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August 12, 2003 -- The news and the night sky are dominated by Mars. At a distance of only 34.6 million miles, the Red Planet is now closer to Earth than it has been in the past 55,000 years—that is, at any time in human history. And it is this point that is significant. Human beings have been around for hundreds of thousands of years.
But our history—that is, our self-conscious reflection on our past and contemplation of our future—only started in earnest some ten millennia ago. It was only when we devised ways to keep records, write, and communicate with one another across time and space that we were able to truly realize our human potential.
Human history is the proud story of the conquest of nature. If evolution does not adapt other animals to their environment, they go extinct. We humans survive by changing, altering our environment, and creating the means of our survival and prosperity. We must discover how to plant food, make clothing and shelters, and manufacture medicines to cure our ailments. And the tool that allowed us to go from thatched huts and horse-drawn carts to skyscrapers, planes, and rockets is the human mind.
The mind is not only our tool of survival but also the glorious instrument that allows us to understand the world around us—to discover, for example, that Mars is not a war god wandering the sky but a world not unlike our own.
Imagine Mars as another habitat for humanity.
At the end of the nineteenth century, from his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Percival Lowell opened the public mind to Mars. He believed that he saw canals on the planet's surface and speculated that an advanced civilization had built them to bring water from the Martian polar caps to the cities in the dry, dying desert. Lowell was wrong. There were no canals and no advanced civilizations. With probes and landers launched to Mars, we now know that if there's life on the Red Planet, it is probably microbial. Still, even if only fossils of primitive, extinct life are discovered on a now-dead planet, we will know that when conditions that could support life arise—liquid water, moderate temperatures—so likely will life. This will imply that planets orbiting many of the distant stars we see in the night sky are likely teeming with life—some of it no doubt intelligent.
But one planet harboring intelligent life some day could be right next-door, cosmically speaking. Look at Mars shining bright across the ocean of space the way pioneers once looked across the ocean to America, as a land of unlimited opportunity. As you look at Mars, imagine that you are centuries into the future and that it is a planet with an advanced civilization—a human one! You'll feel the way many of us did on July 20, 1969. When we pried ourselves away from following the Apollo 11 mission on television, we went outside at night and looked at the Moon with our own eyes and knew that at that moment, for the first time in human history, men walked on its surface.
So imagine Mars as another habitat for humanity, a home for millions of men and women. Imagine that over the centuries we have terraformed Mars, that we've pumped greenhouse gases into the poisonous carbon dioxide atmosphere to cause the planet to warm up from its normal Antarctic temperatures, that we've seeded the planet with algae that produce breathable oxygen. Imagine the Red Planet becoming green with life and blue with oceans!
If this is to be a real vision of our future rather than a science-fiction fantasy, we as individuals will need to hold allegiance to science, fact, and, more generally, to that rational capacity that is responsible for our progress. Further, we will need to appreciate that it will be private men and women and not governments that in the long run will transform Mars. In 2002, the British astronomer royal Martin Rees lamented the possibility that private companies would get to the Red Planet before governments and make it into another Wild West. Let's hope so! The spirit of pioneers who settled America is just what will be needed to settle Mars.
If in future centuries humans transform Mars into a livable world, it will be the most awe-inspiring demonstration in human history of the endless potential of the human spirit. So as you watch Mars shining bright in the sky, understand the shining essence of your own spirit and what you can accomplish if you put your mind and will to it.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.