Colonize Mars? Not until we learn some lessons here on Earth

“I believe that the long term future of the human race must be space and that it represents an important life insurance for our future survival, as it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonising other planets.” – Stephen Hawking, February 20, 2015

Speaking at the Science Museum of London earlier this year, renowned physicist and former University of Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics Stephen Hawking shared his thoughts on space exploration. To most people, his remarks appear to be fatalistic —  over the past fifteen years, Hawking has repeated his warning about the problems facing humanity on Earth and encouraged governments and citizens to seriously consider space expeditions in order to “escape our fragile planet.” NASA is in agreement – the agency plans to put astronauts on Mars by 2035.

The desire to see humans expand into the broader universe makes sense because the threats to humanity are many: Asteroids or comets crashing on the earth’s surface; nuclear war; perhaps a highly contagious and fatal disease. (The movement to leave the planet has been gaining momentum since the late 1990’s when an asteroid passed close enough to Earth that we were six hours away from major impact.) And when widely-respected scientists like Dr. Hawking begin to suggest that interplanetary colonization is humanity’s only hope, people listen…and act. Take projects like Mars One, which intends to establish “landing modules” (basically glorified emergency escape pods for the wealthy) or SpaceX’s Mission to Mars, which plans to put humans on Mars by 2026.  From the scientific community, the message is clear: Don’t get stuck back here!

Among space and planetary science circles, the prevailing narrative is that colonizing Mars is imperative – that Mars represents our best chance for our continued existence beyond Earth. (In a late March conversation with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on his StarTalk Radio podcast — Season 6, Episode 10, March 22, 2015: The Future of Humanity — SpaceX Founder Elon Musk explained that colonizing Mars will ensure humanity’s survival).  Space agencies, including NASA and private international space organizations like Mars One and Explore Mars, Inc. agree that Mars would be an ideal second home because of its proximity and similarity to Earth. The planet’s days are similar in length to those down here, and it contains frozen water and a soil surface reminiscent of our own great deserts. (According to University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack, Geologist, University of Oregon, the images from NASA rovers suggest that Mars soil structure and profiles would be comparable to those of the Atacama Desert in Chile.)

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But is it right to think about the galaxy as a playground that is ours for the taking? History is full of examples of how of individuals and governments exploit others in order to gain access to limited resources like land, gold, water, and oil. The scientific community is not exempt from such impulses: Contemporary examples abound of scientists exploiting and harming others when broad and diverse groups of people are not allowed to advocate for their interests.

Add to this the fact that the dominant scientific narrative in the United States space program parallels the American cultural narrative, what Dr. Linda Billings, NASA Space Communicator and space policy analyst at George Washington University calls “frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits.” Within astrophysics circles, the idea that it is our right and imperative to conquer other planets is commonly presented as natural, in keeping with other aspects of human history: Just as Europeans immigrated to North America, so must the human race colonize Mars. Red Colony, a website for Mars exploration enthusiasts, opens its introduction with a parable on the benefits of creating settlements, focusing on “how the country that came out of [Western Expansion] advances the world perhaps centuries beyond its time in scientific, economic, diplomatic, and religious progress.”

The problem with the ideas being pushed by Musk and Hawking is that the conversation is focused only on the possible promises of a Mars colonization, not the potential perils. (Dr. Billings has criticized the idea of Mars as “the New World” extensively and written numerous reports and papers that examine the financial, legal and ethical impact of American cultural narratives on space programs and policy.) In short, the way Mars is discussed gives individuals like Musk – people with a strong commercial interests in space travel – both a platform for shaping public rhetoric concerning planetary exploration projects, and the ability to influence policies that would allow them to profit greatly from intergalactic expeditions.

It’s not just the rich and the famous, either. People like Robert Zubrin, co-founder of and Executive Director of The Mars Society, which aims to “further the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet”, praise the founding of America as if it is an uncomplicated narrative. Zubrin’s core argument, that “Mars is to the new age of exploration as North America was to the last,” doesn’t acknowledge is how these “New World” trade activities were based on the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas and the forced immigration and labor of Africans. This new human civilization that held so much promise to those in Europe was also oppressive and exploitative to other groups, a development that led to what is the most powerfully disparate economic system in the world today..

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Considering how many parallels are being drawn to the expansion of American settlers into a “untamed” West, I worry that Mars exploration and colonization will be less about saving all of humanity and more about staking claims to profitable natural resources and establishing essential industries. After all, this kind of naked resource grab has happened before. The 19th century saw the rise of the American robber barons: The Vanderbilts, Mellons, Carnegies, Schwabs, Morgans and Astors, who took advantage of the lack of regulation and exploited the labor of others to establish financial legacies that persist nearly 150 years later. Without inclusive dialogue and deliberate consideration of the ramifications of venture capitalism on space exploration, we could see history repeating itself in the new new frontier.

Billings seems to be in the minority when it comes to challenging these narratives. Comments on her blog, Doctor Linda, reveal that her critiques are neither appreciated nor tolerated. (I enjoyed a taste of this vitriol when I made similar comments on Twitter on March 24th about generous references to Manifest Destiny with regard to the Mars settlement rhetoric.) But the assumption that colonizing Mars is inherently good and that American narratives are universal, or at least the most paramount, is narrow and exclusive. It leaves little room to discuss humanity’s responsibilities in caring for our present home. It derails from the conversations nations should be having right now regarding environmental stewardship or exploring the habitability of alternative habitats on earth such as the oceans and the deserts. What may be worse is how readily this narrative is being adopted by today’s most visible and influential Mars colonization proponent, Elon Musk. Even more troubling is how appealing this message is to very wealthy individuals with their eyes on Mars for commercial interests:

“Some money has to be spent on establishing a base on Mars. It’s about getting the basic fundamentals in place,” Musk said. “That was true of the English colonies [in the Americas]; it took a significant expense to get things started. But once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars. Then I think there are enough people who would buy that to have it be a reasonable business case.”   – Elon Musk, November 16, 2012

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If Mars is indeed the chosen alternative to Earth, a few questions need to be posed: Who will be the individuals selected to colonize other planets? Will the Mars emigrants extract life-supporting resources from Earth to make life on humanity’s new home possible? How will these extractions impact life back home? Who will do this heavy and potentially dangerous work? And how will we safeguard against polluting the red planet and not adding to the growing amount of space debris?

Although there is no human life on Mars to displace, the fact remains that Mars is its own pristine environment and planet.  Mars shouldn’t be treated as Earthlings’ next possession. Moreover, the legacy of colonization didn’t just harm Indigenous people with genocide and displacement.  Colonization and imperialism also exploited people from other lands and poorer Europeans who were tasked with ‘conquering frontiers’, building towns, bridges, roads, railways, and trades routes. These exploited laborers suffered heavy casualties while stakeholders far way shaped policy and earned profits.

We have the chance to build a new world and human society, a truly revolutionary act. Which is part of the reason I don’t understand why the greatest minds in science and business can’t seem to envision a new society in which egalitarian values, sustainability, diversity and inclusion are part of the process from conception to execution. They can do better. The future of our civilization, wherever it may be, demands it.

Dr. Danielle N. Lee is a Biologist and Science Communicator who emphasizes science outreach opportunities to underserved and underrepresented groups. She was recently named as a 2015 TED Fellow and a White House Champion of Change for her work in promoting STEM Access and Diversity. She is a member of the National Science &Technology News Service, a media literacy initiative to bring more science news to African-American audiences. You can follow her on Twitter at @DNLee5.

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