(Original artwork. Mars doesn’t really look like this.)
When Matt Damon said the words, “I’m gonna have to science the sh** out of this,” I almost died of happiness. It was 2015 and The Martian had just come out. It was arguably the best one-man performance since Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000). It was man against nature, an epic struggle between our need to discover and our need to — you know… breathe and eat food. Plus, it was Matt Damon. Who could ask for more?
I love The Martian. So much. But what’s cooler than a movie about a man living on Mars is homosapiens actually colonizing the red planet. Mars One is an international organization founded in 2011 with the intention of sending volunteer colonists to live permanently on Mars. Now, whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but this is a move our species has wondered about for centuries, and it’s happening right now! They start training the first colonists this year (2017, if you’re reading this later… or just really, really out of it)! If all goes according to the schedule, our first Martian colonists will arrive there in 2032. They will be bringing seeds and bugs and bacteria and everything else necessary for life with them. And then I believe the plan is to populate. We can have ethical debates about raising chidren millions of miles from their home planet on a desolate red rock in the comments. You can check out the organization and its mission here.
But this isn’t a new idea for us. In 1895, Percival Lowell wrote Mars, an aptly named book about the possibility of the planet-next-door as a nice place to live. Lowell seemed to be more optimistic about the kind of resources we would find there. But to give the man his credit, it was over 200 years ago!
Humans have always been drawn to distant planets and stars. Why wouldn’t we be? They’re beautiful, and they’re (mostly) constant. For as long as we have existed, we have trusted the night sky with our cultural identities. Much of what makes us who we are can be be traced back to the stars. We marvel at their beauty, place meaning in them, find images in them and tell stories about how they got there. And it’s not just a sentimental obsession! Many of our cultures look to stars to foretell the future, base calendars and agricultural schedules around their movements. Entire religions, bases for governments and empires, are based on stars and planets. We use their positions to navigate our oceans and guide us across unknown landscapes. For heaven’s sake, we label and catalogue every single one we can find for no apparent reason except to… know about them. Our entire universe as humans revolves around stars! Literally. *wink
So out of the whole solar system, the whole universe, why Mars? Short answer: Mars is the next closest thing to planet we know and love. And it’s the closest thing to us that isn’t covered in lethal gas and acid rain storms. Here are a few reasons Mars One gives to go to the red planet:
- Mars has a day/night cycle very similar to Earth’s, only about 40 minutes longer.
- Its atmosphere, though thin, provides some protection from solar and cosmic radiation.
- Its soil contains water, which is of course an essential commodity for life as we know it.
But what about the Moon? Been there. Done that. All I can say is apparently we found it largely unexciting.
So what is Mars, really? To us, I mean. Why would we want to go there? Is it just a planet, an object of discovery and scientific interest? Is it the next step for our species, a path toward a sense of accomplishment? Remember that before we planned to colonize planets, we worshiped them. Mars is the Roman name for the Greek god, Ares, the god of war and father to Romulus and Remus, brothers who brought about the powerful Roman Empire. Maybe that’s what Mars is to us: a way to spread our influence, to claim ownership, to conquer. Or maybe Mars is a way to learn more about ourselves, about who we are and what we can do as a species.
Either way, it’s our choice to learn something of value from it.
What do you think about human expansion to Mars and beyond? Do you support it or oppose it? Let me know why in the comments. I will respond and I’d love to get the conversation going!
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