There’s been a lot of talk lately about Mars One, the non-profit company that aims to establish a permanent human presence on Mars by 2024. They recently announced that they have narrowed down the thousands of people who applied for the one-way trip and a chance to make history down to 100 “lucky” people. I say “lucky” because there’s a host of challenges that will make survival for these people very difficult, if not improbable. But we’ll get to that later.
Look, I get the temptation to jump to Mars. Human beings have been fascinated by Mars for quite awhile. But ultimately, going to Mars just isn’t practical right now. It’s not that I think trying to establish a permanent colony somewhere else in the solar system doesn’t have its merits. On the contrary, I think it does. I do think, however, that there is a much better place to start and it’s right in our cosmic backyard, so to speak: the moon.
Lunar colonies have been talked about for quite some time, both in popular fiction and real life (anyone remember the 2012 presidential election cycle when Newt Gingrich promised to but a colony on the moon?). And the technology exists. We could put people on the moon just like we put them on the ISS. So why is the moon a better choice than Mars?
1) It’s cheaper.
The trip to Mars will take roughly six months. That length of time complicates things in space. It means you have to pack 6 months of food, your oxygen source must last for six months, you need six months of fuel–all of that will cost a substantial amount of money, in upfront costs, engineering (more supplies = bigger spacecraft = more raw materials needed) and in terms of launching it (ounces matter when you’re calculating fuel consumption to escape earth’s gravity).
In contrast, it takes a mere three days to get to the moon. So, just from the financial perspective, you’d need about 1/60th the fuel, the food, etc for the trip there. That’s a lot of money saved.
2) It’s also safer.
Again, six months is a very long time. Compared to three days, it’s an eternity wherein something could break down or be damaged. And then you’re up the creek without a water recycler or an oxygen scrubber.
Let’s talk about time again. Let’s say that Mars One succeeded in putting a group of humans on the red planet. But then let’s say something happens, something unforeseen. Part of the food crop is lost. The living modules for the crew are compromised by a rock slide or weather. Some vital component breaks down. You get the drift. Well you’re six months out, buddy. That’s a long time to wait for help. Maybe you won’t be able to survive long enough to hold out for help.
Now contrast that with what might happen on a lunar colony. Something breaks down or is damaged beyond repair, and rather than being a death sentence it’s an inconvenience because help is only three days away. You could easily ration food or even go without it for three days. A MacGyvered solution might hold up for three days, whereas expecting a chewing gum and paperclip fix to hold up for six months is expecting nothing short of a miracle.
The bottom line is that a colony on the moon would have a vital lifeline to earth that would be missing from the Mars colony.
3) There’s an economic reason to go to the moon.
The moon is more than a lump of rock. There’s helium-3 up there, which would be used as fuel for a fusion reactor or engine. There are tons of rare-earth elements up there with loads of industrial applications. There are raw materials on the moon that we could use down here on the earth, and that would provide a tantalizing ROI for a lunar colony. Which is important, because any such endeavor would need funding. And if people can make money from the moon, they’ll probably be much more likely to give large sums of money to the cause.
4) It’s only the beginning.
The moon is a worthier ambition for another reason: it’s a great launching pad. With 1/6 the gravity of earth, it would be much easier and cheaper to build and launch a spacecraft from the moon. And we already know there are fuel sources up there for whatever craft we build and launch up there. The moon would be an excellent gateway to the rest of the solar system.
Look, ultimately I think that people will go to Mars–eventually. Our curiosity will get the best of us if no better economic or scientific impetus comes along. The problem is technology, but only in a specific sense. The technology to live on the planet is readily available, I believe. It could be done with our current level of understanding and engineering. Of course having time to refine and improve that engineering and understanding wouldn’t hurt.
No, the problem with trying to colonize Mars is speed.
The technology doesn’t exist to make travel to and from Mars feasible or practical, and as long as any colony would effectively be isolated and cut off from earth or a lunar colony, I think that’s a recipe for disaster. It means that every problem and challenge, even seemingly minor or trivial ones, suddenly become critical and life threatening. And I think that those circumstances jeopardize the feasibility and ethics of any operation there.