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The NASA Mars rover launch raises the question of how best to settle other planets

We need to start coming up with answers now if we are to avoid the failures and devastation caused by humanity's earlier acts of colonization.
Image: NASA's Mars 2020 rover
NASA's Mars 2020 rover will store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on the planet's surface for future missions to retrieve.NASA / JPL-Caltech

Update (July 30, 8:40 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect the successful launch of the NASA rover mission to Mars.

The Martian Revolution — pitting the human inhabitants of Mars against the Earthlings who stayed at home — is coming. The only question is which side of it we should be on now, a century or two before it begins.

On Thursday, the United States launched a new rover to Mars. Last week, China sent its own spacecraft to Mars, and days before that a United Arab Emirates mission also set off for the Red Planet. Each one marks a dramatic step forward in the scientific exploration of our celestial neighbor and the day that human settlement there becomes a reality. The purpose of the missions range from unpacking the history of Mars' atmosphere to looking for signs of ancient life.

In building new outposts of human society, how do we keep from repeating all the injustices and broken power dynamics that have marked history on Earth?

While billionaire rocketeers like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others aren't directly involved in these missions, they are very interested in Mars. And nation-sponsored endeavors like those launching this week will plant the seeds that they hope will eventually grow into a long-term, large-scale human presence on Mars and throughout the solar system. Commercial space companies, like Musk's SpaceX, have had remarkable success building powerful, reusable rockets that shave the cost of reaching orbit and would help drive that Martian settlement.

But the progress also brings new and equally remarkable questions about the ethics of populating Mars, particularly when we are so acutely aware of the failures and devastation caused by humanity's earlier acts of colonization. Answers to these new questions may not only determine our future in space, but they may also shape the human future for centuries.

There are important questions about the legitimacy and wisdom of colonizing Mars in the first place. But even if these concerns are overcome or simply ignored in the enthusiasm for a human future in space, we must think seriously about how to do it in the best way. The global outrage at George Floyd's death and the societal shortcomings it spotlights tell us we must ask ourselves now and not later: In building new outposts of human society, how do we keep from repeating all the injustices and broken power dynamics that have marked history on Earth?

That's where the Martian Revolution comes in.

Martian liberation movements are a staple of science fiction. First, people from Earth build tiny settlements on Mars. Then, after a century or so, the settlements grow into vibrant planetwide civilizations. Eventually, these new "Martians" fight to throw off the yoke of Earth's tyranny. In these stories, space represents an opportunity to create social arrangements that look profoundly different from what we've been locked into on Earth. In space, maybe, we could be more free.

The question that must come next is: Whose idea of freedom are we talking about? The broad discussion of systematic racism happening now is a recognition of just how deep and persistent inequality has been in most modern societies. Add to this the oppression of different sexual and gender identities and it's clear that there are forms of expression and well-being that lots of humans don't fully enjoy here on Earth.

So, if we want something different, how can we get there?

One vehicle is the growth of commercial space enterprises, because their premise is so new and their activities are so vibrant. SpaceX, Blue Origin and others deserve a lot of credit for what they have and can achieve technologically. But it's unlikely that the owners, a group of hyper-rich white guys small enough to fit into an elevator, can build the best new society on their own — even if they really did have the very best of intentions.

But the economic engines they're creating can help bring many different kinds of people into the process, including those who suffer now under what we've built on Earth. That's because thriving long-term human settlements on Mars can exist only once we've built a healthy space economy, and that's going to happen only through collaborations between governments and commercial enterprises (i.e., public-private partnerships). Right now, for example, the U.S. government is a principal client for SpaceX. So, in the future, the moon bases, asteroid-mining facilities and deep-space exploration platforms that will make up a space economy will likely be built by consortiums of nations working with private companies.

We everyday citizens who represent the public side of the partnerships can require those companies to break with the past to be more inclusive and innovative; we have leverage. If a company wants to be part of a big moon base contract, then the governments allowing them to be involved have to set up rules and standards that benefit all humans, regardless of their place on the socioeconomic ladder. Creating economic structures for workers that can't devolve into versions of indentured servitude (something Musk seemed to unwittingly imply was possible) is one example.

But we could go even further. My colleague Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Space Institute has come up with one of the coolest ideas ever when it comes to this question. He argues that we can liberate Mars now by declaring any settlement there to be definitively Martian. Humans who leave Earth to permanently settle on Mars would have to relinquish their planetary citizenship as Earthlings. These new Martians wouldn't be able to represent the interests of any group on Earth and couldn't acquire wealth on Earth.

Just as important, in keeping with space treaties formed under the auspices of the United Nations, the Martian Constitution outlining the society the planet's new citizens would be joining would spell out the use of land on the Red Planet. In particular, land rights would be determined only by Martians; Earthlings wouldn't be able to make any demands for resources like water (for making rocket fuel). (Note that this means you could still make money on Mars, but you would have to do it as a citizen of the new world, with its new, more just and equal social arrangements.

If we do decide to populate Mars (and you can probably tell I really want us to), then we can ensure a future in space that would be something much better than what we have now — something those back on Earth could eventually learn from. In that way, the Martian Revolution can begin today. It can be fought and won without grievance and without a shot, fully completed by that fateful day when human beings first set foot on the red soil of their new home.