Would becoming one of the first people to settle Mars be worth dying for?

Would becoming one of the first people to settle Mars be worth dying for?
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Recently, SpaceX’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskSpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission SpaceX sending first all-civilian crew into orbit Elon Musk's SpaceX vs. the environmentalists MORE addressed the Humans to Mars conference, during which he waxed eloquent about how his Starship interplanetary spacecraft was proceeding along. It is no secret that Musk is building this monster spaceship to facilitate his long-held dream to establish a settlement on the planet Mars. CNBC reports that Musk has a cautionary note for people who might want to join in on the project.

“I want to emphasize that this is a very hard and dangerous, difficult thing, not for the faint of heart. Good chance you’ll die, it’s going to be tough going, but it will be pretty glorious if it works out.”

Death or glory or maybe both. Those are the choices that Musk is offering prospective future Mars settlers. With the Starship’s development proceeding apace in Boca Chica, Texas, that choice may be available to a lot of people sooner than most think. The idea of a Mars settlement may have been science fiction up until now. But Elon Musk has developed the habit of making science fiction reality.


Humans who visit Mars can die in a wide variety of ways. Radiation, lack of a breathable atmosphere and extreme cold are just a few of the conditions that can shorten a life if they are not adequately protected against.

The effects of low gravity on humans’ long-term health are not well understood. While, thanks to the International Space Station, we know a lot about what microgravity does to the human body, the longest time anyone has spent in a low-gravity environment was three days during the last few Apollo missions.

The psychological effects of living long term in a hostile environment are little understood but must be considered. One study of the mental health issues of researchers living at an Antarctic base suggests that depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment and irritability can result. People who stay at the bottom of the world are a few hours’ plane trip to New Zealand. People who move to Mars will be 100 million miles from the home where they grew up and to which they will be unlikely to ever return.

If all of the above gives the reader pause, perhaps he or she is not cut out to be in the first generation of Martians. However, if instead these dangers seem more like challenges to be overcome, then those people with that attitude just might have the pioneer spirit to cross the interplanetary gulfs and make a new life in a new world.

Incidentally, prospective Mars colonists will tend to have skill sets that do not require a Phd in the STEM fields or a military test pilot career, which are among the qualifications to be a NASA astronaut. Mars will need electricians, mechanics, miners, fabricators, plumbers and other people who would be classified as blue collar here on Earth. Someone will have to maintain the machinery that will keep Mars settlers alive. People who start that “new branch of human civilization,” as Robert Zubrin has said, will have to be tough, self-reliant and innovative.


Why would anyone want to leave a world of green hills and blue, flowing water for one that features frigid, arid deserts blasted by radiation with no surface water or breathable air? Glory and adventure may be part of it, but there must be something more.

Perhaps the allure of Mars will be an opportunity to build a new kind of society. Even the United States, a country founded on the idea of freedom and tolerance, has become increasingly bureaucratic and filled with people who would just as soon break your head open rather than peacefully debate political issues if they disagree with you.

Can a Mars settlement be a freer society than we enjoy on Earth, even considering the need for everyone to be focused on sheer survival? Maybe. But one thing is certain, if Elon Musk is one of the settlers, he will have to step back from power and resist the temptation to be a benevolent dictator. Musk seems to recognize that fact because he envisions a Mars settlement being governed as a direct democracy, like an Ancient Greek polis. Backed up by a sensible and enforceable constitution, that would be an interesting experiment in how humans can govern themselves, worth perhaps the risk of death to participate in.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.