Mars has a daytime temperature of 73 ºF, but a nighttime temperature of -100 ºF. Nearly 95% of the martian atmosphere is carbon dioxide, and the planet is constantly exposed to intense radiation. So why are humans so eager to go to Mars, and how would we ever make it habitable? In short, establishing a human settlement on Mars and making humans a multi-planetary species would be an astronomical (pun intended) step for humankind, and there are innovators making this dream a reality.
The Spirit of Human Curiosity
First of all, humans want (and need) to go to Mars for the spirit of adventure and exploration. Throughout all of history, humanity has been exploring because of the curiosity engrained in the human spirit. After the Apollo moon landing in the 60s, the spirit of exploration was stunted by the lack of political fervor and resources available to continue space innovation. Setting foot on another planet would lead humanity to a new frontier in exploration. On the other hand, it’s beneficial to have a backup plan if catastrophic global events such as climate change eventually make Earth uninhabitable. With that being said, Mars is the closest and most reliable destination for humanity to travel to. Mars holds some materials that would aid life, such as water and regolith (the material that makes up the Martian surface dust), which could be used to create concrete. Mars also has deep craters and cave systems that would be used to protect humans from excessive radiation.
How and Why?
There are ways to get around the challenges that Mars brings, but still, why exactly should we go to Mars? We should go to Mars because it’s a challenge. It has been decades since humans have traveled further into the cosmos, and it’s time to take on the challenge that Mars presents, even if failure and doubt are staring us in the face along the way. Humanity has always been incredibly curious and daring, and to imagine a future where humans don’t explore is like imagining a future where humans don’t breathe. All of this begs the question, how are we going to get to such a point of technological advancement that we can actually establish a civilization on Mars?
Elon Musk Has a Plan
Elon Musk is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in human history, but what makes him even more unique is his view of the future. With odds that almost ensure failure, Musk leaps at challenges as opportunities, and this is seen the most with his work with Tesla, SolarCity, and most importantly SpaceX, which has the sole purpose of sending humans to Mars by the year 2025. In an interview between Elon Musk and Ron Howard for National Geographic Channel’s MARS, Elon Musk made his reasons for going to Mars very simple as he said, “The future of humanity is fundamentally going to bifurcate along one of two directions: Either we’re going to become a multi-planetary species and a spacefaring civilization, or we’re going be stuck on one planet until some eventual extinction event… For me to be excited and inspired about the future, it’s got to be the first option. It’s got to be: We’re going to be a spacefaring civilization.” Musk has a lot of work to do until the mission to Mars becomes a reality, but his work with SpaceX is progressing at a faster and more successful rate than most had predicted. Elon Musk recently released his plan for sending humankind to Mars, and it all starts with building a rocket nearly 16 stories tall. The rocket would be launched from the same location as the Apollo mission, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in Florida, from pad 39A. After being launched, the rocket would deliver the crew capsule to orbit the Earth, and then its booster would steer itself to a landing back at the launch pad. Then, the booster would pick up a fuel tanker and carry that into orbit, where it would fuel the journey to Mars. This process of reusing rockets is something that SpaceX has been working on for the past year, and they have finally been making huge progress. As the spaceship began following its route, it will deploy solar panels in order to utilize the sun’s solar energy and conserve fuel resources. In Musk’s view, it is virtually impossible to establish a settlement on Mars without reusing resources. With this being said, Musk explained, “if wooden sailing ships in the old days were not reusable, I don’t think the United States would exist.” Musk envisions reusing these rockets dozens of times, while carrying hundreds of people on each mission. According to Musk, by sending hundreds of people on each rocket Mars could be the home of nearly one million people in the next 40 to a hundred years (soon enough for your children to live there).
All of this sounds like science fiction, but according to Musk it is only reality. Landing such a large rocket on a planet with a thin atmosphere is a difficult task, but Musk is currently developing supersonic retrorockets to safely land the rocket as it is lowered to the surface of Mars. Although Musk talks about his plans for Mars in the far future, as for now missions will primarily deliver supplies and establish a depot at the mars surface for future missions from Earth. And although many are anticipating the first human steps on Mars, Musk emphasizes that the larger picture here is establishing a full, permanent settlement on Mars over time, not just landing there once. As Elon Musk noted in his National Geographic interview, “I think what we want to avoid is a replay of Apollo… We don’t want to send a few people, a few missions to Mars and then never go again. That will not accomplish the multi-planetary goal.”
As you read this, new and audacious innovators such as Elon Musk are making the mission to Mars a reality. And although our technology is not yet advanced enough for such a difficult mission, technology is now progressing at an increasingly fast rate. If the spirit of curiosity and exploration continues down this road of astronomical innovation, we will be a multi-planetary species living on both Earth and Mars within the next 50 years, but Elon Musk is promising that this will happen in the next 20. If Musk is right, then we may be living on Mars with our families soon, and that is the kind of future that makes me excited to get out of bed in the morning.
Terraforming Mars image by Daein Ballard. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.