Mars. The Red Planet. It has fascinated humans since antiquity. It was discovered so long ago that there is no record of its discovery. It is easy to observe, appearing periodically as a morning or evening star, when the sky is too light to see the other stars. References to Mars can be found in the writings of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Galileo Galillei was the first person to observe Mars telescopically in the 17th century. In 1903, the famed astronomer Percival Lowell published a book entitled The Canals of Mars that fueled popular fascination with the planet and let to speculation that it was inhabited. It was not long afterwards that Edgar Rice Burroughs published Under the Moons of Mars, the first installment of his famous Barsoom series, and introduced the world to the redoubtable John Carter, the ravishing Martian princess Dejah Thoris, multi-armed green men and other fantastic inhabitants of the dying world.
Exploration of Mars has been part of NASA’s mission since the agency was first created. Indeed, many considered the Apollo moon missions as a prelude to a manned mission to Mars, possibly as early as the 1980s. Unfortunately, after the Apollo 11 moon landing, public support for expensive manned space exploration gradually waned, and the Apollo program was cancelled after the flight of Apollo 17. But it appears that NASA has not given up entirely on a manned mission to Mars.
Such projects are always dependent on political considerations if they are funded by public money. However, there is another effort to put humans on Mars that is privately funded. The Mars One program is a nonprofit project that has the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2025, beating NASA by at least five years. They have already begun an astronaut selection program, and are planning the construction of a facsimilie of the Martian base on earth, for use in training and for publicity.
Ethical considerations concerning a manned mission to Mars and space exploration in general abound. Astronauats will face potentially dangerous conditions in transit and after landing on other planets. Some people consider the harvest of natural resourses from other planets, or changing the environment of another planet to suit human needs as unethical. Mars One plans to finanace their project in part by selling broadcasting rights, and at least one person has wondered if such a broadcast will celebrate the triumph of humanity, or simply publicize a tragedy.
Then there is the larger question of the future of humanity as a species. Altruists tell us that it is the responsibility of those of us living now to exercise good stewardship of the planet, so those who come after us will be able to live here too. But it is an undeniable fact that planets, like people, have a life, and that life has a beginning and an end. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that environmental degradation of Earth is inevitable, whether from natural processes or human activity – the only question is how long it will take for the Earth to become uninhabitable for humankind. When that day comes, the survival of homo sapiens (or whatever species we have evolved to) will depend on whether some of us have managed to leave the third rock from from the sun. And that may be the greatest ethical concern of all.