Many argue that we need to colonize the Moon first and then Mars. Others offer that we should settle on Mars first. And there are yet others who think the holy grail is in Earth orbit. Then there are those who suggest that we should solve the society problems on Earth first, before venturing beyond it. And, strangely enough, others posit that we cannot settle Mars because doing so would contaminate it’s biosphere, and endanger any microbial life already living there.
Ok, lets clear up a few things.
As for the contamination threat to Mars? Absolutely! But more to the point, everywhere we go, we take our luggage-critters with us. Be they roaches or rats, these pernicious pests tag along with us eventually to every destination we have set to on Earth, and let us not forget the tiniest microbes we carry. It would be unrealistic to assume they would not ride with us to space, the Moon, or Mars – despite our best efforts. While this presents an easy excuse to NOT go, the reality is, that we as a species cannot survive without moving beyond our planet. We just need to take “reasonable” precautions to work within the environments we encounter as best we can.
Problems of Society
Addressing the problems of our society? Solving those issues has not happened in our several thousand year history, and Not going to happen in this century … or the next. Our history is one where we are constantly trading one vice for another as our society develops. From hunter-gatherers to domesticators, to farmers, to city-builders, and now technologists – we have come a long way from eating carrion to live, to now gobbling energy faster than we can produce it. And we are fast becoming gorgers on data! No, we will not solve the problems of society before orbit, nor before the Moon, nor before Mars – not even before the first ship finally departs for the nearest star. But we WILL continue to work towards diminishing our vices as we have over the centuries.
Order of Destinations
As for the destinations — rather the order of those destinations. It is true that using an incremental or step by step approach has resulted in the establishment of an outpost in LEO i.e. the ISS, AND China is following suit with their station in the coming decade.
We are, however divided in where to go next: return to the moon, or set out for Mars. But why not a single plan that embraces both. The single greatest challenge seems to be the supply train necessary to insure survival of any base/settlement on the Moon OR Mars. With the ISS, lifting those supplies is exhorbitantly expensive. Until we resolve this heavy cost, we will continue to be bound to Earth and it’s orbit.
Supply Outpost: The Moon
The Moon, if settled first provides a shallower gravity well from which to generate and ship supplies to LEO. Gravity is there to assist with basic engineering of farming needs, and recent indications of water ice deposits at the poles suggests both water and fuel supplies.
With water nearby, we can grow crops for food. It would be possible to grow enough food to supply not only the ISS, but the settlers producing the food and water. In point of fact, that food and water supply channel could very well be the first economic product of space. With food and water covered, fuel production becomes both possible and reasonable. Additionally, with a supply station on the moon, costs drop dramatically for supplies to send to Mars.
Where to go, then?
The Moon is the next stop on our journey into space. LEO, and the Moon are no more endpoints than the gas station on the way to Vegas. We must embrace a multi-destination approach to succed in our push into space.