Broadly speaking, I can see four … philosophies for how we humans will explore Mars. The first I’m not sure how someone could support it, but I’m sure someone out there does. The other three have their supporters, some rather vocal, but all have major issues.
Option 1: Flags and footprints
“Flags and footprints” is often used to describe the Apollo missions to the moon. We landed men on the moon, planted a flag, took photos, did a bit of science, and came back. We went to show that we could do it, but without the intention to build on what we did. It’s possible some national space program or private enterprise could spend the billions of dollars to land some people on Mars to get in the history books and have bragging rights. But will they have the ability to build on that?
The biggest issue with the flags and footprints approach on Mars is that it would set a precedent in the public’s mind. We spend billions of dollars to go to the moon, and then we stopped going. If we spend billions of dollars to go to Mars and then stop going after a couple missions – especially if those billions are tax dollars – then it would just lend credence to those who think space is all just a waste of money.
Option 2: Sustained scientific study
This approach is where every 26 months – when Earth and Mars are in the right spots in their orbits – we send a team of scientist astronauts to a lab on Mars to conduct various experiments. Think of it as the International Space Station (ISS), but on Mars.
There are a couple of problems with this option. First, it’s more likely a national project, much the same way that Antarctic bases and the ISS are national projects. The problem with this is that it would be expensive to carry out such a program for decades. So every time there was a political change, or some need to cut some part of the budget to save some other sacred cow, it’s likely such a project would be unceremoniously canceled.
A second big problem is that there are space supporters who don’t like the ISS. Yes, the argument could be made that things should have been done differently and we could have had a better station that would let us do more. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the people who think this research lab in space is … boring. These are the people who think that every mission in space should be an inspiration to generations to come. So a research lab on Mars won’t cut it.
Option 3: Slow colonization
Slow colonization is an outreach of sustained scientific study. Once we figure out how to support ten people living on Mars, we have ten people living on Mars. There would still be scientists cycling though, but now there would be a permanent staff to help them with research as well as building up the infrastructure and resources so that twenty people would be able to live on Mars.
Slow colonization would be a little more expensive than sustained scientific study, but it would have a more public friendly goal, and thus would be harder to cancel. It would also be the logical approach of actively figuring out how to live on Mars before sending a bunch of colonists. Thus, it will probably be the least likely option to happen. The main reason being that some of the loudest Pro-Mars voices are talking about hundreds of people living on Mars “in our lifetimes.” Hundreds, not tens. For the public that gets a new phone every six months, the idea that it could take decades to build up basic comforts is unacceptable. But that’s how things will be. A year after the first person walks on Mars you won’t be able to book a Martian holiday where you’ll sit around a pool sipping Mai Tais. When the reality of how slow colonizing Mars will be sets in, many of the public will feel cheated and will lose interest.
Option 4: Fast colonization
The only way to live up to the hype of Mars will be fast colonization. This is where we start sending dozens, or hundreds of people to Mars at a time.
The basic problem with this is that it is based on the hope that the steep learning curve of figuring out how to live on an alien planet doesn’t kill most of the colonists. Figuring out the learning curve was the point of the slow colonization. But to meet public expectations, such sensible caution may have to be thrown away.
The other big problem with fast colonization is that it will be rather expensive. Even with cheap rockets flinging your stuff to Mars, you’re still going to have to fling a lot of stuff. Again, part of the idea behind slow colonization is to slowly figure out and build up the capabilities of sustained living on Mars. So you’ll either have to over prepare and thus fling a lot of stuff to Mars, or under prepare and maybe kill off some colonists.
So which way will humans explore Mars? Only time will tell. Unfortunately, it’s likely few of us will live to see which way it goes.