Barring some massive technological revolution or the discovery of Martian life signs, there are no compelling reasons to go to Mars at this time. It is a barren, irradiated, virtually airless alien desert so far away that the journey will expose astronauts to life-shortening doses of cosmic radiation and necessitate the construction of the most expensive vehicle in Earth history. Upon arrival, intense surface radiation will demand habitation below ground, and contingency plans could not rely on rescue from Earth, such is the distance. Below are supposed arguments in favor of going to Mars and their counter-arguments:
- Mars will allow us to “backup” the human race in case something horrible happens to Earth. While technically correct, this is a weak argument, as there are far more valuable options, including giant bunkers on Earth rescuing hundreds of thousands or millions of people versus dozens on Mars. Even a global nuclear cataclysm would not create surface radiation levels higher than those found on Mars, and volcanic eruptions or an asteroid impact would not render Earth’s atmospheric pressures and temperatures less hospital than the Martian wasteland. Other backup options include space stations around Earth and a Moonbase. While both of these will rescue fewer people than Earth bunkers and present challenges similar to those on Mars, they do get us off-world. They are close enough to allow for rapid and much less expensive transfer of more people and supplies than a distant Martian colony.
- Figuring out how to reach and live on Mars will stimulate scientific breakthroughs. Perhaps, however, direct, concerted funding of government and corporate research projects unrelated to Mars may also do this and could result in discoveries more important than those supporting an ill-advised, highly rushed, radiation-soaked quest to inhabit a lethal red rock. I can think of quite a few projects on Earth that are in more desperate need of massive funding, like next-generation energy, transit, and climate technologies. I prefer fusion reactors, sub-critical thorium reactors, global hyperloop, and post-scarcity economic revolutions over tiny, underground Mars houses.
- We can learn more about Mars by going there. We could use this argument to justify going anywhere, and Mars is currently crawling with and orbited by very useful robots. Robots are always a great idea for reasons of cost and safety. “But Mars is the most Earth-like planet.” Wrong. Venus is the most Earth-like planet, and at altitudes of 55 km (34 mi), the pressure, temperature, and radiation levels are nearly identical to Earth. You could go outdoors with only a breathing mask and not a spacesuit. Balloon sky bases on Venus would be safer and more sustainable than the Mars surface bases, and the trip is much shorter. The Soviet Vega program successfully released balloon probes into the Venusian atmosphere in the 1980s. Also, check out the HAVOC concept.
- A Mars mission would be great for human morale. So would a Moon base and lunar space elevator. The Moon has all of Mars’ problems but is so close that tourism and rescue missions become viable, as would economic benefits in the form of mining, factories, and energy transfer stations. Lunar internet could connect with Earthly internet with only 1.3-second lag, allowing for vibrant cultural exchanges. Interesting “stunts” like shining bright lights at Earth visible to the naked eye would amaze people, and permanent Earth observatories could revolutionize climate science. Observatories, in general, are a great idea on the Moon, thanks to its complete lack of atmosphere. A human presence on the Moon offers many benefits to Earth, thanks to its extreme proximity. Mars is so distant that any inhabitants would essentially be “gone” to us; I fail to see the value of a cosmic hermitage costing hundreds of billions of dollars.
- Humans are explorers and we must plant a flag on Mars. In my opinion, this is the most “valid” argument for going to Mars. The question is whether or not flag-planting is worth enormous risk and expense with little return. We already went to the Moon six times and planted flags before essentially abandoning it. I imagine the same would occur with Mars, especially given the far greater expense and danger.
In summary, I don’t believe humans should go to Mars because I don’t think Mars makes sense. I’m sure we’ll get there eventually, but see no onus to rush beyond impatience. If an individual is eager to hole up in a contrived artificial environment surrounded by constant peril, there are always openings at the Antarctic research stations; they’re still 100 times safer than the Red Planet and plenty awful.