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Mars base illustration
Human missions to Mars carry significant risks, but so do activities on Earth. (credit: NASA)

The risks of Mars


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No one would argue that our culture hasn’t become extremely, obsessively risk averse. Advancing technologies or space projects, such as new generations of space vehicles or life support systems, have increasingly been stalled or trapped in low Earth orbit by this risk-averse tendency. This aversion crosses many fields of endeavor today, even beyond space programs. It seems like the advance of many meaningful technologies, beyond smartphones or computers, has been confined to a period lasting just three decades after World War II. In that thirty-year period, humanity accomplished some truly astounding things in so many different sectors, including walking on the Moon.

Whether considered from a government or private funding perspective, humans to Mars has come to represent a “bogeyman” of our worst fears, so of course remains as always a bridge too far, one that we are simply too scared to cross.

Most of what we have today, by contrast, is cosmetic technological evolution, newer copies of older designs. It’s a fluffy show of modernism lacking substance. In regards to space projects, heading to Mars was always the next step (at least for government agencies after the Moon), but our failure to get there, or even back to the Moon, is another sign of the cancer of risk aversion that has taken over many areas our society.

Whether considered from a government or private funding perspective, humans to Mars has come to represent a “bogeyman” of our worst fears, so of course remains as always a bridge too far, one that we are simply too scared to cross. So let me address this fear.

Fear is a largely emotional, and many times irrational, state we get into when we focus only on the negatives of any idea we are considering. All that seems to matter is the risks and avoiding past disasters like the shuttle Columbia. It will cost too much. Lives might be lost. Things will blow up. Often to combat this we try to focus on the positives but our logical brains cannot simply forget the negatives. They exist, and always will.

Negatives and positives for sending humans to Mars have been thrown back and forth for decades now, but neither side wants to budge or accept the other’s point of view for fear of losing the argument. Well, guess what? Both sides have already lost the argument long ago. The fact is both have legitimate concerns and points of view on this matter.

Going to Mars will cost us. We all know that. Lives might be lost in the process. Stuff might blow up. There’s more important stuff to worry about here on Earth so let’s just forget it all. It’s all too much. When we read the history of other technical or medical advances, we sometimes come across stories of spectacular failures along the way. We think about how crazy and irresponsible those generations were to try such insane ideas. People died because of what they were doing.

You know what? It’s true. People did pay a price for advancing our world. People died. Got sick. Had accidents. Lost money. Yet they pushed forward anyway. Why?

We have many jobs on Earth that carry similar high risks to a Mars mission and we subject thousands of people to them every day. Why do we subject thousands to these risks every day, but won’t accept the same risks for human expeditions to Mars?

Maybe back then they had different values; I’m not sure. But every day we exist people die. They get sick. They have accidents. Loss happens. In every area of our lives, from the mundane to the sublime, life has that pattern, and it has always been that way. You can die just going to work. You can lose money just by missing a sale. Risk is everywhere.

The risks of Mars have always been of the same quality as anything else we do on this Earth. They are unknown largely because we’ve never been there with people, but we imagine what might be. Radiation poisoning. Rockets blowing up. Suffocation. Bone loss. Explosive decompression. Breathing toxic Martian dust. Starvation. Psychosis.

Yet we have many jobs on Earth that carry similar high risks and we subject thousands of people to them every day. Working in a nuclear plant. Flying a plane. Working in mines or in construction. High-rise window cleaning. Test pilots.

Why do we subject thousands to these risks, or worse, every day, but won’t accept the same risks for human expeditions to Mars? Because going to Mars isn’t necessary? It’s not about what’s “necessary.” Cases could be made for and against any risky activities we do. Both will always be legitimate.

What we have lost sight of here is the value of not “Mars”, but rather advancement.

Advances have benefits we can’t always see. Going to Mars is good for our survival, for resources and for technological advances. But as we go there, and stay and build and experience a new history on a new world, we will reap the unknown benefits that every major push forward in progress always has in the past. And yes, it will cost us.

Going to Mars is a true “megaproject” in every sense of the word. We can barely glimpse its benefits now due to our paralyzing, almost psychotic fears about the negatives, but they are there. How do I know this? Because just like there is risk in everything we do here now, there are also benefits.

And the truth that we have lost sight of is this: the benefits of big progressive projects, like humans to Mars or, indeed, any big progressive project of any field, always outweigh the risks. If they didn’t, and negative outcomes were the norm, there would be no insurance industry. Negatives are the exception, not the rule, and because of this, our society has really been robbing itself for the last 40 years by withdrawing from bold space or progressive projects. Yes, you can die on your job. But it’s more likely you will make money for many years and be able to live your life with that money.

So, both factually and statistically, the certainty of benefits of peaceful advancement are not in question, notwithstanding errors and accidents. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Inventors and pioneers knew this. Thomas Edison said it best, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.

All the seemingly scholarly “concerns” or issues brought against humans to Mars are in reality a reflection of our risk aversion. True or not, they should not be stopping progress.

Yes, going to Mars is risky, very risky. No one can deny that. And it’s expensive. But there are also benefits. Some we know about and that many eloquent Mars advocates, from Wernher von Braun to Robert Zubrin, have described, but most are as yet unknown until we get there. The benefits are as massive as the project.

Going to Mars isn’t more special or important than any other idea we might try in this life. But there is nothing immoral about going to Mars either. The advances in technology it will require and inspire will benefit us all here. It will grow our increasingly close-minded culture, something our world sorely needs now.

Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but the benefits of this project cross many different fields from medical technology to food and water to new materials, safety technologies, and so much more. What new discoveries are we missing by not being there? We may never know. The benefits aren’t just confined to better technology either.

So why aren’t we going for this? Because we are too focused on the risks and negatives. But if we keep going down that track, we are in for a new dark age. All the seemingly scholarly “concerns” or issues brought against humans to Mars are in reality a reflection of our risk aversion. True or not, they should not be stopping progress. Did the Apollo 1 fire stop the Moon program? No. But today the naysayers are the majority. Pioneers like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Robert Bigelow are in short supply.

So I say, and many others with me, let’s do this thing. Let’s see what’s on the other side. Let’s approach this with the benefits of six decades of spaceflight, push through the costs and in one risky megaproject of settling Mars, reach to the benefits of advancing these fields of science, humanities, arts, social science, technology, and more so that we and future generations can grow from our new discoveries on Mars. We need projects like Mars more than we know. As Robert Zubrin said in The Mars Underground documentary, “We either grow or die.”


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