As humanity stands right now we’re only dipping our toes into the vast and wondrous universe that we live in. Our current endeavors to survive outside of the world that gave us life have been limited to short frolics to our closest celestial neighbor as well as extended trips at high speeds through our upper atmosphere. However our attempts to establish ourselves beyond the comfort of our own home have, for the past 40 years, remained firmly in the realm of dreams. Today we bear witness to such magnificent events that are set to rekindle that adventurer spirit that has been long dormant in mankind, paving the way for us to once again brave the unknown.
Whilst my ambition to see humans turn into a true space faring race my stem from a selfish desire to have one of my most desired dreams realized I also truly believe that if humanity is to survive long into the future we must journey to other worlds. As it stands right now the human race is vulnerable to extinction events which, whilst extremely unlikely, would see the end of the human race as we know it. Establishing ourselves away from our home world would not only teach us how to live more sustainably, it would also ensure that even in the most tragic of circumstances we as humans would continue on.
So where would we go to satisfy such an ambition? There really is only one answer:
Realistically however, the answer is more complicated than that.
Officially there are 8 planets that make up our solar system with multiple other bodies that don’t quite fit our current classifications of heavenly bodies. Of these half of them are what we call giants having sizes and masses ranging from 15 to 317 times that of earth. Humans would have no chance of ever surviving on these beasts as the gravity and radiation that these planets emit are extremely deadly to us organic beings. Of the 4 remaining planets we’re already inhabiting one of them, another a scorching ball of rock, one a warning sign to how devastating green house gases can be and finally a lone ball of red dust. You’d be forgiving for thinking that all of them bar our current home wouldn’t be worth trying to settle on but as it turns out our red cousin might just have what it takes to make ourselves at home.
It’s been known for quite some time that there are reserves of water ice on Mars. In what quantities and purities isn’t so definite, but there are significant amounts tied up in permafrosts, minerals and in ice sheets under the Martian surface. Using current day technology we would be easily able to extract enough to support a permanent colony on our red sister, even without the help of earth for resupply. Granted the best locations for water are not the best locations for people (it’s rather cold at the poles) but the fact remains that one of life’s most essential ingredients is in plentiful supply. Couple that with Mars’ soil having the unusual characteristic of being good for growing asparagus and you have the potential for the beginnings of a real ecosystem, something that Mars has lacked for millions of years.
Many will tell you that before we can even think of establishing ourselves on Mars we have to first conquer the challenge of living on our closest neighbor, the Moon. It’s an interesting proposition as many of the technologies that need to be developed to colonize another planet like Mars would also be applicable. The Moon as it stands is far more inhospitable to life which means that if we could prove that we could colonize it then basically any other reasonable heavenly body is possible as well. Still if Mars and the Moon were both equal in distance and travel time I highly doubt there would be any discussion over where we would be going next, as Mars is infinitely more valuable to us than the Moon. Still the fact remains that the furthest any human has ever gone away from home is no where near the time required to get to our sister planet, and that is insurmountable task that we face.
Honestly I would be all for a Moon colony as it would make future deep space missions much more feasible and would open up all sorts of opportunities such as a 100m telescope that would be almost 2000 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. However most current plans to return to our celestial twin are often little more than flag planting exercises with no intention of setting up a permanent base of operations there. That is why I don’t support many of the proposals as their vision falls short of what is required to truly push humanity beyond our current comfort zone. Japan is probably the most forward thinking in this regard with their plans to build a robot base there by 2020.
I am by no means saying that this would be an easy endeavor. Cost estimates for a return mission start at a modest $55 billion which for comparison is just under half of what the International Space Station has cost. Most likely setting up a permanent colony on Mars would require dozens of such missions easily tipping the cost towards the trillions. Still we know that attempting such things spurs on many economic benefits that are many times greater than their cost to society. This would be the least of all the benefits that colonizing Mars would bring to the human race.
If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: