Mars is Stupid and Boring. Why Should We Colonise It?

Hedfulofspidrs has sent me both the question "Mars is boring and stupid. Why should we colonise it? Wouldn't the asteroids or the Jovian moons be a preferable destination?" and a link to their post Gravity wells are for wimps on the same subject. Undoubtedly, this is a sneaky attempt at getting a link published, but Hedful makes some good points in their post, and that's why I'm happy to indulge it (I hope s/he is kind enough to return the favour if they like this post...).

The thing is, I agree with many of the things Hedfulofspidrs writes: gravity wells are an important consideration when looking at space exploration, and whilst Mars seems to have a decent supply of raw materials it is certainly true that they're also present and much easier to get at and use in, for example, asteroids. But Hedful has laid down a gauntlet: They've asked why should we go to Mars. So here goes:

Our first stepping stone on the way to breaking free of our attachment to mother Earth will almost undoubtedly be the Moon: it's remote, but not so remote that it can't retain a figurative umbilical link with Earth. Supplies will be necessary in the early days- self-sufficiency won't come easily or cheaply- and if the unthinkable should happen, a rescue mission wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility.

Heading to the Moon, though, is akin to our first being allowed out of the house to play in the street. It's scary and new, but we're still in the influence sphere of our parents watching from the living room window and ready to dash out at the first sighting of a scary man with a bag of sweets.

The next step, when we're a bit older and more capable, is being allowed round the corner and maybe even cross that big main road on our own. It's still close, and if anything really bad happens mum and dad can be round the corner with only a small delay, but we've got to deal with more things on our own.

So where in the Solar System does this analogy send us? The nearest solid base after the Moon is Mars. At its closest it's only half an AU away from us*, and the travel time can be around 7 months (trips to the Moon can be measured in days). Compare this to the Jupiter and its Moons (about 8 times further away than Mars, at their closest), and we can easily double that travel time. Even the asteroids are, at their closest, more than twice as far away as Mars.

Using Mars as a stepping stone could help us to hone the skills that we need to get people out further to the places where the really useful and interesting stuff is. My main argument for aiming for Mars would be that we can use the experience we gain relatively close to home to make sure that we can keep people fed, watered and, importantly, alive for the really meaty expeditions.

Mars isn't a prime target for its resources or its scientific interest: It's causing budding space explorers to dribble a bit because it will allow us to gain the experience we desperately need to be able to go further and to survive out there. Maybe, coming to the gravity well issue, we don't even need to land on Mars. We could build a station in orbit around Mars that would serve well to provide us with opportunities to develop techniques, technologies and skills that we'll need in similar environments further from home.

* Though the actual travelling distance would be much more as 'as the crow flies' isn't a useful idiom in space travel.


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