The Mars Delusion

Mars OneAs some of you no doubt know, I’m not keen on manned space exploration. A part of that is just selfish: it makes me anxious to see humans put themselves in such peril. But the bigger issue is that that unmanned space exploration works really well. And when we are talking about anything further away than the moon, manned missions don’t work very well. It would take about nine months to get to Mars, but you couldn’t just come right back. You’d have to hang around for three months until the Earth and Mars are properly aligned. That’s not really practical, and so that is why some “brilliant” minds came up with Mars One: the idea of sending people to Mars to die.

On Monday, Ed Regis wrote a great article with a title that completely sums up my position, Let’s Not Move to Mars. He puts a real damper on the idea of this trip before the people even get there. I hadn’t even considered this part of the problem. Mars One wants to send four people in a tiny spacecraft — with far less space than the international space station — for nine months (although Mars One seems to think it can do it in seven months). Regis summed up the situation well:

Every source of interpersonal conflict, and emotional and psychological stress that we experience in ordinary, day-to-day life on Earth will be magnified exponentially by restriction to a tiny, hermetically sealed, pressure-cooker capsule hurtling through deep space.

He went on to talk about various problems with life on Mars — specifically, getting water and air. And of course, it could be done — in theory. Exactly how well it could be done will only become apparent after the four adventurers get there. What I wonder is what kind of life that would be. For humans on Earth, the idea of living on Mars sounds sexy and romantic. But the reality would be tedious and back breaking. And then there is the issue of illness and the fact that you would likely spend the rest of your life with those three other people. That’s the best case scenario.

What I suspect would happen is one of two things. First: things would go very wrong, very fast, and the entire world would watch as these four people died. The other is that they would struggle along and we would have to be sending them many more supplies much faster than planned. There would be no real colonization: we would just be taking pity of these people and providing for them until they died.

Regardless, Regis is right: it is too soon to be doing this. And it doesn’t make sense. There is lots that we could do on the Moon first. You really have to wonder, “Why not a Moon colony first?” And I think the answer is clear and very telling: we’ve already been to the Moon. So this really isn’t about expanding out into space. It is about some kind of conquest: we put a human on Mars! Hooray! Now we can all get bored and move onto putting someone on Pluto.

17 thoughts on “The Mars Delusion

  1. I favor sticking humans on Mars for one reason and one reason only: it lets us use the benefits of government spending to fix the economy without having to waste it on things that will blow up other humans like spending on the military does.

    I also think that many of the issues can be taken care of by simply sending women:

    • I’m definitely for more NASA funding. Of course, Mars One is a private venture. This is actually something that I think we are best off letting governments control. But if people want to get themselves killed, I suppose that is their right. But yes: more NASA funding!

      But if we go to Mars: all women does seem like the way to go.

      • I think space travel will eventually go the way that regular air travel went-as time goes on, more and more private companies will get involved but there will be some major air catastrophes that lead to heavy regulation like we have with the FAA after the 1956 Grand Canyon mid air collision. The reason it will take a lot of deaths to get that is because as I said previously (and now because of how utterly incompetent Congress is going to get) Americans have no sense of history so have a habit of not learning from the past.

          • Only at first, as time goes on you develop better tech and eventually you have rich assholes punching out flight attendants because they get bored and we have to have space jail.

            But we are talking centuries of development here even at the accelerated pace we have now.

            • You mean it will be different in space?! Rich assholes will actually go to jail? That might get me to leave Earth!

              I hope I was clear in the article: I’m not saying never go to Mars. I’m not attacking Mars in general; I’m attacking Mars One in particular.

  2. Hmmm, that it currently would be difficult and expensive to send colonists to Mars is true, but this is not proof that sending colonists will always be so difficult or so expensive. Technologies can improve with time, economies have been known to grow, sometimes by quite a lot.

    And beyond that… our solar system comprises 8 or 9 planets, several dozen largish moons, thousands of asteroids and tens of thousands of bodies of all sizes in the Kuiper Belt, and beyond that in the Oort Cloud. There are by one estimate about 400 billion stars in our galaxy, with maybe ten times as many planets, and there may be an equal number of galaxies still within our view, Seems like kind of a waste to have a species rise to sapience and then call its expansion off, deciding to stay put on its one small birth world forever.

    TL;DR. We disagree.

    • Besides, we eventually have to go into the Asteroid Belt to use up all the useful materials there. Or space opera like the Harrington series will have been lying to us all this time.

      • Even better, I’ve seen estimates that Jupiter’s Trojan Points each contain as much mass as the Asteroid Belt, and it would stand to reason that Saturn and perhaps Uranus and Neptune as well have sizable Trojan Point accumulations as well. Plenty of material to play with for quite a while before we start to exploit the Oort Cloud.

        As for the Harrington books … meh. I’ve read most of them, but Weber’s a rather self indulgent author — the term “Mary Sue” comes to mind. I much prefer his Safehold series.

    • You won’t get much tr;dr around here, as long as you’re not crazy! Check out the host’s posts on astronomy, you’ll like ’em. For example, search “Pluto.”

      I’m just not sure what the point is of sending people to Mars in the near future, when we could spend as much money saving our own planet from destruction. Save the terraforming missions for after we’ve stopped terraforming Earth.

      • James Fillmore: The real serious people who talk about terraforming Mars have a time period of 5-6 millennia in mind. Making Mars “habitable” is going to be a task like making Europe habitable in the wake of the last Ice Age. It’s not going to be accomplished by a short-term all out program; it’ll be a byproduct of spreading human civilization. There’ll probably be whole government agencies charged with monitoring the progress of transforming Mars, and any number of civil servants running about enforcing regulations. And small armies of people will be charged with looking after the ailing hearts of visiting terrestrial libertarians and burying the most stricken in unmarked graves after they discover what colonizing the planets REALLY involves.

      • The point is that we have to deal with the humans as they exist now and weirdly, we can more easily convince people to terraform Mars then fix what we have done here on Earth.

        Is it stupid? Yes. Is it annoying? Yes. But is it doable to help the economy? *sigh* Yes.

    • I have no problem going to Mars. It is that I think it is foolish to think we are going to set up a colony there in a decade. Why are we talking Mars and not the Moon? Is it because we’ve seen so much terraforming in movies? Because there are fundamental problems such as the escape velocity of oxygen and water. We need to be hardheaded about this and not get wrapped up in romance. People have been studying living inside enclosed structures here on Earth and have had many problems keeping the air mixture stable. That’s on Earth! There are lots of problems. And I’ll say: when governments do this kind of stuff, they are a lot more careful. Making a colony on Mars would be hugely dangerous under the best of circumstances. So let’s make sure it is done under the best of circumstances. And I think that starts with a Moon base. After that, maybe a three month mission to Mars and then a return. Mars One wants to skip a lot of steps. But ultimately, I think Mars One will not kill anyone; it will just fail.

  3. Frank Moraes– we are daydreaming about settling Mars because that doesn’t involve any of the nasty messy, expensive, politically divisive issues of actually, y’know, settling anything at all in the solar system.

    Putting colonists on Mars, or the Moon, or Venus, or the Asteroid Belt, or in O’Neill-style LF colonies or anywhere else in the Solar System is NOT American space policy. It’s not a goal. No President since Dwight Eisenhower has seen space colonization as something to be desired. No serious American politician except possibly Newt Gingrich has expressed the slightest interest in space colonization. Not an single internet economist-pundit that I can think of in the last ten years has ever seriously suggested putting people to live in space (granted some like de Long and Krugman read SF, but it doesn’t shape their policy recommendations). Not a single poly sci wonk, not an engineering prof with a blog, etc.

    I won’t go so far as to say that actually planting colonies on the moon is as hideous and abhorrent as shoving Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals and mentally retarded people into concentration camps and gassing them to death. But to the people who make decisions in our country, it’s really really really close. I don’t know if its morality or money or something of both, but it doesn’t matter. And for the people who don’t quite matter …. I think a third of the US population would pull their guns out and start shooting if they thought THEIR tax dollars were being wasted on large scale space programs. So it ain’t going to happen.

    The US is not going to colonize Mars in ten years or twenty. And it is not going to colonize the Moon as a useful preliminary step, precisely because colonizing the Moon would be a useful preliminary step to something that everyone important agrees we should never do.

    So space advocates do a lot of silly daydreaming. Happy now?

    • No, it is far too early to be happy — give me another half hour. But I think you are mischaracterizing my position. I’m like the mother in A Christmas Story, “you’ll shoot your eye out.” But I’m not going to stop you. And I don’t think that everyone important thinks we should never set up a moon base or a Mars base or a permanent orbit around Jupiter for that matter. Since Ronald Reagan, we have embraced this idea that collective action is bad. That is the issue. And the answer is not to find a bunch of rich guys to fund this. My wish is that we change this. A big start would be to better fund NASA — which is, by the way, the ultimate answer to those who say that government can’t do anything right. But dream the impossible — that’s how it becomes possible. But being a curmudgeon is one of my primary functions in life.

  4. The planet that most urgently needs teraforming is Earth. The Chinese are going to lead the world on that one, unless we can manage to drive a stake through the heart of the American conservative movement. Then we could be partners in the initiative. China is already investing heavily in solar and renewable energy. They have a huge pollution problem to solve. And they take on large projects with enthusiasm. I know this is due to the advantages of central planning and a police state. Maybe if it’s a European Chinese consortium that builds the, lets call them atmosphere processors, they could name it the Weland-Yutani Corporation.

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