Some people would rather invest these resources in solving global problems, not launching astronauts to other worlds. People in the 1960s questioned the Apollo program for similar reasons—it was also a time of systemic inequality and fears of nuclear war. Today, in public opinion surveys of US adults, NASA’s climate-related efforts and monitoring of near-Earth asteroids are more popular than crewed missions to the moon and Mars. 

“It would be easier to justify going to the moon and then Mars if people weren’t starving and dying. I don’t think there’s a scientific rational reason for it, and that’s OK,” says Natalie Treviño, a space theoretician at the Open University in the UK. Yet as she points out, the drive to explore isn’t always logical. “Why do we make art and make music? Living in contradiction is what the human experience is. It’s both amazing and tragic.”

Depending on the animating vision behind Mars exploration, the first astronauts could be scientists, poets, tourists, or military officers. They could be viewed as visitors, settlers, cowboys, or colonists. Treviño prefers the term “migrants”—partly to destigmatize migration on Earth—and she favors including an artist to make sense of the existential experience, and enormous culture shock, of living on this ruddy, barren world.

Let’s say it works: Humanity overcomes the cost and practical barriers of settling Mars, and the migrant Earthlings arrive. There’s one thing left to consider: Maybe Mars would be better off without us.

If our treatment of Earth’s atmosphere is any sign, we’ll corrupt the Martian one too. We’ll litter it with junk, as we have despoiled our own world. Maybe we’d geoengineer the atmosphere, or live out Musk’s desire to terraform the world by blowing up nukes to create a “nuclear winter”—something we’ve managed to avoid so far at home—to raise temperatures, initiate a helpful climate change, and melt some of its polar ice. As with geoengineering proposals meant to combat climate change on Earth, such schemes carry huge risks.

We’d also mine the surface, likely reproducing the economic inequalities and unsustainable practices already prevalent on Earth. For example, Treviño says, there’s a limited supply of Martian ice, but no binding rules exist saying who could use it, how much, and for what purpose. Plus, if any Martian life-form lies underground, terraforming and mining attempts may well destroy them and their ecosystem, and who are we to decide their fate? It’s the height of hubris for one species to decide what should be done with an entire planet that’s not their homeworld. 

So as we venture toward Mars, let’s be ambitious and curious, but also thoughtful, ethical, and sustainable. Our travels many millions of miles away will likely serve to remind us how lucky we are to have our own world, says Sasha Sagan: “I suspect that the further we go, the more we’ll realize how precious and valuable this one planet is.”

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