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Would You Want to Leave Earth Forever?

I admire the kind of pioneering spirit that would make someone want to go off to die in a new remote settlement for the good of humanity. As somebody who has essentially spent his entire life in Jackson, Mississippi (pop. 172,000) in the southeastern United States, I’m admittedly what Wendell Berry would call more of a sticker than a boomer.

So the Mars One mission isn’t for me, and it isn’t for people like me, but people like me are not going to be much help in the early stages of space colonization. You’re going to need a lot of über-boomers. (About 40,000 per new colony, maybe.) What makes them tick? And what, especially, would make people want to go spend the rest of their lives on Mars?

io9’s Ria Misra asked, and got an answer from Mars One finalist DanCarey_404. He writes in part:

“For me the attraction is multiple: doing something no one has done before; advancing scientific knowledge; testing and improving technology that can improve life back on Earth; and taking the first steps toward making Humans a multi-planet species.”

These are noble motives. Actually, everything I’ve heard from Mars One applicants suggests they’ve been operating with noble motives. But we’re going to inevitably end up sending out some applicants who hate Earth more than they love space—antisocial personalities who are sick of life here and just want to go somewhere else, but have no way of knowing whether they’ll be even less happy with the idea of life on another planet than they were with the idea of life on Earth. Given how precarious life on a hostile world like Mars is likely to be, this could get dangerous.

All of this may be academic in the short run, of course (as the Mars One colonization timeline is, to put it mildly, optimistic), but my sense is that asking people to literally spend the rest of their lives on Mars, in order to keep costs down, invites tragedy. And a permanent colony’s partial dependence on temporary colonists wouldn’t just reduce the rate of crime, suicide, and sabotage; it would also solve some of the problems a small permanent colony might otherwise develop with respect to genetic diversity. And yes, it would be more expensive—but if we’re not ready to invest in the lives of people who populate our interplanetary colonies, do we have any right to build them in the first place?

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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