By Arvin Charles
The Black Death was a massive plague that brought utter chaos to medieval Europe, swiftly killing millions of people in the 14th century. This plague sparked so many other disasters including a colossal economic depression due to the interruption to agriculture and commerce at that time. This disease, amidst other factors like overpopulation, food scarcity and war, ignited a need for Europeans to seek out a “New World” beyond the horizon, which they eventually did through their discovery and colonization of North America. Parallel to this, human civilization today is also experiencing the same motivations but on an international level with the rise of antibiotic resistance, famine and global overpopulation. Our challenges are heightened further with a bane caused by our own recklessness, global warming. In a recent talk organized by the Oxford Union Debating Society, the world renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking set an expiration date for the world, giving us only 1000 years before human civilization meets its end. The good news is that we still have a glimmer of hope according to Hawking, if we manage to set up colonies throughout our solar system.
In the recent 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Elon Musk, the founder of Space X in his keynote address, outlined his ambitious scheme to send the first flight to Mars in 2024. His newly designed Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) spacecraft consists of 42 Raptor engines capable of continuing the mission safely even with multiple engine failures. Moreover, Musk plans to transport 100 passengers per ship with a price tag of USD 200,000 per seat. If those facts alone are insufficient to blow your mind, Musk even plans to set up a colony of 1 million people in the next 40 to 100 years by dispatching an armada of fleets to Mars together with sufficient cargo to create a sustainable living environment for Martians. Although the math may seem impressive, is it truly feasible for humans to thrive on Mars? What challenges must we struggle through to survive in the barren planet?
Obstacles that need to be cleared.
For starters, one of the main struggles of living in Mars would be the Martian atmosphere which consists of approximately 96% carbon dioxide and 0.13% oxygen, denying the most fundamental needs for human survival, the need to breathe. Hence, massive amounts of oxygen supply has to be shipped from Earth to Mars to ensure the survival of the people living there which may not be a practical approach. One of the most interesting solutions that will be tested in the upcoming NASA 2020 rover is the electrolysis of oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars. Based on the results of this future experiment, NASA hopes to design a device that would be able to electrolyze oxygen gas for respiration from the Martian atmosphere to facilitate a more livable and feasible lifestyle for the colony.
To become self-sustainable, the human colony on Mars have to be able to produce food and water apart from oxygen for respiration and the need to generate electricity. Hence, with the recent discovery that water in the form of ice makes up more than half of an underground layer of an ample portion of Mars, there is hope for utilizing this resource for future colonists for domestic purposes. The water obtained from these deposits could then further be used to sustain crop plantations and growth in biospheres, which are currently being tested as a life support system for Marstronauts. These biospheres provide the optimal conditions for vegetation serving as a greenhouse, a method to recycle wastewater and also to purify air for respiration.
The atmospheric pressure and temperature would also pose a challenge for survival. According to Nature World News, walking around Mars without a spacesuit will make your blood boil at high noon and instantly freeze at night. Another interesting theory that is plausible in the long term is a process called terraforming which is basically manipulating the conditions and landscape of Mars to support human life. This is achieved by a series of approaches including one that would raise eyebrows, which is kick-starting a greenhouse effect on Mars, ultimately warming the planet by importing ammonia and hydrocarbons from Earth and introducing them into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, this process may take decades if not centuries to come into full effect.
Apart from these fundamental barriers, there is also the tricky matter of Martian politics. Assuming a self-sustainable colony has successfully been created on Mars, some sort of government has to be formed as every civilization has done in human history. Rationing of food, management of technology and also the utility of resources has to be governed and facilitated, and hence the necessity of establishing a governing body. However, according to astrobiologist, Charles Cockell from the University of Edinburgh, the risk of corruption and dictatorship to occur is very likely. To quote Cockell, “A space colony is a tyranny-prone environment. If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power.” Concurring to this opinion, Elon Musk suggested that the government on Mars should be a direct democracy in which issues are confronted by direct voting.
Although space colonization and the evolution of humans to become an interplanetary species may seem exciting, a plethora of ethical issues will also follow this transition. Assuming a successful and sustainable colonization of Mars, a deeper chasm may form between the rich and poor. Along with the advancements of technology and the mining of resources for the colony on Mars, comes further deterioration of the state of planet Earth with a rapid acceleration of global warming and climate change. Funds necessary to combat the current problems on Earth would also be shifted into making the Mars community sustainable. And if Mars is a means in which we escape our dying planet, who would be allowed to leave and who would be marooned? Analogous to the blockbuster movie, Elysium, it is most likely that the answer to this question will boil down to wealth. A social divide will form and the less fortunate will evidently be made to work to sustain the life of people in Mars.
Some people also believe that the mere colonization of Mars would be unethical as our presence on the red planet might affect pre-existing life on Mars. To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, “where there is water, there is life even if it is not on Earth”, and with the recent discovery of water on the surface of Mars, would our mere presence prohibit the thriving of life even on a bacterial scale? Will we be interfering with the forces of nature by terraforming Mars for our own convenience? In his keynote speech, Elon Musk also explicitly mentioned that the pioneers of the Mars colonization project have to be ready to risk their lives as the likelihood of death even
before landing on the Martian surface is indeed very high even with the expensive technology and safeguards in place. In spite of the massive amount of research, the only point of view on Mars that we have, is behind computer screens and thus anything can go wrong. Hence, the question of the day is whether putting the lives of a few on the chopping block to benefit the lives of the many is the right thing to do? Will the ends justify the means?
The epoch of interplanetary travel and a Mars colony will indeed be the biggest issue and hopefully be the greatest achievement of our era. Much like our predecessors in history, the exploration of the unknown and the very process of pushing our limits will surely create a technological boom and further advancement in the STEM field that will slingshot us into the future. As thrilling as this may seem, we have to ensure that in our hunger for conquest, we should never lose sight of the planet we all call home.