Red Planet Bound

No, Mars is not a Hellhole [Blog]

Mars dune fields
A Martian dune field, imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)

For the past few weeks, an article has been circulating throughout the Mars science and exploration community that serves as a sharp reminder of how much work remains to be done in educating the public (and apparently journalists) on the subject of the red planet.

‘Mars Is a Hellhole’ seemingly aims to characterize the objective of a long term human presence on Mars as folly. By couching scary-sounding Mars factoids within a blatantly ad hominem swipe at Elon Musk, it dismisses a profoundly consequential vision for humanity out of hand.

I believe that the author’s intentions are good, and that – like many of us – they share in a justifiable concern for the future of humanity and our fellow Earthlings. Further, history teaches that it is always wise to question the intentions of the most rich and influential amongst us.

Setting aside for a moment the bone this author has to pick with Musk, the conclusions reached therein regarding the plausibility of living on Mars are puzzlingly misplaced.

The first eyebrow-raising claim we encounter is that the only thing Mars and Earth have in common “is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots”. It doesn’t take much time on your search engine of choice to determine that this simply is not true.

In the words of Michael Starobin and Mike McClare of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the similarities between Earth and Mars “are striking”. In addition to sharing the presence of water ice and robots, the two planets have nearly an identical day-night cycle. Astoundingly, the length of a Martian day is only 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

The two worlds also share comparable geological features, such as volcanoes, dried river beds and canyons.

Partly as a result of having nearly the same axial tilt as Earth, Mars also has seasonal variability. According to the European Space Agency, “no other climate in the Solar System is thought to be as similar to Earth’s as the Martian system”.

Further, like Earth, Mars is known to have many of the required nutrients for the growth of plant life, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.

In fact, the red planet is so similar to Earth that it might have hosted life in the past (a possibility so compelling that it is the primary investigative goal of the Perseverance rover).

These parallels with our home world are not only of academic value. Rather, they are crucial factors in our ability to establish a foothold on the red planet and they should not be shrugged off. 

Certainly, Mars cannot compare to the habitability of Earth, but it is the best candidate for offworld settlement in our solar system. The claim that Mars is too hard to live on, therefore, amounts to a claim that we cannot live anywhere but Earth. This is a truly dismal and unfounded perspective.

The article digs in deeper by asserting that “It [Mars] is not in the realm of hospitable to humans”.

The lack of confidence demonstrated here in our collective ability as a global people is saddening. If we are to consider everything that we have achieved as a species in the past centuries (setting aside the many errors we’ve made, which are themselves worthy of discussion), the establishment of a permanent human presence on Mars is a small task by comparison.

Less than two hundred years ago, in order to create light to read, or heat to stay warm, we had to build a fire. In order to speak to somebody on the other side of the planet, our messages had to travel on paper for weeks by way of horse, carriage and boat. Lacking antibiotics, people would frequently die from infection in minor wounds.

Less than five consecutive lifetimes later, we have harnessed electricity, solar and nuclear power, learned to build computers, MRI machines, and manufacture penicillin. In the same timeframe, we transitioned from a world where flight was largely considered impossible, to an existence where thousands of commercial airliners leave the ground every day.

The suggestion that Mars habitation is beyond our potential is not only pointlessly doleful and bleak, but it is also flagrantly blind to the course of human history.

Mars colony in artificial domed canyon - design for Masdar City (UAE) by LAVA
An example of how a subterranean Mars settlement could look (LAVA Architects)

The article proceeds to paint a picture of uncomfortable life in underground Martian habitats, with dreary connotations of “living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights”.

Whereas it is true that subterranean habitats will likely be the most practical living environment (at least in the beginning), the idea that living underground is somehow intrinsically austere and drab is silly. Obviously, we will design habitats with human psychological wellbeing and comfort in mind, and there is every reason to expect that we can make our underground living spaces both beautiful and pleasant.

Certainly, the first explorers to Mars will likely endure relatively spartan quarters, but nothing worse than the conditions of the International Space Station, where so many astronauts have weathered their missions not only in sound mental health, but elation.

With subsequent missions to the red planet, the construction of more aesthetic and livable habitats will be a clear and achievable priority. In time, they will be every bit as welcoming as the inside of buildings on Earth, where we already spend more than 90% of our time.

Bacteria, Virus, Organism, Pathogen, Germs, Microbes
Microbes (Pixabay)

As a tip of the hat to the increasingly tiresome planetary protection narrative, the article offers us this quote from Carl Sagan as a means of illustrating the supposed “entitlement” of Mars settlement:

“What shall we do with Mars? There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing the question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if [they] are only microbes.”

I am a huge fan of Carl Sagan, but if he did indeed say this, then I cannot disagree more. We lay waste to trillions of bacteria here on Earth as a matter of our daily routine (washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, boiling water) and we never stop to agonize over the ethics of it.

Of course, we should approach Mars settlement with respect and care for whatever life might exist there, but to prioritize Martian microbes over the proliferation of life from Earth, and the eventual creation of a flourishing biosphere on the red planet (via terraforming) is insanity.

Further, the author calls Mars settlement “a long-shot chance at security”.

It is very simple. If we stay on Earth, we – along with most of the biosphere we know and love – will eventually be destroyed. It isn’t just about us. With great power comes great responsibility, and it is within our power to spread life to new worlds. Going to Mars isn’t just some wild attempt at self-preservation.

Just as it is our responsibility to take better care of life on Earth (with the majority of our resources), so too is it our responsibility to proliferate and steward life on new worlds with a small fraction of those resources.

Our species has done bad things, but that should not condemn us to an eternal narrative of self-deprecation. The quality and character of our descendants is not bound to the failures of our past and present, unless we insist that they are.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk during press conference (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, though I have thus far set aside the author’s enmity for Musk, I am compelled to address its glaring frailty in the article’s closing paragraphs:

“But I question anyone among the richest people in the world who sells a story of caring so much for human survival that he must send rockets into space. Someone in his position could do so many things on our little blue dot itself to help those in need.”

I could not agree more that a person in Musk’s position should be taking action to improve things here on Earth. With his vast resources, I might even consider it an ethical obligation for him to tackle some of the worst problems here at home. For instance, if he were to invest incredible amounts of money and personal time and effort into the popularization and development of electric cars, that might help us transition towards sustainable energy and away from fossil fuels.

Given that climate change is estimated to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths per year, this would surely be a worthy endeavor. Of course, he is already attempting this with Tesla, which makes him a pretty terrible target of animosity towards the rich for not doing enough for planet Earth.

Not to mention the fact that space exploration dependably results in the development of invaluable technologies for making life better on Earth, rendering this criticism toothless right out of the gate.

I don’t believe the author of ‘Mars is a Hellhole’ intended it, but by taking a poorly aimed shot at Musk, they have landed a blow on a community of thousands of scientists, engineers, artists and enthusiasts who have adopted the dream of Mars not in “entitlement, greed and ego” but rather through constructive hope and optimism for our future as a species.

Yes, there are many challenges on the road ahead for settlement of the red planet, but none of these difficulties are remotely sufficient to bar our way to a broader future for our descendants, and for all life from Earth.

No, Mars is not a “hellhole”. This is a click-bait, cartoon characterization of an immensely consequential issue for the future of our species.

Mars is our best chance at a sustainable multi-planetary future, and it’s a good one at that.