Right now, Mars is waiting for our bootprints, its dust drifting on the light Martian breeze in anticipation of its settling over our habitats, coating them in red.
When we reach Mars, it will not be like the 60s when our boots touched the Moon. It won’t be a fleeting visit, a courtesy call to say hello. No, when we go there it will be to live, to set down roots.
The man or woman who takes that first step out onto that barren, cold surface is most likely alive now. Their name will be as famous as it is unknown now, synonymous with great heroes like Laika, Yuri Gagarin, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong. Soon after that, it is likely that we will know the names of the first expecting parents, then the name of the first human born off-world. But what will all of this mean?
For our civilisation, it will mean a great deal. As soon as Mars is a self-sustaining place to live, as soon as it can function independently of Earth, humanity will have given itself a second chance. We will have matured past the point of self-annihilation.
If Earth were to be consumed by apocalyptic war, humanity would go on. If she were to face ecological disaster, humanity would endure. The very concept of "the end of the world" will become redundant, outdated, like the idea of sailing off of the edge of the world is to us today.
Not far down the line from colonising Mars, we may ask ourselves what it means to be human. Is a human from Earth? Is someone born on the red planet a Martian? Are these things mutually exclusive, or can we be both at once? They may sound like stupid questions, but ponder this; Mars has less gravity than Earth, so over time it stands to reason that this will lead to changes in the physiognomy and biology of native Martians. The human species will begin to diverge. One day, a Martian might not be able to come to Earth, their bones and muscle unable to withstand her gravity.
Mars will have other advantages, though. Its smaller gravity well and thin atmosphere will make it much more economical to use as a focal point for further space launches. It is also much closer to the mineral-rich and bountiful asteroid belt. Could this lead to Martian dominance in the solar system as its economy begins to boom and it becomes a scientific trading hub? What would that mean for Earth? Would it, at this point, be logical for Mars to become its own state and declare independence from its colonial masters like so many thriving colonies have done before it? And if Earth is still divided into its hundreds of nations, Mars may well become the next superpower—the first "solar power."
Elon Musk and SpaceX are well on their way to begin humanity's next chapter, and this alone should have us thinking. Mars is not a century away. It is no longer a science fiction thought exercise. It is not something our children or grandchildren might get to see if they’re lucky; it’s something we will. The plan, as it stands, is to put people on its surface as soon as 2024. At the time of writing, that is seven years away.
Let’s put that into perspective: the iPhone came out in 2007—ten years ago. The successful rescue of thirty-three trapped miners in Chile was seven years ago. Time goes by quickly, and if SpaceX is successful with their current plan, in no time at all the colonization of Mars will be underway.
We need to start to think about the implications of this titan step forward. How will this all work? What will the governance of Mars look like? Democratic? Is that even a good idea on something that, at first, will be so fragile? Should a meritocracy be considered? Or what about an outright dictatorship? Should it model itself on the Western world? Or should it function like a corporation? Will Mars be a model for future colonies in space, or on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn?
We are the last generation to collectively call Earth home. The future we have thought about, dared to dream about, is upon us. Soon, nothing will ever be the same. It is inevitable; there are no ifs anymore. We are at the point of wondering when. And that when…?
Well, it is very soon. We need to talk about how to proceed.
There are clear challenges ahead, but they are nothing compared to the obstacles we have already overcome. Crossing the globe was a huge undertaking—arguably a bigger one than getting to Mars is now—and we did it. Sometimes taking these risks leads to disaster, but sometimes they lead to wonders that echo down the ages.
Mars will be hard, and failure may happen; but ultimately the human spirit will take us past the obstacles to come, the hardships and the pain, and in a few years we will look up to the heavens and know for a fact that our kin is looking back.
There are so many questions that we simply have to wait to know the answers to, and even some questions that we don’t know that we have to ask. But, whatever happens in the near future, it is in Earth’s best interests to treat her future Martian colony with respect. All too soon, Earth may need Mars to return the favour.