Calling all parents: Has it occurred to you that you might be raising a Martian? I mean this in a good way. Perhaps I’d better explain.
Doubtless, you’ve come to appreciate that child rearing presents many challenges. We do what we can to help our offspring become physically healthy, intelligent, mentally stable, adaptable, creative, resilient, curious, kind, and well-educated adults. When the conversation turns to what they want to be when they grow up, some of the sons and daughters and grandchildren of Analog readers will exclaim, “astronaut!” Indeed it is entirely possible that one of our own progeny will venture forth as one of humanity’s greatest explorers, traveling for six to eight months through deep space to reach Mars.
Many people suppose that the first humans to set foot on the red planet will be visitors, intending to stay for about as long as a typical family vacation—and hoping for good weather—before returning to Earth. NASA’s goal is to send crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s for brief stints on the surface. In contrast, SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently unveiled a grand plan to send a hundred permanent settlers to Mars and to do so within a decade. Recognizing that his plan is contingent upon everything going really well, Musk contemplates eventually assembling a fleet of upward of a thousand reusable Interplanetary Transport System spaceships powered by scaled-up versions of Falcon 9 rockets. Under either scenario, it is indeed possible that several Analog readers may find out what it is like to have a child or grandchild who calls our nearest planetary neighbor “home.”
NASA released eight recruitment posters to entice young people to consider signing up to become the first generation of Martians. The posters portray spacesuit-clad astronauts scaling rocky cliffs, surveying red-hued canyons, building life-sustaining structures, and performing other tasks. The posters bear mottoes such as, “Mars Explorers Wanted,” “Teach on Mars,” “Work the Night Shift on Mars’ Moon,” “We Need You,” and “Farmers Wanted.” The message is clear: Mars will be for skilled, educated adventure-seekers, not just the most intrepid test pilots. Mars will need scientists, engineers, teachers, technicians, doctors, chemists, and most definitely farmers. An Earth-independent settlement on Mars must raise many more crops than just potatoes. Imagine the challenges in cultivating tasty and nutritious vegetables on a planet coated with fine dust containing toxic levels of perchlorates, a planet whose gravity is just 38% that of the Earth’s, a planet whose temperatures range from a daytime high of 70˚F to a nighttime low of -100˚F, and that’s at the equator during midsummer. Then, too, the dust storms can last weeks or months.
It's fair to suppose that most of the first astronauts to set foot upon Martian soil are currently children, teenagers or young adults—possibly even some readers of today's piece. As a parent or would-be parent or grandparent, how might you react if your daughter, son, or grandchild came to you one day with the news that they'd been accepted for the Martian astronaut program? Would you be proud? Happy? Excited? Awed? Terrified? Overwhelmed? All of the above? Before you know it, with your pulse racing more than theirs, you could be waving farewell, watching them board that enormous rocket and blast off, not to return for over a year. You might find yourself in the company of kids whose own mothers and fathers are in that rocket, too, making the same journey, dealing with the same conflicting emotions.
Not long ago, I attended a Humans to Mars summit at which scientists, engineers, programmers, and administrators in both government and the private sector made presentations and held panel discussions on many aspects of the Mars mission. These were people who know a great deal about the future of human space exploration—the ones who are devoting their careers to reaching and settling Mars in the next two or three decades. At one question-and-answer session, a member of the audience stood up and asked the assembled panelists and audience members for a show of hands. How many would be willing to see their own children chosen and sent off on the first round-trip voyage to Mars? The room grew quiet. People eyed one another. Roughly half of those present raised their hands, although many hesitated at first. It was a thought-provoking moment. Some said yes, if Mars were what their child wanted and had thought it through, they would support that decision. Others looked uncomfortable and said nothing. Inevitably, the comparison was made to the risk of highway driving.
To be sure, people have always sought out new lands. We’re driven to discover the unknown, to challenge the boundaries of how far we can go. We itch to discover what’s out there, eventually coming to care about far-flung places and to make them our own. The urge to explore may well be an essential component of the human spirit, one that has helped keep our species alive. Yet there is a flip side to the thirst for adventure, namely homegrown desperation in the face of food shortages and life-threatening conditions. Any number of population movements through the ages have been caused by the need to flee intolerable situations. One wonders if curiosity or desperation—or some combination of both—operated as a survival strategy in prompting Homo sapiens to leave Africa, to move into Asia, then Australia, Europe, and eventually the Pacific Islands and the Western Hemisphere.
In the past, explorers and pioneers have been, by and large, a self-selecting group. In contrast, NASA will be choosing its future astronauts and Martian settlers on a more systematic basis. It will have no shortage of volunteers to pick from, with over 18,300 people (a record high) applying for the astronaut class of 2017. The number who are seriously interested in flying to the red planet will doubtless grow over time, reflecting America’s heritage as a nation of pioneers and homesteaders, and its enduring appeal to those seeking a new life. What sort of people should we send to our sister planet? We’ve long lauded astronauts for possessing the “right stuff,” a combination of courage, confidence, dependability, toughness, intelligence, and daring that’s been consistently on display for over fifty years.
Aren’t these the very qualities that all parents seek to foster in their children, beginning with independence and confidence in venturing beyond our reach, then beyond our sight? That soon becomes beyond the sound of our voices, down the street, and then across the river perhaps to the next valley, or over the mountains to the next territory. Some will venture across the seas, perhaps beyond the sound of human voices, over the horizon to a remote island or a distant continent. The next journey for a few will be up above planet Earth. People have lived in low Earth orbit for over a year at a time, with the International Space station being permanently inhabited for fifteen years. The next milestone in human expansion may be a Moon base, which NASA envisions serving as a proving ground for the voyage to Mars. The red planet beckons more strongly with each passing year that we expand our knowledge as to what it holds in store for us. For any parent, Mars seems so far away, not a place to go visit one’s offspring. Even conversation becomes difficult when it takes between three and twenty-one minutes for a speed-of-light signal to travel from the Earth to our nearest neighboring planet. Yet, the essence of exploration is to be out of communication for days, months, years at a time. As humans, this is our heritage.
Yes, we’ve sent people into space and have landed a few of them on the Moon. However, a Mars expedition presents hurdles of another order of magnitude, with major risks at every stage, beginning with the launch. The voyage through deep space will take six to eight months, as the red planet is two hundred times more distant from the Earth than the Moon. Both time and distance will magnify whatever difficulties crop up with propulsion, navigation, communication, habitation, health, or life support. Nor will it be a cakewalk to enter the Martian atmosphere, descend, and make landfall. Next, there will be numerous challenges entailed in assembling sealed habitats and living on Mars, for perhaps a few weeks at first, but eventually for years, maybe decades, independently of Earth. A self-sustaining settlement will need to overcome whatever impediments arise in obtaining critical resources such as air, water, food, power, and medical supplies. Other hurdles include wear and tear on equipment, psychological stress, cosmic radiation, and surface navigation across the bitterly cold Martian landscape. Once the mission is complete, there’s the matter of blasting off in the Martian Ascent Vehicle and docking with the space ship to make the long and perilous return trip to Earth.
As I gaze at our neighboring planet and beyond, I think about the Fermi Paradox and wonder why we have yet to find proof as to the existence of other intelligent beings in a Universe so vast that at times it seems like they must be out there. One answer is that intelligent aliens do indeed exist somewhere in either the Milky Way Galaxy or a more-distant galaxy, and they do share our curiosity about other sentient species elsewhere in the Universe. Yet they may differ from us in one fundamental respect. While they may possess the means and know-how to make the journey, these intelligent aliens may lack the urge to go and see and touch and sniff out other sentient beings. Instead, they developed sophisticated devices to collect every type of observation they want, to amass a ton of long-range data, maybe even to collect samples remotely. But to go and stand on that foreign soil or to swim in those inhospitable seas or to fly through the currents of unfamiliar skies—these are different matters entirely. Perhaps the aliens are homebodies. They may get their fill of adventuring without leaving the comfort of their lairs or nests, with their cozy chairs in front of the fire. Maybe their travels take the form of something akin to holo-decks and virtual reality simulators. They may have taken a harmd look at the dangers inherent in venturing forth to their closest planetary neighbors and surviving under conditions inimical to life as they know it. Would it be surprising if they concluded that the risks are not worth the incremental rewards?
If so, one wonders what these sentient aliens make of us. Are they monitoring our first rockets and space probes with befuddlement? Do they see these as the clumsy and endearing baby steps of a species that will ultimately recognize the merits of exploration from the comfort of one’s own living room? Do we strike them as outlandish in our attempts to establish dens or colonies in space and on other worlds? Is our propensity for in-person exploring the most alien aspect of our species?
Let us ask ourselves, when our children talk of going to one place or another, as children are wont to do, how we might respond if they come to us one day and announce that they’ve been selected to take the next giant leap for humankind. Would we welcome the opportunity afforded to our own child or grandchild to take part in establishing a permanent settlement on our nearest planetary neighbor? Over fifty years after President John F. Kennedy spoke of sending humans to the Moon and bringing them safely back to Earth, his words still ring true. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”1 The human journey to Mars may prove to be the most significant, profound event of the twenty-first century.
1 Kennedy, John F. “The Moon Speech.” Rice University. Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas. 12 Sept. 1962. Speech.
Rosemary Claire Smith worked as an archaeologist and a campaign-finance attorney before becoming a full-time fiction writer. Her stories, which have sold to Analog, Fantastic Stories, Stupefying Stories, Digital Science Fiction and elsewhere, showcase her interests in space exploration, sentient aliens, genetic engineering, mythology, and time travel to the heyday of the dinosaurs. She's been tweeting as @RCWordsmith and blogging at www.rosemaryclairesmith.wordpress.com/blogging-the-mesozoic for the last 156 million years.