Next week’s premier of The Martian is going to show audiences, better than almost any other medium can, how incredibly hard it’s going to be to get to and live on our sister planet. And for every problem is shows us, it is not inclusive of every danger Mars offers to human visitors. Mars is just plain hazardous to human health. But the public is already seeing this as a love-letter to the space program, an acceptance of the challenges involved, and the human desire to stand on another planet.
There are detractors and nay-sayers, it’s true, and some say we should never go to Mars. But there always are opponents to any new idea, and for good reason: New ideas are often hard and dangerous things when first conceived of or attempted.
Yes, going to Mars now would be almost impossibly hard for us to pull it off. But that’s how a lot of scientific progress goes: Conceived of in one era; pulled off in the next one.
If you think about most major advances in technology and how they were used, you begin to realize that science has conceived of many types of technologies a long time before anyone was able to actually create them; and even then, it might take quite a longer time before it was used effectively.
Take human powered flight, for instance: The first principles of flight were found by Greek scientists. Leonardo DaVinci later built on those principles to create his human-powered flyer designs, but DaVinci’s designs still weren’t practical to construct for another 500 years. So, from conception to the accomplishment of flight, about two millenniums had to pass.
A lot of that was due to the needed technologies and engineering knowledge taking time to develop. The Greeks didn’t have the engineering knowledge or materials resources to build a workable human flyer. DaVinci had much of the needed engineering knowledge, but the resources needed to accomplish his designs still weren’t available. Not until the early twentieth century did the combination of theories, available resources and engineering finally come together in the Wright Flyer.
Today, we’re developing the technologies for extra-terrestrial flight and life support first conceived about a century ago. We didn’t fly to the Moon when we first started to work out the possibility… it took us decades to finally do it. We are only now working out what we need to survive a long space voyage and a short stay on a planet too far away to expect outside help or escape if something goes wrong. We shouldn’t expect to be able to accomplish that in a few short years; it could take decades to reach the point where such a trip is no more dangerous than a jet flight across country today.
(In fact, this reminded me a lot of a short story I wrote for The Onuissance Cells—The First Expedition (read it, it’s free)—which describes a dedicated but doomed first Mars expedition; followed by another expedition, two centuries later, that had learned enough to be successful. A sad story, but it reflects the true reality of technological progress.)
That humans will go to Mars is almost inevitable, assuming we don’t blow ourselves up first. We just have to accept that some of the things we need to actually accomplish a Mars visit aren’t ready yet, so it won’t happen right away. In fact, we may briefly visit soon; but it may take centuries before we’re truly ready to safely travel to and live on Mars long-term.