The First Martians

A private venture called Mars One is selecting candidates to be the first colonists on Mars in an expedition planned to land in 2025. I don’t know how well-funded or likely this venture is; you can go to their website and draw your own conclusions. For now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt (and optimism) and assume they’re going to make it.

Since the colonists never plan to return to Earth, it’s being described in the press as a “suicide mission,” which I think is a shortsighted way to think of it. They’ll be going to Mars for the adventure, for the experience, and (I’m guessing) for the page in the history books each of them is likely to have one day. It’s incidental that they’ll also die there, although Mars will certainly be a dangerous environment. They’ll die someday wherever they are. I doubt any Englishmen ever said to the departing Jamestown colonists, “Hey, man, sorry you’ve decided to commit suicide by Virginia.”

The first group of 1,000 colony candidates has been selected, and I was telling my partner about the announcement a few days ago.

“One of the potential colonists is a transgender woman.”

“…Is it you?”

No, it’s not. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be qualified, for starters. When I heard about the call for applicants I assumed they’d want engineers, geologists, astronomers—people with scientific or technical backgrounds. But no, this first transgender candidate is a British cab driver named Melissa Ede. I wish her well, if she really wants to go and this isn’t a publicity stunt. A few years ago Ms. Ede set up a website to auction off her virginity.

I know why my partner thought she should ask, though. I’ve been in love with the planet Mars ever since I was a kid and read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s (completely nonfactual) John Carter novels. I’ve devoured every book that has anything to do with the Red Planet. One of my favorite science fiction trilogies is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). I’ve been to two of the Mars Society conferences. I see every movie set on Mars, although this is usually an exercise in frustration, since most of these are failures both scientifically and artistically.

Mars is the next logical home for humanity. It’s a good idea to colonize the planet for all sorts of reasons. Science is a great one; a single geologist in a spacesuit with a rock hammer can accomplish more in a day on Mars than the best rover can in a year. Mars holds mysteries, and we need to go there to solve them.

Culture is another good reason. Humans are natural explorers, and we need frontiers. The frontier opened when we first ventured out from sub-Saharan Africa into parts unknown. It’s debatable when it finally closed, but it was definitely so by the time when we could examine any square meter of our planet we wanted using Google Earth.

Frontiers are bridges, not walls, between societies. If there were a separate branch of humanity on Mars, it would enrich the cultures of both planets. The first colonists to Mars will bring cameras and microphones with them, and everything they see and here can be sent back to Earth. Television, books, movies…every aspect of our culture will have a whole new set of experiences to draw on.

And so on. That link above outlines many more reasons why it’ll be good to settle Mars; I won’t restate them all here, but I’ll argue vehemently with anyone who disagrees. People should be on Mars, and I’d love to be one of them one day.

But I don’t want to be one of the first people. Despite what I said in paragraph two up above, life on Mars for the first colonists will hold many more dangers than I’m willing to expose myself to, and mortality will be high. The learning curve will be steep. In the lower gravity (38% of the surface of the Earth), colonists will be likely to stumble and trip a lot while they adapt to it, and it’s a long way down to the bottom of Valles Marineris. Space suits and equipment will be prototypes, and they may be less durable than their designers had hoped. The colonists will need to grow their own food, and it’s still an open question if plants can grow in the Martian dirt, or if they can, if the crops thus grown would be nutritious.

Other dangers abound. The air isn’t breathable, so oxygen will have to be pulled out of the atmosphere and rocks; the machines that do that could break down. Background radiation is much higher, since Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field, so Mars One’s people will be vulnerable to cosmic rays and solar flares, which will increase cancer rates.

Ms. Ede will have an additional problem. She has stated that she won’t be able to take a lifetime supply of estrogen along for her hormone replacement therapy. Sex hormones are important in the body; even post-menopausal cisgender women’s bodies produce some estrogen, and it helps keep the heart and skin healthy and the bones dense. Since bone density is likely to be a problem for everyone on Mars due to the lower gravity, it’s going to be even more so for Ms. Ede if she doesn’t keep taking estrogen. A broken leg will be a very serious condition in an extreme frontier environment.

I want to live a long time, even more than I want to see Mars firsthand. Joining the first group of colonists would certainly shorten my life, by years or decades, and I’m not willing to do that, not in exchange for anything.

Besides the physical dangers, there’s another major downside to forsaking Earth for its neighbor. While the first Martians will have frequent, maybe even constant contact with everyone they left behind, live communication will no longer be possible. The shortest distance between the two planets is three light-minutes, so if you placed a transplanetary phone call, there’d be a six-minute gap between saying “hello” and hearing a reply. The greatest distance is over twenty light-minutes, in which case a pair of greetings would take the better part of an hour. That wouldn’t work. You could still send texts and email and every other form of non-real-time communication, but the immediacy and intimacy of live conversation would be forever out of reach. That’s another bar I find too hard to clear. Permanently giving up physical contact with the one you love is one thing, and it’s pretty bad, but losing all forms of closeness, including this one, is more than I’m ready for.

Should humans settle Mars? Would you go? Tell me what you think!