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What About Mars? by Sylvia Engdahl

In 1967, when I wrote my novel Journey Between Worlds (which was first published by Atheneum in 1970, republished by Putnam in 2006 and in a 2007 Firebird paperback, and recently published by me in a 2015 ebook edition) it never occurred to me to question the obvious idea that we would go to Mars as soon as possible after going to the moon, and that it would be the site of our first colonies other than lunar bases. I had believed this since 1946, when at the age of 12, I first became enthusiastic about space exploration—a subject not then widely discussed. Journey Between Worlds strongly advocates the colonization of Mars and compares it to the westward movement of American pioneers; it’s directed mainly to teenage girls and is told from the viewpoint of a young woman who doesn’t like Mars at first, but comes to recognize its vital importance to human progress.

I have never stopped believing all I said in Journey Between Worlds, and since the book is more timely than ever I am happy that was republished and made available to a new audience. However, in 1980, while working on research for a master’s thesis in anthropology focused on the evolutionary significance of space colonization (which for reasons having nothing to do with its subject, was never finished) I became convinced that orbiting colonies (see my page Space and Human Survival) would precede the colonization of Mars. I was won over by Gerard O’Neill’s vision of their practicality. His writings maintained that having once lifted people and equipment up out of Earth’s “gravity well” into space, it would be pointless to send them back down into another one—to another planetary surface. And orbiting colonies can meet the needs of Earth itself, beaming back power and taking polluting industry out of the atmosphere, whereas distant Martian colonies cannot. They would be less expensive to establish than Martian colonies, and could be built sooner, on a much larger scale.

So, throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, I believed that a fairly large-scale presence in Earth orbit would be our next step. But this hasn’t happened. It could have, if we had had the will to do it. And if we had started on such a project 35 years ago—which we had the technological capability to do, given sufficient funds—we would be much closer to manned missions to Mars than we are right now! However, in 1998 I changed my mind again. I don’t think we will build orbiting colonies without first exploring further. The public simply won’t grasp their potential benefits, any more than it has grasped the potential economic benefits of permanent bases on the moon. That type of pioneering is too far removed from the image established by our biological and cultural heritage and reflected in the mythic depths of our feelings about space. It will come; it has to come eventually if we are to save Earth from the effects of overuse. But we’re evidently not quite ready for it.

We are ready to reach for Mars! The enthusiasm for the 1997 Pathfinder mission and the later Mars rovers did inspire people’s imagination. A grass-roots movement toward exploration and eventual settlement of Mars is building. It’s becoming evident that when people think of expansion beyond Earth, Mars is the place they envision. So it seems that we may bypass the logical stage of near-Earth development (though we will surely return to it later) and focus first on going to Mars. This may be our best, and in fact only, hope for gaining the support of a large enough proportion of the public to make the utilization of extraterrestrial resources possible. And of course, I’m all for it! I always did believe Mars colonies were the hope of the next few centuries and a crucial step toward our ultimate migration to the stars. And perhaps, if we can get going without further delay, I will live to see their inception. [Now that another decade has passed since I wrote this, I have lost hope; even if the currently-proposed goal of a landing by 2033 is met, I will be 100 years old in 2033.]

By all means let’s go to Mars—but let’s be careful not to give the impression that we’re going just to see what’s there, rather than to lay the foundations for a permanent human presence in space. Finding out what’s on Mars won’t automatically do what is essential for the preservation of Earth, such as drawing on solar power to meet our energy needs and moving heavy industry out of the biosphere. When we got to the moon a lot of us assumed that one thing would naturally lead to another—I myself did, when I wrote the original version of The Far Side of Evil. I thought just having space travel capability would cause a civilization to begin the process of spreading beyond the limits of its home world. It didn’t turn out that way. It’s widely recognized that the problem with the space program has been that it lacks a goal, but the only goals seriously proposed recently have been ones that don’t address either the issue of our species’ future, or the present concerns of the public at large. And if reaching Mars becomes a goal in itself, without commitment to a larger vision of why humankind needs to be in space, we could lose momentum again once we get there, just as we did after Apollo.

The older I get, the more this prospect frightens me, though my generation won’t be around to see the result if it occurs. I don’t believe humankind can afford another hiatus. (For the reasons it can’t, read the section titled We must waste no more time on my “Space Quotes to Ponder” page.) Important as it is to go to Mars, such a mission will be worse than useless from the survival standpoint if it proves more of a distraction than a spur to our civilization’s large-scale settlement of space. Let’s make very sure that the public knows from the start that Mars is just a beginning.

June, 2012: Once again I have changed my mind. I certainly favor going to Mars, and believe that is what America should do without further delay. But I don't think it's going to happen. I've come to realize that the public won't support further manned exploration of space quite yet, for reasons summarized in my essay Achieving Human Commitment to Space Colonization and discussed in detail in "Confronting the Universe in the Twenty-First Century," the Afterword to the new edition of my book The Planet-Girded Suns: The History of Human Thought About Extrasolar Worlds. The taxpayers will not fund it in the foreseeable future, despite the inestimable benefit not only to humankind's long-term survival, but to the current economy.

So I am back to believing that the next step will be the establishment of a large-scale presence in Earth orbit, and eventually on the moon. The taxpayers won't support that, either (unless driven to compete with China)--but they won't have to. The most significant achievement I have seen since the end of Apollo was the SpaceX Dragon's successful trip to the International Space Station. I have always favored private development of space industry, but until now it hasn't been feasible--funds couldn't have been raised for such a long-term investment. Once there is enough profit in it to attract investors, that will change. And when we reach the stage of several companies competing not only to provide transport to and from orbit, but to supply energy to Earth from solar power satellites, we will at last move ahead quickly again. Not toward establishment of orbiting colonies, at least not soon; but we will be on the road to utilizing extraterrestrial resources and protecting Earth's environment.

For the near term, privately-owned spaceships will not be able to reach Mars (unless an organization such as the Mars Society can raise the funds, which I certainly wish it could). The cost would be too high to attract investors, as there would be no near-term profit in it. Throughout history, costly advances have been made only under threat of war or with the expectation of profit; voyages from Europe to the New World could not have been made if the kings who paid for the ships had not hoped they would bring back gold. But the utilization pf solar power and extraterrestrial resources from the moon and asteroids will make entrepreneurs rich. Those are the people who will be in a position to get to Mars, and they will surely do it, whether supported by the public or not. Explorers and pioneers have never had the backing of the general public. Yet through their discoveries, majority views have gradually shifted, and I believe it will be so with the exploration of our solar system. Thus I am more optimistic than I have been in recent years, now that a start has been made.

April, 2016: I'm happy to say that I was wrong in thinking that a privately-owned ship cannot land on Mars soon. Elon Musk, the founder and Ceo of SpaceX--which has been sending unmanned supply ships to the International Space Station--has just announced that his company will send an unmanned Red Dragon ship to Mars by 2018, and will send astronauts later on. This is the best news I have heard in a long time.

November, 2015: At present some people think a privately-funded base on Mars will be established in the near future. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that the Mars One project (which is unrelated to the SpaceX plan announced in 2016) can reach Mars, as it has neither the funds nor the technological capability to do so. Many experts feel that its publicity is doing the cause of reaching Mars more harm than good, as its failure is likely to disillusion the public. And if it did get as far as sending a ship, which almost certainly won't happen, death of even a few would-be colonists would create a negative reaction that would delay any better-prepared Mars expedition, perhaps by many years.

Unlike some observers, I have no objection in principle to letting people embark on a one-way trip to Mars, as long as they are given a realistic idea of the odds of getting there and of what life in an small base will be like (it won't be like the colonies commonly envisioned). If it is their choice to do that kind of pioneering--just as most pioneers in the past have gone to new lands without expectation of returning--I wholeheartedly support them. But Mars One is collecting funds and volunteers by misleading people into believing there is a good chance of success, which given its lack of sufficient expertise, is simply not true. I wish it were true, but I feel that pretending that it is will only hold space colonization back.