Any discussion about exploring and colonizing Mars must eventually face the question of cost. Critics ask how we can justify spending billions of dollars to take ourselves to another planet, considering Earth’s many needs. Wouldn’t our resources be better used here? This skeptical perspective toward the financial challenge of exploration is not unique to space travel. Looking at how these concerns were addressed in the past when Earth was being explored can provide insight for the current discussion. There were problems in every country that sent explorers across the oceans. Should those explorers have stayed home and spent their resources on the needs at hand? Perhaps some of them, but fortunately, many of those explorations were eventually of great benefit to the home countries, with resource gains that far exceeded the costs. History shows us that exploration is a high risk and high return investment.
Another insight from history is that it’s unlikely that man will ever fully solve Earth’s problems. In light of that, we should not wait before we expand humanity’s presence beyond this planet. We can take up worthy causes here, while also venturing out. We may even find that the inspirational nature of the quest for Mars will stir up initiative and prompt accomplishments on Earth in unrelated arenas that will result in benefits which will more than outweigh the financial cost of the endeavor.
The current need is for NASA, and private sector space exploration companies which seek to colonize Mars, to get much more funding than they do currently. What exactly is to be gained by this “far out” objective of settling people on Mars? Why bother moving thousands of people tens of millions of miles away to a hostile landscape?
(1) For the science – “To think God’s thoughts after Him, and to read His book of nature.”
(2) To build multi-planetary redundancy into the human race in preparation for possible extinction-level events on Earth
(3) For the resources on Mars and the asteroid belt
(4) To elicit wonder and a sense of purpose – to make it possible for people to wake up knowing that, if they choose, they can walk on another planet in as little as six months, or they can contribute to the ability of others to do so
(5) For the explorers and colonists to have an adventure unrivaled in the history of mankind – this is the kind of thing which teaches all of us to have courage, to dream, to have hope in greater purposes
Those last two reasons will have the most immediate impact on the greatest number of people. Many people will be profoundly inspired by the thought that humanity has a permanent, reachable presence on another world.
Exploration-wise, things have been relatively boring on the Earth for the last hundred years, since the secrets of the terrestrial frontiers were essentially exhausted and passed into familiarity. There are still a few mysterious pockets here and there – lost cities, previously unknown flora and fauna, caves, etc. – and much of the ocean remains unexplored, but there haven’t been any new LANDS to discover in quite a while. Mars has new lands in abundance, on the scale of 83% of Earth’s land area. A person walking around on Mars would have nearly as much land mass to explore as the totality of Earth’s continents. (Should there ever be an ocean on a terraformed Mars, we should be careful where we put our settlements from the start, lest they be submerged eventually.)
A century ago, when there were suddenly no more frontiers on Earth, we turned to science fiction and fantasy as surrogates to satiate the explorer’s impulse. Fifty years later we ventured beyond the Earth’s immediate grasp, and even went to the moon. But, from its beginning, space exploration has been reserved for professionals only. The dream has been forced into a narrow funnel, to the point that it has lost much of its vitality in the mind of the average Terran.
Imaginative stories can stir our souls, and the forays of professional explorers can intrigue us, but NOTHING we have experienced in recent history will compare to the psychological and emotional effect of interplanetary exploration and colonization accessible to humanity in general. Mars is the best available object of this fascination and the worthiest destination. As a carrot, the moon is closer, but it will always be heavily Earth-dependent due to its lack of an atmosphere and its scant life-supporting resources. Mars, with its vestigial atmosphere, faint magnetic field in the south, abundant CO2 and H2O, and its 24-hour day, is much more promising for establishing a self-sustaining human presence truly independent of the Earth.
Few people alive today can remember the excitement of truly unexplored horizons. Thankfully, writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs encapsulated that excitement in their writings, so that we might taste it, if only vicariously, through their characters and historical figures. Now, after a difficult century of planetary cabin fever, we finally possess the technology (or have the capability to build the technology) to explore above and beyond the horizons we know. Mars is the ultimate frontier, and it is open to us, if we have the courage and will to go and discover.