The Next Frontier of Civilisation: Contemplating Mars

Curiosity approaching the Martian surface. (credit: www.universetoday.com)
Curiosity approaching the Martian surface. (credit: www.universetoday.com)

It sounds like science fiction: a one-way trip to the Red Planet, with the chance to be one of the first humans to venture forth into the vastness of deep space and establish the first Martian colony. A project called Mars One is attempting to turn that wisp into reality, and already over 70 000 people have signed up. But this entire project draws a deeper level of contemplation: of our future as a civilisation.

Renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan (one of my scientific heroes) wrote this in his bestselling novel Cosmos: 

Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred, and there are few notions more stirring than the idea of a neighbouring planet inhabited by intelligent beings. […] If the planet ever is terraformed, it will be done by human beings whose permanent residence and planetary affiliation is Mars. The Martians will be us.

–Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” (1980)

Our future lies in the stars, on the dusty surface of a distant neighbour we’ve gazed at for centuries, dreamt of visiting, wrote extensively about and let our imaginations run wild upon its rocky, crimson surface. Mars has a special place in my heart. I’ve written about it fictionally, and gave a presentation on it in Grade 10. Even before that, I had whimsical dreams of making a movie called Mission to Mars. But now, the dream of visiting this planet is becoming a lot more real each day. Scientists, engineers, economists, medical specialists, writers are all coming together to imagine just how we could take our civilisation to the next frontier: space.

The Problem Right Now

Earth is a beautiful planet. It has just the perfect blend of ingredients to allow you and I to exist. However, in our advancement as a species, we’ve created a few challenges: globalisation, industrialisation, and the growth of our species has resulted in depleting natural resources and, effectively, a dying planet. Call it what you want – global warming, climate change – our impact has rendered our planet unfit, unhealthy. And whilst urbanists and others try to find solutions to our crises, I do believe that the time to consider a second planet is now.

Yes, it sounds far-fetched. Because it is. But if we were to stop, and consider how rapidly our society has advanced in merely 150 years – from a society dreaming about soaring amongst the birds, to one that takes flight for granted, even complains about the Wi-Fi signal onboard. We’ve progressed. And I think, in that vain, contemplating the Red Planet is only natural; a logical progression from where we were, to where we are, to where we shall be.

Contemplating Mars is an exciting solution to some of our great challenges.

Why it’s compelling

Thinking about establishing permanent residence on an entirely new planet is a truly exhilarating thing. Imagine Mars as a blank canvas: with an already intelligent society descending upon it, we have the opportunity to intelligently design what could be a “civilisation 2.0,” a new take on society, politics, and urban living.

We could start society afresh: history has taught us of the social implications befalling the colonisation of distant lands. It usually leads to civil unrest, civil war, and the assertion of supremacy of one group upon a larger citizenship. These are issues we can avoid, for we now have the chance to strategically plan our new society, and to design all its constituent components. It’s a vision of utopia, yes – and here, literature warns us that utopian conceptions are prone to failure in the face of reality. But by designing everything – from the technology, to the social engineering – we have the opportunity to create something truly remarkable on an altogether fascinating planet. Whilst it may never be perfect, it will be as close to it as we could get.

The science and technology are not quite there yet: much still needs to be done to get our ideas and their execution up to the scratch of the “greatly advanced technology” Sagan talks of needed to accomplish such things as full-scale planetary terraformation. But if we can get more people invested in the notion that going to Mars is a very real possibility, and that we can establish our presence there in a very tangible way, I think the momentum will begin to increase, propelling this dream into reality.

The Mars One Project

Mars One is interesting. At first, its ideas will enthral you (I invite you to visit their website and see for yourself the promises they make). However, their mission should not be considered the final word on this idea. Mars One is still very much a project in its infancy; after all, creating a new colony is extremely expensive. They talk of outsourcing the tech aspects to more qualified private companies, like SpaceX for the launch vehicle. But SpaceX themselves have still got a lot of work to do; they’ve only recently (last year) managed to launch an unmanned craft to the International Space Station. Whether the Mars One project will prevail remains to be seen; 70 000 people think so, but reality in this case seems to be the big door at the end of their dreams.

This brings about another interesting node of thought: will the future of space travel, and thus, exploration, be a triumph of the private sector, or will government agencies continue to take us towards the stars? From the progress of pioneers like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, I think the days of the politically-sided government agency funding space are limited, and the age of commercial travel, and the innovation spawned from competition, will be one aspect that might get us to Mars quicker than bureaucratic methods.

One thing’s for certain, however: those who will eventually be jettisoned to our neighbour may risk the very real possibility of not returning to Earth. Their’s will be a one-way journey to a new future and all its possibilities. Only the most committed souls, those so devout to the advancement of science and the progress of our race, will make that difficult psychological and social cut. But they’ll be heroes, and will get to live the dream many of us have harboured for years.

In closing…

I’m not saying that we should ditch efforts to solve the problems facing us here on Earth; that we should run away (literally) from the challenges of this age. Urbanisation, depleting fossil fuels, and increasing populations are issues that really need more attention. But if, for a moment, we were to step back, and consider advancing our species, propagating ourselves into the stars, and all the opportunities (and inherent challenges) that face us in that grander scheme of things, I truly think we can begin to see innovation on an awe-inspiring scale. We can begin to inspire generations to embrace the concept of moving beyond Earth, of standing on the shoulders of giants like Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and those others so invested in humanity’s future. We can begin to see ourselves as not only the explorers, but the settlers too: the founders of a new era.

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