Elon Musk’s lofty goal of colonizing Mars seems hard to achieve and impossible to economically justify. What will those million people do on Mars once they get there? Wouldn’t the Martians be forever dependent on Earth? The Martian surface is a harsher climate than Antarctica, and the handful of human settlements there are nowhere close to self-sustaining. If it weren’t for the curiosity of government science bureaus, no humans would be there at all. So why Mars?
If your frame of reference is centered on Earth, then there’s little for us on Mars. But plant some people there who intend to make a life for themselves, bless them with enough of an initial investment that they can sustain themselves, and the equation changes. Suddenly, everything under that wispy carbon dioxide envelope becomes a potential resource.
Unlike Elon Musk, I’m not much concerned about using Mars as an insurance policy against extinction events on Earth. Those problems seem unlikely and even if they were to happen, the odds of total extinction are mighty low. In my opinion, the human spirit is the single most important reason to go. Not just for how inspiring the project will be, or the joy people will get in surmounting the technical challenges, but for how it will affect the people who go, and the generations who come after them.
Some of us just need to get away. In the midst of a large, developed and affluent civilization, it’s easy to take for granted the things that brought us such wealth. It’s even easier to mistake mere luxuries for necessities. This could be why great societies tend to begin in relative deprivation. Their strong character propels them to prominence, but at their peak, avarice and decadence set in. The people forget what was truly important, and so they decline and fall.
Right now, it seems the entire Western world is in the throes of that latter stage. People of different political persuasions will express it in different ways, but they all feel it. Some kind of moral crisis is afoot. Something deep inside us cries out for renewal. Our movies are increasingly filled with superheroes, yet our real-world leaders seem to be getting less super and less heroic all the time.
There may not be an easy way out of this predicament if we remain trapped with each other on one planet. Those who want to opt out of the madness have nowhere to flee. Those who want radical change are forced to struggle against an inescapable and irresistible status quo.
But give them the option of building their vision from scratch out where no man has gone before, and two things happen:
First, the existence of an alternative causes people to weigh the options. Enduring your present conditions can seem intolerable if you’re comparing them to a Nirvana that doesn’t exist. Compare them to living free in a deadly freeze-dried desert you can never come home from, and the calculus changes.
Second, the frontier serves as a stringent proving ground, where good ideas have the room to create immense prosperity, and truly stupid ideas are punished swiftly by nature. According to the journal of William Bradford (entry 163), The settlers at Plymouth tried at first to abolish property and hold all things in common. Very idealistic, but the result was confusion, resentment, idleness, and ultimately starvation for many in the colony. This was Ludwig von Mises’ calculation problem played out in fast-forward. The result came so fast because the colonists had so little to start with. Mars will provide a similar clarity.
Finally, the colonization campaign itself is going to give us a new generation of truly admirable heroes. I was born long after the original space race reached its apex in 1969, but the Apollo astronauts were some of the most interesting men who ever lived. Even though the program was started as a stunt to intimidate the Soviets, it did have the side effect of inspiring Americans with a sense of pride, it gave them heroes in the form of the astronauts and the engineers who sent them. There are heroic figures from sports, business, war and politics, but our pioneers into space press at every limit imposed on us by nature, all at once, bringing the hopes of the entire species with them.
Penn Jillette once wrote about the experience of watching the Space Shuttle launch:
This is a real explosion and it’s controlled and it’s doing nothing but good and it makes your unbuttoned shirt flap around your arms. It’s beyond sound, it’s wind. It’s a man-made hurricane. It’s a baseball bat in the chest. It’s so loud. It’s so loud you can’t even call it loud. You start cheering. You start yelling. You start crying. You are yelling from the depth of your little lizard brain. You’re yelling because stinkin’ animals have done this. You know the alligators are cheering and the birds and the Good Sams and every living thing on the planet is cheering. We’re all cheering together because Earth animals are going into space. You can feel your throat getting raw, but you can’t hear yourself scream because the shuttle is so stinkin’ goddamn loud. The ground shakes and it’s loud. Warfare could be louder, but this is the loudest totally good thing you will ever hear. The loudest good thing you will ever feel.
We need Mars because we need a place for mankind’s best and brightest to shine again. We seem to have lost sight of just how much we’re capable of. A new frontier will reveal it again.