Is Mars Ours?

The logistics and ethics of colonizing the red planet.

Mars: better red than dead

What a joy and a relief that we’re back on Mars. The fourth stone from the sun has taunted us for centuries with shifting but persistent visions of nearby alien life. Finally, after several conspicuous failures, we have a conspicuous success: a six-wheeled, mini-Cooper-sized robot preparing to crawl across an ancient lake-bed, scratching and sniffing for subtle signs of past habitability.

What we will do on Mars for the next few months and, with future missions, for the rest of the decade, is clear: dig in the dirt and take in the air to learn the history of landscapes far more ancient than any left on Earth.

But what should we plan to do on Mars over the following decades, centuries, and millennia? The Mars Society, an organization dedicated to the proposition that we must send people to Mars ASAP, has an answer: build enclosed colonies there in the next few decades. Then, later in the century, begin to “terraform” Mars—this means altering the air and surface, turning the red planet blue and green, making it habitable and remaking it in the Earth’s image. After that, we’ll wander there without giant protective domes or even Mars suits.

Reflexively, I am sympathetic. After all, I was a teenage space activist. I grew up high on the miracle of Apollo and the wonders of Clarke’s 2001. My high-school friends and I felt part of a community of smart, forward-looking space and technology freaks. We flocked to grok Spock at science fiction conventions, and we eagerly joined the L5 Society, which is committed to beginning the human migration to space. L5—a stable point in empty space where the gravities of Earth and Moon are balanced, so objects, including space colonies, will stay put forever—was where we would build the first colony. We thought that we might live up there as adults. Our slogan then was “L5 in ‘95!”

Yet the disconnect between my youthful space idealism and at least some of today’s more zealous advocates of the “humans to Mars” movement became evident when I attended the “Ethics of Terraforming” panel discussion at the founding convention of the Mars Society, held in Boulder, Colo., in August 1998. This event was hailed as the “Woodstock of Mars,” and although there wasn’t any rolling in the mud, there may have been some bad acid in the water supply, judging from some of the loose talk spilling from the stage.

Bob Zubrin, Mars Society President, stated that mankind has a duty to terraform Mars, that given the choice between letting Mars remain the sorry planet that it is and transforming it in Earth’s image, we have a moral obligation to do the latter. He added that it is the Western tradition to expand continually and to value humans above nature, that “this is the only system of values that has created a society worth living in.”

These comments were amplified by panelist Lowell Wood, an architect of Reagan-era “Star Wars” space-based weapons plans. Wood stated confidently that terraforming Mars will happen in the 21st century. “It is the manifest destiny of the human race!” he declared and went on to boast, “In this country we are the builders of new worlds. In this country we took a raw wilderness and turned it into the shining city on the hill of our world.” To hell with terraforming: It seemed that we were discussing the Ameriforming of Mars.

Hearing these words, my heart sank. Is this really the way we want to frame our dreams of inhabiting Mars? Maybe these guys are simply not aware of the historical use of this phrase and its negative connotations, I thought. This hope vanished when Zubrin leapt to the defense of Manifest Destiny, shouting, “By developing the American West we have created a place that millions of Mexicans are trying to get into!” to a smattering of applause (and some gasps of disbelief) from the crowd.

Zubrin has written that we need to go to Mars because it will serve the same function that “pioneering the West” did for American civilization, creating jobs and opportunity and relieving population pressure. If there were an award for “most unfortunate choice of analogies,” this should win. It is historically inaccurate, culturally clueless, and fails to capture some of the most compelling reasons why we really should consider someday bringing Mars to life by inhabiting it and perhaps eventually altering its environment with (and for) living creatures.

As of this writing, Mars has no people to be displaced. A better analogy is the original peopling of the Earth. The Mars colonists will be more like those brave souls first venturing from Africa 50,000 years ago than the European invaders of the American West. On Mars and beyond, we may have the opportunity to explore lands that are truly unoccupied, giving outlet to our need to explore without trampling on others.

Of course, it’s possible that Mars is already inhabited by some kind of creature, and that could radically change the ethical landscape for future human activities. Perhaps some primitive bacteria, or the Martian equivalent, are living large in an underground hot spring, safe from the dry, freezing, irradiated surface. This is why we need to first proceed with our current robotic explorers, to make sure that Mars, today, really is as dead as it looks.

If it is, then bringing life there—humans, trees, fish, and slime-mold, say—will be the right thing to do. Why? If you find an unused, vacant lot, isn’t it worthwhile to plant a garden there? Furthermore, as long as we are a single-planet species, we are vulnerable to extinction by a planetwide catastrophe, natural or self-induced. Once we become a multiplanet species, our chances to live long and prosper will take a huge leap skyward.

Today on Earth we are grappling with the fact that you cannot “conquer” a planet, even if—especially if—it is your home and your life support system. If we go to Mars with the idea that we can charge ahead and subdue a new world, our efforts are doomed. We should rather study how we might learn to help cultivate a Martian Biosphere that is balanced and self-sustaining, as is the Earth’s. (On the other hand, the conquering mentality would save us time and money. We could skip planting the Martian forests, which would eventually be chopped down anyway, and go straight to sprawling developments of condos, strip malls, Starbucks, and Blockbuster Videos.)

But the future peopling of Mars is much more than a scientific endeavor. It is a step of historic and spiritual importance for the human race. Any group that seeks to garner support for human journeys to Mars must reassure people that this goal is broadly humanistic and environmentally conscientious. There is no reason why this can’t be the case. The fanatical comments quoted above do not represent the majority view of Mars Society members; some are credible, thoughtful activists with an inclusive vision more likely to win wide support for continued Mars exploration. I hope they succeed in burying the “pioneering the West” analogy before it does any more damage to the cause. While we’re at it, let’s retire the word “colonization,” which carries a permanent stain, and talk instead about the “cultivation” or “animation” or “peopling” of Mars. I know that some of you Mars hounds will dismiss the above as a bunch of PC nonsense. Fine, but it’s your movement that is not yet taking the world by storm.

Some extremists have even proposed that we “claim” Mars for the United States, although there is a U.N. (remember them?) treaty that expressly forbids this. Many others have been engaged, at Mars Society conventions, in thoughtful discussions about what kind of governing constitution would be appropriate for the first settlements beyond the Earth.

Is Mars ours for the taking? Do we have a right to it? Not to be too Clintonian, but the answer may depend on what we mean by “we.” Mars does not belong to “America,” nor to Earth, nor to human beings. But if by “we,” we mean “life,” then yes, Mars belongs to us because this universe belongs to life. I mean, without us, what’s the point? But before we go there and set up greenhouses, dance clubs, and falafel stands, let’s make sure that, in some subtle form that could be harmed by the human hubbub, life does not already exist there. If not, then by all means build cities, plant forests and fill lakes and streams with trout—bring life to Mars and Mars to life. We’ll then be the Martians we’ve been dreaming about for all these years.