Settling Mars could help humanity escape and mitigate the problems our species is facing here on Earth, several science-fiction authors said.
Writer Tom Ligon, who publishes mostly in the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact, pointed out that Mars has many hazards, but no rattlesnakes, earthquakes, terrorists or wars.
"It's hard to have forest fires over there," he said May 7 during a panel discussion at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, which was hosted by the nonprofit Explore Mars Inc. "The volcanoes are extinct, geologically pretty quiet. Mars is actually, in a lot of ways, a lot safer than Earth." [5 Manned Mission to Mars Ideas]
Further, exploring the Red Planet could help solve some of the resource problems facing our own planet, novelist Michael Swanwick added.
"We all are running out of a lot of different minerals, some of which our civilization depends on," said Swanwick, who has won the Hugo and Nebula awards for his work. "Strange[ly] enough, there is the possibility of copper going extinct. There is a science-fiction idea for you."
Beyond canals on Mars
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American astronomer Percival Lowell popularized the idea of canals on Mars. Lowell saw features on Mars that he believed were built by an advanced civilization to transport water around the Red Planet.
This wrongheaded notion fueled intense science-fiction interest in Mars for decades. Visions of a water-poor planet populated with Martians influenced authors ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Ray Bradbury.
While spacecraft observations showed that Mars didn't flow with vast amounts of water in the recent past, their close-up looks at the planet did reveal ancient volcanoes, smaller channels and other evidence of geological activity in the past, said Geoffrey Landis, whose day job is working on Mars missions at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio.
"Mars is not the planet of canals and Barsoomians that we thought, perhaps, in the early 1900s, but it is still interesting," he said. (Barsoomians are the Martian inhabitants in Burroughs' novels.)
Exploring this uncharted territory is something that virtually every 17-year-old wants to do now, Swanwick said, adding that there are few opportunities to blaze new trails here on our increasingly crowded and heavily explored Earth.
"If you can go on Mars," Swanwick said, "you can put on your suit and go someplace that nobody has been before ... a natural cry to the heart of every person in the world."
Seeking new audiences
The power of science fiction lies in showing people visions of exploration that are possible, said moderator Catherine Asaro, who wrote a series of novels called "The Saga of the Skolian Empire."
Writers, she told the audience, are "in the business of selling a dream." But the challenge is bringing that dream to audiences that are not inherently interested in space exploration.
"As writers, we hope to inspire the population of coming generations of young people, and the current population of adults, to dream of Mars, too — or to dream of other worlds, like we do."
Author Mary Turzillo, who said some of her works (including "Mars Is No Place For Children") are recommended reading on the International Space Station, asserted that the big problem is "how to convince the old fogies in Congress" that space exploration is a valuable activity.
"Andy Weir is doing that for us," she said jokingly, referring to the author of "The Martian" (Broadway Books, 2014). A film based on the best-selling book is set to hit theaters in November.