Curiosity and Manifest Destiny

For the past year, NASA’s latest Mars rover has been trekking steadily across Mars, taking samples and images from the landscape. The feat is eliciting a surge in excitement surrounding the possibility of ancient life on Mars. According to the New York Times, the data presented so far seems to support the idea of a Mars that once looked a lot like a prehistoric Earth. One scientist on the Curiosity team even imagines that the planet once had running water and an atmosphere with a blue sky and puffy clouds. While many scientists speculate about the possibility of ancient life, others are taking the dialogue about Mars one step further. The new question asked is this: Could Mars support human life now?

Some of the time, the question is asked in speculation. Other times, the people talking about the possibility of colonies on Mars are completely earnest. Internet commenters suggest that more money needs to be put into research of Mars because of the possibility for human settlement. Even more extreme is the Dutch organization Mars One, which plans to send four people on a one way trip to Mars by the year 2025.

While there is no question that the suggestion of an Earth-like Mars is exciting, I find the tendency to immediately contemplate colonization disturbing. To me, it echoes the sentiments of colonization efforts not so long ago and their disastrous implications for indigenous peoples and the environment.

Perhaps my argument seems ridiculous. So far, Curiosity cannot find any organic compounds, let alone any tall blue people to exploit.  Overall, Mars doesn’t have much to destroy. I can’t argue with this fact. However, it’s the sentiment hidden behind the desire to colonize that I find particularly disturbing.

There have been two key underlying assumptions in every Western attempt to expand and colonize. The first is that expansion is a right. The second is that what we have is not enough. These two ideas are just as present in the modern Western consciousness as they were when Manifest Destiny motivated white settlers to push west. No, there does not seem to be much on Mars to exploit or destroy. However, this does not mean that the planet is ours to claim. As humans become more aware of the consequences of colonialism, I believe it is our duty to make different decisions in the future, so as not to perpetuate a colonial mindset.

As a scientist, I am conflicted about current efforts to explore other parts of our solar system. I think curiosity is vital, and that research often brings about discoveries that aid science in unexpected ways. However, there are also so many unanswered questions here on Earth. How will we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels? Who is being harmed by climate change? And most importantly, how do we still operate from a colonial mindset? Right now, these questions are all more pressing than the question of whether Mars can support life.