We aren’t going to colonize Mars. Or the Moon. Or any other place in our solar system or beyond. This is an unpopular prediction. It shouldn’t be.
From a technological perspective, we’re capable of going to Mars. If there was a reason to go we’d be there already. Human beings aren’t wandering the surface of the Moon, the red planet, or elsewhere in our solar system because we have no reason to.
We evolved here, to live here. If there’s anything we’ve learned from half a century of space exploration, it’s that we will thrive or die right here on this blue marble. That conclusion will make many readers cringe. It shouldn’t, but that admission feels like a defeat.
Alexander wept for there were no worlds left to conquer.
There’s a reason our biggest private space flight companies are all run by retired or semi-retired billionaires. Because there’s no business model for it. You’re not going to make money going to Mars just like you won’t make money watching TV or playing video games.
Building colonies on Mars is the new yacht racing, a pastime to consume the dwindling days of the restless rich. Elon Musk published a quasi-scientific plan for colonizing Mars. He’s hinting at a manned mission to Mars to launch in this decade. Jeff Bezos has outlined his plans for a new generation of humans to be born in space. Richard Branson topped them both, becoming the first bored billionaire in space back in 2021. Manned space exploration is the juvenile fantasy of those who’ve exhausted the joys of our world.
Half a century ago, the notion of putting human beings in space was adventurous and exciting, full of promise for our future. Then we went. We found endless acres of nothing. Dun colored rocks spinning in a vast vacuum. Radiation. Cold. Emptiness. Death. Space is a playground for physicists and researchers. It’s useless for the rest of us.
The last of the scheduled Apollo missions to the Moon was completed in 1972. We never went back. Neither did anyone else. Why would they? There’s nothing there. After Evel Knievel jumped Snake River Canyon, why would someone else do it? There’s no purpose to the stunt besides the stunt itself, and there’s no glory in repeating someone else’s jump.
Throwing cold water on our sci-fi space travel dreams will be poorly received. But why? No one can describe a single sane, reasonable goal to be achieved by cramming humans into a metal pod and placing them for a time on a distant, uninhabitable rock. Musk’s explanation for going to Mars demonstrates the circular reasoning that always defines these visions.
One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event.
The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you agree is the right way to go.Elon Musk
There are a couple of problems with this logic, the first of which being that, on Mars, the “extinction event” Musk fears is basically just “days that end in -y.” Every day on Mars is an extinction event.
Musk consistently tweets about his Mars dreams, lifting the language and logic of 1950’s space books for children.
There is, in fact, a very important difference between single-planet and multi-planet species – single-planet species exist.
Musk says he expects to die on Mars. If he ever goes, he’ll be right. There’s no breathable atmosphere. No liquid water. Radiation on Mars averages about 17 times levels on Earth. The average temperature is -81F. Atmospheric pressure is so low that if you walked out onto the surface unprotected, your blood would immediately boil.
This is where Mars enthusiasts will trip over themselves to nerd-out with ever more exotic engineering solutions to help humans survive. Water can be obtained as ice from the poles and transported thousands of miles to a colony for thawing. And that water perhaps won’t kill you. People can live in underground pods, complete with chambers for verdant gardens. Vast solar arrays would provide these colonies with abundant energy. We’re supposed to be excited about a future in which humans travel a hundred million miles to live as molepeople on a blasted rock in space?
Our Mars fascination begs the question – why? When the excitement of doing the undoable has faded, when you’ve climbed Everest or jumped the Snake River Canyon, what’s the attraction of being there?
Over and over you’ll hear the explanation that humans need a refuge from an exhausted planet. Famine, disease, environmental degradation, even asteroids, all threaten to make Earth unlivable. Take that thought, then look at the artists’ images of humans living in metallic ant mounds on Mars. Now conjure up the disaster scenario on Earth so extreme that living in those silly Mars pods would be an improvement.
Detonate every existing nuke on Earth all at once. Release the most miserable imaginable pox. Kill every fish and bird. Pollute the ocean. Unleash every atrocity in our arsenal on this planet, then shop the solar system for places to live. Earth remains, even then, the only place we can hope to survive. Why travel 100 million miles to build your miserable survival mounds on a world even more hostile than our own?
It’s not hard to appreciate why bored billionaires are drawn to space travel. The Evel Knievel effect and the urge for trophies explains the allure. But why does space carry such a powerful emotional pull for the rest of us? Why do we feel like we’re supposed to go there?
It’s no accident that the only people to walk on the Moon were Americans. We live in “The New World,” a place “discovered” by a daring adventurer. Those who learned to exploit that new world earned fortunes while the unfortunates they discovered were infected, murdered and enslaved. In the American mind there simply must be new worlds to conquer, new frontiers to challenge. The mythology of exploration and conquest is etched on our bones, welling up within us a bundle of assumptions about the world too fundamental to question. Too essential even to recognize. Those who explore must surely define the shape of these new worlds. Those who don’t become its subject classes, or the unfortunates left behind.
When Americans talk about space they are mindlessly mouthing the mythology of the Columbian conquest, the story of the miserable natives and the wretched, benighted masses abandoned in the old world. It’s insane. Allowing this zombie gene of colonial logic to poison our vision of the future is suicide.
Space is not the “final frontier.” The only frontier that ever existed was our own ignorance. That ignorance remains in abundance, right here at home, all around us. From a scientific perspective, space has much to offer us. From a social, political and economic perspective, it is a useless void. Space offers death.
We’ll eventually send someone to Mars, and that someone will probably be an American. They might even survive the trip. Then we’ll stop. Evel Knievel explained this outcome half a century ago.
I want to be the first. If they’d let me go to the moon, I’d crawl all the way to Cape Kennedy just to do it. I’d like to go to the moon, but I don’t want to be the second man to go there.Evel Knievel
There’s glory in doing what no one else has done, even if it’s stupid. No one wants to be the second man on Mars, because there’s nothing there. No frontier. No new world in which to thrive. Nothing to gain but another brag, another hollow moment. The only frontier that’s real is all around us, waiting to draw our attention. We will thrive on Earth or perish.