Why Mars colonization is our last worst hope for mankind’s future

Mars is having a moment right now. Less than two months after Indian astronauts celebrated the beginning of the Mangalayaan satellite’s intended orbiting of the Red Planet, astronaut Buzz Aldrin promised the race to Mars isn’t over yet. In a recent panel discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aldrin re-confirmed his belief that Mars colonization is the way of the (near) future. Aldrin likes the idea so much that he even has his own t-shirt and hashtag for it.

A little over 40 years after Apollo 11 first sent men to the moon, NASA is rolling out plans to reach Mars by the 2030s, but Aldrin told MIT he doesn’t think they should come back. Aldrin quipped, “It [will] cost the world … billions and billions of dollars to put these people there, and you’re going to bring them back?” He continued, “What are you going to do when you bring them back here that can possibly compare [to] the value that they would be if they stayed there and Mars wasn’t empty? And then, they helped to work with the next group and it builds up a cadre of people. When we’ve got 100 … then we start bringing people back.”

Renowned physicist and notable Simpsons guest-star Stephen Hawking agreed with Aldrin’s sentiment, arguing that the threats of global warming and nuclear attacks make Mars habitation an imperative. “‘It is essential that we colonise space,” Hawking stressed. “I believe that we will eventually establish self-sustaining colonies on Mars and other bodies in the solar system, but not within the next 100 years.”

Therein lies the rub: Mars colonization is certainly a possibility in the long-term, but can it meet NASA’s timeline—or beat civilization’s ticking clock? Despite setbacks and funding cuts to the U.S. space program in recent decades, Aldrin hopes the first Mars colonists will reach the planet by 2040 (whereas China estimates that their first astronauts will touch down at all by 2060). If Aldrin’s estimate seems optimistic considering that fact that men haven’t even walked the moon since 1972, the Mars One plan is even more ambitious. Mars One, a Dutch non-profit, hopes to use a reality-show competition to assemble a team of astronauts that will be “living and working on Mars” by 2033.

It’s highly unlikely that the Dutch team will assemble the resources and the technological capacity to crack Mars colonization in the next two decades, but Mars One could launch a historic first: The first international Roanoke. In 1585, the English fortified their first settlement on Roanoke Island, an intended colony in Virginia, after a previous voyage had established peaceful relations with the region’s indigenous tribes. It was described by colonists as “the goodliest and most pleasing territorie of the world.” Just five years later, the island’s residents disappeared, with only a smattering of skeletons to remember them by.

According to a recent report from MIT, the Mars settlement may not even have that long of a lifespan, as researchers estimated that the first colonists would begin dying off after 68 days.

In a discussion of the MIT report, Time’s Jeffrey Kluger explains that 68 days is the exact point in which the station’s ecosystem begins to turn against residents, like The Happening in space. To survive, Mars colonists must grow their own self-contained food in a greenhouse environment, which will then supply the base with oxygen. “Since the Martian astronauts and their crops would be living and respiring in the same enclosed habitats, a perfect closed loop should result in which we provide them all the carbon dioxide they need and they return the favor with oxygen,” Kluger writes.

Sounds good, right? Well, not exactly. “The problem begins with the lettuce and the wheat, both of which are considered essential crops,” Kluger continues. “As lettuce matures, peaking about 30 days after planting, it pushes the O2 level past what’s known as .3 molar fractions, which, whatever it means, doesn’t sound terribly dangerous—except it’s also the point at which the threat of fire rises to unacceptable levels. That risk begins to tail off as the crop is harvested and eaten, but it explodes upward again, far past the .3 level, at 68 days when the far gassier wheat matures.”

The simple solution would to be to release the excess oxygen into the Martian atmosphere through a ventilation system (one called “pressure swing absorption”), but the MIT team clarified in a Reddit AMA that while such technology exists, “no oxygen removal technology has been developed for spaceflight.” They continued, “While oxygen removal devices are regularly used on Earth, the process of developing something that you can purchase off-the-shelf into something that you would operate reliably in an extraterrestrial environment is quite involved.”

In addition to being highly flammable, the high oxygen levels also raise the risk of suffocation inside a sealed environment, which is why some suggest countering the biodome’s breathable air issue with “terraforming” the planet in order to make it habitable for humans. However, this process (of making the Martian soil more Earthlike by introducing forests, streams, and the vegetation that allows for life to flourish on earth) would take centuries and is highly controversial within scientific communities. The two sides of the debate are thus: Those who believe in terraforming argue that it’s imperative for human survival that we try to create another Earth on Mars, while those who oppose believe it’s immoral to interfere with Mars’ natural biosphere.

The New World colonization aspect of Mars terraforming is a turn off for some, while others view it as a hopeless folly of human hubris. One such skeptic is Discovery’s Josh Briggs. “There is no air pressure to hold in water and Mars suffers from the lack of a magnetic field that would shield it from harmful solar winds,” Briggs argues. “Perhaps it would be possible to jumpstart the atmosphere by turning the carbon dioxide-rich air into oxygen much the way plants on Earth clean our air. But Mars still wouldn’t have a magnetic field. Without a magnetic shield for protection, extreme waves of solar radiation strip away the Martian atmosphere, thus subjecting humans to lethal doses of radiation.”

If that’s not enough to get you to cancel your Martian vacation plans, prospective visitors should also be turned off by the risks of venturing to our closest neighbor. Due to the limitations of current technology, visiting Mars would take between six months and a year, which is a big problem in a low-gravity environment. In such conditions, human bones begin to weaken, and even astronauts on the International Space Station (who were required to work out two hours a day to prevent deterioration) reported bone and muscle loss. By the time an interplanetary pilgrim would reach Mars, the trip could have devastating effects. As Briggs explains, “a 40-year old human would essentially have the body of a geriatric.”

Researchers warn that on top of being incredibly dangerous, the trip to Mars is both expensive and incredibly inefficient. To successfully populate another planet, the proposed colony would have to transport between 10,000 and 40,000 colonists to Mars (although Tesla‘s Elon Musk, who wants to build his own Mars civilization, wants 80,000 for the project). With the time it takes to get to Mars and how many colonists can conceivably fit in a Mars shuttle (around three, currently), the Musk plan would take 26,666 years to pull off. Even if we could fit 100 future Mars inhabitants on each flight, it would take 800 years, well after the venture could help anyone. A recent report published in U.S. News warned that 100 million could die from climate change effects by 2030. How much higher would that figure be in 2814?

If humans are somehow able to circumvent the numerous logical and technological issues to Mars travel before climate change threatens the existence of life on earth, the human psyche may not be cut out for life in a biodome, as a recent experiment indicated that prolonged isolation in a sealed community can lead to “depression [and] personality conflicts can spin out of control over the months.”

While a recent Hi-Seas mock Mars program performed well, there are cautionary tales. An October report in the New York Times showed the adverse effect that even traveling to Mars can have on astronauts, let alone going about the business of actually living there. “Several mock Mars missions have been conducted in recent years. A simulation in Russia in 2010 and 2011 stretched 520 days, most of the duration of an actual mission,” the Times’ Kenneth Chang said. “Four of the six volunteers developed sleep disorders and became less productive as the experiment progressed.”

The solutions to these myriad issues involve science-fiction scenarios in which NASA clones a parallel Martian civilization by “printing” humans “by encoding human genetic information in bacteria so that our DNA can hitch a ride to another planet,” as Vice’s Meaghan Neal reports. Neal continues, “Scientists recently discovered that microbes can survive the trip from Earth to Mars, so the theory is, why not bring some genetic code along next time? Then once the DNA-toting microbes arrive on the new planet, the building blocks of life are reassembled as a human being.”

While likely saving a great deal of time in back-and-forth travel, this idea would mean radically rethinking what we define as human and settling the fraught human cloning ethics debate that has, thus far, kept scientists from dabbling into the science of generating human life. It also fails to address what we do with the billions of people still left on earth. Why clone more humans when we have enough people to save?

As humankind waits in vain for a ride out of here, one has to wonder whether this entire debate misses the point. While Hawking, Aldrin, and their compatriots are right to maintain that leaving Earth will be necessary to sustain human life, the focus on making Mars travel sustainable should be balanced with a focus on fighting for the future of this planet. If humans are so willing to abandon Earth after all of its resources have been squandered, what’s to keep us from ditching our next home when it’s no longer of use to us?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mars may hold not only the keys to our future but its own past. On the imperative of Mars exploration, deGrasse Tyson said, “Humans should search Mars and find out why liquid water no longer runs on its surface; something bad happened there, and it would be important to identify any signs of something similar happening on Earth.” If deGrasse Tyson is correct, Martian life didn’t just vanish. Like Roanoke, the Red Planet is showing us its bones, and 800 years from now, they may end up looking exactly like our own.

Photo via Moyen_Brenn/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.