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Private Adventure To Mars

Interesting story this week: an eccentric Dutch millionaire has offered passage to Mars for anyone willing to commit to eight years of training for the mission… and to never coming back. This strikes me as a big ask –– I’m a Newfoundlander, and the prospect of not being able to hop a flight home would be intense. But that aside, I must admit, I’m fascinated to see the return of private interests to long-range exploration.

When Europeans were trying to find new routes to India (by sailing around the world) the explorers taking on those expeditions had to secure their own backing. Owing to the government systems of the time, the only people with enough money to fund such expeditions were monarchs, but it’s important to point out that the Kings and Queens weren’t exactly setting up Departments of Exploration, or Secretaries of State for Discovery. Private individuals with insane-seeming ideas were coming to court with big promises, and considerable asks.

Even once the Europeans realized the Americas existed, there was no structured government rush to colonize them. In fact, it was just the opposite; the monarchs were too busy warring with each other to care much about an empty continent, so it was left to other forces to push for exploration (and then colonization). In South America, the Church played some role in creating demand –– converting the new world was important –– but it was probably more the promise of gold and silver that drew the Spanish Empire to that continent.

In Canada, it was fish, then fur that attracted European private enterprise –– not so glamorous as silver, but profitable enough to see numerous companies formed over the course of a few centuries. The most powerful of those entities was the Hudson’s Bay Company, which remains a popular Canadian department store to this day.

Not until the technology of overseas travel matured did governments seem to strongly impose themselves on colonization. There was a transition period, where government and private enterprise coexisted; the British East India Company maintained its own military and governing structure, that (sort of) complemented British Imperial aims on the subcontinent. Eventually, though, government will did take over –– the reason, for instance, that settlement of the Canadian west was such a regulated affair (as was the settlement of the Selkirk Mandate in His Majesty’s New World).

But convincing governments to spend their treasure to seek out new worlds (whether on the same planet or not) is not simply a matter of pointing and saying ‘no one’s there yet’. Leaders need to see a likely return on the investment, be it resources, strategic positioning, or even prestige. Mars offers none of those benefits right now –– not even prestige. If a major government leader spent billions to plant a flag on the red planet’s surface, you just know that one of the first questions at the press conference would be: “How much did that cost… and why didn’t you use that money to fund health care/social security/defense/environmental research?” Whether we like it or not, politicians are always mindful of such fears.

Eccentric millionaires? Not so much. And I truly do expect that it’ll be their efforts, and later the efforts of corporations with specific agendas, which first carry humanity to Mars, and beyond. Quick aside: I hear Io is a lovely place, so a weapons manufacturer could always put a dome down there and use it to test its latest toys. Nothing at all could go wrong.

Eventually, when space missions capture our imagination, or turn valuable profits, the governments will likely jump in. Until that time, however, I wish anyone going to Mars (and not planning to come back) good luck. Also, some advice:

If you decide to build domes and stay, don’t rebel against your mother planet, which is paying for your existence, and then later start a war against us. Because I know some people –– some witty, cavalier people –– who will beat you badly, and then write terrible, terrible books about it. You’ve been warned.

Also: your stupid names are stupid.