Deep in the sunken place of Elon Musk’s Twitter mentions, a political proxy war is playing out over one of the few things I thought was safe—the age-old, universal, nonserious lament that if shit gets real here on Earth, we can just move to Mars. Shit certainly does seem to be getting real, but Mars’ still-pristine sands have become anything but a universal escape haven. Lately, even the idea of moving to Mars has become as fraught as it is hypothetical. And the fact that the 30-month trip to Mars and back would increase your chances of long-term brain damage, dementia, and cancer (thanks to the cosmic radiation) is just the beginning.
For one thing, Mars fever has captured the imagination of America’s commander in chief, bringing the planet into the partisan fray. The allure of space and the prospect of a gilded Mars-a-Lago have loosened the otherwise stingy, science-averse purse strings, evident in the largely hypothetical but symbolic Trump budget. If Congress takes its cues from Trump’s outline, NASA’s planetary-science program could see a boost in funding at the expense of the agency’s Earth science and education funding. In 2015, NASA announced its “Journey to Mars” plan for the first human colonies, tentatively scheduled for the 2030s. But in a call with astronaut Peggy Whitson, the president (jokingly?) fast-tracked the plans for his second term, at the latest.
But can America just go to Mars? Mars technically belongs to everyone, according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. So space conquest is legally an equal-opportunity endeavor. Still, getting to Mars is an enormously expensive undertaking, and so far, it seems like the private sector is the group with the highest likelihood of making the jump. Musk’s SpaceX is leading the way, but a one-way trip aboard the still-imaginary SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System is estimated to cost a cool $200,000. We can all dream of a Mars escape should doomsday dawn, but the average Joes and Janes won’t get to go to there. Instead, the colonizer class—the billionaire moguls and tycoons whose greed has left us all lamenting the state of our current planet —will get to retreat to colonize anew.
Earth’s plunderers will likely be Mars’ first ambassadors, arriving early to pioneer Martian monopolies. Well before the 99 percent can Occupy Mars, the rich and privileged will plant their flag in a brand new geosystem. There’s plenty to take: Mars is home to precious metals ripe for telerobotic mining and a wealth of iron oxides (which give the planet its red color). The Curiosity rover discovered a high density of deuterium, or “heavy hydrogen,” that can be harvested and harnessed as fuel. Plus, Mars is conveniently located right next door to the asteroid belt, serving as a launch pad for the next generation of mining. (For now, Elon Musk asserts that Martian resources will be used only for the hypothetical colony—but the reason is that interplanetary export would be costly.)
Mars-ifest destiny isn’t exclusive to America, either. Space law is pretty fuzzy and doesn’t say much about who has legal rights to what parts of space in space. (Musk and his fellow futurists have dedicated some minutes to considering what Martian democracy might look like, bringing slightly refined Western values to outer space.) As it stands, China, Russia, the European Union, Japan, and India have all announced plans to get to Mars, which signals more competition than cooperation. In February, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates announced plans to build a mini Martian city by 2117 with international cooperation to encourage space diplomacy. The Emirati plan is still in its infancy, but it’s tough to imagine the UAE—a young country that has garnered wealth from extractive industry and has a shaky relationship with human rights—as the broker of Martian peace.
Complicating matters is the fact that Mars is not, in fact, habitable—the planet’s wisp of an atmosphere makes its surface intolerable. Of course, there are already theoretical plans to build out the atmosphere: Musk has a proposal to artificially create a second Martian sun by repeatedly detonating nuclear weapons or a “more reasonable” scheme to pump greenhouse gases into the air to plump the atmosphere and induce warming. In other words, we could make Mars livable by exporting humanity’s two biggest existential threats: nukes and global warming.
Even our escapist fantasies can’t escape the petty politics and problems of our day. It’s no surprise—science fiction has repeatedly prophesied the collapse of a Martian colony. Spoiler: Humanity’s flawed humanity is the culprit. The next time you find yourself wishing that you could just move to Mars, remember that Martian civilization is likely to look a whole lot like the earthly mess you’re probably running from.