Currently, 3 rovers, Curiosity, Perseverance and, Zhurong, are driving around Mars collecting information and samples to better understand its terrain. However, the exploration intents are rapidly evolving, with NASA, SpaceX, and Mars One announcing their missions to send humans to the Red Planet by late 2020s and 2030s. As said by Ashwin Vasavada, a project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, “It’s practically right next door […] It’s a place that you can go today that’s like going to early Earth.”
As with other space frontiers, the settlement of Mars brings rise to many debates regarding its facets. Notably, its environmental effects and similarities to the history of human colonization.
Apart from Mars being 6-month travel away from Earth, it has other factors that attract humans to it. Vasavada says “You remove that dusty exterior of Mars, and you have this planet that is just so reminiscent of Earth.” Just like Earth following the Big Bang, Mars has a vast quantity of hydrogen, in addition to nitrogen, oxygen and carbon. As said Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, with the basis, the elements, readily available on the planet, “we can eventually do just about anything we want on Mars,” Our soon-to-be-home even functions the same way as Earth; it has seasons and the same day duration of 24 hours.
Even with all the potential Mars has for habitation, its environment poses a threat to human health. The long travel and stay time would subject astronauts to prolonged deep space radiation which can impose risks suck as carcinogenesis amongst other grave consequences. Even with studies for countermeasures to mitigate its effect, it is impossible to protect astronauts from prolonged radiation. Humans also pose a threat to the planet with our terrestrial microorganisms. Since humans have not yet step foot on Mars, the effects of contamination on Martian matter are unknown. This can put at risk on one of the initial goals of space exploration to Mars – search for signatures of life.
Is This Colonization?
Ever since the discovery of Earth-like water patterns, i.e., polar ice caps, on the Red Planet, the idea of turning humans into multi-planet species has pondered many scientists. Buzz Aldrin, a former astronaut, stated that “The first human beings to land on Mars should not come back to Earth. They should be the beginning of a build-up of a colony/settlement, I call it a ‘permanence.” Mars is seen as a second chance for human survival when Earth befalls. Although, currently, Mars has a hostile environment, research is presently conducted to ensure the explorers are prepared when they arrive and that all potential obstacles are deflected. In a utilitarian point of view, the colonization of Mars is the best solution to our species.
It is difficult to neglect the resemblance between the settlement of the Red Planet and the Doctrine of Discovery. The underlying implication of both is to acquire rights to a land. Even if not done maliciously, it is human nature to deal with stressful situation poorly. Similarly, to explorers stripping resources from the “discovered” land to benefit their motherland, Mars’ environment would be completely revamped, making it livable for humans. While the question of life in space remains unanswered, solutions only benefiting humans jeopardizes the possibility of answering the question. Obviously, saving humanity is a worthy cause, but at what cost? If humans can ruin one planet, i.e., Earth, do we deserve to survive only to destroy another?
The Foreseeable Future of Mars Settlement
While waiting for the technicalities of this space travel to sort out, the geopolitics can be discussed. It is human nature to want to know who owns a land and the Mars settlement is no different. With the events of the 1955 - 1975 Space Race, resulting in the Space Treaty in 1967, I think the governments would want to be better prepared. The main difference this time is that private companies will have to be considered as possible owners. Although the Space Treaty indicates that celestial bodies will belong to no one, it will eventually cause issues. Thus, I see another treaty, the Mars Treaty, where the geopolitics can be further discussed. It is one of the only steps that can be done.