Humanity’s Plan B

Humans are born explorers. It took only 10,000 years for our early ancestors who had already crossed from Asia to the Arctic to explore and settle lands stretching nearly to the southern tip of South America. From humans’ early origins in Africa and the Near East, and using primitive technologies, mankind populated virtually the entire world.

Starting in the 1960s the human race began exploring space. Two dozen people have been to the Moon and back, and hundreds have lived on the International Space Station. According to the Augustine Commission, which reported to NASA and the White House in 2009: “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” Sending humans to Mars in the decade of the 2030s—only 20 years from now—is part of NASA’s plans.

Exploring the solar system is risky—but so was sailing from Europe to America on the tiny Mayflower. Some of the colonists headed for the New World perished during or soon after the journey. Taking risks, like exploration, is part of human nature.

Planning and problem-solving are also part of being human. The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir and now a movie starring Matt Damon, shows how human ingenuity and perseverance overcomes potentially fatal problems as American astronauts explore Mars. Although The Martian is fiction, humans are, in fact, likely to take the risk of traveling to Mars.

Can humans do more than visit Mars? NASA is already considering how astronauts could use Mars’s natural resources to build, as illustrated in this quote from a NASA web page: “We must find ways to make what we need once we are at our destination. For example, the soil on Mars could be used to make modular structural building blocks to make shelters, landing pads and other useful structures.” For decades, scientists and writers have also been wondering whether it would be possible to use various resources to transform Mars into a warmer planet with a thicker, more breathable atmosphere, a process known as terraforming.

Recent discoveries of liquid water on Mars make colonizing Mars a more attractive prospect, and we already know that there is water on the Moon, a possible way-station for flights to Mars. Given time, money, and willpower, it may be feasible to create Martian settlements. Robert Zubrin, an influential scientist and engineer who in the late 1990s described feasible ways to send people to Mars, wrote an interesting article called The Case for Colonizing Mars.

Settling Mars would be a huge step for humanity, and it is a goal that could foster cooperation across the Earth, as the International Space Station has. Contrary to what many believe, the space program is not a large part of America’s budget (it is less than 0.5% of federal expenditures).

Going to Mars was a compelling idea before climate change was identified as a significant issue. Now, as an additional factor—beyond humanity’s natural curiosity, drive to explore, and innate capability to plan and solve problems—settling people on Mars can be viewed as a prudent insurance policy. Colonizing Mars could be Plan B in case our Plan A fails—that is, if the world acts too slowly and climate change is so severe that it makes Earth uninhabitable for humans.

To be clear, many thousands of people are working on the transition of Earth’s economies from fossil fuels to renewable energy so humanity avoids the worst effects of climate change. That is obviously an effort more governments should support, and more vigorously. We can hope that the pending Paris climate talks will lead to a breakthrough agreement—but even so, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be a matter of performance, not paper promises. In any event, it is still important to invest in Plan B.

For the first time in history evolution of the human species lies consciously in the hands of the world’s decision makers—and not merely because scientists are able to engineer the human genome. Moving off of our home planet, Earth, will be a major step in the evolution of our species, but it is a step that will not happen by accident or due to a chance genetic mutation. Because of climate change, mankind’s future on this world and on Mars must be viewed as possibilities rather than certainties. In both cases the human race must make decisions soon.