Lunar Colony vs. Martian Colony
In the last few years, with the feeling we are on the verge of a golden age of space exploration, there has been a debate over whether we should return to the moon as a prelude to going to Mars (my opinion) or just go to Mars. Some of the “just go to Mars” people feel that returning to the moon is a distraction at best and a waste at worst. But I’ve been thinking about this lately and I’ve came to some interesting conclusions I felt like sharing, so here they are.
We will return to the moon. Now, when I say we, I mean humans. The next entity that puts humans on the moon could be American, Russian, Chinese, private company, or some combination. I predict that by 2030 – at the latest – there will be a lunar base. Research at this base will consist of studying the moon itself, setting up astronomical observatories, as well as just learning how to live in a hostile environment. But over the decades, non-research things will also crop up. Lunar tourism will be the natural outgrowth of space tourism. The reduced lunar gravity will be easier on weakened bones so there will probably be a lunar retirement community. And besides the standard reason for returning to the moon of Helium-3 mining, who knows what opportunities will develop for high-vacuum/low-gravity manufacturing. So you will need people to clean the hotel rooms, take care of the elderly, oversee the robots in the factories, thus meaning you’ll need people to grow food for everyone, teachers to teach the children, and police to keep the peace. A lunar economy will develop at the lunar bases and – probably within a few decades – turn them into a full-fledged lunar colonies.
And what about Mars? We humans will go to Mars. We will set up research bases. And then what? There will be Martian tourism, but I think the time needed to fly to Mars and back will vastly limit the number of people willing to go. For the same reason I doubt there will be much of a Martian retirement community. And what manufacturing could be done on Mars that couldn’t be done better in space or on the moon? I don’t see much of a Martian economy developing that could turn bases into colonies. In addition, I very much suspect that as more people go to Mars, the environmental idea of keeping Mars Martian will grow to the point where the idea of terraforming Mars will die kicking and screaming. Especially if we discover any sort of native Martian life. I see the future of Mars as a sort of Antarctica; there will be research bases and limit tourism and that’s about it.
But where will everyone live if we don’t terraform Mars? you ask. Well, first off, I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but I think the Earth’s population grows by some 10,000 people a day, and in fifty years, only about 600 people have been in space. So the idea of shipping our excess population to Mars is a complete flight of fancy. And one would hope that in the centuries it would take to terraform Mars, we would be able to get the overpopulation problem under control.
So, you ask, will our future in space be limited to lunar colonies and Mars bases? No. There are these things called asteroids out there. There are millions of them. You can mine them to build spaceships, or hollow them out to create habitats. I predict that by 2200, more people will live and work in the asteroid belt than on space stations orbiting Earth, in lunar colonies, and Mars bases combined and they will be the economic powerhouse of the solar system.
In conclusion, I think a lunar colony is a certainty, there will definitely be Martian research bases, but the real future of human spacefaring will be in the asteroid belt. Focusing so intently on Mars may be a distraction from our ultimate goal.