2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

[ print ]

Theoretical physicist; cosmologist; astro-biologist; co-Director of BEYOND, Arizona State University; principle investigator, Center for the Convergence of Physical Sciences and Cancer Biology; author, The Eerie Silence and The Cosmic Jackpot
Physicist, Arizona State University; Author, The Cosmic Jackpot

A One-Way Ticket To Mars

Some time before the end of the century there will be a human colony on Mars. It will happen when people finally wake up to the fact that two-way trips to the red planet are unnecessary. By cutting out the return journey huge savings can be made, and the way will then be open to establishing a permanent human presence on another world.

A one-way ticket to Mars is not an invitation for a suicide mission. Adequate supplies and a nuclear power supply can be sent on ahead, and every two years more supplies, and more astronauts, will be dispatched to the new colony. Mars is relatively inhospitable, but it is far more congenial than outer space. It has all the raw materials needed for a colony to eventually become self-sufficient. To be sure, life would be cramped and uncomfortable for the trail-blazers, but so it was for Antarctic explorers a century ago.

What about the risks of leaving people stranded on Mars? Most of the danger of space flight lies in the launches and landings, as the two shuttle disasters horrifically demonstrated. Eliminating the trip home would therefore slash the overall risk of accidents. The harsh Martian environment would undoubtedly reduce the life expectancy of the colonists, but astronauts on a round-trip would be exposed to comparable health hazards from months of space radiation and zero gravity.

Why would people go to Mars, never to return? Many reasons—an innate sense of adventure and curiosity, the lure of being the first humans to open up an entirely new world, the desire to explore an exotic and unique environment, the expectation of fame and glory. For scientists there are added reasons. A geologist on Mars would be like a kid in a candy store, and would soon clock up a sensational publication record. The crowning achievement would be evidence for life, a discovery likely to transform our view of nature and our place in the cosmos. A straw poll among my colleagues convinces me that there would be no lack of volunteers.

When might the first colonists set out? Within a few years, if politics didn't stand in the way. NASA could send a crew of four to Mars with existing technology, but the agency lacks the nerve and imagination for such an adventurous mission. However, I am optimistic that the new players in space—China and India—will not suffer from Western timidity. A joint Indian-Chinese colony on Mars by 2100 is not only technologically feasible, it is also politically realistic.