A guest post by Michael Hikari Cecire.
There are many different ways to think about the prospect of long term human settlement on Mars. Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX has vowed to colonize the Red Planet, couches Martian colonization as a critical piece in ensuring the long-term survival of the human race. In science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the justifications turn out to be more prosaic, as private enterprises flock to Fourth Rock from the Sun for its mineral bounty. Viewscreen’s own Joshua Foust, writing on his (highly recommended!) personal blog, takes a rather more contrarian view, noting that even many of the most optimistic projections for space colonies are economically implausible.
Putting aside our pitchforks for a moment, economically justifiable or not, there still appears to be a consolidating consensus within the scientific, governmental, and, increasingly, business communities that a Martian colony is going to happen, or at least a conceivable likelihood. This may be largely a consequence of the cultural zeitgeist, in which contemporary cultural touchstones — like Andy Weir’s (excellent) hard sci-fi novel The Martian (and its serviceable and deceptively re-watchable 2015 film adaptation) — have helped launch Musk’s various mad scientist schemes (and, presumably, vice versa) into the global public consciousness like a slingshot trajectory on a gravitational assist.
So, let’s say, costs be damned, a Martian colony is going to happen. What will it look like? Is it going to be a U.S. government-funded research station, of the sorts in Antarctica? Will it be a venture of private enterprise? Will it be an independent polity in its own right?
That latter proposition is the subject of a poignant essay over at The Strategy Bridge, where author James Gilley makes a forceful legal, strategic, and philosophical case for Martian independence. It’s a compelling idea, made all the more so by the elegant simplicity of the notion: the dizzying array of legal hurdles, strategic headaches, and the likelihood of Terran-Martian physiological divergence (if not outright proto-speciation) are addressed, if not entirely solved, by granting Mars political independence.
By the sheer tyranny of distance, any Mars colony will need to not only be self-sufficient to a degree, but would also demand some form of autonomy in decision-making. This is not just because of extended travel times; even transmitting between Earth and Mars can be time delayed anywhere between approximately 4 to 20 minutes, depending on the relative positions of the two planets. Everything from scheduling routine supply runs to beaming over the latest season of Suits would be hampered without some good old fashioned Martian self-reliance.
But that’s a far cry from full-on political independence. The idea that Earth authorities would concede ultimate sway over the first extra-planetary colony to its handful of residents, whether a few hundred or a several thousand, seems unlikely, despite whatever technical advantages such an arrangement might hypothetically yield. In a way, Mars is captive in this respect to not only its distance, but its relative proximity. One could certainly imagine a more hands-off approach to colonies in the outer planets or beyond, just as a matter of practicality. Without enormous advances in space propulsion technology, any colonization efforts in the outer planet regions would necessarily have to be almost entirely self-reliant. Mars, by contrast, seems just close enough — in our imaginations, if maybe not in its actual positioning — to remain under Terran suzerainty. But a Martian colony of any appreciable size, at best a multi-month voyage from Earth at its closest using current propulsion technology, may chafe fiercely at such an arrangement.
Perhaps the more pressing political question over Martian colonization isn’t over its independence, but how to forestall it.
Imagine you’re a political appointee in one of the handful of space-faring nations contributing to the establishment of a permanent Martian colony. You believe in the scientific, economic, and moral worth of the endeavor. You have budgetary line items, all kinds of embarrassingly cool gear for lifting your handpicked pioneers into the heavens, and the backing of your political establishment. You are also, however, presented with a troubling conclusion by social scientists that have been contracted — for the sake of customary due diligence, of course — to examine the anticipated political dynamics of a Martian colony: they will revolt.
It won’t happen immediately, and maybe not even in your lifetime. But it will happen, the researchers from the Viewscreen Group, LLC assure you. Why? Because the moment most of those ex-Terrans make Martian landfall, they will experience an intense, prolonged, and likely compounding sense of isolation from the planet of their birth. Not because they won’t miss Earth — it’s gentle breezes, vast seas, or lush greenery — but because every day of their existence will be an affirmation of their separation from it, and even the mildest directives from home will seem like untenable meddling from alien functionaries with little genuine knowledge or understanding of the colonists’ genuinely extraterrestrial lives.
It would be only moderately irritating at first, their resistance. A delayed transmission here, some modest misallocation of resources there. Who approved that experiment? No one. We never discussed expanding the habitat in that way. They never asked.
Efforts to stamp out insubordination — passive and largely administrative at first — would only aggravate colonial grievances. If the acrimony reached a fever pitch, the Martians wouldn’t need to hold rallies, or broadcast their grievances, or ink a declaration of independence. They would only need to turn off their receivers — and it would be months, if not years, before Earth knew exactly what was actually happening over on the Martian surface, much less regain control over the restive colony. New ships would have to be dispatched, and maybe they would be able to reestablish order, but not without major investments of time, resources, and the inherent risk that comes with navigating the choppy seas of the black.
Leaving the colony to its own devices would not be an option. Not only because of the mind-boggling investments that a Mars colony will have eaten in the course of its establishment, but the political pressure on Terran elites to reestablish sovereignty over the Martian colonial rabble would likely be enormous (though, this being Earth, the Martian putschists would almost certainly have their own small contingent of backers as well). But on a humanitarian level, it’s worth considering that in the event of an unsanctioned Martian separation, the reality of acute resource bottlenecks — of air, water, foodstuffs, etc. — lend conditions that are ripe for authoritarianism, and not the rosy communitarian visions variously telegraphed in Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and which form a staple of the science fiction genre.
Because of the numerous daunting technical, financial, psychological, and, yes, epistemological questions that are inevitably raised by the idea of colonizing Mars, even otherwise politically prosaic considerations as insurrection are frequently glossed over. But for governments or companies or groups seriously planning a permanent Martian colony, the risk cannot be discounted. From the very beginning, any Martian colony would have to be designed to not only accommodate fragile human physiology and maximize scientific or economic value, but to structurally undermine the very suggestion of rebellion. That will take some doing, but there may be some creative ways to do it — albeit not without their own costs and trade-offs.