Maaike Harmsen
 on July 05, 2021

Colonizing Mars: Evaluating the Why

Should we earthlings colonize Mars and become a multi-planet species? The answer may not be that simple.

Mars crater pic from NASA

“Mars is waiting” –Earth

That’s the fresh new billboard stationed just outside SpaceX headquarters California. The subtitle reads: Make life multiplanetary. The billboard is funded by a group of enthusiastic fans. SpaceX sees the colonization of Mars as one of the most exciting and even most necessary things we as humanity should do in the coming decade. After landing on the Moon in the 1960s, human space travel has been downgraded to orbital travel. Only robotic devices, steered remote from Earth, dwell on the surface of Mars. We left the Moon and haven’t been back in ages. Shouldn’t we be on Mars by now?  Elon Musk, engineer and founder of SpaceX, is the chief advocate of colonizing Mars, and claims that the thought of humanity existing exclusively on Earth fills him with dread, due to the possible collapse of earthly living as we know it. Even if our species’ existence were not at risk, just being able to say that we are a multi-planet species is an idea that makes him and many others excited to jump out of bed in the morning. It makes them want to live in the thought of great and heroic undertakings happening in this age and time. What a time to be alive!

Many people feel that this is an exciting time, and follow space news fervently. So let’s take a look one of the questions in our life time: Mars. Let’s explore the pros and cons to the question: Is it a good idea to colonize Mars? Why could this be a good idea? Mars enthusiasts are happy to give the reasons why. First, colony enthusiasts believe in the need to survive as a species. Being able to have a back up plan, a Planet B, if something goes wrong here on earth, seems like a reasonable idea. Second, they want to feel as though humans are thriving and expanding human consciousness.

The Attractiveness of a Planet B

According to supporters, a Mars colony would be a place where humanity is present outside of earth as a population of people with a reasonable amount of DNA (maybe a million people) that live and work to make another planet habitable. This would include creating an atmosphere, bringing living organisms to that planet, and more.The first Martians would be working extremely hard for the first decades, living in boring and small domes. It would be dangerous—possibly even a drudge of an existence—just to be able to bring a part of humanity outside of earth permanently.

spacex rocket in the garage

What I find charmingly realistic about these colony plans is that there is not a desire for the “idealized society” as many science fiction books and films would suggest. Nor hope that we would bring “our best and brightest” to that planet—we would just bring people. We bring ourselves, and will keep making mistakes that hurt other people and ourselves. Christians call this our sinful nature. This nature is not going to change without a divine intervention working in our hearts and minds, no matter what planet we are on. So going to Mars to become a better humanity is not the goal. It is simply the promise of saving humanity itself.

Let’s then explore the “extinction” consideration for colonizing Mars. Is that even realistic? Should we anticipate a complete extinction event?  Possibilities range from an external event like another great comet hitting earth, or an internal event such as a nuclear war or a bioterrorist attack. And then there is the certainty of climate change. Though the western world consumes resources at a much higher rate than the earth can produce and cope with, climate change is a threat that will not instantly kill off all of humanity. But climate change is the event that will affect the poorest and most vulnerable populated regions of our planet—both soonest and harshest. One other event that is on our horizon of knowledge is the expansion and burning up of our sun, and the evaporation of our oceans in the coming million years ahead. This would affect life on Mars as well, so perceiving Mars as a Planet B option would still not be enough a few million years from now…

As for the absolute need for a Planet B, we differ on this matter. Christians have the hope that a cataclysmic event killing all of humanity will not happen due to the story God’s promise to Noah. Many people of faith understand this story’s events to serve as a stern warning about degrading the earth, but others do not. This idea of just succumbing to a possible ending of the human race is too depressing according to Mr. Musk, who wants to have a greater goal in life than just living, working to survive, and then dying. He would rather die on Mars—just not on impact. He wants to feel useful for the short time he has. We as Christians agree that living just (for making a) living, is indeed useless, without purpose.

Do we need to live on Mars to feel as if we are thriving? Could we not find enough meaning here?

Maaike Harmsen

Does space exploration aid in our thriving?

We are here not just to survive, but to truly live. Exploring our surroundings, whether on earth or in our skies, is also part of how we are designed by our Creator; we are called not to stay in a Paradise doing nothing, doling around. We are called to go out, to cultivate and inhabit earth; to rule over it, to design and manufacture, just like God did. We are his image bearers, engineers of brand new things! We are called to explore and name, from the smallest particles that wobble too much to the black holes that just don’t want to be photographed—yet we managed to do so. We are called to make beautiful new tools: Hubble telescopes, mRNA vaccines, art, and music. We are called to live together with and love fellow creatures and above all, love God Himself. This is all as what God intended us to do, making ourselves useful, using all we have: brain, hands and heart. This is part of what it looks like to thrive as his creatures.

So, the question of colonizing another planet remains: do we need to live on Mars to feel as if we are thriving? To expand our human consciousness and better understand the meaning of life? Before we fly off, we should dig a little deeper right here. Could we not find enough meaning here? I think we can thrive right here, on earth as earthlings, if we have a feeling of purpose right here, a feeling that we matter. We don’t know yet—or maybe never will!—if we are unique as (human) species in the universe. We thought for a long time we were in the center of the universe, or at least the center of our galaxy. But we are humbled now that we  know we are on a very small planet in a corner of an enormous, mostly empty Space. And we are loved and known by God—this should comfort us more than our puny sized planet and peripheral location in the universe!

After exploring this question, our reaction could be: We don’t need to go to Mars, but we certainly could—just to be explorers, naming and discovering, seeing what it is like to live in a hostile environment, making it habitable. But it could be and probably should be a choice by those people only who would like to go and live on Mars. And therefore the permanent colonization endeavour should be privately funded and not by any government agency. Making Mars into a habitable planet is an enormous undertaking and the experiences could bring useful knowledge for our home planet, to improve the way things are going here.

SpaceX rocket trail of light

All in all, there is more than enough adventure, exploration and purposeful living here on planet earth. Anyone who stays on earth and works on accelerating our life towards a more sustainable future for all, is contributing to the high commandment God wants us to remember; to protect the lives of the poor and those without influence or power. It is a worthy cause, and more than enough to fill our lives with, here on this beloved green planet.

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About the author

maaike harmsen

Maaike Harmsen

Maaike Harmsen (1975) is a reformed theologian from the Netherlands. She has a Master in Theology (with a minor in Philosophy) and is a PhD candidate in business ethics. She has taught (business) ethics and dogmatics in China & Indonesia and ethical leadership in North Korea. She grew up watching Star Wars and loves sci-fi stories. She also preaches and is creating a series of sermons titled: Thank God for Technology: Sermons for Nerds and Geeks.