Should Humans Colonise Mars?

by frankbeswick

Recent talk of humankind establishing a permanent colony on Mars raises many questions about the ethics and feasibility, scientific and economic, of the project.

Dan Dare, pilot of the future, whose adventures in space were recounted in the incomparable comic, Eagle, would occasionally visit Earth's colony on Mars. To a space mad boy it was a dream, jaunting around the universe, fighting aliens, then getting back successfully to good old Earth. I grew out of that kind of stuff, though I still have Eagle annuals for nostalgia. But is the modern dream of a Martian colony a toxic dream that could turn into a nightmare for colonists.

Photo courtesy of DawnyDawny, of Pixabay

The Purpose of Space Travel

Anyone is free to travel anywhere, as long as they don't trespass on another's property rights, but this principle does not mean that the undertaking the journey is wise and worth the resources used in it, or indeed, whether the undertaking is a good use of time.  These considerations are especially significant if the journey is very expensive and/or if it is dangerous to life. If the latter consideration is the case, we must ask whether the risk is worthwhile.

Now, space travel inherently dangerous because it involves humans operating in the most hostile of environments, using technology sometimes, nay oft-times, at its limit and working in an  environment for which humans have not evolved to cope, for we evolved to dwell in the protective ambience of a wonderful planet, Earth.

So is leaving Earth wise? Well, we send sophisticated robots to the planets, and there is no harm in this, and we have visited the moon, though, let's consider this cautionary, no one seems urgent to return, there being no pressing economic and/or political or social need to send a manned crew there. But is there need to send crewed ships deep into space? It seems ironic that while  society is busy replacing workers with robots we are considering sending a human-crewed craft into an area where robots have already done a good job.

So what is the purpose of space travel? Science for science's sake?  A good idea, but does it justify massive resources that could be used more beneficially elsewhere, and how much risk to human life can be justified in the cause of science? Science should benefit all humans, and so the gains from scientific progress must be weighed against losses to humans. The advance of science should not unnecessarily risk human life.  Undertaking space flight is a great adventure, but humankind's great adventures of exploration always had a serious purpose. The adventure was a side effect of  a journey of scientific discovery or economic enterprise. 

There must therefore be an economic and/or social purpose for space travel commensurate with the risks and sacrifices that it involves. Finding a new home for humankind is not such a purpose, as only a tiny minority of humans could inhabit Mars, which is the only vaguely inhabitable planet other than Earth. Earth is our home and  it is up to us to make the most of it, not ruin it then find somewhere else to ruin. 

Dreaming of a Colony

It has been said that throughout history humans have foregone home and loved ones to seek a new life elsewhere. They were driven by problems  at home which they hoped to escape and by a hope or dream of  a richer, more prosperous, safer life in the New World, so why cannot modern humans be thus driven to seek a new life on a new planet? Surely the progress of science is leading us in the direction of becoming a multi-planet species. However, readers, when your ancestors left for America and mine gave up on life in the West of Ireland to come to work in Britain they knew that they were going somewhere with a breathable atmosphere. Mars colonists will be going to a place with a thin atmosphere that is mainly carbon dioxide that, unless the process of terraforming Mars is achieved rather quicker than humans can reasonably expect it to, will see them confined in plastic bubbles for the rest of their lives. Hardly attractive is it?

And that's without other environmental difficulties. There is the radiation reaching  the surface of a planet whose atmosphere is too thin to provide protection. Can we guarantee protection against it will always work perfectly?  Can colonists ensure that terraforming the planet to make it another Earth is feasible or whether it is an idle dream? Can colonists ensure that they can get enough water to drink, let alone for washing and food production? Industry too requires water.

Moreover can we ensure that medical facilities in a city of up to a million will match what is available on Earth? What method of financing medicine will operate? Which insurer  will look at it? Now, here is a vital issue. A colony needs to be self-sufficient in children. Is a set of insulated dwellings in a desert with almost no atmosphere a good place to bring up a child? I would not want my children growing up there. The discussion of the proposed colony seems to lack the input of women, but this input is badly needed. 

Much of what makes life pleasant relies on the benisons of Earth: walking in the outdoors, swimming in the sea, enjoying flowers and wildlife. Adults can freely choose to forgo these joys for what would be a semi-ascetic existence, but could we inflict such deprivation on children? Would the children of the colonists thank them for doing so. I seriously doubt it.

True, supplies might be sent from Earth, but supply rockets might explode on take off, destroying their cargo with them, and the political system on Earth might prevent re-supplying flights. Earth cannot guarantee the colony's survival.

Colonising Mars looks as if it is a project fraught with difficulties that make a possible colony of dubious sustainability.


Humans are born to dream; and in our dreams we look upward. Note that in our religious imagery heaven is up above; hell is down below. Thus religions use  our dreams to illustrate their promises. But the term the heavens is used to denote the starry sky. When thinking of a Martian colony are people subconsciously projecting an idea of  heaven "up there?" But the plan to terraform Mars to make it habitable for humans risks making it uninhabitable for any Martian life, microbial or whatever, that still survives what seems to have been a great extinction. Ironic indeed that our search for alien life destroys it. We dream of heaven, but create hell.

There is a Jewish proverb, " Be careful what you wish for, you might get it," A dream of a great adventure living in the Mars colony could turn into a long durance, trapped on a distant world out of close contact with family and friends, maybe with inadequate resources. There is the possibility that the colonists might not be on good terms with each other. A new life in the heavens may not be  a happy one.

I  cannot be certain  of any of my reservations about  the Mars colony proposed by Elon Musk, but I do  think that  we should view the project skeptically and be aware of the possibilities that it will go wrong. My personal view is that resources would be better spent putting Earth right. If we cannot solve our problems on Earth, we will merely export them elsewhere. 


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Updated: 05/02/2021, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 11 days ago

Thanks for this information.

blackspanielgallery 11 days ago

Frank, your newspaper erred. Yes, there is ice on Mercury, but since there is no tilt to Mercury's axis it rotates straight up and down, but does have a rotation, so there is no permanent dark side. The ice is deep in polar craters shaded by the depth of the craters, much too small to allow colonization. It is likely from comet impacts.

frankbeswick 12 days ago

The craziest suggestion yet came in today's Independent newspaper from a journalist who posited that humans could dwell in shady craters on Mercury. It seems that on one side of that planet there is much ice that could provide water. Who would want to live there?

frankbeswick 12 days ago

The moon is unsuitable for a colony, as it has no atmosphere at all, which makes it worse than Mars. It could have a research base, and it is near enough to make regular access possible.

DerdriuMarriner 13 days ago

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information, pretty picture and product lines.
This is particularly prescient, what with Bezos, Branson and Musk (the latter of whom said that he wants his ashes to be left on Mars) announcements about space tourism.
What would you think of colonizing or research-basing our Moon?

frankbeswick 17 days ago

I am opposed to a colony, I am also opposed to space tourism, but my argument was not aimed at a Mars research base. A research base might be beneficial. But to justify the commitment of resources and risk we would have to have clear research objectives that would benefit humanity.

blackspanielgallery 17 days ago

As an analog to spending on a Mars station we might think of "Give a man a fish and he can eat, but teach him to fish and he will feed himself over and over. The research might be able to help in growing crops in adverse environments, such as large greenhouses, and povide a food solution as our climate impacts Earth. We must learn in order to survive. So, for the idea we can give the money to help the poor, we must also prepare to help mankind by improving our ability to help ourselves as a species for continued survival.

blackspanielgallery 17 days ago

Think of it in these terms, what you determine is likely to also apply to the space station. The experiments will be different, for there is gravity, but scientific studies of why Mars lost its magnetic field, a consequence of which is a thimming atmosphere, might avoid a similar peril on Earth in the future. Another valid experiment is looking for objects that could impact the Earth and diverting them early enough to avoid an extinction event collision. Colonization of Mars is not building a city, but rather a space station for research, the value of which we cannot determine before it is established. It might be physically larger that the space station because some support personel might also be sent, perhaps a team to grow some food, and a medical staff for the scientists. So, think in terms of a large space station, or something like a polar research station such as we have in Antarctica. Will there be problems? Yes. I recall one researcher in Antarctica who had a medical problem that had to delay treatment until transportation could be provided in the spring when the station became accessable. For Mars, trips will depend on orbitals positions of both the Earth and Mars, so going back and forth will be a timing thing with long wait times in between. Musk and his tourism of space is going a bit far, but he is not likely to be supported by a colony doing research. Resources are too precious to use on tourism.

frankbeswick 17 days ago

I fully agree

WriterArtist 17 days ago

Interesting question. In my opinion, it is alright sending rockets and robots to Mars but inhabiting the planet is far fetched, weird and foolish. In a planet that does not have atmosphere, living conditions for humans being close to nil, not only does it amount to spending resources recklessly it also signifies how trivial is humanity and its research capacity. Amidst the pandemic, it would be wiser to remain on earth, improve the living conditions and fight irreversible climate changes.

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