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Mars base
Creating a Mars base can serve to help challenge humanity and demonstrate how it can solve problems closer to home. (credit: NASA)

The true benefit of human Mars exploration

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Whenever I try to bring up the subject of humans going to Mars with someone who is not a space fan (that is, 99.9% of the rest of the world) I inevitably am met with an incredulous expression as they try to comprehend just what planet I am coming from.

Maybe you have had a similar experience. Whenever Mars does make the news and this topic comes up I read in many blogs and opinion pieces how “insane” going to Mars is or how we have “too many problems on Earth” to worry about before we waste resources on such a foolish and pointless endeavor. “Let’s fix the earth first before we go messing up another planet,” they say.

I normally try to counter such responses with the usual “there will always be problems on Earth” line and talk about the rewards of us meeting this challenge, and so on. But often before I even get to these points the conversation is over.

The main problem with contemporary society is that we seem to have lost our ability to attack problems of any kind with any sense of order.

But if you understand the society we live in today, these kinds of responses are normal and to be expected. A society that has “gone soft”—one that is risk avoiding, navel gazing, and focused more on the latest celebrity scandal—is not one where issues of this kind of seriousness will be considered. The most serious issues our society will discuss are focused on global warming or the injustices of poverty and, while these are important issues, they are not the only major issues, and in fact are not the main problem.

The main problem with contemporary society is that we seem to have lost our ability to attack problems of any kind with any sense of order. Yes, there are isolated efforts going on here and there to address some of these larger issues, but with a myriad of political agendas and personalities to fight through, is it any wonder even the simplest problems never seem to make much progress?

We all want to see interest rates lower, employment rates higher, and standards of living improving for everyone without destroying our environment in the process. We would all like to see corruption levels lower so progress can be made. But the reality is far from this. Our society is in decay. Yes, we have “advancing technology” but not to the degree it used to be. Much of the changes we see are mostly cosmetic or slight.

I agree that we do need to fix the problems on Earth first, 100%. One of those problems is our inability to rise to any of the truly big challenges of our time. Yes, we do need solutions in so many areas, and yes, every century will present new problems for us to solve. So let’s do something about it.

This is where sending humans to Mars comes in. While it is not the only solution out there to giving us back our “mojo” for problem solving as a society, it is a complex enough and spectacular enough challenge that if reached will help to bring back that old “can do” spirit which is so rare these days. The world will be able to look into the stars at night, point it out to their children and say. “We have people living on that world”. It will be a thing of wonder and amazement.

Children will be inspired that they live in a world able to achieve such feats and will work to better educate themselves to be part of a bright future where all kinds of “new worlds” can be reached: a future where cancers are cured, where the environment is protected with pacts that actually work, a future where new financial systems are created for our poorest nations to rise up. A world where technology will once again make rapid and radical advances as ever greater numbers of youth begin to once again attack the challenges ahead of them, inspired by history making realities such as humans living on Mars.

It’s true, we don’t and shouldn’t need to send humans to Mars to achieve any of these things. But in a world of armchair spectators, how can we effectively get a message across now? How can we begin to change the culture? We do this by tackling challenges that are outside of the political agendas of most, by focusing on areas that won’t raise too much opposition in society (like mishandling environmental issues).

We have treaties that need to be created to make a better world, but this sort of need will always be there. It is our ability and speed at solving these problems now that will determine what kind of future we will be living in. Right now, everything takes way too long to happen, and by the time action is taken on any issue often it is too little too late. A “Humans to Mars” program can help greatly to change this paradigm.

But when considering Mars, we do need to redefine some wrong assumptions too. This does not have to be a taxpayer funded expedition. This can be a private effort, if we focus on a development path that includes terrestrial applications as profit-generating sources of revenue at each step of the program.

Is Mars irrelevant? Can we become a better society just by focusing all our efforts on solving Earth-based problems with Earth-based solutions? I don’t think we can.

Often when exploration programs are created for space we will see some Earth-based spinoff technologies developed, but in our pursuit for Mars we need to change this focus. In the development of a Mars program we need to stipulate that every step must have Earth-based applications as an equal priority, so that in this way we can ensure that a Mars program for human exploration and settlement is going to have maximum benefit for all of us here on Earth, whether it is a private or government program.

Sending humans to Mars can make a major contribution and become a spectacular focal point to changing the way our society handles challenges, and if ever had we need to handle some challenges, that time is now. That is why when I hear the opposing arguments to humans to Mars now I can feel a great sense of urgency because by arguing that we should not go to Mars they are in effect enforcing a view that says, “we don’t need risky or costly challenges like this.”

Is Mars irrelevant? Can we become a better society just by focusing all our efforts on solving Earth-based problems with Earth-based solutions? I don’t think we can. If we could there would be some evidence of this somewhere, but again, on all the truly big issues, progress is glacial. We need an inspired generation to take fast action on so many fronts, but so far, our generation is not inspired. We have instead grown cynical and soft. Sending humans to Mars is the wildcard our world needs to change us from a stagnating, inward-looking society into a problem solving, frontier-looking society. It can be done now, and humans can be on Mars within the next ten to fifteen years. We just have to make that decision to go. If we can do this with Mars, this will be the first step forward for our society becoming a “can do” world. Let’s take that step.