Could we spend our lives on Mars?

In March 2018, the late Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest scientists of the modern age, died at the age of 76. He left a huge body of work behind him, touching on many facets of science, but he was best known for his work as a cosmologist.

When talking to The Telegraph in June 2017, Hawking stated that, “the human race must start leaving Earth within 30 years to avoid being wiped out by overpopulation and climate change.” This prediction of the Earth’s future was something Professor Hawking voiced again at the Starmus science festival in Trondheim, Norway: “It is crucial to establish colonies on Mars and the Moon, and take a Noah’s Ark of plants, animals, fungi and insects to start creating a new world.” Professor Hawking insisted the move to colonise Mars and the Moon should begin within our lifetime, (Specifically, that we should begin Lunar construction within 30 years and on Mars within 50). His theory has not been ignored by NASA, who are currently working on a plan to have humans walking on Mars sometime in the 2030’s.

The colonisation of Mars has been a subject of fascination for writers of science fiction for many years. As far back as 1952, Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific sci-fi writers of all time, published his story, The Martian Way, in which two humans born on Mars live by collecting scraps of spacecraft for recycling purposes. Another acclaimed writer, Ray Bradbury, wrote a collection of short stories known as The Martian Chronicles, which looked at the many potential aspects of living on Mars. Bradbury and Asimov’s work at this time, which concentrated on how difficult it would be to acclimatise to living on a new planet, came before NASA’s Mariner probe reached the red planet in 1965. After that had happened, NASA routinely sent robots into space and to Mars, and science fiction followed its lead on paper.

In 1988, Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road envisaged a future humanity terraforming Mars to make it habitable, even changing the atmosphere itself so that humans could live there. This theme of terraforming is one that has recurred in many Mars-set books and movies, such as the 1990 film, Total Recall ( itself based on the short story We can Remember it for you Wholesale, by Philip K.Dick ).

One of the most famous series of novels to focus on the concept of living on Mars was written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The trilogy of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars takes place over a period of about 200 years and concentrates on the vast impact of our settlement on the planet, from a scientific, humanitarian and political perspective.

As science has progressed and made more discoveries, and cosmologists like Professor Hawking have continued to expand and prove their theories on the future of Earth and the Solar System in which it orbits, so science fiction has followed on its heels. More recently, The Martian, by Andy Weir (which became a film in 2015), not only addressed the occupation of Mars, but also the practicalities of actually getting there – something most earlier works of fiction conveniently bypassed. By using actual footage from NASA’s “under-development” heavy-lift rocket in the movie, The Martian incorporated real plans to explain how the journey could be made successfully.

There is no doubt that the world of science and exploration will miss the genius that was Professor Stephen Hawking. However, whether we fulfil his dream – his insistence – that we find a full-scale way of life on Mars, or if that is to remain solely within the realms of science fiction, only time will tell.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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