Among the celebrities in our solar system, Mars is by far the undisputed superstar – Tom Hanks of the planets. In all, about four dozen paparazzi-like missions targeted Mars, of which six are currently exhibiting images, listening, sniffing and digging the innermost secrets of the cold, dusty planet. I predict that next year the frantic attention will skyrocket to an all time high.
The hysteria of Mars has not been so feverish since October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles hosted a popular radio program whose cast members made it appear that the Earth was being invaded by scary Martians. "Good God," the fake reporter gasped, "something is dodging the shadow like a gray snake … It shines like wet leather … But this face, this … is … ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can force myself to keep looking, it's so horrible.
The current paroxysm of the Mars mania is being awakened by President Trump, Nasa and several ultra-rich entrepreneurs who have vowed to lead a land invasion of Mars in the next decade. To prove this, in February, Elon Musk used his Falcon Heavy rocket – currently the most powerful booster in the world – to propel a Tesla red-cherry roadster to solar orbit. The Heavy Falcon, Musk says, is the precursor to a rocket he is developing to send human invaders to Mars in 2024.
For its part, NASA is eagerly following Trump's directive to return to the moon, not only to "plant our flag and leave our footprints," but to "lay the groundwork for a possible [manned] mission to Mars, and maybe one day, worlds beyond. "To do this, in 2020 NASA will deploy exploratory robots to the Moon and to the Jezero Mars Crater, intriguing by its ancient rock formations – including what scientists believe to be a billion bed a year old where life ( or the main ingredients for life) may have existed.
Beyond the US and Europe, an unrivaled number of nations are now joining the frenzy. Russia, China, Japan, India and even the United Arab Emirates have announced plans to send paparazzi robots to the superstar planet over the next two years. "The nearest mission is very soon," proclaims Russian President Vladimir Putin, "we are planning to launch a mission to Mars in 2019."
Easily the most advanced plans belong to Mars One, a group founded in 2011 by a couple of Dutch businessmen who offer one-way trips to the Red Planet. If all goes according to plan, Mars One will launch a reconnaissance mission in 2022, deliver life support modules in 2029 and transport the first Martian settlers by 2031.
Incredibly, 200,000 pioneer candidates signaled their willingness to permanently leave Earth and colonize Mars. Of them, Mars One identified one hundred of them – the Mars 100 – and published their names and brief videos for them.
I visited the site to understand why someone would be willing to risk not only making a dangerous trip of six months or more but spending the rest of their lives on a planet with a fine, deadly atmosphere; an average temperature of minus 82 degrees Fahrenheit; and monstrous 60 MPH dust storms that routinely envelop the entire globe.
What I found were reasons related to the importance of exploring new domains, making important discoveries, challenging oneself, realizing personal dreams, and starting afresh. All of these are obviously noble intentions.
But I also found less visionary reasons that gave me a break. One candidate dreams of opening the first sushi bar on Mars. Another is excited about building a sports arena on Mars. Yet another, a farmer, says, "I would like to go to Mars because the idea of terraforming Mars is inspiring."
When that happens, in other words, the Mars 100 are not really different from practically every pioneer in history. They leave behind an ancient world, often in great danger, in order to find a new one, where they can improve things. However, we know how the script is: when we begin again, the pioneers inevitably fail to do what they did in the old world with predictable results. The new becomes old again simply because wherever we go, there we are.
Will 2019 bring us closer to a day of colonization of Mars, to start a day again in the hope of getting it right this time? I'm optimistic so I really really like to think so. But given the history of humanity in new beginnings, unlike the Mars 100, I'm not willing to bet my life on it.