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human on Mars
Human exploration and settlement of Mars may be just the challenge humanity needs today. (credit: NASA)

Why should humans go to Mars?

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Why should humans go to Mars? Many reasons for and against have been cited over the years, and many still struggle to see the relevance of this priority. It seems so far out, so detached from life on Earth, and in many ways it is. Mars is physically hundreds of millions of kilometers away. It is colder than the coldest environment on Earth and it has an atmosphere—or lack thereof—that would kill you within thirty seconds or do in a most unpleasant fashion. Compared to terrestrial destinations it loses hands down. However, we need to look at Mars in a different context.

But in the end, why are we even considering such a journey? In a word: life.

We don’t yet fully understand all the effects of microgravity but we do know that untreated or lacking countermeasures it can have serious health effects. We don’t know how much gravity is needed to avoid those problems: it’s possible the Moon’s gravity, one-sixth that of Earth, may be sufficient, but certainly Martian gravity, at one-third of Earth’s, should be no worse and may be much better. Mars also has readily available resources, including the most important: water, in relatively abundant amounts, compared to the Moon. Mars also has a roughly 24-hour day night cycle which is crucial for plant development.

But in the end, why are we even considering such a journey? In a word: life. We want to go there to see if we can find evidence of life, a second genesis, and if we don’t find it, we want to establish new life on Mars—our own. Some say that the problems of Earth should be dealt with first, that we are too immature as a species and should wait a while until we “grow up”, but here is the thing: for the first time in history a species on Earth has the knowledge and technology to ensure its own survival by seeding life on new worlds. To ignore this opportunity for some philosophical nirvana to come first could be considered as irresponsible as our environmental abuses also. If there is a planetary crisis, such as the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, and we do nothing, then we will have lost it all.

This is the broad-brush view of why we need to go to Mars, but on a more personal level, what drives people to want to go to such places, so far away, so hostile to life? For many enthusiasts it is an escape, a chance for a new start and the challenge of a lifetime. The reasons for going will be different depending on whom you talk to. They are the same reasons people on Earth moved to hostile and far away environments here.

We need to “sharpen up”, so let’s do something worthy of the effort, and something with the payoff equal to the effort put in.

The difference is Mars is a whole other planet, not just a distant land. It can be seen as a challenge—an extreme challenge—and it is, so why go? It will test our knowledge, our resourcefulness, and the limits of our abilities in every way. It will be risky, and yes, people will die. But in today’s risk-averse world, the value of a challenge has been grossly underestimated. As people become more and more “stay at home” and turn to ever more push-button solutions, we are losing our survival instinct. Existing and living to simply relax at home where it is safe is not good for any of us in the end.

Take the obesity epidemic an example: people are piling on the pounds, sitting around in front of the TV, and literally shortening their life spans while they do this. Exercise is the key to health and growth for bodies and minds, and this also applies to our society. Expansion to new frontiers should be seen as extremely valuable to us now. In a world that is struggling with political solutions to big problems like the environment, hunger, poverty, and disease, we need a challenge like Mars now more than ever. We need to “sharpen up”, so let’s do something worthy of the effort, and something with the payoff equal to the effort put in. Mars, however we get there—be it a direct path or via the Moon, and with government programs or through private commercial space development—should be in our sights, for it has the potential to change our world in ways that we dearly need now.