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Opinion Five questions we need to answer before colonizing Mars

Elon Musk, chief executive officer for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), pauses while speaking during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg News)

For all the attention paid to billionaire Elon Musk’s announcement this week that he hopes to get humans to Mars as early as 2024, the early news stories about his efforts focused mostly on the logistics of the effort, including funding, and the fact that the first pioneers to the red planet will probably die there. That’s not to say that these are unimportant issues: There’s no point to thinking about what life on Mars might be like if we can never actually get there or viably inhabit the planet.

But if Musk envisions Mars and other planets as a potential escape hatch for humanity, it’s worth thinking about what kind of society we might build as we spread out into the universe. And fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and the “Expanse” series pose some important questions we all might want to consider.

1. Who will govern Mars? In Robinson’s novels, the first effort to colonize Mars is a public-private partnership, with a team of 100 colonists carefully balanced from among the sponsoring countries. Ostensibly they’re supposed to report back to governments and international organizations on Earth. But as soon as they get underway, this becomes a vexed issue. Should the new Martians, who may never return home and who are assuming enormous risk, be able to govern themselves? Will huge multinational corporations flying flags of convenience effectively take over and strip-mine the planet? If Americans set up settlements on Mars, will they be admitted to the union like states? If we don’t settle these questions before humans set foot on Mars, we could be set up for ugly conflicts over sovereignty and independence.

2. How much will we change the planet’s atmosphere and surface? Getting to Mars is a sufficiently big challenge. But how will we live when we get there? Will we live in underground settlements that provide us with some protection from radiation? Or will we begin to terraform the planet, changing the atmosphere so that it’s breathable and thick enough to make it safe to walk on the surface? How will these choices affect questions of governance? Robinson’s fictional colonists eventually come to realize that without a breathable atmosphere, they’ll be vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation from Earth, and that sabotage to habitats could become a powerful weapon of terror. But they also debate whether, having messed up one planet, humans have the right to bend another world to their needs.

3. Who will go? If tickets to Mars are going to start at $500,000, clearly some of the people who decide to go to Mars will be very rich. But in order to set up functional societies, we’ll have to get all sorts of workers with different kinds of technical expertise there. So will Mars become a hardship posting, like an oil rig? Or a luxury destination that the hyper-rich use to escape a decaying planet Earth? And what happens if the people who helped build that escape hatch are shut outside once it’s complete? Mars could help humanity expand and survive disasters on our home world. But it could also open up new opportunities for even more dramatic social stratification.

4. How will Martian and interplanetary economies function? Bitcoin? Blocks of minerals? Oxygen tanks? How will events on Mars affect the economy on Earth? Mars is going to be expensive to get to, and people are going to want to make money off the planet once they get there, a want that will be intimately connected to the third question on this list.

5. How will human society change if it expands to new planets? This is somewhat theoretical, of course: We can’t know who we’ll become until we get there, and until generations have passed. But the “Expanse” books capture increasing human variation, including people who were born in the Asteroid belt and whose physiques mean they couldn’t function on Earth. Both the “Expanse” and Mars series look at how religion might function in outer space; in the former, Mormons have done incredibly well and are preparing to leave the solar system to spread their faith, while in the latter, Muslim communities begin traversing Martian deserts, governing their convoys in accordance with religious law. Thinking about who we are, what we might want to be and how new environments will shape our customs and traditions is a fascinating experiment, and an important one.

See the strangest questions asked to Elon Musk after SpaceX's presentation of their new Mars colonization rocket. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)