The Feasibility of Mars Colonization as an Alternative Human Habitat: A Futuristic Outlook
At the current rate of human resource expenditure, natural resources and habitats will be in shortage in the future (WWF 2016). A potential solution is to explore and colonize Mars as a viable alternative habitat (Hawking 2017). However, the feasibility of Mars colonization must be determined before plans are prepared. This paper addresses the feasibility of a Mars mission through a futuristic lens. It is asked: When, if at all, can we colonize Mars? Extensive research indicates that short-term colonization plans may be infeasible, but long-term plans are slightly more possible.
Colonizing Mars in the Near Future is Impossible
The colonization of Mars in the near future is unrealistic because of technological constraints. According to Jean Salotti and Richard Heidmann, a professor at the at the Bordeaux Polytechnic Institute in France and president of the French Planet Mars Association, respectively, going to Mars poses huge risks (Salotti and Heidmann 2014). Current technologies will not suffice a safe entry, descent, and landing. Before a manned mission is sent to Mars, a “long list of technologies have to be developed” (Salotti and Heidmann 2014). This would cost billions of dollars in research and implementation, funded by either tax dollars or the private sector (Musk 2017). Regardless of the risks, even if a mission is implemented, colonization requires more time. Cliff Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame, argues “[i]f you want to do ‘flags and footprints,’ go to Mars now. But you’ll never go back” (SA 2017). Neal contrasts the mission to the Apollo mission that sent astronauts to the moon. The intention for Mars colonization is not a show of US dominance, but a viable habitat to rely on if Earth declines (SA 2017). Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, a private space travel corporation, claims his company can launch an initial cargo mission to Mars by 2022 (Musk 2017). However, Musk rarely meets his claims, which invalidates his prediction. While there are ambitious plans to reach Mars, doing so in the near future is not feasible.
Colonizing Mars is Feasible in Distant Future
Mars colonization is possible in the distant future due to potential terraforming techniques and the presence of needed organic elements on Mars. Aaron Berliner, scientist at the University of California Berkeley and CP McKay, researcher at the Space Sciences Division of NASA assert that Mars can be slowly terraformed into an Earth like habitat (Berliner and McKay 2017). The terraforming comes in two phases: a relatively quick 100 years that results in Earth like temperatures, followed by a long-term oxygen production phase which will take an estimated 100,000 years (Berliner and McKay 2017). Currently, the lack of a magnetosphere poses an obstacle. Without this field, the atmosphere synthesized will be retained, and radiation will pose a threat to humans and other life (Green et al. 2017). However, NASA researchers have revealed that a miniature magnetosphere can be produced to protect humans and spacecraft while on Mars (Green et al. 2017). To combat the lack of oxygen on Mars, Michael Hecht, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and for NASA, has developed MOXIE, a machine capable of producing oxygen. It can produce about 10 grams of oxygen every hour from preexisting CO2 in the atmosphere (Hecht and Hoffman 2016). There are currently plans to use it by 2020, but this is not for oxygenation of Mars. To oxygenate the entire planet will take far longer with a 10 gram/hour rate. If used on a larger scale, MOXIE can be the primary oxygen producer for Mars (Hecht and Hoffman 2016). Another resource critical for human survival is water. Currently, water has been found on Mars near the poles and at mid northern latitudes (Plaut et al. 2009). To release this water, space entrepreneur Elon Musk proposes a plan to detonate nuclear bombs on the poles. The water released is claimed to be sufficient to support humans (Musk 2017). The Curiosity rover launched by NASA has confirmed that Mars has required elements for synthesizing organic molecules necessary for life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. The rover also found a streambed, showing evidence that water was present at one point (NASA 2015). Jon Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology, discovered after analysis of clay sediments that both flowing and standing water has been present for a duration between hundreds and tens of thousands of years. He claims that both of these discoveries will benefit ease of human integration if they choose to colonize Mars (Grotzinger et al. 2014). Mars colonization as a viable habitat for humans is possible in the distant future.
We Should Disregard Mars as a Potential Future Habitat
There are claims that we should disregard a manned mission and potential colonization efforts to Mars due to tight budgets, health risks, and ethical concerns surrounding preexisting life on Mars. At the Capitol Hill Luncheon, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, declared that a mission must be done with one tenth of the budget that NASA had for the Apollo mission that sent astronauts to the moon (NASA 2015). Furthermore, “industry sources offer rough estimates that, using NASA’s current practices, the cost is likely between 200 billion and 400 billion” (HC 2016). These figures display the unfeasibility of financing a Mars expedition. There are refutes to this budget, however. Elon Musk gives much cheaper options with his reusable Big Falcon Rocket. Musk estimates the initial cost of the rocket and the project to be 560 million dollars, where it will cost under 140 thousand dollars to launch for every reuse (Musk 2017). Like many other of Musk’s claims however, these figures are speculative estimates. Francis Slakey, professor of Physics and Biology at Georgetown University, claims that robotic unmanned missions are sufficient for current missions because they can perform the experiments required on Mars (Slakey and Spudis 2008). Human astronaut health will be risked if they go to Mars. Researchers at the Polaris Project at Iowa State University state that “a serious health threat is that over an extended period (months and years), bones get weaker” (Slakey and Spudis 2008). In addition to bone atrophy, space radiation poses the risk of developing cancer in astronauts (IARC 1992). A limitation of this however, is the failure to address future technologies that may counteract these obstacles. A counterargument against Mars exploration and colonization pertains to the potential life present on Mars (Crane 2017). California Institute of Technology Professor John Grotzinger describe an environment where terrestrial chemolithoautotrophs may have lived (Grotzinger et al. 2017). There are ethical concerns surrounding if humans should disturb potential life. While Mars colonization poses a possible fallback habitat for humans, perhaps disregarding Mars is the best option for now.
From Here –What?
Analysis of the current state of Mars colonization reveals that to achieve long term habitation on Mars, plans are required for the distant future. Near future colonization is not currently feasible and far future plans are not guaranteed either. However, the impeding deadline to do so will approach as humans deplete the earth of habitation as well as resources. Obstacles including lack of technology, limitations of the human body, and economic restrictions will make the path to colonization difficult. However, long term planning and advancement of human technologies will bring colonization to reality. A fast approach to Mars colonization should not be considered lightly, as all possible threats and the elite technology should be considered before making the advance towards Mars. To make Mars almost earth like through terraforming will take at minimum 100,000 years. This path will not be simple; every niche must be factored in before any space travel is condoned, especially by the US government or private corporations. While Mars colonization is not feasible in the near future, the notion is possible, and possibly obligatory, in the distant future.
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