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Jan Millsapps, Ph.D. Headshot

On Mars, Who's in Charge?

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One sign we're on our way not just to visit, but to colonize, Mars is that people are talking about what sort of governance the first settlers will implement and adhere to. If an international group, will each remain a citizen of his/her nation on Earth and live according to that nation's laws? If sent there by private enterprise, will the new Mars settlers remain forever beholden to the company that sent them? Will they arrive with a pre-written code or will they form a new tribal council-of-the-whole for TCB and keeping themselves on the straight and narrow?

Mars One, who intends to send the first four settlers to Mars within the next decade, tends to think such a small group can work things out amongst themselves, at least initially:

Early on, because the settlement will be very small, it is likely that most decisions will be collective and require unanimity.

Mars One Round Two Candidate Jackson Kisling echoes this sentiment:

Expect people to behave like adults, give them the space and the basic level of trust to do so, and maybe a 'government' as we conceive it won't be necessary -- at least at first.

But haven't we all seen "adults" engaged in outrageous, salicious, demeaning and even life-threatening behaviors? Would you trust your life to one of these "adults?" I didn't think so.

If Mars One stays true to its recruitment roots and sends a diverse and international crew to Mars, there will be no one model for governance, but work-it-out-amongst-yourselves falls far short of a useful plan, and is not a strategy I'd put much faith in.

NPR's Barbara J. King offers this stern anthropological warning:

People who colonize Mars will arrive there with the political systems of nation-states set firmly in mind as examples they have lived with their entire lives.

And then asks the oh-so-difficult question:

How will men and women representing so many different cultural, ethnic and religious traditions work out issues of decision-making?

It's a personal issue for me as a potential Mars One colonist. I pride myself on my independence; it's been a long time since I've taken orders from anyone. I certainly don't want assigned tasks and most definitely don't want a "chore wheel" on the pod refrigerator telling me when it's my turn to take out the trash. As a feminist, I've spent a good chunk of my life working to ensure equal consideration for my gender in a male-dominated culture and I'm not about to back down now. As an old-hippie free spirit, I don't want someone barking time-delayed orders from the comfort of their government or corporate offices on Earth while I'm foraging to survive in ways no one except my team and myself can fathom. As a smallish woman who's not as young or as strong as she used to be, I worry about my perceived value within the group; I do not want to be considered the weak one we have to coddle and care for.

Oh, grow up, Jan, I hear my quiet inner voice rising significantly in pitch and determination.

Nothing, I think, would make me grow up faster than getting strapped into a confining module, having a fire lit underneath, feeling my body being near-torn apart by gut-wrenching g-forces, then set adrift for seven months, all the while wondering how soon the lethal world I'm headed toward will kill me, or whether the fragile beings I'm now connected to will find a way to survive, using every skill and all the collective smarts they have among them.

Mars colonization represents our first-ever chance for a planetary do-over, starting with self-governance. The first colonists will have the opportunity to blend and merge the best of what exists back home, while jettisoning what does not: slanted and imperfect justice, institutional prejudices based on gender, ethnicity, age and more. The new Mars government may even be first to discover that elusive balance between protecting personal liberties and maintaining social order and public safety.

The discussion about who runs Mars should take place long before lift-off and the issues should be settled by the ones who will be most affected by the decisions, those who will live or die based on the outcome.

Welcome to Mars. Take me to your leader. If it's not me, it damn well better be somebody I'd risk my life for -- and someone I know without a shadow of a doubt who'd risk his/her life for me, because that's the way it has to be -- before I get figuratively or literally onboard.