News

Mass. State Rep. Calls on University VP to Increase Transparency for Allston Multimodal Project

News

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow Made $1.1 Million in 2020, Financial Disclosures Show

News

Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp To Step Down

News

81 Republican Lawmakers File Amicus Brief Supporting SFFA in Harvard Affirmative Action Lawsuit

News

Duke Senior’s Commencement Speech Appears to Plagiarize 2014 Address by Harvard Student

Columns

In Case of Emergency, Go Up

By Daniel L. Leonard, Crimson Opinion Writer
Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Is humanity prepared for an extinction-level event?

No, I’m not referring to the coronavirus. As devastating as this current pandemic is, it doesn’t pose an existential threat to humanity. But imagine a deadlier virus were to emerge — one with a 100% fatality rate. Or an asteroid impact? Or a nuclear holocaust? Is our species prepared?

To protect the human race against extinction, one proposal that has been floated by scientists and science fiction authors alike is to establish human settlements on other planets; a multi-planetary species is far more resistant to extinction than a uni-planetary one. The most realistic candidate for a human colony is Mars.

I’ve already written a piece arguing that terraforming Mars — molding the planet to be as Earthlike as possible — is an unrealistic and undesirable goal. But, at least on paper, establishing a human settlement on Mars sounds far more feasible than terraforming the entire planet. So, in light of the recent reminder of the fragility of the human species, let us seriously consider the idea of a Martian colony. Specifically, what obstacles — both scientific and ethical — might stand in the way of forming a successful colony?

Let’s start with the natural first question: Is it even possible to transport humans and goods to Mars en masse? As of right now it’s not, but the research is promising. Two massive rockets, NASA’s Space Launch System and SpaceX’s Starship, are currently in development, both with the capacity to carry over a hundred tons of payload into orbit. But a successful colony will need lots of material; Elon Musk suggests sending up Starships in fleets of 1,000. It will take time and money for SpaceX to amass such a fleet, but it’s certainly possible.

But another question remains: Are there enough volunteers to live on Mars?

At first glance, it seems like there are. When the now-bankrupt company Mars One announced that it wanted to build the first Martian settlement, a reported 202,586 people applied. Given humanity’s innate curiosity, I’m not surprised by this level of interest. However, I fear that the public isn’t fully aware of the dangers of life on Mars.

We all know that Mars lacks a breathable atmosphere. But did you know that Mars is sometimes enveloped by planet-wide dust storms that can last for weeks? Or that the Martian soil is full of toxic chemicals? What about the fact that the planet’s low gravity may degrade our bones, muscles, and other bodily systems? Worst of all, did you know that Mars’ radiation levels are over ten times higher than Earth’s, and that just flying to Mars and back would expose an astronaut to 60 percent of the recommended lifetime radiation dose?

If you didn’t know these facts, I don’t blame you — space companies benefit from the propagation of a romantic vision of Mars that downplays the grim realities of life on that planet. For a colony to be successful, though, far more time and money will need to be spent researching solutions — either medical or technological — to the numerous health risks that I’ve mentioned.

I suspect that, even if these risks were widely known, there would still be enough adventurous souls to fill up a colony on Mars. And, since the purpose of the colony is to be a stronghold for humanity in case of disaster, we should hope that these volunteers would be representative of us as a species — a mix of our diverse values, faiths, and backgrounds.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be the case. If NASA gets us to Mars first, then we can expect that most of Mars’ settlers will be college-educated American citizens. On the other hand, SpaceX seems happy to send any interested person to Mars — that is, anyone who can afford the roughly $500,000 ticket. (Musk floated the idea of a loan that could be paid back through labor on Mars — in other words, futuristic indentured servitude.)

Furthermore, for any colony to be truly self-sufficient, these colonists will need to mate and form a new generation of colonists. Is it ethical for living humans to force their unborn descendants to live on Mars, when those future lives will likely be characterized by hardship and suffering? I would argue that it’s not, unless near-future breakthroughs solve all of Mars’ significant health risks. But even then, there will be the unaddressed psychological toll of growing up millions of miles from the planet where 99.9 percent of your species lives, while being forced to learn about blue oceans and green forests that you may never see.

Clearly, the idea of colonizing Mars is fraught with ethical questions. But global crises like the coronavirus pandemic remind us of the frailty of our species, and the threat of human extinction could outweigh the numerous costs of a Martian settlement. Of course, there are some clear arguments against sending humans to Mars; however, given that many influential members of society already support interplanetary colonization, it’s probably going to happen regardless of what you or I believe.

That being said, a successful Mars colony should be planned out with input from all sectors of humanity, not just wealthy technocrats. So, I hope that people from all sorts of backgrounds will offer their perspective on the colonization of Mars, and that they’ll do it soon — before the Red Planet looks like the new Beverly Hills.

Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Columns