At a time when the United States is struggling to contend with a viral pandemic at home, its pioneering capacity to explore the solar system may provide a boost to its battered national prestige.
But it would also be the second such mission to Mars in the space of a week. Last Thursday, China launched its first attempt to land on the planet, sending off probe Tianwen-1 (meaning “to question the heavens”) from a site on the southern island of Hainan. It includes both an orbiter that will take images and measurements while circling the planet and a rover intended for the Martian surface.
The Chinese launch came four days after the United Arab Emirates’ first major foray beyond the Earth’s orbit — the Amal probe rocketed off from a facility in Japan and is scheduled to enter the Martian orbit around February 2021, in time for the Arab monarchy’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of its country’s formation.
“Amal, about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change while circling the red planet for at least two years,” noted the Associated Press. “It is set to follow up on NASA’s Maven orbiter sent to Mars in 2014 to study how the planet went from a warm, wet world that may have harbored microbial life during its first billion years, to the cold, barren place of today.”
Though these missions — especially the Chinese and Emirati ones — mark major national milestones, some experts doubt a new “space race” is in the offing. “They are competitive because scientists are competitive and everyone wants to do the best kind of science and discovery on Mars possible, but in the broader scheme of the things the world profits by multiple missions,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told ABC News. “We want to learn about Mars, and the more missions that are aimed at learning about Mars, the better off we are. The one mission can’t keep the other one from working.”
Mars, as it has for centuries, offers a tantalizing mirror to those on Earth, as a nearby world whose geology may contain secrets about our own. “We have one data point for life on a planet,” planetary geologist Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology, part of the science team for Perseverance, told my colleagues. “Mars is the second data point. We know from the investments that we’ve made from exploration that there was this habitable world right next door. Right about the time that Earth was developing its life, Mars was also habitable, with lakes and rivers.”
But it’s not just the deep past that motivates scientists and researchers. “Scientists have long hoped to find another celestial body in the solar system and transform it into a second Earth, which would allow humankind to migrate there in great numbers. At the moment, the only possibility is Mars,” Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s lunar project, told Chinese media last week.
The once-fantastical idea of Martian (and lunar) colonization has become a tangible goal thanks to a flurry of investment from U.S.-based billionaires like Tesla founder Elon Musk, who has championed human settlement on Mars. Their private projects have helped re-energize the idea of an eventual crewed mission to Mars, followed by attempts at transforming its unforgiving landscape into a world suitable for human habitation centuries from now. Musk last year even floated the idea of conducting nuclear explosions on the planet to raise its temperatures.
Human expansion through space may remain in the realms of speculative theory and absurdist fancy. But those planning for it are spurred by a sense of looming existential peril on Earth — a planet facing epochal climatic change, human overpopulation and the steady depletion of its resources. Proponents of space exploration and colonization see them as necessities for the preservation of the human species.
Political philosophers are already puzzling over the kind of human society that would emerge in space, whenever such settlement takes place. “Martian liberation movements are a staple of science fiction. First, people from Earth build tiny settlements on Mars. Then, after a century or so, the settlements grow into vibrant planetwide civilizations,” wrote Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. “Eventually, these new ‘Martians’ fight to throw off the yoke of Earth’s tyranny. In these stories, space represents an opportunity to create social arrangements that look profoundly different from what we’ve been locked into on Earth. In space, maybe, we could be more free.”
But Frank and other critics fear that the tech oligarchs pushing the boundaries of aerospace aren’t interested in such an emancipatory future as much as their own vanity projects. “It’s a complete fantasy that colonies on Mars or anywhere else in the solar system will be affordable or accessible to anyone on an average income — unless they’re sent as initial colonizers to survive the hostile conditions and lay the foundations for the rich to come later,” wrote the left-wing Jacobin magazine earlier this year. “Musk’s Mars colonies are nothing but the escape hatch for the rich — they are not our salvation.”
“Space expansion, far from being a form of freedom insurance, is more likely to produce the perfection of despotism and the complete subordination of the individual to the collective,” wrote political scientist Daniel Deudney in “Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity.” “Those who value individual liberty should be strong skeptics and opponents of space expansion, not enthusiastic supporters.”
Others argue that the vast resources and utopian ambitions being funneled into these extraplanetary endeavors could be better directed toward reckoning with the challenges at home, namely the need to mitigate climate change and make the world’s economies more environmentally sustainable. “Perhaps instead of worrying about being swallowed up by an expiring star in an impossibly distant future we might devote an equivalent amount of intellectual and political energy to avoiding climate catastrophe on this planet within the next decade or two,” wrote climate philosopher Byron Williston.