At the moment there seems to be a general feeling that the programme of crewed space research has been put on hold.


The International Space Station is beset with problems, and by no means all authorities are in favour of it; no astronauts have been to the Moon for over 30 years, and all the emphasis has been on the exploration of space by robotic probes.

The Space Shuttle fleet needs to be replaced and there is talk of destroying the Hubble Space Telescope – a proposal that has angered and alarmed scientists all over the world.

So what lies ahead for the foreseeable future?

Establishing a lunar base is by no means out of the question within the next couple of decades, provided that we do not indulge in any more senseless wars.

The Tharsis region covers a geological hotspot that has wbeen pushing the terrain upwards for billions of years, creating a 7km-high plateau. It is home to three of Mars’s largest shield volcanoes: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons (from north to south)
Mars. A future home for human beings? Credit: Emirates Mars Mission

After that it will be time to start looking toward Mars, and President George W Bush of the United States has already given a preliminary timescale.

Cynics (such as myself) suggest that he may be trying to ape President Kennedy's announcement of landing men on the Moon before 1970, but sooner or later Mars must be reached.

Could humans survive the journey to Mars? The problems are immense, one of the worst being the danger from solar radiation during the journey. A violent solar storm would be disastrous, and even Mr Bush cannot control the Sun.

Mars is not exactly welcoming, but it is less unlike the Earth than any other body in the Solar System. One trouble is that from our point of view, the atmosphere is of little use.

It is painfully thin, and it is made up almost entirely of carbon dioxide.

We are not sure how effective it will be as a radiation shield (how will astronauts hide from radiation on Mars?) and we must remember that the explorers will have to spend a long time on the planet.

There can be no quick there-and-back dash, as with the Moon.

After the astronauts have landed there will be a prolonged delay before Earth and Mars are suitably placed for a return journey.

Establishing a permanent base on Mars

An artist’s impression of the first astronauts and human habitats on Mars. What will 2021 bring to the table as NASA pushes forward for its first crewed mission to the Red Planet? Credit: NASA
An artist’s impression of the first astronauts and human habitats on Mars. Credit: NASA

The first Martian bases will be far from luxurious, but if all goes well they will be made much more comfortable once we are sure that permanent bases really can be established.

At least there are no hidden dangers, so far as we know, and though dust storms will be common, they will have relatively little force in that thin atmosphere.

Neither is there likely to be any trouble from Marsquakes; the great volcanoes are quiet, and are not likely to erupt again.

Yet the fact remains that the astronauts will be unable to live on Mars except in very restricted conditions; they will have to stay inside their capsules, inside a base or inside their space suits. Mars is not suited to human visitors.

But can we change this?

Terraforming Mars

Could we terraform Mars and make it like Earth? Credit: Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images
Could we terraform Mars and make it like Earth? Credit: Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images

Much has been heard about ‘terraforming’: ending up with a Mars on which conditions are much the same as they are on Earth.

Arthur C Clarke has written about a future Mars with blue skies, extensive oceans, widespread forests and breathable air.

Even if this can be achieved, it will take centuries, and the problems involved are only too clear.

For example, we must thicken the atmosphere, changing its composition and making certain that it does not leak away, as the first atmosphere presumably did (remember that the escape velocity of Mars is only just over three miles per second).

We must also raise the surface temperature, perhaps by introducing greenhouse gases or by melting the polar ice caps.

Persuading plants to grow on the surface of the terraformed Mars will be difficult, but can probably be done.

Eventually we will end up with a Mars where there are large cities, supporting a population of thousands or even millions.

Should we colonise Mars?

A selfie captured by the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Mars rovers like Curiosity haven't found signs of advanced life... yet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

But... if we could achieve all this, are we sure that it is the right thing to do?

If there were advanced life forms on Mars it is tempting to say that the answer would have to be no, because the introduction of Earth-type beings would unquestionably mean that the indigenous Martians would be doomed.

However, there are no indigenous Martians, and certainly nothing nearly as intelligent as a beetle, which removes the most serious moral objections.

On the other hand we must agree that Mars would be irreversibly contaminated, and any organisms there would become extinct very quickly, even before scientists had had the time to examine them properly.

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The risk may be low, but many people regard it as unjustifiable.

We may have contaminated Mars even now, despite all our efforts to sterilise the vehicles landing there.

There is also the purely practical aspect.

A terraforming programme would be vastly expensive by any standards, and would strain the resources of even a wholly united Earth.

What would be the benefits? Mars is not likely to contain any materials unobtainable at home.

A remarkable view of Earth from Apollo 16, taken on 16 April 1972, reveals a world of blue and white with a hint of brown; (inset) the image before it was digitally restored. Credit: NASA / Toby Ord
When we consider our future on Mars, we must also consider our future on Earth. Credit: NASA / Toby Ord

The counter-argument here is that a terraforming programme could not be started except by a world in a state of permanent peace, with mutual friendship and trust between all nations.

This may be a Utopian dream in 2005, but perhaps things will be better in, say, 3005.

A terraformed Mars will have to become self- supporting, and will not have to depend upon help from Earth.

This means a well-regulated system of government, which will have to be global and will have to work better than ours does at the moment.

Of course, recreation will be an important part of life on Mars, but we may well hope that there will be no riots and no arrests at the end of a game of football between, say Syrtis Major United and Hellas Rovers!

We always have to reckon with the defects in human nature; has it ever struck you that the only creatures that wage organised war on each other are humans and ants?

There are bound to be calls of: "Leave Mars alone; we have done enough harm on Earth."

Terraforming, it is claimed, will be not only a criminal waste of money, but will also have adverse effects upon our way of life on Earth.

In any case, what right have we to interfere with the evolution of another planet?

Personally, I would like nothing better than to have the opportunity to visit Mars, but I admit that I would not be at all keen to exchange my Selsey home for a des res on the slopes of Olympus Mons.


This article originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.


Patrick Moore The Sky at Night astronomer
Patrick MooreAstronomer

Sir Patrick Moore (1923–2012) presented The Sky at Night on BBC TV from 1957–2012. He was the Editor Emeritus of BBC Sky at Night Magazine, President of the British Astronomical Association and Society for Popular Astronomy, and a researcher and writer of over 70 books.