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Will Your Children Live On Mars? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Mars has captured humanity's interest for thousands of years, but it's only quite recently that we've seriously considered moving there. Ever since we finally reached the moon in 1969, all eyes have been on the Red Planet… with the race on to breach this “other world”. But will it be something we see in our lifetime?

In this video, Unveiled asks the extraordinary question; Will your children live on Mars?
Transcript

Will Your Children Live on Mars?


Mars has captured humanity’s interest for thousands of years, but it’s only quite recently that we’ve seriously considered moving there. Ever since we finally reached the moon in 1969, all eyes have been on the Red Planet… with the race on to breach this “other world”. But will it be something we see in our lifetime?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; will your children live on Mars?

We know more about Mars now than we ever have before, and as the years roll by, our expertise and confidence with it is only set to grow. In the last few decades, we’ve sent probes and rovers to explore the planet, chart its topography, study its atmosphere, and most importantly, search for liquid water. All of these endeavours have been ultimately successful; we’ve mapped the planet’s surface, we know what its air is made of, and we know that Martian soil does contain a large amount of water – and that all bodes well for our dreams to one day see Mars first-hand.

And, of all the people interested in Mars, some of the most excited (and potentially determined) are today’s kids. A 2019 study in the UK, for example, showed that almost half of children believe humans will go to Mars within their lifetimes… and, if that plays out, then there’s every chance that some of those same children could be the first to step foot there. Stephen Petranek, a journalist who’s spoken and written extensively about the possibility of humans reaching Mars, wholly believes that we’ll be on Martian soil before 2030, in line with SpaceX’s current goals. If the various space agencies and private companies (including Elon Musk’s) make good on their promises, then the first generation of Mars astronauts have already been born.

Say humans did get to Mars one day soon, though, within the next ten or twenty years… would or could we stay there? It’s perhaps easy enough to imagine research outposts housing only a handful of dedicated people, carrying out experiments and sending findings back to Earth. Much like with the International Space Station, this is undoubtedly how our time on Mars would begin – but it may also never extend beyond that point. That’s because Mars (whether today or in a few decades’ time) remains naturally dangerous and inhospitable, so much so that many scientists now agree that attempts to terraform it are doomed to fail. We just don’t have the money or the technology to undertake many of the complex schemes being put forward, like triggering a planet-wide global warming event to try and build an atmosphere that could sustain us. In the minds of some, if most Mars terraforming suggestions aren’t impossible to begin with, then they’re inconceivable for any long-term stay.

A Martian civilization needn’t only (or even at all) rely on converting the planet itself, though, which is why so many see a human-populated Mars of the future as having artificial habitats and biomes. Building a whole city like this would be difficult, to say the least, but once it’s up it’d be there to stay - making it perhaps a more reliable and feasible route toward “humans on Mars” - at least at first. The business of funding isn’t a simple one, though… and while private companies like Boeing and SpaceX can seemingly funnel as much money as they like into various space ventures, public space agencies like NASA get smaller, more controlled budgets. There’s also increased pressure that any Martian exploits should yield some sort of return - like the building of Martian mining fields for natural resources. All in all, it’s hard to imagine anyone at present arriving on Mars and just staying there. Not only are there countless technological hurdles to overcome, but there are endless financial obstacles, too - and to expect them to have been worked out in just a generations’ time might be reasonably seen as extremely optimistic.

So, outright sending children to Mars isn’t likely to happen any decade soon. But, with more and more trained astronauts vying to take the trip, and considering that those astronauts (by the time they get there) could well have been the youngest in this generation right now, we could still predict that “yes, your children will live on Mars”… assuming that the Red Planet remains our destination of choice, and we do eventually find ways of getting there that are physically possible.

Of course, though, if even only a small handful of humans from Earth were to ever reach the Red Planet, there are other ways that we could see a child on Mars. While nobody has yet gotten pregnant in space due to (among other things) the complete lack of privacy astronauts have, and the fact that many female astronauts take the contraceptive pill to prevent menstruation in low gravity, does this mean it couldn’t ever happen? Well, no, it doesn’t. Because, if we were to send people to Mars with all the tools and knowledge to survive there indefinitely, and if such a trip were to demand of those astronauts such huge chunks of time in their lives, then it would perhaps be no great surprise if they had families there. But it could carry some major and unusual risks.

The biggest problem is radiation. Space, in general, is full of it, and no spacecraft can protect a human anywhere near as well as Earth’s atmosphere can… which is why going into space at all can be dangerous even if the entire mission goes as planned. Radiation can also be especially harmful to developing embryos, potentially causing miscarriages and birth defects. And, with limited possibilities in terms of health checks for mother or baby during pregnancy, as well as the fact that an Earth-Mars trip is eight months at its shortest (meaning it’s highly unlikely that anyone expecting could return to Earth for the birth), the potential problems mount up and up. It also remains unclear exactly what effects a low gravity environment would have on a fetus, or whether a pregnancy would be able to reach full-term in the Martian climate. And, apart from all of that, there are serious ethical questions over whether it would ever be right to bring a child into such a dangerous environment - even if assurances could be made regarding the pregnancy itself.

However, there have been some studies to give Mars’ future homemakers reason for hope. In 2013, for example, Japanese scientists launched the “Space Pup” experiment - which entailed freeze-drying mouse sperm and flying it around on the ISS for nine months. They then brought that sperm back to Earth to see if it could still be used to produce viable offspring – and it worked! Healthy, baby mice were born, with the environment of space found to have little impact on at least this one particular aspect of reproduction. Of course, a mouse pup is far less complex than a human baby, but the results of the experiment are at least a positive for anyone looking to permanently relocate off-Earth.

Nevertheless, while Elon Musk is passionately leading the charge to take humans to Mars, even his grand plans don’t usually cover the prospect of starting families there. Elsewhere, the failed Mars One mission also specified that the first astronauts shouldn’t try to have children on Mars. To some degree, it’s presented as a matter of prioritisation. Since every astronaut sent to humanity’s first ever “second planet” would undoubtedly have an important job and role to play - like maintaining a habitat, growing food or collecting water - the having and raising of children just isn’t seen as one of the most immediate needs.

It’s clear, then, that even if we reached Mars (and even if humanity, as a species, stayed there indefinitely), we’re still a long way away from first-generation Martian children. That isn’t to say that it’ll never happen, only that it’s still seen as unlikely to happen in the next generation, or even the one after that. Plenty of people do believe that our future lies among the stars, however, which means that sooner or later, we’re going to have to learn how space reproduction and parenthood works - whether it’s families in space stations orbiting Earth, in towns on the Moon, in cities on Mars or on Generation Ships drifting between here, there and everywhere else!

If our most ambitious dreams are realised, then we might even one day find ourselves contemplating this question but in reverse; could our children live on Earth? Because anyone born and raised on Mars would also live in a society where visiting a planetary neighbour would presumably be feasible, even easy. The return leg of the journey that their Mars-bound ancestors had made years before they were even born, it’d probably be simple enough to get to Earth - but perhaps not to stay there. After all, these kids wouldn’t have any immunity to Earth’s pathogens, so just imagine how many shots they’d need for even a brief stay… and they’d have to adjust to this planet’s stronger gravity. Suddenly, Earth would be the high-risk environment!

Really, though, the question is in two parts. If, by “our children”, we mean will the kids of today be the gallant astronauts of the future, then; yes, if today’s plans are put into action then they will one day live on Mars (or at least set foot on it). But, if we’re asking whether any humans alive today will actually give birth to and raise children on the Red Planet, then it’s far less likely a prospect. Even the most ambitious Mars planners and space adventurers haven’t seriously thought that far ahead!
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