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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Mars Must Be More Than a ‘Back-up Earth’



Paying attention to Martian morals

Margaret R. McLean

This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 16, 2016.

Writing for CNN, President Obama revealed the next chapter of America’s story in space — sending humans on a round-trip journey to Mars by the 2030s. The ultimate goal is for humans to one day remain on Mars for some extended period of time. This giant leap to the red planet highlights the best of who we are as Americans — “curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and doing it before anyone else,” to quote Obama.

Mars’ tug on our curiosity and exploring spirit is perhaps irresistible — there are more than 200,000 applicants for two seats on the Mars One one-way “forever” flight scheduled for 2026. But why go, especially if never to return? To seek the final frontier, to satisfy curiosity, to gain knowledge, to foster cooperation, to gain access to critical scarce resources, to create a “back-up Earth”?

For the president, we go “to make our lives better here on Earth.” But, for many, we go because we need a “back-up Earth.” Over a decade ago, Stephen Hawking warned, “I don’t think that the human race will survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”

What sort of accidents could befall us? Natural disasters come to mind — asteroid impacts, pandemics and volcanic winters, among others. However, the reason given for creating a “back-up Earth” is often our need for a “rescue planet” to save us from a rapidly degrading environment and our desire to get out of here while we still can.

Before we put our names on the waiting list for an escape to Mars, we should recognize our own culpability in pollution and climate change. Can we be trusted to “terraform” Mars (transform Mars to support human life) when we hardly understand how to “terraform” Earth so that it remains capable of sustaining life? We need to put our best thinking into a whole Earth cleanup project.

As we think about our leap to Mars, we need to remember two things:

(1) We don’t know what we don’t know, and

(2) The decisions we make and actions we take will likely have a larger impact on future human generations and potential Martian life forms than they have on us.

Paying attention to Martian morals requires not only considerations of human wants and needs but of our duty to care for the Earth and the cosmos. Let me suggest the following guidelines as we pack for Mars:

Preservation, which demands that we value Mars in and of itself, not as a “back-up Earth” or a cosmic strip mine;

Conservation, which requires that we protect Martian resources in light of our duty not to leave things worse off than we found them;

Stewardship, which holds us accountable for the impact our actions have on terrestrial and extraterrestrial others and environments; and,

Last resort, which requires that Martian resources be appropriated only if they are our last refuge from extinction. President Obama anticipates that preparing for living on Mars will give us a better understanding of our environment and ourselves. And, I would hope, a deeper concern for our earthly home.


Margaret R. McLean is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and director of the Center’s bioethics program. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the view of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Oct 28, 2016

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