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Manifesto urges us to consider realities of living on Mars

The notion of humans living on Mars is no longer purely a fantastical and distant sci-fi aspiration. 

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Research into achieving Martian settlement has previously focused on developing the technological innovation to get us there, but how will humans adapt socially in these new surroundings? One academic at King’s College London says the time has now come to bring social and political questions more firmly into the debate.  

A Manifesto for Governing Life on Mars, a new paper led by Dr Robert Cowley, Lecturer in Sustainable Cities, urges scientists, politicians, and everyone, to consider the idea that technical questions cannot be separated from social ones. He argues that the biggest hurdles to settling on the planet are not technological, but social, environmental and educational. 

On average, NASA spends almost $20 billion on space exploration each year, including a campaign to send more astronauts to the Moon and human missions to Mars.  

However, whilst technological advances are helping us understand whether humans could biologically live on the planet, the paper indicates that research and thinking on the social and political dimensions for human settlement in space is lacking.  

Dr Cowley said: “The establishment of a permanent human base on Mars may seem a long way off given technological challenges. However, we must recognise that there are vital questions, including around the natural environment, economies and education, which should not be ignored or seen as peripheral to the scientific debate. Instead, such questions should be shaping the course of our investment in related technologies.”   

Taking a longer view, the changing power relations between planets must be considered. We might imagine a distant future in which permanent Mars settlements are self-sustaining, but what happens in the meantime? How will Earthly organisations who fund and support the Mars settlement continue to communicate with Martians, and how much governing influence would they expect to have? What if, for example, ongoing Earthly support became conditional on Mars accepting toxic waste from Earth? Should we insist on early settlers’ right to return to our planet? At what point would reproduction on Mars become permissible?” 

The manifesto also states that the stakes involved in Martian settlement for initial inhabitants is high, as they might not be able to return to Earth if the experiment does not go according to plan. Their actions may have ongoing effects for the future of the planet, including understanding how best to protect the natural environment from the day they arrive, and how the community might be governed and by whom.  

Calling on us to move beyond speculative scenarios and utopian thinking, the manifesto highlights a pressing need for a practical consideration of the political and social questions which will inevitably accompany any form of Mars settlement beyond initial landings.