Is It Possible To Colonize Mars?

By the time we’re capable of engineering a reasonable industrial colony on Mars, capable of supporting a thriving population (including food, water, manufacturing, energy production, services, education, a sizable population and government facilities — let’s say a minimum of 100,000) we will have a whole series of technologies that negate concerns for what the gravitational effect will be on children.

The danger in predicting the future is that we tend to focus on the really cool things (warp drive, artificial gravity, interstellar exploration, giant space stations, etc), but we neglect to explore the realistic implications of what “other” technologies will mean for our society.

There just isn’t any chance of us building a meaningful colony on Mars until the late 2030’s at the earliest.  Probably the 2050’s.  A “thriving” colony wouldn’t happen until the end of the century.  Which is all well and good.  But what other technologies will we have by then?

  • Well, we’ll likely have mastered genetic engineering and be able to create life by design (including altering our genome to whatever degree and characteristics we like).
  • Reasonably powerful weak AI and more than likely strong AI.
  • A good grasp of sub-micro machinery and possibly nano-machinery.  That means, at the “largest” we’ll have machines the size of a human cell, at the smallest, more tiny than a bacteria.  Likely somewhere in between.  I’m not sure we’ll build much smaller than viruses (quantum mechanics may not permit such small machines), but given that nature has built machines the size of viruses (called:  viruses), we’ll likely be able to build that small.

Those three technologies would allow for engineering of really unimaginably different societies than we can easily (or comfortably, for that matter) imagine.  So, by the time the economic ability to easily colonize Mars comes along, we may not need it, want it or even care about such a venture.

Don’t get zapped

And did I mention the cosmic rays? No? Well, now’s a good time — cosmic rays are high-energy protons (and some heavier nuclei) zipping through the universe, generated in…well, we’re not exactly sure, but probably supernovae and other cataclysmic events. The universe is swimming in them, and they cut through DNA like a hot knife through butter. The butter is you in this metaphor, just to be clear. On Earth the atmosphere makes for nice insulation, catching most of the deadliest cosmic rays, but some still make it through, possibly giving everyone — especially airline crews — a slightly elevated risk of cancer.

But a two-year journey to Mars? Exposure on the surface? Better make sure your transports and habitats are well-shielded or buried underground — or at least make sure you have some talented oncologists on staff.

Despite these challenges and more, it’s not impossible to get people to Mars and start a viable colony. It’s not like there’s any physics-based reason preventing the escapades. It’s just a question of engineering. And money.

Lots and lots of money.

SpaceX has an ambitious plan to get a colony on Mars through private investment in ever-larger, cheap, reusable rockets that could deliver a steady stream of people and supplies to slowly build up a colony over decades. It just takes lots of money.

NASA has an ambitious plan to build the Space Launch System, the biggest, most hard-core rocket ever made. With that kind of fire, you could send all sorts of stuff into space, including a crew to Mars. It just takes lots of money.

There are other ideas, such as Mars One (“I know, just leave everybody there, then we don’t have to pay for a return ticket!”) and Mars Direct, but in the end it takes time. And lots of money.

So eventually, we’ll do it. Humans will go to Mars  . Babies will be born there. Civilization will flourish — or flounder — on the Red Planet. It’s just a matter of when, and of how much money we’re willing to spend. Did I mention the money part?

Sure, if one day everyone decided that we don’t need socks anymore, we could use the leftover savings to fast-track a Martian colony. Full of chaffed feet, but a colony nonetheless. We’re certainly at the civilizational stage where sending humans to Mars is feasible, which is a huge first step. A hundred years ago, not only did we lack the technology, but also the economic wherewithal to entertain such a wacky notion.

That’s the trick to getting to Mars: either we need to be so wealthy as a society that a trip is so economically insignificant that nobody cares, or there needs to be a large political (if led by NASA) or economic (if led by a company) incentive to do it. One or both of those scenarios is bound to happen, sooner or later.


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