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Should we send humans to Mars? Let’s not

Planet Mars as seen by the webcam on

Planet Mars as seen by the webcam on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / HO

President Barack Obama has proposed a partnership between the government and the private sector in pursuit of this goal: “sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

Obama wrote in an op-ed last month that the space program “represents a central part of our character — curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and doing it before anybody else.”

Ordinarily, I’m a sucker for this sort of aspirational rhetoric. My childhood coincided with the early days of the “space race,” a time when the original seven Mercury astronauts were national heroes.

And I remember distinctly the night of July 20, 1969, when a significant portion of the world watched a grainy black-and-white broadcast of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the surface of the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Is it time to begin working toward the next logical, long-deferred step, Mars?

The prospect of going to Mars is exciting, but the question of whether we should commit the energy and resources necessary to put humans on the red planet and bring them back is as much philosophical as it is technical and scientific.

Obama suggests that space exploration is an expression of “a central part of our character,” but that’s only a fancy way of saying that one of the fundamental paradigms of civilization is the possession, overpopulation, resource exhaustion, abandonment of territory and the subsequent conquest of new territory. This is a very human process, and throughout history we’ve done it repeatedly.

Ordinarily it involves considerable damage to the environment and considerable suffering if native populations happen to be in the way. And ordinarily it’s driven by a strain of nationalism. Thus, during the so-called Age of Discovery, the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese battled each other viciously to stake out the choicest parts of the New World for themselves.

And thus Obama can’t resist couching America’s proposed push toward Mars in competitive terms: “doing it before anybody else.”

Don’t get me wrong: It would be cool to go to Mars, and I would follow the effort with considerable interest. But I wonder whether the paradigm — occupy, exploit, abandon, conquer territory — is a purely terrestrial concept that doesn’t transfer well to the vast reaches of outer space.

Humankind evolved in a specific ecological niche called planet Earth. An outpost on Mars may be as implausible as a Siberian tiger transplanted into Manhattan.

Of course, if we’d always thought like this there would be no United States and, maybe, no progress. But just as the Earth’s resources have inevitable limits, so may the realm of humankind.

At the least, the fantasy of going to Mars has the dangerous potential to distract us from problems closer to home. We have befouled our nest here on Earth. The climate is changing, seas are rising, populations are being displaced and resource depletion is causing conflict.

But nothing brings people together like a common goal. We could develop a unifying national project of going to Mars, just as President John F. Kennedy set a national goal to reach the moon before 1970. Or we could decide to save the planet by devoting our “curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity” to finding ways to live within our ecological means.

I like the second goal better. In fact, maybe we need to devote our energies to figuring out how to live on Earth before we think about moving on to Mars.

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.