A New Martian Frontier

by Robert Zubrin

Ed. Note: Part 1 of 2

A bit more than 100 years ago, a young professor of history from the relatively obscure University of Wisconsin got up to speak at the annual conference of the American Historical Association. Frederick Jackson Turner's talk was the last one in the evening session. A series of excruciatingly boring papers on topics so obscure that kindness forbids even reprinting their titles preceded Turner's address, yet the majority of the conference participants stayed to hear him.
     Perhaps a rumor had gotten afoot that something important was about to be said. If so, it was correct, for in one bold sweep of brilliant insight Turner laid bare the source of the American soul. It was not legal theories, precedents, traditions, national or racial stock that was the source of the egalitarian democracy, individualism and spirit of innovation that characterized America. It was the existence of the frontier.
     "To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics," Turner roared, "That coarseness of strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes from freedom -- these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier."
     Turner rolled on, entrancing his audience, "For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestrained is triumphant. There is no tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of the environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier."
     The Turner thesis was a bombshell. Within a few years an entire school of historians proceeded to demonstrate that not only American culture, but the entire western progressive humanist civilization that America has generally represented resulted from the Great Frontier of global settlement opened to Europe by the Age of Exploration.
     Turner presented his paper in 1893. Just three years earlier, in 1890, the American frontier had been declared closed: the line of settlement that had always defined the furthermost existence of western expansion had actually met the line of settlement coming east from California. Now, a century later, we face a question that has grown over the course of the past 100 years -- what if the frontier is gone? What happens to America and all it has stood for? Can a free, egalitarian, democratic, innovating society with a can-do spirit be preserved in the absence of room to grow?
     We see around us now an ever more apparent loss of vigor of American society: increasing fixity of the power structure and bureaucratization of all levels of society; impotence of political institutions to carry off great projects; the cancerous proliferation of regulations affecting all aspects of public, private and commercial life; the spread of irrationalism; the banalization of popular culture; the loss of willingness by individuals to take risks, to fend or think for themselves; economic stagnation and decline; the deceleration of the rate of technological innovation and a loss of belief in the idea of progress itself. Everywhere you look, the writing is on the wall.
     Without a frontier from which to breathe life, the spirit that gave rise to the progressive humanistic culture that America has offered to the world for the past several centuries is fading. The issue is not just one of national loss -- human progress needs a vanguard, and no replacement is in sight.
     The creation of a new frontier thus presents itself as America's and humanity's greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon Western enlightenment values of humanism, reason, science and progress will ultimately die.
     I believe that humanity's new frontier can only be on Mars. Why Mars? Why not on Earth, under the oceans or in such remote region as Antarctica? And if it must be in space, why on Mars? Why not on the Moon or in artificial satellites in orbit about the Earth?
     It is true that settlements on or under the sea or in Antarctica are entirely possible, and their establishment and access would be much easier than that of Martian colonies. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that at this point in history such terrestrial developments cannot meet an essential requirement for a frontier -- to wit, they are insufficiently remote to allow for the free development of a new society. In this day and age, with modern terrestrial communication and transportation systems, no matter how remote or hostile the spot on Earth, the cops are too close. If people are to have the dignity that comes with making their own world, they must be free of the old.
     Why then, not the Moon? The answer is because there's not enough there. True, the Moon has a copious supply of most metals and oxygen, in the form of oxidized rock, and a fair supply of solar energy, but that's about it. For all intents and purposes, the Moon has no hydrogen, nitrogen, or carbon, and these are three of the four elements most necessary for life (they're present in the Lunar soil in parts per million quantities, somewhat like gold in sea water. If there were concrete on the Moon, Lunar colonists would mine it to get its water out.) You could bring seeds to the Moon and grow plants in enclosed greenhouses, but nearly every atom of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen that goes into making those plants would have to be imported from another planet. While sustaining a lunar scientific base under such conditions is relatively straightforward, growing a civilization there would be impossible. The difficulties in supporting significant populations in artificial orbiting space colonies would be even greater.
     Mars has what it takes. It's far enough away to free its colonists from intellectual, legal, or cultural domination by the old world, and rich enough in resources to give birth to the new. The Red Planet may appear at first glance to be a desert, but beneath its sands are oceans of water in the form of permafrost, enough in fact, if it were melted and Mars' terrain were smoothed out, to cover the entire planet with an ocean several hundred meters deep. Mars' atmosphere is mostly carbon-dioxide, providing enormous supplies of the two most important biological elements in a chemical form from which they can be directly taken up and incorporated into plant life. Mars has nitrogen too, both as a minority constituent (3 percent) in its atmosphere and probably as nitrate beds in its soil as well. For the rest, all the metals, silicon, sulfur, phosphorus, inert gases, and other raw materials needed to create not only life but an advanced technological civilization, can readily be found on Mars. Mars is remote and can be settled. Indeed, one can imagine an engineering capability established on the planet within a hundred years of the first outposts that would allow for the transformation of the planet to the warm, wet conditions of Mars' primitive past, making a desert world into a new home for a new spectrum of descendants of terrestrial life. The fact that Mars can be settled and altered defines it as the New World that can create the basis for a positive future for terrestrial humanity for the next several centuries.

Why Humanity Needs Mars
To see best why 21st century humanity will desperately need an open frontier on Mars, we need to look at modern Western humanist culture and see what makes it so much more desirable a mode of society than anything that has ever existed before. Then we need to see how everything we hold dear will be wiped out if the frontier remains closed.
     The essence of humanist society is that it values human beings -- human life and human rights are held precious beyond price. Such notions have been for several thousand years the core philosophical values of Western civilization, dating back to the Greeks and the Judeo-Christian ideas of the divine nature of the human spirit. Yet these values could never be implemented as a practical basis for the organization of society until the great explorers of the age of discovery threw open a New World in which the dormant seed of medieval Christendom could grow and blossom forth into something the likes of which the world had never seen before.
     The problem with medieval Christendom was that it was fixed -- it was a play for which the script had been written and the leading roles both chosen and assigned. The problem was not that there were insufficient natural resources to go around -- medieval Europe was not heavily populated, there were plenty of forests and other wild areas -- the problem was that all the resources were owned. A ruling class had been selected and a set of ruling institutions, ideas and customs had been selected, and by the law of "Survival of the Firstest," none of these could be displaced. Furthermore, not only the leading roles had been chosen, but also those of the supporting cast and chorus, and there were only so many such parts to go around. If you wanted to keep your part, you had to keep your place, and there was no place for someone without a place.
     The New World changed all that by supplying a place in which there were no established ruling institutions, an improvisational theater big enough to welcome all comers with no parts assigned. On such a stage, the players are not limited to the conventional role of actors, they become playwrights and directors as well. The unleashing of creative talent that such a novel situation allows is not only a great deal of fun for those lucky enough to be involved, it changes the view of the spectators as to the capabilities of actors in general. People who had no role in the old society could define their role in the new. People who did not "fit in" in the old world could discover and demonstrate that far from being worthless, they were invaluable in the new, whether they went there or not.
     The New World destroyed the basis of aristocracy and created the basis of democracy. It allowed the development of diversity by allowing escape from those institutions that imposed uniformity. It destroyed a closed intellectual world by importing unsanctioned data and experience. It allowed progress by escaping the hold of those institutions whose continued rule required continued stagnation, and it drove progress by defining a situation in which innovation to maximize the capabilities of the limited population available was desperately needed. It raised the dignity of workers by raising the price of labor and by demonstrating for all to see that human beings can be the creators of their world, and not just its inhabitants. (In America, during the 19th century when cities were rapidly being built there were people who understood that America was not something one simply lived in -- It was a place one helped make. People were not simply inhabitants of the world. They were makers of the world.)
     Now consider the probable fate of humanity in the 21st century under two conditions -- with a Martian frontier and without it.
     In the 21st century, without a Martian Frontier, there is no question that human diversity will decline severely. Already, in the late 20th century, advanced communication and transportation technologies have eroded the healthy diversity of human cultures on Earth, and this tendency can only accelerate in the 21st. On the other hand, if the Martian frontier is opened, then this same process of technological advance will also enable us to establish a new branch of human culture on Mars and eventually worlds beyond. The precious diversity of humanity can thus be preserved on a broader field, but only on a broader field. One world will be just too small a domain to allow the preservation of the diversity needed not just to keep life interesting, but to assure the survival of the human race.

[Editor's Note: Part Two of Robert Zubrin's article will appear in next month's issue of SpaceViews.]

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