Recently Mars One – the group that wants to land four people on Mars as part of a reality TV show – announced that they had cut down their list of applicants to 100. As a result, it seems everyone is talking about human settlement of Mars and how exciting that is. Some are even going further and talking about terraforming Mars which is drastically changing its climate so that humans can walk around on the surface without need of spacesuits. Now, I support human exploration of Mars, I just think all the people going on about how “The future of humanity depends on us going to Mars” are overlooking some major elements.
The biggest element of all is that going to Mars will be very expensive. So how will we pay for it? Centuries ago, various nations set up colonies in “less civilized” parts of the world so they could gain resources – gold, slaves, tobacco, whatever they could get their grubby hands on – to make their home nation richer. That pattern, thankfully, can’t be repeated on Mars. Unless we find a deposit of unobtainium, there are only two things we can export from Mars: basic scientific knowledge and the novelty of being on Mars. Basic scientific knowledge is a wonderful thing in itself and it can lead to discoveries that can be monetized, but I just don’t see how studying the geologic history of Mars can lead to money being made on Earth.
As to the novelty of being on Mars, that’s what Mars One is banking on. Probably a billion-plus people will tune in to watch the first person take a step on Mars, but first, a word from our sponsor. And then there will be a commercial where the Geico Gecko is in a spacesuit riding a Mars rover that’s had a fender bender or something.
Could selling advertising pay for a mission to Mars? From my armchair, I’d say it’s possible. But the key phrase there was “a mission.” As I said, a billion-plus people will probably watch the first steps on Mars. But in the days, weeks, and months that follow, that number will steadily fall as wars, scandals, natural disasters, etc. retake the front pages. I wish Mars One the best of luck, I just don’t see how their plans are sustainable.
So that just leaves people on Earth – taxpayers or billionaires – to pay for Mars settlements. That may work for a time, but taxpayers – and politicians – are fickle and there’s no telling when the budget will be cut for some other pet project. And billionaires can make bad investments, or their heirs may not share their dreams, so there’s no telling how long that money will last.
My main argument against focusing on Mars right now, is that it will cost a great deal of money and there’s no foreseeable way of it paying for itself. Which means that if there’s another world-wide recession, or we decide that we need to fight climate change, or something else major happens, then this big-budget/few tangible returns project may get axed. We’ll have spent a lot of money to achieve an inspirational, history making moment, but then we’ll stop without building on it. Any of you with any interest in space exploration will know that sums up the Apollo Project.
So, is there an alternative? I’m of the opinion that our best bet for a sustainable future in space is to return to the moon. Why is going to some place we’ve already been better than going where no man’s gone before? Because we can do things on the moon that make money. Space tourism will lead to Lunar tourism which will lead to Lunar retirement communities. We could make solar cells on the moon and beam the energy back to Earth. Or, we could build and launch giant solar arrays that orbit Earth and beam the energy down. Given that some energy companies have profits that exceed the budget of NASA, if a moon base can break into the energy market it shouldn’t have a problem paying for itself. And then it won’t matter if politicians cut funding or if a billionaire loses in the stock market. For a sustainable future in space, we need to go back to the moon. Landing on Mars will be a great achievement, but then what?