Red Planet Bound

Pro-Mars, Pro-Human

By Evan Plant-Weir

There is something curious at the heart of Mars settlement cynicism. Some specific, underlying mindset appears to be driving many critics of humans-to-Mars. Paradoxically, an awareness of that mindset can help us better understand the value of our multi-planetary future.

Have you noticed it?

Their language frequently resonates with a kind of knee-jerk pessimism. It feels like the sort of response usually elicited when somebody is confronted with an idea that they would rather not actually consider.

We pull away reflexively from notions that challenge the biases within us, and I detect a powerful bias within many detractors of a multi-planet future. This isn’t just an artifact of private discussion between laypeople, it can be found in the opinions of those with substantial public reach.

Articles published by otherwise reputable sources of journalism adopt hasty and dismissive postures while questioning the value of red planet settlement. Even from some of the most brilliant and celebrated communicators of science – individuals whom I grew up admiring – that vision has been flippantly brushed aside.

These do not feel like impartial reactions. It is as if the idea that we should go to Mars is an affront to something foundational within their world view, and thus it is discarded without genuine consideration.

Certainly, there are various apparent sources for Mars settlement skepticism.

For many, no doubt, the concept is just too unfamiliar. Civilization on Mars is so far outside the context of present daily life, that it’s no wonder some people respond with disbelief.

Political polarization is sometimes to blame as well. The moment that going to Mars is (incorrectly) perceived as something “the other side” would do, it becomes a default target for partisan disagreement.

Misdirected frustration over economic inequality is also a contributing factor. Billionaires sending rockets into space is readily misunderstood as frivolous and wasteful by those who are unaware of how effective space exploration is at stimulating our economy, generating valuable technology, and creating jobs.

Similarly, the mistaken assumption that going to Mars means side-stepping our responsibilities to Earth, seems to underpin the most heated pushback.

These are among the obvious motivations – whether justified or not – for balking at the idea of a multi-planetary future, but I think there’s something much more interesting and consequential at play.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery of Acheron Fossae (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Of course, not every criticism of Mars settlement is hasty or dismissive. There are perfectly valid concerns with regards to our reaching beyond this planet. For instance, we need to ensure that Earth always comes first, that space exploration continues tobenefit our home world, and that – when we go to Mars – we do so in an ethical and deliberate manner.

We could certainly get it wrong, and critical assessments presented in good faith are essential to navigating the various pitfalls of such a colossal transition.

This isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the voices of opposition that are not so friendly or constructive; the unfortunately common tone of jeering condescension that works its way into the words of some Mars settlement critics.

This kind of response doesn’t come from nowhere.

Now… certainly, anything worth doing will have its fair share of hecklers. So why does it matter where that comes from? Why not just focus on spreading a positive message and learn from constructive feedback? It matters, because it reveals an important part of why a human future beyond this atmosphere is so important.

These overtly negative reactions often originate from the fact that Mars settlement is a contradiction to a pervasive, and unfortunate ideology.

That belief, which is so offended by our message of hopeful optimism, is that humans are no good. Nihilism, anti-humanism, misanthropy – call it what you will – but a sense of despair, contempt and distrust for our own species is among the chief sources for this fiery pushback.

“How dare we arrogant, destructive creatures even consider poisoning yet another world? Earth and Mars would be better without us.” Or so the sentiment goes.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, believe me, it isn’t. I’ve heard those words almost verbatim time and time again, and I feel that sentiment echoed indirectly in some of the most widely distributed criticisms.

This perspective is genuine, deeply rooted and widespread. That the pursuit of a multi-planetary future is a direct challenge to this mindset is both the cause of zealous pushback, and the reason why it is essential that we carry on despite it.

Reaching beyond Earth is an intrinsically pro-human goal. It is predicated on the belief that we can ultimately be a source for good, that we can become responsible stewards of life, and that we are worth saving. As such, it is a potent counter-narrative for building a future that strives for optimism and hope, and does not withdraw into despondent self-doubt. 

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery of Holden Crater (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

There is good reason to feel frustrated with humanity. In an age where the full bloody history of our species is readily available to anyone with an internet connection, questioning the virtue of homo-sapiens is quite understandable. Since our descent from the trees, we’ve made more than a few unforgivable mistakes.

All of us know what it is like to feel worn-out and jaded by the weight of our sins against one another and this planet. It’s part of the human condition to carry that burden. We all have to decide what to do with that knowledge, both as individuals and as a collective. Either we acknowledge it and find a way to move forward, or we succumb to it.

The latter option – to throw one’s hands up in the air and say “well, I guess humans are just bad” – is attractive because it is easy. Resigning ourselves to bitterness and resentment is simple. It’s a philosophical Lazy Boy, in which we can comfortably avoid any genuine responsibility for the future.

If we really are intrinsically no good, then there’s no sense in working towards anything constructive, and we can feel free to wallow in negativity. It’s the perfect copout.

We need to choose the former path. We have to carry on, and reach for new beginnings with the belief – however elusive it might be – that we can build a future defined by the goodness within us. Not because we believe in utopia, but because an awareness of our failures tempered by an optimistic outlook is much more likely to have a positive outcome. Hopeful people are better at solving problems, and the expectation that we can and will do better brings true accountability.

To do this, we need to adopt a cognitive framework for our future that – while acutely aware of our many problems – is not forever encumbered by them.

That’s what Mars settlement is all about. It’s about finding a way to cheer for team human again, and to anticipate the coming century with optimism, while simultaneously working on our troubles here on Earth.

I hope that those critics – and, indeed, anybody who has lost faith in humanity – will watch on as the first explorers step foot on the red planet. I hope that, as they witness the unfolding of a new chapter in our shared history, they begin to feel a sense of daring optimism take root, in place of their despair.

When Hayley Arceneaux of the Inspiration 4 mission said “there is a future” and “it gets better”, she was referring to the words of encouragement she would relay from orbit to cancer patients around the world, but I think the spirit of that message was important for everyone back on Earth to receive.

Our species has a future – here, on Mars, and elsewhere – and it gets better.