After decades of debate, interplanetary travel and Mars settlement have recently come back onto the global science, exploration, and geopolitical agenda. This project, the result of seed funding for a range of projects focusing on Mars settlement, aims to discuss ideas of Mars settlement from a variety of perspectives. Several countries and technology corporations have actively explored the idea of Mars exploration or even settlement – not to mention science fiction authors and others who have creatively explored the idea of approaching and settling another planet.
Many current plans and ideas are rooted in the idea that Mars exploration and settlement has to be, by definition, experimental. This is because settling Mars, or even visiting the planet, is an enterprise which features multiple unknowns – and not just technically or in psychological terms. Settling Mars raises all sorts of philosophical, ethical, logistical, and environmental questions that need to be tackled before any manned mission lands on the planet’s surface.
This project begins at this point – the point of asking questions about Mars settlement, and taking the idea of settlement seriously – and aims to contribute to a developing conversation of how to conceive of human settlement on Mars. Specifically, the thinking that has informed the workshop has been influenced by:
a.) The notion of Mars settlement as exploratory, experimental settlement. There are several examples, on Earth, of small, semi-autonomous settlements being set up and operated. A key example of this is Antarctic exploration bases, which have evolved over the past 100+ years. What can be learned from the Antarctic base experience? How are bases usefully regulated and operated? Are there any lessons that can be drawn from Antarctic bases, and can they be applied to Mars settlements? Are there any other examples of experimental settlements on Earth which could yield useful insights when designing a Mars settlement mission?
Above: Concept for Mars settlement (1) (left); South Africa’s SANAE IV Antarctic base (2) (right)
b.) Environmental issues. Settling Mars opens up a Pandora’s box of issues in environmental ethics. How should Mars be considered, in environmental terms? As a protected environmental zone? And how would this impact on potential plans for settlement and other (industrial, economic, and other) activities? Again, how can we learn from, say, Antarctic bases, and how can we learn from, say, the Antarctic Treaty and other international environmental agreements? Should any settlement mission be preceded by an international environmental agreement?
c.) How can we think about the political and geopolitical regulation of Mars? Currently, in Antarctica, different countries have their own areas of interest. Should the same system be replicated in the case of Mars settlement, and why? What pitfalls can be avoided through acknowledging and taking account of current experience? And if international bases are to be set up, how should these be governed and regulated? How will geopolitical conflicts and tensions on Earth manifest in a Mars base setting? And at what point should a Mars settlement consider itself independent of Earth – politically, technically, logistically? Or is Mars to be considered a 21st century version of a colony, with all the issues that that brings with it?
d.) There have been multiple visions of Mars settlement and interplanetary exploration produced by a range of agencies, corporations, writers, artists, filmmakers, and others over the past few decades. A key psycho-artistic question to ask is to what extent are current plans determined by past visions, and to what extent are current plans attempts to re-enact previous visions? Should these visions be more critically questioned?
The workshop will be a forum for informal discussions on how recent plans to set up human Mars missions, and eventual Mars settlements, can be informed by Earth-based experience with, among other things: experimental and exploration settlements (such as Antarctic bases), international conservation treaties, the history of science, technology and exploration, and other themes.
The project is funded by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Settlement Challenge (MBR Space Settlement Challenge), a global grant fund to support preliminary research into ambitious ideas and concepts that unlock the future of human space habitation. The United Arab Emirates is committed to accelerating the global development of space exploration and space habitation through several space-related initiatives, including UAE Mars City (see a VR tour of an imagined settlement here) and the Mars 2117 Project. The MBR Space Settlement Challenge is the latest of the efforts to accelerate humankind’s path to space. The Challenge is launched by the newly created Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Accelerated Research (MBR Center for Accelerated Research) in Dubai, an initiative of the Dubai Future Foundation (DFF).
“The space race calls for hard work, research, and creativity. It requires us all to work together to achieve what no country alone has accomplished so far: landing a person on the red planet, building a city on the moon, and far beyond,” said UAE Vice President and Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, “The Mohammed bin Rashid Global Space Challenge is an open and sincere invitation to all scientists and experts to join the efforts to help humanity reach the stars.”
(1) Image by Dr. Ross Hofmeyr – see here
(2) Image by NASA/Clouds AO/SEArch – https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/a-new-home-on-mars-nasa-langley-s-icy-concept-for-living-on-the-red-planet, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66871595