Should Humanity go to Mars?
As the cost of spaceflight tumbles in the wake of maturing reusable launch systems and blooming private space industry, the public Zeitgeist turns its eyes on Mars. Now more than ever, the door to exploring and settling the Red Planet has opened. Is it finally time to muster the courage and resources to go? I firmly believe that this is the single greatest question of our time. While that might at first sound like hyperbole, I assure you that I mean it in the most literal sense. What’s more, if we are to consider the big picture, then the answer becomes absolutely clear. Not only for our sake, but for the sake of life itself: we must go to Mars.
In the coming decades, our species will be forced to navigate through a multitude of complex and nuanced challenges. Our ability to overcome tribalism, greed and partisanship for the good of the global community will be put to the test. To be sure, we will have our hands full here on Earth. The vast majority of our attention and resources will be required for the growth of society and protection of our home planet. With that said, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our responsibilities run far deeper than self preservation. As the dominant species of the only known inhabited planet, we have a profound ethical duty with implications that will span the long eons of the universe, whatever becomes of us.
Among the various powerful reasons for taking on the immense task of exploring and settling the Red Planet, this motivation stands apart in the enormity of its consequence: life just might be unique to Earth. That is to say, it is entirely possible that all life in the universe is confined to our little blue speck adrift in the Milky Way. If there is even the slightest possibility that this is indeed the case, then the proliferation of living things from their precarious Earthly perch is arguably the most important thing we can do. Mars, unique in its suitability for colonization, is the first step in that long, difficult and inspiring task.
Is really possible that we are alone? The Fermi Paradox describes an apparent contradiction between our best educated guess at the probability of alien life, and the fact that we have yet to confirm even a single extraterrestrial microbe. The universe is incredibly old and vast, so if life is even an occasional phenomenon we might expect to see it in droves. And yet despite our best efforts to seek out evidence of alien life, we thus far appear to be in a state of solitude. Given the staggering number of planets in our galaxy alone, how could this be the case?
Abiogenesis is the original formation of living organisms from inorganic matter and the beginning of our long journey. This mysterious process took place so long ago in the history of our world that it is difficult to study and poorly understood. As a result it is impossible to ascribe a probability to this ancient event. Despite the growing list of potentially habitable planets, we simply do not know how likely it is for life to take root on any given host. The Rare Earth Hypothesis argues that the formation of life on our planet was due to a chain of circumstances so immensely unlikely and fortuitous, that it might never have been repeated. However much you may agree or disagree with that assertion, the fact remains: we can’t say for sure. It doesn’t matter if the dice have been rolled tens of billions of times. If the probability of landing on life is one in countless trillions, then it could indeed be a singular event.
Take a moment to consider the possibility that the entirety of life in the universe is bound to our little planet. Nearly all that we hold dear is fundamentally a function or aspect of living: our love for one another, the hopes we hold for our descendants, our admiration and attachment to the natural living world. Almost everything we care about and have struggled for across the centuries is tied to the wonder of life and consciousness.
Even the shadow of a possibility that the rest of the universe is sterile should mobilize us to do whatever is in our power to proliferate out into the cosmos. If the flame of life burns only here, then we are the torchbearers. We humble hominids, so recently ventured from the trees and so fraught with our own troubles could very well have been issued the great cosmic duty of stewarding life.
If that task has fallen to us, then we have a simple choice; either muster the courage to spread from our nest and bring the seeds of life with us, or remain on Earth until the inevitable extinction event, thereby committing the universe to darkness.
It is a grim prospect, but an absolute fact that eventually all life on Earth will be destroyed. If not as a consequence of various near-term existential risks, then ultimately as the result of our sun’s demise; Terran life (and therefore perhaps all life) will be extinguished. The cosmos will be plunged into a silence, devoid of all the things most dear to our species. The vibrancy and dynamism of living things will have been only a brief moment in the long history of the universe.
Not only will all life on Earth be extinguished, but also the vast multitude of life that would have been had we become multi-planetary. Before the time our sun dies, we could colonize and terraform millions of worlds and lay the foundations for a vast sprawling galactic ecosystem. The volume of flora and fauna, of experience and existence would be astronomical compared to the small sandbox of our single world. All of this natural diversity would never come to be if we remained static. On the grand scale of things, life would never really have a chance. That is, unless we did something about it.
So what does this have to do with the exploration and settlement of Mars?
If we go to Mars we will, by necessity, bring life with us. From the first modest settlements to the sprawling Martian cities of the future, our colonization of the Red Planet will be a new chapter not only for Human civilization, but for life as a whole. As the centuries pass and our technologies improve through the colonization process, we will find means of terraforming the planet. One day plants and animals will breathe the open Martian air with us. Bacteria and birds, fish and ferns will flourish and spread throughout their new ecosystem. The technology and innovation yielded through our efforts on Mars will give us the tools to do the same on other planets and moons. There too, we will spread the seeds of life.
With each new world like the reaching branches of a family tree, life will have been granted tremendous redundancy and resilience. Rather than teetering on a single fragile world waiting on inevitable extinction, it will have secured its place in the long future of our universe. All the while, the technology rendered through this challenging process will have given us the tools to properly steward our parent planet.
So, should humanity go to Mars? Absolutely. Not only will it be an incredible adventure, it could also be the most important thing we will ever do. Spreading from our beloved home and doing the hard, dangerous work of settling Mars will not only be the story of humanity on the frontier, it could also be the beginnings of a far greater and more profound journey: the first steps of life from the cradle and into the cosmos.
Given that there is a non-zero probability of life being unique to our world, and given that our civilization may well be the caretaker of life itself; this is our single greatest duty. In a million years our galaxy could either be teaming with living things, in an expansive ecosystem of boundless variety that we – the stewards and gardeners of life – proliferated from our shy beginnings, or it could be a desolate and quiet place with the drifting ruins of a dead planet that was once home to the brief miracle of life and where a group of hominids decided space was too expensive.
Let’s not risk forsaking what could be our greatest single responsibility as a species. Let’s get to Mars. The future of all life in the universe just might depend on it.