With Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson recently completing their pioneering space flights that could set the stage for future space tourism, it is worth taking a look at what might be involved for the human exploration of Mars, even though it’s likely decades away.
Elon Musk is perhaps the best-known advocate for going to Mars, but the idea is decades old. In a 1966 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences paper, Gordon R. Woodcock of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center theorized how the Saturn V launch vehicle—at the time in development for the Apollo lunar missions—could be used for a Mars exploration. Technical challenges aside, as we continue to expand our exploration of Mars, there is a broader ethical question at play. What might be the lessons of past voyages of discovery and colonization that we should be thinking about? History provides us with many cautionary tales.
Human exploration has led to many extraordinary new discoveries, but it has also led inexorably to the appropriation and exploitation of natural as well as human resources. The desire to gain control over various commodities such as spices, sugar and oil, propelled both global discovery and the drive for political and economic domination. During the age of empire, European nations derived their wealth and power from colonizing various global regions and controlling land, labor and military power to advance their own interests.
After the early European settling of what would become the United States, the American colonists declared their independence from an unjust English authority and created the Constitution by which our modern society functions. This did not, however, prevent the settlers from referring to native people as savages and excluding them from the assertion of rights to liberty and happiness.
Then there is the question of “ownership”: does the first country that plants its flag on the surface of another world get to claim ownership? Such claims have been made many times before, and they do not bode any better for the future of space exploration than they have for human history on Earth. Clearly if we are to settle another planet—and likely it will be a multinational effort if we do—we’ll need to write a constitution for Mars, one that would learn from past mistakes, much like in the assignment set by Yale’s Hélène Landemore in a recent course on the political theory of constitutions.
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