Why we’re not going to Mars

It’s a silly place

Filed under: Essays
Astronauts eat the first lettuce grown in space at the International Space Station. Source: NASA

Astronauts eat the first lettuce grown in space at the International Space Station. Source: NASA

by Timothy Crenshaw


There are many misconceptions and popular expectations of science, industry and progress which haunt our cultural consciousness.
These often manifest as a relentless anticipation for new human endeavours and technologies, fulfilling a wide range of imagined needs. Each of these is supposedly arriving any day now. At present, sentient AI, designer gene-editing, lab-grown meat and nuclear fusion are all mainstays. Just do a quick search for ‘futurology’ online and you’ll see a dizzying circus of techno-fantasies, each one promising to free us from some obligation, annoyance, or expense. All we could ever want, and more! Brought to us by… technology! Each decade brings with it a new range of curiosities. Most of these eventually lose their lustre when they turn out to be technically infeasible or commercially problematic. Ask yourself, is anyone talking about jetpacks, nanotechnology, or robot servants lately?

One of these fantasies is particularly powerful and has been bugging me for some time: human settlement of the red planet. This has been featured in numerous sci-fi novels and Hollywood movies, and covered in detail in publications such as Time and Scientific American. Public figures have taken it upon themselves to champion the supposedly noble cause of a manned Mars mission, including Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin (he wrote a book about it) and Stephen Hawking. There’s even the Mars Society dedicated to the goal.

The Mars One project, probably the most visible settlement initiative, claims that a manned mission is feasible within a decade, using current technology. In fact, a recent comprehensive assessment of the immense challenges involved, carried out by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, concludes that for the first intrepid settlers the trip would be both a one way ticket and an eventual death sentence. Imagine the places on Earth that are the most hostile to human life – Death Valley, the South Pole, the Mariana trench – Mars is worse. Far worse. There are reasons we don’t live in these places, and they are the same reasons we haven’t been back to the moon since 1972.

The primary barrier to building a colony on Mars is almost too obvious to notice, but it’s there in plain sight; it is a dead planet. And while the media talk a lot about how and when we might get to Mars, the question of why almost never comes up. Let’s put on our ecologist hats and look at it critically:

1. Zero carrying capacity for human life

In fact, one could argue that the carrying capacity on Mars is actually negative thanks to the cosmic radiation, extreme cold and low gravity (only 38% of Earth gravity!). Any settlers would simply struggle to stay alive in conditions vastly different than those we evolved in. Fighting the loss of bone density, novel cancers, immune dysfunction, and a range of psychological problems would be an inescapable and ultimately losing battle.

2. The fragility of artificial ecological systems

The biosphere we are embedded within on Earth is the supreme life support system, providing us with everything we need to survive. Mars doesn’t possess the amazingly complex feedback loops which regulate and maintain living communities. All attempts thus far to create viable closed ecological systems, such as the Biosphere experiments of the 1990s, have failed dramatically. The lesson to take from this is that any ‘designed’ ecological system, with technology substituting for natural processes (a likely prerequisite for a Mars settlement), is an inherently unstable thing. Even if a closed agricultural system could be established, peak equatorial solar irradiance on Mars is only a little over half what the surface of the Earth receives, which would make growing food a very challenging task.

3. The costs of a foothold on a barren world

On Earth, we are fortunate to be endowed with abundant low-entropy resources, the fundamental enabler of life, which life also creates by concentrating matter and energy into useful forms. With no forests or oceans, nearly all necessary materials would need to be transported to Mars. Mineral ore mining, the only extraction activity which could conceivably be carried out in situ, would face immense operational difficulties. Self-sufficient production of the enormous array of materials and components necessary to sustain a colony would require a significant industrial base and workforce, which would then in turn need to be supported. Taken together, this would be a very marginal prospect, relegating any Mars settlement project to a perpetual dependence on imports. The only exports the new Martians could manage would likely be various scientific data and footage of their daily lives for the entertainment of us Earthlings – not exactly a strong proposition for a long-term colony facing costs several orders of magnitude higher than any other in human history.

And when we consider extra-terrestrial settlement, Mars is the easy option! Anyone who claims we can find an Earth-like world in another solar system and make the voyage clearly isn’t familiar with the mind melting distances involved. The fastest spacecraft we have ever built, the New Horizons probe, would still take around 55,000 years to reach our closest neighbouring solar system. And if against all odds, we found a suitable world with a thriving ecosystem, upon arrival we would have an approximately 50% chance that the indigenous life is based on dextro amino acids (assuming it is carbon-based at all) which would render it useless to humans.

So, that’s it then. I think we can safely conclude that we’re not moving house any time soon. Not to Mars, and not anywhere else. To be clear, when I say ‘we’ aren’t going to Mars, I mean the collective we. I’ll admit there still may be an outside chance that some consortium will fund and execute a mission to send a few poor, intrepid souls on a one-way trip to live short lives on Mars in a gruesome experiment, televised for all to watch. If it happens, this will be another sad consequence of our nihilistic cultural stampede towards anything resembling a bad reality TV pitch (which by the way, includes a certain new US president).

Space exploration has significant co-benefits, of course. But no more than the co-benefits to be expected from any large, scientifically advanced venture. And given the existential threats we are facing here at home, would those resources not be better invested in directly tackling the issues at hand? We have an urgent need not only for new and innovative technology, which is often assumed to be the singular answer, but on ways to rehabilitate society to find a way of life that doesn’t entail brutally efficient ecocide.

The Mars delusion highlights a simple but uncomfortable truth: our exuberance for technology and progress has ceased to be rational, despite the touted rationalism of the physical sciences, from which new innovations emerge. This is not scientific but rather the pinnacle of Scientism: the belief that application of the scientific method coupled with increasing technological complexity is the necessary and sufficient answer to all problems. This type of thinking has become a dangerous evasion of responsibility and reveals a stark lack of understanding of what really supports societies. The modern world doesn’t run on ‘technology’ alone. Technology, impressive as it often is, is simply a collection of tools and techniques for turning flows (or stocks) of materials and energy from the natural world into valuable goods and services. Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Increasing technological complexity continues its slow march, yes, but often alongside diminishing returns, unforeseen consequences, hidden dependencies and externalised costs.

I’m not against technology on principle. It is important not to dismiss real and important technological advances. I’m not even against space exploration. There are likely more scientific insights to be gained by sending unmanned probes to the remote corners of our own cosmic backyard. But I am against any assertion that the future of our species is out there, somewhere else. Unfortunately, the romanticism of space exploration is a powerful force and won’t relinquish its grip on the popular imagination easily.

Some might accuse me of lacking ambition, of having given up on progress. Why pour cold water over this popular myth? Surely a dream is a good thing, uniting us towards a common goal and inspiring the scientists, engineers, and explorers of the future to aim for the stars? Well, daydreaming is a fine thing on a Sunday afternoon, but not such a good idea when standing at a precipice.

It’s true that the vastness of space evokes a deep awe, but the future of humanity lies right here. We need to wake up and face that reality. Technology is not going to insulate us from the consequences of our own actions. When the hype has faded and the marketing campaigns have wound down, we’ll be left standing in a damaged world with dwindling time left to affect real change. The sum of our future as a species, whatever that may be, is here, on this remarkable blue planet. It is only when we confront the empty promises of human space exploration that we can clearly reflect on how truly unique and precious our home really is.

Timothy Crenshaw is a PhD student in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill.

This article originally appeared on the Economics for the Anthropocene blog.