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 explorationa subject not then widely discussed.
Journey Between Worlds strongly advocates the colonization of Mars and
compares it to the westward movement of American pioneers; its directed
mainly to teenage girls and is told from the viewpoint of a young woman who
doesnt 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 masters 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 ONeills vision of their practicality. His
writings maintained that having once lifted people and equipment up out of
Earths gravity well into space, it would be pointless to
send them back down into another oneto 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
hasnt happened. It could have, if we had had the will to do it. And if
we had started on such a project 35 years agowhich we had the
technological capability to do, given sufficient fundswe would be much
closer to manned missions to Mars than we are right now! However, in 1998 I
changed my mind again. I dont think we will build orbiting colonies
without first exploring further. The public simply wont 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 were 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 peoples imagination. A grass-roots movement toward
exploration and eventual settlement of Mars is building. Its 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, Im 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
By all means lets go to Marsbut lets be careful not to
give the impression that were going just to see whats there,
rather than to lay the foundations for a permanent human presence in space.
Finding out whats on Mars wont 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 anotherI 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 didnt turn out that way. Its 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 dont
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
The older I get, the more this prospect frightens me, though my generation
wont be around to see the result if it occurs. I dont believe
humankind can afford another hiatus. (For the reasons it cant, 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
civilizations large-scale settlement of space. Lets 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.