Leaving Earth

date Aug 10, 2014
authors Andrew Rader
reading time 6 mins

Technology and livable environments

we are by nature unsuited to many environments, with our feeble bodies and lack of fur. It is only by virtue of our technology that we can live in places as hostile as northern Europe, or southern Patagonia.

Intra-earth migration to multi-planetary

It was by this means that humans arrived in Australia and North America. We’re constantly looking over the horizon for places to expand, explore, and settle. It’s in our nature. After millions of years of evolution, we are just now at the point where we have the technology to settle other worlds and start the process of becoming a multi-planet species. But why should we bother? Since Earth is the most habitable planet we know of, why shouldn’t we just stay here?


As Carl Sagan famously put it: in the long run, every civilization must become space-faring to ensure its very survival.

Outward looking

In human history, the most innovative and vibrant societies have always been those that remain outward looking.

Scientific knowledge

Another reason to go to Mars is the pursuit of scientific knowledge. There are older places on the surface of Mars than anywhere on Earth. Geological studies of Mars would reveal much about the early history of the solar system. Studying impact history would tell us about current and future threats to Earth posed by asteroids and comets.

Changes on Mars

What changed Mars into the cold desert we find today? Could the same thing happen to Earth? Can we one day restore Mars to its life-friendly past, and make it a true second home for humanity?


Having humans on Mars would benefit our planet in other ways. Traveling to space and looking back on Earth has given us perspective as a species. There are no national boundaries from space. We’ve seen the thin blue atmosphere protecting us from the void. From Voyager, the most distant human creation, we looked back on Earth, a pale blue dot against the blackness of space.

Social impact

Imagine the social impact of having humans gaze back on Earth from another planet for the first time. Imagine the unique perspectives that Martian settlers would have, struggling to survive on a hostile world. What would they be able to teach us?


Although many supplies would be sent from Earth, there would be huge incentives to produce locally. Supplying people on Mars is a logistical challenge not so different from supplying remote environments on Earth.

Manned mission

While it is certainly true that robotic missions are much less expensive, they are also much less capable. As of July 2013, in almost a year on Mars, the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover (aka ‘Mars Science Laboratory’, MSL) has traveled a single kilometer (0.6 miles). Opportunity, in almost ten years, has traveled almost 37 km (23 miles). Needless to say, a human on Mars could cover far more ground, far more quickly, and far more thoroughly.

With robots

Moreover, having humans on Mars would not at all mean that we shouldn’t use robots. Rather, it would mean that we could dramatically increase the efficiency of our robotic explorations.

Man as a robot

Although we can answer some very specifically targeted scientific questions using robots, a human is still by far the most useful and versatile robot we could possibly send.

Most major breakthroughs are indirect

most major breakthroughs are indirect – that is, scientists accidentally make discoveries they aren’t necessarily seeking. The entire field of antibiotics came about because Alexander Fleming accidentally allowed fungus to grow on bacteria plates that should have been sterilized.


Any investment into the cutting edge of technology is bound to have positive repercussions throughout society. Our planet faces tremendous pressures from growing populations and diminishing resources, but resource shortage is essentially a matter of technology. A single 2-km diameter asteroid could yield more iron and precious metals than we extract from Earth in an entire year. Each hour, the Earth receives enough solar energy to run our entire global civilization for a year.

For all humanity

A highly visible and international challenge like going to Mars would provide a positive vision for all of humanity. This kind of inspiration, though intangible, would give all people on Earth a shared goal and common purpose. It would be a beckon call to our youth to develop their technological skills, so that they too might participate in the greatest adventure of our age.

Return on investment

Space exploration is one of the highest leverage fields we can pursue in terms of return on investment. The global cost of maintaining a small human settlement on Mars would be insignificant, but the rewards could be immense.

Won’t be invested unless we take steps

we simply can’t wait for hyper-advanced propulsion, let alone warp drive, because these won’t be invented unless we start by pushing ahead with the technologies that we already have. Necessity is the mother of invention, and major feats can be accomplished with limited technology.

Space travel and pricing

Space travel is expensive, but this is largely due to the high costs associated with breaking free of Earth’s gravity. If you lived on an asteroid base, you’d have to be careful not to launch yourself into space every time you took a step.

Missioned goal

NASA was founded as a direct response to Sputnik. Had the Soviets not been the first to get to space during the Cold War, the space race and Moon landings might never have occurred, and certainly not when they did. From its formation in 1958 until July 20, 1969, NASA had a clear purpose: to beat the Soviets in space.

Sustainability in terms of finances

In the long run, space needs to pay for itself. However, large initial government investments in new transportation technologies are the norm rather than the exception. Columbus’ expeditions were government-funded, as were the voyages of Hudson, Magellan, and most other early explorers. Most historical colonization efforts, like the settlement of Jamestown, were government ventures. The European outposts established around the globe have dramatically shaped the history of the world, and were all paid for by government entities.

From government to the private sector

One of the primary roles of government is to promote long-term prosperity, even when returns are beyond the investment horizon of the private sector. However, the relative immunity from financial accountability is precisely why the government also tends to be horribly inefficient as compared with private industry. The government builds the railroads, and private industry takes it from there.

Possible Mars expedition

Thus, inflatable habitation would almost certainly have to be used on both the trip to Mars, and for the base on the surface. Moreover, this kind of architecture would be barebones in terms of supplies - alarmingly so if it were to carry a crew of 4 as planned. Several launches would likely be required, with a small Mars transfer vehicle assembled in Earth orbit.