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Editorial Opinion

A garden and a lifeless rock

For most of human history, Earth was the only world we had known to exist. From our ancestors’ eyes, they resided on an island amid a sea of countless stars, their mark on the world as delible as footsteps on a beach.

We know now, of course, that Earth is but one of eight planets in our solar system, and that these eight are but a blip amid the 4,300 exoplanets we’ve since discovered. Even then, these 4,300 are nothing compared to the billions of stars (many of which are home to planets) in the billions of galaxies contained in the observable universe.

Humanity has long dreamt of new lands and new worlds—it is in our nature to explore, to reach beyond the confines we find ourselves in.

The three missions we’ve sent to Mars in the past year—Hope, Perseverance, and Tianwen-1—are testaments to this. They have rekindled hope for a multi-planetary future, with Mars in the spotlight as Earth 2.0, subject to human colonization and exploitation.

At least, such is the narrative being peddled by various public figures, with none perhaps as outspoken as SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Musk has previously made clear that he sees the fate of humanity dichotomously: we either go extinct on Earth or flourish among the stars, unshackled by our origins.

Of course, he and many others are right to be concerned that there is a non-zero probability of an extinction-level event within our lifetimes.

With the recent collapse of the Arecibo telescope, our capability to spot near-Earth asteroids has been drastically diminished. Climate change has forced us to face our indelible and wide-reaching impact on the planet and its biosphere. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our globalized society’s susceptibility to transmissible disease.

That we should be prepared is obvious, but Mars is not the only answer, and neither is it the most cost-effective or efficient one. That dream of inhabiting the Red Planet might be glamorous, but we must realize that there is much work to be done on Earth as well.

To be clear, I am not saying that our efforts toward studying and inhabiting Mars are wasted. Quite the opposite. I believe that expanding our horizons and developing new technologies is for the benefit of all of us.

What I reject is this narrow-sighted framing of Mars as our only hope and refuge—a shining beacon on a hill that will guide us to a utopic world—and the reality-ignoring optimism that comes with it.

Mars is not a playground. Almost all of its water is trapped as ice in its poles. Its atmosphere is one percent that of Earth’s. It has no magnetosphere to block solar radiation and its regolith contains toxic perchlorates. Not to mention that it is, on average, 900 times farther from the Earth than the Moon, meaning that any Martian-to-be is in for a long trip both ways.

We must face the reality that current and near-future technology will not be sufficient to transform Mars into Earth 2.0 (much to the chagrin of Elon Musk’s Twitter header). A self-sustaining Martian colony is in our far future if it were in our future, to begin with.

When thinking about Mars, I am often reminded of The Expanse, a sprawling space opera set in the 24th century where humanity has colonized the solar system. In The Expanse, the Earth is governed by the United Nations and Mars is an independent congressional republic.

In the show’s third episode, Earth’s ambassador to Mars tells UN Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, “You know what I love most about Mars? They still dream. We gave up. They’re an entire culture dedicated to a common goal, working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.”

We have a garden right now. Let’s make the choice to not pave it over.

By Jasper Ryan Buan

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