people will live out their lives.  Others, most notably Science Guy Bill Nye, challenge the idea of colonizing Mars anytime soon (read: Within the lifetimes of anyone you know).  And television shows like NatGeo’s Mars present us with scientists working alongside miners and starting the first families within its severe walls.

As much as I am a fan of someday putting humans on Mars, I side with those who are putting the hard brakes on the idea.  Men on Mars is simply NOT an idea whose time has come, and for a lot of reasons.

An American pioneer living off the land in the WestMany speculators like to use North America, a region that was colonized before it was extensively studied, as an example of where Mars development can go: Individuals and families moved out into the uncharted West, some in wagons filled with their possessions, sometimes on foot, with the idea of securing homesteads for themselves.  Some farmed to support themselves, and sold excess produce for money to buy things they could not make, grow or raise.  Others found convenient jobs, generally providing basic services to others.  Some lived very simply, maintaining homes that were not much more than camps on the land, and hunted, fished or prospected for resources they could dig up or cut down to sell to others for a meager profit.  Couples raised families, who created new homes by moving across the river or through the woods and building their own homes.  And so Westward Expansion filled in the cracks of American occupation.

But as romantic as this sounds, Mars cannot and will not be developed the way North America was developed, because of the incredible differences in scales, distances, resources and requirements for cooperation that will be mandatory on Mars.

Basically, the only reason to go to Mars is to work or study Areology.  Beyond study, primary work, specifically, will mostly be efforts trying to find valuable resources on Mars, and constructing facilities around any such points.  Any incidental work will be about directly supporting the primary work.

The rest of Mars offers nothing of value beyond a view… and since it’s unlikely humans will ever live on the surface of Mars (more likely, they’ll live underground, protected from solar radiation), local views won’t be worth much. And no one will be choosing fertile land to farm and support yourself, since there isn’t any.

Mineral mining operationSome speculate there is real estate value to be secured on Mars.  But real estate speculation is only operable if there is some value to certain properties over others.  Mars has some useful minerals and elements that may be more easily mined in one spot versus another, and if so, those lands will be more valuable than others.  As yet, we haven’t identified any such locations where valuable elements can easily be mined.  And when you consider the cost of traveling to Mars, prospecting for resources and setting up equipment hardened for the environment to do such mining, the potential profit of such a venture drops significantly, making it less likely to be worth the effort.  

It’s also unlikely tourism will ever be a thing, since, again, there is nothing to do on Mars, nothing you can see unless you’re ensconced in a rover or environmental suit, and nothing special to take home as a souvenir.

Orcadas Station on AntarcticaAs a better example of how our efforts with Mars may develop, then, let’s look at a much more appropriate example: Antarctica.  The fifth-largest continent on Earth, it is presently occupied by approximately 1,100 humans.  It has mineral resources, but they are largely locked under an average 1.9 kilometers of ice, and not worth the cost and effort of obtaining them.  The ice and severe cold also mean there are no surface resources beyond ice itself, and that those who venture out onto the surface at the coldest times risk death by exposure within mere minutes.

Because of the difficulties in spending time and maintaining human-supporting facilities and resources on Antarctica, and the need for cooperation to support such efforts, a treaty was developed by twelve countries, and signed by those and thirty-eight more, supporting scientific research, protecting the environment, and prohibiting military activities, mineral mining, nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal.  As many as 4,000 scientists and explorers have spent time in Antarctica, studying and cataloging it since it was first landed upon in 1895.

In all that time, during all that study and examination, there have been no colonies set up in Antarctica beyond its research stations.  No one brings their families there to live, permanently or temporarily, and no settlements have grown up around the research stations to provide bars, restaurants, parka and boot sales or sub-zero SUVs.  No traveling salesmen visit seasonally to sell their wares, and no one has set up a penguin ranch on an ice shelf.

Mars, in comparison, is roughly as cold as Antarctica, but has very little ice, even less liquid water (that we know of), too little air to breathe, and too little air pressure to survive on its surface without a protective suit.  It has no magnetic field, so there is nothing to deflect solar radiation.  The land is dry and incapable of supporting crops.  Anyone going to Mars will have to first create a habitable facility to spend their time in, and bring suits to wear when outside, and vehicles to use to travel anywhere they cannot walk.  And anyone who spends too much time on Mars, with its much lower gravity, may be forever exiling themselves from the higher gravity of Earth (though I have talked about the potential of carousel habitats in the past).

And let’s not forget the 55-400 million kilometer distance from Earth to Mars (depending on when you leave), significantly longer than the 6,000 kilometer distance from Antarctica to South America, the closest continent.  The trip from Earth to Mars isn’t as easy as crossing wooded plains, hills and valleys in covered wagons… or even sailing a ship to its ice-locked shores.  There’s nothing to hunt, fish or live on along the way; you need to bring absolutely everything, including the most basic food and resources, with you, and they’ll need to continue to sustain you for a significant time after you arrive.  No one will be taking regular or frivolous trips back and forth between Mars and Earth, because of the distance and resources involved for the trip, until and unless significant (as in next-generation rocketry) advances in space travel are developed.

People also like to talk about “terraforming” Mars, or altering it to be more like Earth.  But just a little thought shoots howitzer-sized holes in that idea: First of all, we clearly don’t know enough to repair the damage done to Earth by human habitation, reverse global warming and climate change, and de-pollute our own skies, lands and waters, so we sure as hell don’t know enough to alter the completely different ecosystem of Mars to be an Earth-analogue; without an equal level of gravity or a magnetic field, any attempts to create an atmosphere will be scrubbed away by the solar winds; and scientists crunching the numbers discovered that a real terraforming effort on a planetary scale would take tens of thousands of years, at best, to be completed.  So we’ll be seeing Mars from within excursion suits, sealed buggies and habitation modules for the foreseeable future.

Clearly there’s no good reason to settle Mars by individuals and families, any more than Antarctica has been settled during the last century of its discovery.  The only people who should be going to Mars anytime soon will be scientists and explorers in national cooperatives, endeavoring to learn more about the red planet than our many robotic probes can answer.  And even after we establish that there are some minerals or elements on Mars that we can reliably collect and sell to others (on Mars, or perhaps in ships and bases moving out into the Asteroid Belt), there is still little-to-no advantage in bringing colonists and families to Mars.

interior of a rotating orbital habitat, with suburban-style greenspaces and large open areas.Finally, let’s talk about the one thing that makes some sense: Spreading the human race out among the planets, making it harder to wipe us out with a planetary catastrophe.  I say “some sense,” because the likelihood that such a planetary catastrophe will ever happen is damned slim in the first place; but let’s say that there is the possibility of something catastrophic happening to Earth, and we want to ensure mankind’s survivability beyond that.  Well, there’s actually a better alternative than putting a few hundred or thousand humans on Mars: It would be far easier, faster and probably a damned sight cheaper to create massive satellite-habitats in Earth orbit, capable of supporting large populations equal to many major cities on Earth.

Better than living in isolated settlements on Mars, resources brought up from Earth (or perhaps down from the Moon) could be used to construct the city-satellites.  They could rotate to simulate a full terrestrial gravity, which the human body is already acclimated to, and shielded against solar radiation.  Being in Earth orbit, they would still have access to Earth’s resources, but they could be designed to be largely self-sustaining.  And people could live quite naturally within their walls, with open spaces large enough to create greenspaces, potentially natural gardens and farms.  And if a catastrophe did happen on Earth, the satellite’s residents would not only be immediately insulated from harm, but might be able to render some assistance to Earth’s residents once the disaster was passed.

We are getting much closer to the point where we have the wherewithal to put scientists on Mars in limited numbers, to study beyond the capabilities of our probes and satellites.  Perhaps, many generations from now—maybe when we have evolved into a society that is not built around economy, and people can live wherever they want—it may make sense to start building colonies and raising families on Mars.  Until then, we should consider what we can learn from Mars for now, and the best way to get that knowledge, without adding romantic notions of colonists and families into the equation.