Why Going to Mars is Not a Waste of Money

Mars is a hellhole, true, but that doesn't mean we should abandon the planet

Mars is no Earth. The Red Planet is a hostile, unforgiving world, one eternally dry and cold. Any water on the surface froze or evaporated away eons ago; what is left may be buried deep under the surface. With no magnetic field the planet has no protection again solar radiation, and with only a thin atmosphere, surface temperatures swing wildly from night to day.

It may seem strange, then, that we consider the planet such a target for colonisation. In its current state, a self-sustaining civilization on Mars would be impossible. Anyone trying to settle the planet would find themselves utterly dependent on Earth for almost everything — from food supplies to equipment for maintaining living spaces.

As a recent article in The Atlantic argued, Mars can never provide a home for humanity as good as Earth does. Those who look to Mars as the salvation of the human race are mistaken. But to stop there, and to say we should never go to Mars for that reason, is equally wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. We should go to Mars precisely because it is not the Earth.

Some argue that we should colonise Mars as a kind of backup planet. If something happens to the Earth — a big asteroid, or a nuclear war, for example — some portion of humanity would survive on Mars, and eventually return to repopulate the Earth. 

Mars, at least in its current state, cannot provide this kind of interplanetary security. Without the Earth, any humans on Mars would be doomed. The idea that they would be able to survive long enough to return home and repopulate a devastated Earth is nothing more than a technological fantasy. 

But if you drop the idea of Mars as a backup planet, and look at it more as a scientific, technological and sociological experiment, the idea of colonisation starts to make more sense. Mars can teach us how to live in space, on other worlds. It can give us a foundation, upon which we will later build bigger things.

Though Mars cannot offer us security, it is true that humanity is vulnerable limited to one planet, and to one Solar System. Life, as far as we can tell, exists nowhere else in the universe (though I’d be happy to be proved wrong on that…).

Given the seeming rarity of life, we have a duty to guard and nourish it. We should, and could, do a better job of that on Earth. But we can also take advantage of the space and resources available to us. Exploring the Solar System, spreading life to the dead worlds around us, and eventually filling the galaxy with biology may be our destiny and duty as a species.

Mars is just the first step in doing that. If we can learn how to explore and then to colonise a nearby, barely habitable planet, then we will be ready to go further afield. Such activities will not be easy. Building a new civilization from scratch on a distant planet will be the greatest challenge ever attempted by humanity.

We will need to master new technologies, learn more about ourselves and our societies than ever before, and pour billions into research and development. Forget visions of a gleaming metropolis rising from the red desert sands — our colonies will be more like our bases in Antarctica. The payoff, at first anyway, will be slow.

In doing so, we will not be sacrificing the Earth. Only a madman would favour abandoning the Earth for Mars. Our home world must remain our priority, and take the majority of our resources. Exploration and colonisation must be respectful of what is already there, and not repeat the mistakes we have made on Earth.

 But those who insist on redirecting every penny devoted to space exploration back to Earth are mistaken. They miss the point, and the long term benefits of reaching out into space.

I’ve been increasingly interested in the Chinese space program over the past few months, so the news that China plans to build a super heavy lift rocket caught my attention. China is aiming for a first launch by 2030, and may use the rocket to send humans to the Moon, the asteroids or even Mars.

Though a Chinese attempt to put astronauts on the Moon is probably at least a decade away, the nation is rapidly advancing its space program. In recent years they have landed several probes on the Moon and also recently put a probe in orbit around Mars, with a landing expected in the next few months.

Could Chinese advances in space spur further American investment? The desirability of a new space race is questionable, but one positive effect could be to encourage innovation and more ambitious targets for both space agencies.

Blue Origin announced a delay in the first launch of New Glenn until late 2022. The rocket company had been hoping to win military contracts, but lost out to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, potentially costing the company billions of dollars in revenue. In theory money is not a problem for Blue Origin, backed as they are by Jeff Bezos, but the company likely faces other problems.

So much reporting around health, science and space exploration is unrealistic, hyperbolic and misleading. These are complicated topics, and there are often no easy or straight forward answers. Instead what is needed is analysis, discussion and an exploration of the possible ways forward.

Follow me, and subscribe to my free Substack newsletter to get the latest. Articles are published regularly, and by signing up you will never miss an update.