John Carter of Gobi

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Bruce Sterling blasts the idea, beloved by certain "national greatness" types, of colonizing Mars:

I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

On the other hand, there might really be some way to make living in the Gobi Desert pay. And if that were the case, and you really had communities making a nice cheerful go of daily life on arid, freezing, barren rock and sand, then a cultural transfer to Mars might make a certain sense.

(For Reason's interview with Sterling, go here.)

NEXT: Pelican State Bouquet

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  1. Sterling is the most over rated hack I have ever heard of. Who gives a flying flip about his “Ten worst” list or his view on space travel. Maybe if he were a half way decent science fiction writer, I might care, but NOOOO. This turkey is as dumb as a box of hammers.

  2. I’m really not a crazed space romantic but a Mars colony is just so damn cool. If the pedantic mind of Bruce Sterling needs a good reason to go to Mars I would refer to David Grinspoon in Slate.

    “…as long as we are a single-planet species, we are vulnerable to extinction by a planetwide catastrophe, natural or self-induced. Once we become a multiplanet species, our chances to live long and prosper will take a huge leap skyward.”

  3. If all you space romantics want to pool your pennies and invest in a Martian colony, you have my blessing. But please don’t ask me to subsidize your cool ideas.

    (Whatever happened to the L5 crowd, by the way? Or the asteroid miners? Say what you will about those ideas, they make more sense than colonizing Mars does.)

  4. >>If all hell breaks loose and nukes/weaponized bioweapons/worldwide jihad start flying, Mars won’t get nearly the fallout that the Gobi Desert will. For all of it’s inhospitality, colonizing Mars would represent moving some of our eggs out of our current “single point of failure” basket.>For that matter, during the early stages of the colonization of America, there was nothing in America that they didn’t have plenty of in Europe. It seems to me that in 1700 Bruce Sterling would have been scoffing at the idea of going all the way to America just to farm and whatnot, when there was plenty of good farmland right there in Europe.

  5. To continue the 17th century analogy, need some place to ship Earth’s religious wackos to. . .

    Not Mars though, how about the asteroid belt?

    The colonies in america weren’t economically viable until they found something people wanted. A lot. Namely tobacco. Wonder what Mars has to offer?

  6. There’s probably a lot of people who wouldn’t want to live in Cleveland, either.

  7. Neither information, nor knowledge,nor wisdom, nor whatever semantic twist you want to put on it, is power. They *can* (sometimes) be power ‘enhancers’ enabling you to do more with less effort, but twice nothing is still nothing and ‘enhancers’ are not power on their own.

    Regarding a Mars colony. It could only exist as a ‘second basket’ if it is genuinely independant of earth. If they can’t make spare fuses for the therbligifier on Mars then they are merely a place to sit for awhile and die. At best, Mars might be a ‘lifeboat’ to preserve life for a few years til the radiation dies down (or whatever).

    Counter to Mr. Sterling, we HAVE gone to the Gobi. Quite a lot actually. We may not have built Las Vegas 2 there, but we did go, checked it out, and even found a few things. I don’t think anyone is presently proposing building New Chicago (nor would I, I’ve BEEN to Chicago 😉 on Mars, but we could at least go take a peek.

    If we can’t get to Mars, we can’t get anywhere and there IS something to be said for getting somewhere other than here.

  8. Counter to Mr. Sterling, we HAVE gone to the Gobi. Quite a lot actually. We may not have built Las Vegas 2 there, but we did go, checked it out, and even found a few things.

    Sterling didn’t say we haven’t gone to the Gobi; he said we haven’t settled there. Exploration and colonization are different things, both at home and in space.

    That said, thanks for making the obvious point about Mars as a second basket. Thanks also to Evan for making what ought to be equally obvious points.

  9. Maybe the place will be less Gobi and more Australia?

  10. Intriguing that I’m not the only one to think of the comparison between colonizing outer space and colonizing the open desert, and why one has more public interest than the other.

    It’s especially infuriating, when I point this out, to be called “unromantic” or “anti-science,” as if outer space were the only thing worth dreaming about or researching. Finding solutions for the many problems on earth apparently doesn’t count.

    Junyo, I suppose you have some general idea of how to maintain supplies at a Mars colony without getting them from the earth. Let’s hear it.

  11. R.C. Dean,

    Actually, furs and trees were something that Europe was sorely lacking; along with sugar, tobacco, etc.

  12. Instead of the Gobi Desert as an example, why not the Saudi Arabia desert in the 1850s? Not much reason to want that property at the time, now we’re spending billions to take the place over.

    Wouldn’t it be better to own the place right off the bat?

    In regards to a religious retreat, aren’t most cults run by charismatic leaders who crave just such the power that centralized life support would give them over their followers? The main problem I see with that is it was a lot cheaper to buy a boat, some axes and seedlings in the 1600s than it is to buy a spaceship and assorted space colony equipment today.

    Of course, it’s the moon where we need a base. I still am waiting to fly in an indoor cavern in the 1/6th gravity ala “The Menace from Earth”.

  13. R.C. Dean,

    The early English colonies were not heavily subsidized by the state; they were subsidized by private entities. In the case of New England for example, donations from dissenting churches; in the case of Virginia, people who invested in the scheme.

  14. Oh, and lest we forget, fish were a primary commodity of North America since at least the 1200s. The Basques were sending fishing fleets to catch, dry, etc. cod since at least that time. Bretons and others eventually followed. All without support of the state. Allow the market forces to exploit mars just as the Basques exploited North American cod.

  15. JSM, I think a Mars colony would have to become self-sufficient pretty quickly. Constantly supplying it from Earth would be way too expensive.

  16. I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. The concept is silly but somehow profoundly compelling to me. I never thought of myself as a national greatness type, nor especially romantic.

    I think it has to do with the notion of opening the gates to a literal universe of choices that didn’t exist before. If sailing beyond our shores made the world bigger for humanity in a profound way, what does it mean to make the leap beyond one’s local gravity? It isn’t so much that living on Mars would be all that great, it is that we could demonstrate that it is possible to live on a world other than our own. Sterling’s argument is sound in the sense that climbing the hill my house sits on is similar to climbing Mt. Fuji, the difference being scale. I have done both, and I can argue that the experiences are not comparable.

    The argument should not be that the Gobi and Mars are the same, but rather what is the right price for the knowledge that the third planet isn’t all of the galaxy we will ever see.

    I resist the temptation to collectivize the costs (Kevin Carson would be proud) of fulfilling that sort of vision, but I don’t agree that it is uncompelling.

  17. Not a lot of beavers, gold, or tobacco in Europe to the best of my knowledge,

    The Europeans had plenty of gold, believe it or not. In fact, the country that brought the most gold back from the Americas was Spain, and their cheap gold did them no good in the long run – indeed it distorted their economy and society and probably hurt them in the long run. As for beaver pelts and tobacco, neither were essential to life in Europe, although they did help the early colonies pay their way. Are you saying we will not find any comparable products or services to help the Martian colonies pay their way? If so, then your powers of prognostication are truly prodigious.

    and definitely not much farm land left for the taking.

    This is a common misconception. There was land still to be developed in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s, but the social and economic systems prevented people from doing anything with it. They had to leave Europe to get the freedom to develop land, not to find land that needed developing.

    Anyway, a lot of people came not for strict material reasons, but for various sorts of political and religious freedom;

    And this is just as true today

    not much chance of freedom in a space colony where everyone is absolutely dependent on central authority for all their resources, their very survival.

    Maybe in the early stages, but you sure seem to know an awful lot about what technology will look like in 100 years. I personally am not willing to state with such certainty that there is no possibility of developing a free society in space, ever, due to the limits of today’s technology.

  18. If humanity manages to survive, rather than go extinct, then there will come a time when we have to leave the Earth, which will no longer be inhabitable. Better start work on the technology now, while we still have the time.

  19. during the early stages of the colonization of America, there was nothing in America that they didn’t have plenty of in Europe

    Available, “unclaimed” land for farming and other uses. People didn’t just pack up and move to America while saying “heck, let’s just go see if there’s something cool there”. They moved to America because they knew, or thought they knew, that there was something they wanted here.

    What’s on Mars, that we need? More importantly, what’s on Mars, that we need, that we have to go pick up and bring back personally instead of remotely?

  20. R.C. Dean,

    “The Europeans had plenty of gold, believe it or not.”

    The German and Hungarian gold and silver mines were on the downward trend regarding profitability by the 15th century. And while there is much romanticism about Spaniards taking gold from the New World, it was silver that was of greatest importance and what they took the most of by far from the New World. Silver which, though it may not have helped them, aided in the development of French, Dutch and English economies.

    Timber was sorely need in Europe; especially for the English, since they were quickly running out of forests there due to the use of timber for ships, and the turning of wood into charcoal in the important English iron industry.

  21. Why is it that some of you are imagining (those capable of some imagination — not Mr. Sterling for sure) life for all the colonists in some great overarching dome with everything controlled by a central authority? From a strictly engineering standpoint, that’s INSANE. I would think that there would be a number of smaller groups, each with their own bubble. “single point of failure” indeed!

    …and beavers, gold and tobacco are ALWAYS given as reasons for the settlement of the Americas…WTF? Europeans came here for tobacco? My ancestors came here to build new lives.

    And if Bruce Sterling had his way, we’d all still be running around, scratching and sniffing, on the plains of North Africa; nobody would have ever crossed the Yemeni Strait to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

    BTW, I believe that the idea is to colonize the Moon, and explore Mars. Once we have the capability for the former, the latter will likely take care of itself over time. “Once you’re in orbit you’re halfway to anywhere”. The technology will be improved in establishing a Moon-base, and will be adapted for Mars.

    My prediction: A government sponsorship will not be needed to colonize Mars. People will have their own reasons for going.

  22. Really, my only point was that, when we were at the same point in colonizing the New World that we are now in colonizing Mars, every point that Sterling makes about colonizing Mars was equally true concerning the New World.

    Essentially, we are at the same approximate point as we were when Columbus got back from his first voyage. We didn’t even know about the furs and the trees (having seen only caribbean islands), the gold was just a rumor, and tobacco was a novelty. Nobody really cared about new farmland at that point, so the whole Europe was running out of farmland argument, to the extent it was true at all, didn’t come into play until much later.

    The people arguing against space colonization are assuming that we will find no way to ease the burdens and no currently unforeseen benefits. History suggests very strongly that they are wrong.

    A bit of cross-posting:

    The early English colonies were not heavily subsidized by the state; they were subsidized by private entities.

    True, but they were still heavily subsidized. I would much prefer private space exploration myself, but many arguments against space exploration being posted seem to be arguments against it in principle, whose force does not really vary depending on who is footing the bill.

  23. which is not to say that governments won’t go about sticking their noses in anyway……

  24. Various “Mars doesn’t have anything” posts:
    Mars has lower gravity, making it an ideal launch platform. The soil is almost ore grade iron. No environmental regulations. Therefore assuming Mars is uninhabited, and the cost of interplanetary travel factored in, Mars would is the manufacturing capital of the future. Manufacture goods, containerize them, and hump them out of Martian atmosphere via railgun (much more viable in the light gravity).

    Regarding a Mars colony. It could only exist as a ‘second basket’ if it is genuinely independant of earth. If they can’t make spare fuses for the therbligifier on Mars then they are merely a place to sit for awhile and die. At best, Mars might be a ‘lifeboat’ to preserve life for a few years til the radiation dies down (or whatever).
    The only consumable that a Martian colony would need once is was firmly established is water. Food can be grown there, you need more, enlarge the greenhouse or build another. Power generation is a no brainer. Windmills, nuclear, and solar, although solar wouldn’t be as efficient there. Building with an eye to permanence would mean not building critical systems out of items you couldn’t fabricate onsite, with on hand materials. For instance electrical wires are made out of copper on Earth because it works good and we have lots of copper. But you can make wires out of iron, and in the absence of a choice on the matter (assuming Mars doesn’t have enough of element X), you would, engineering the appropriate changes to your other systems. Assuming you can get water, you’re fine. And Earth’s not the only place to get water. And actually, the same could be said of element.

    I’m sorry, I’ve heard this argument before, and I think it’s just laughable bullshit. If we have to go live in plastic bubbles on Mars, our system is already failed. I can’t think there’re more than about a half-dozen people on earth who wouldn’t rather die in nuclear war than live on Mars (and I’ll bet I’m setting myself up to hear from every one of them shortly).
    Nevertheless nothing in your post persuades once that the system won’t or can’t fail, merely that when it does you’ll be one of the people with a dumb look on his face. Yeah, I’m one of the half dozen that’ll take his chances with a plastic bubble over laying down and watching with a sigh as my species passes from history.

  25. when we were at the same point in colonizing the New World that we are now in colonizing Mars, every point that Sterling makes about colonizing Mars was equally true concerning the New World.

    Really? The New World was an inhospitable desert?

  26. I really need to preview more…
    …Mars is the manufacturing capital of the future.

    And actually, the same could be said of any element.

    Nevertheless nothing in your post persuades one…

  27. R.C. Dean,

    My sole complaint is about state funding. And given that the ESA already has a moon shot planned for the 2020s, and a Mars shot for 2034, I have reason to complain.

  28. One more thought on the farmland issue – as I noted above, the problem wasn’t a lack of dirt, as chunks of Europe were still underdeveloped in the 1500s right through the early 1700s. The problem was that the dirt was controlled by people with no interest or incentive to develop it.

    The early stages of exploration had nothing to do with finding more land to develop; they had everything to do with finding people and places to conquer (with state sponsorship – remember that Columbus was funded by Ferdinand and Isabella, not a private consortium). “Private” companies at that time were state monopolies, so don’t underestimate the degree of state involvement even by the Brits.

    The people who came to the new world looking for farms didn’t show up until many years after the initial exploration, and they were really looking for freedom to farm, not dirt.

  29. Jesse Walker,

    Bradford often called it a desert; partly because there were no Christians there to great the incoming Protestant hordes. 🙂

  30. Really? The New World was an inhospitable desert?

    Read some of the Pilgrim diaries, Jesse. You will find that was exactly their view of New England when they first landed.

  31. R.C. Dean,

    Yes, they were state monopolies funded by private donors; for example, the British East India Company (which conquered China largely without any state support). What the English government did was to grant land patents (in other words, grant control over the land in the name of the Queen/King), much like homesteading the American west or land granted to the railroads in the American West. The English government did (largely because it couldn’t afford to and James I was very stingy) not however subsidize the endeavours out of the state purse.

  32. R.C. Dean,

    There is a great story of a group of English adventurers off New Foundland who were shipwrecked and turned to cannabalism (and perhaps murder). It was during the reign of Henry VIII. They were rescued by a French fishing boat; and after gaining succor, attacked the crew and killed half of them, seizing the ship and sailing it back to England (apparently they didn’t want to spend time fishing). Henry VIII eventually compensated the owner of the ship, and paid for the wrongful death.

  33. Gene at January 9, 2004 12:57 PM writes:

    Mr. Sterling has no romance in his soul.

    What’s romance got to do with it? I makes no difference to me if we send a human to Mars or not. But I sure as hell don’t want to pay for it via taxes.

    If some private company wishes to build a hotel on the moon, more power to them, AS LONG AS THEY FRONT THEIR OWN MONEY! If some rich tourist wishes to be the first man on Mars, great, as long as he pays his own way.

    I’m much more interested in INDIVIDUAL greatness than NATIONAL greatness. Bugger off with your socialized space exploration.

    -sed

  34. Read some of the Pilgrim diaries, Jesse. You will find that was exactly their view of New England when they first landed.

    But of course it was actually an abundant land that already supported a substantial population.

  35. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of the British army and navy in backing up the East India Company, Jean Bart. They weren’t called the Opium Wars for nothing, and without a handful of key interventions by the armed forces there would have been no Hong Kong, for example, and likely very little trade at all with China.

    Still, your point is valid for English colonization – it was a remarkably private affair. Indeed, the history of much of the Victorian era consists of Parliament bitching about having to send the army to bail out missionaries and traders. After the army rescued the prodigals, the Brits were in charge with another colony to administer whether they liked it or not.

  36. junyo,

    Windmills would be less efficient as well due to the low atmospheric pressure, and thus density. Solar would be only about 4/9 as effective on Mars considering baserate only (inverse square law). However, except for the dust storms, there are no clouds to speak of there so that helps.

    Jesse,

    That’s not exactly fair. If an analogy of a thing is identical to that thing on all points, then it is that thing, for it must occupy the same place in space and time as well. We all know there are limits to analogies.

  37. R.C. Dean,

    The East India Company bought as I recall five paddle-wheel gunboats; or perhaps they even built them. Ran them up the Yangtze, and conquered China.

  38. JSM asked –
    “RC, any proposals on how to construct a Martian Constitution? What kind of social experiment would take place on Mars? Star Trek reality”

    Read Kim Stanley Robinsons’s Mars Trilogy (Red mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) for an answer. He actually has a Martian Constitution in there somewhere along with all the rest of the details about the colonization of Mars & of course its eventual independence.

  39. The big advantage to Mars is that no one controls it. Even if they claim to, it’s millions of miles from earth, making force projection difficult.

    Even Antarctica is controlled by the powers that be, even if it’s mainly to prevent anyone from using it.

  40. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of the British army and navy in backing up the East India Company, Jean Bart.

    To the extent that the British military and government’s help was needed, it was because there were actual Chinese people living in China who didn’t take kindly to Britain’s colonial shenanigans, and fought them.

    If there’s anything on Mars that we need a military to deal with, I’d recommend we not go there. 🙂

  41. If we’ve got to go to someplace inhospitable, how about exploring, like, THE OCEANS. You know, the ones known to be teeming with UNDISCOVERED SPECIES, and who knows how many valuable minerals and such. You know, the oceans HERE ON EARTH?

  42. By the way, Mars Colony 1 won’t always be a bubble habitat. Mars will evetually be terraformed and we’ll have free ranges, MarsDisney & inevitably Valentine Michael Smith.

  43. RC, any proposals on how to construct a Martian Constitution? What kind of social experiment would take place on Mars?

    I am quite happy to leave that to the Martians. I would very much like for there to be people on Mars to conduct social experiments and write Constitutions for the rest of us to carp about and criticize, though.

    Jesse, saying a given area is “inhospitable” is another way of saying that you will need a fair amount of technology you need to survive there. Compared to Bali, New England is pretty damn inhospitable. You, for example, couldn’t survive a week in New England without the technologies of shelter and clothing.

    Mars is “inhospitable” only in the sense that even more advanced technologies will be needed to live there. Saying Mars will always be too inhospitable to be worth living on is making a prediction that our technology will not advance very far.

  44. Mars has lower gravity, making it an ideal launch platform. The soil is almost ore grade iron. No environmental regulations. Therefore assuming Mars is uninhabited, and the cost of interplanetary travel factored in, Mars would is the manufacturing capital of the future.

    Currently, the cost of complying with environmental regulations for steel goods, on a pound for pound basis, is eight to ten orders of magnitude less than the cost of shipping it to Earth from Mars. Yes, that will get cheaper — but environment-friendly technology also gets cheaper.

    You forgot something else, too: labor costs. Mars is, and will always be, hellish. Virtually nobody is going to want to live there, and that means you’re going to have to pay through the nose to get people to work there. Environmental regulations are a bitch, but at least you don’t have to pay ironworkers $3,000,000 a year.

    It makes more sense to use robots and robotic factories (which already do much of the manufacturing here on Earth anyway). It also makes MUCH more sense to use the asteroid belt. Of course, it makes the most sense to just stay here on Earth. 🙂

    And, of course, the big question: what company is going to do this? A government isn’t going to do it, because governments don’t give a rat’s ass if environmental compliance is expensive for corporations. That leaves the manufacturing corporations themselves. No board of directors is going to sign off on the idea of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on something that *might* lower manufacturing costs decades in the future.

  45. Saying Mars will always be too inhospitable to be worth living on is making a prediction that our technology will not advance very far.

    Who said anything about Mars always being inhospitable? What Sterling wrote was that it would be easier to make the Gobi hospitable than to make Mars hospitable. The man has a point.

    He could have added that it took a lot less effort to make the New World hospitable with seventeenth-century technology than it would take to make Mars hospitable with twenty-first-century technology. After all, the New World was already supporting quite a few people when the Europeans arrived, some of them living much more comfortably than the settlers’ relatives back home.

    I’m aware that Mars might turn out to contain some incredibly valuable resource (space flubber or something) that would make it a more paying proposition. Under our current state of knowledge, though, I can’t see much reason to live there.

    (And again I ask: Whatever happened to the L5 and asteroid talk that was so popular back in the ’70s? At least those folks had arguments about asteroid resources that we could mine, or the immense efficiencies of zero-G manufacturing. All of which could be silly fantasies for all I know, but at least it shows some thought as to what the return on the colonization process is supposed to be. Something more substantial than “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!” or “You never know what we might find” or “Where’s your sense of adventure, boy?”)

  46. >>Why is it that some of you are imagining (those capable of some imagination — not Mr. Sterling for sure) life for all the colonists in some great overarching dome with everything controlled by a central authority? From a strictly engineering standpoint, that’s INSANE. I would think that there would be a number of smaller groups, each with their own bubble. “single point of failure” indeed!

  47. “You never know what we might find” or “Where’s your sense of adventure, boy?”

    Depending on one’s makeup, these can have more substance than many of the reasons we might choose to do something. These describe a motivating vision beyond comfort. Not everyone shares this vision. I don’t think the costs to fulfill the vision should be socialized, but I think Jesse and Bruce are a bit quick to dismiss how compelling a vision this can be to some people.

  48. >>Jesse, saying a given area is “inhospitable” is another way of saying that you will need a fair amount of technology you need to survive there. Compared to Bali, New England is pretty damn inhospitable. You, for example, couldn’t survive a week in New England without the technologies of shelter and clothing.

    Mars is “inhospitable” only in the sense that even more advanced technologies will be needed to live there. Saying Mars will always be too inhospitable to be worth living on is making a prediction that our technology will not advance very far.

  49. This comment pertains to Luna, not Mars, but while we’re talking about reasons to live on other planets, I can think of one thing that’s expensive on Earth but almost free on Luna: vacuum.

  50. Jason: Adventure and exploration are excellent motivators, even for those of us who are taking the anti-colonization side of this argument. What I resent is the apparently widespread belief that a big (and probably government-financed) project to settle Mars is the only sort of open-ended adventure the universe has to offer. It isn’t.

    Evan: Sterling does talk about terraforming in another part of the interview that I didn’t quote in my post. His comments: “If there were a society with enough technical power to terraform Mars, they would certainly do it. On the other hand. by the time they got around to messing with Mars, they would have been using all that power to transform *themselves.* So by the time they got there and started rebuilding the Martian atmosphere wholesale, they wouldn’t look or act a whole lot like Hollywood extras.”

  51. Jesse,

    I don’t know about L5 anymore, but the Planetary Society is fairly active (Planetary.org).

    Whatever your thoughts on SETI (I think it’s hooey), the society did what NASA said no private agency could do–take the program over and run it. Their program is always on the verge of collapse, but it’s been going for about ten years.

    They sometimes ask for money to lobby Congress (my wallet closes), but they have funded experiments on a number of spacecraft.

    The largest project to date is the spring 2004 launch of a prototype solar sail. The exact launch date is still undetermined. It is not entirely privately funded by society members (and two film studios) as the Russian navy has agreed to launch it from a ballistic missile submarine.

    As far as I know, they are only only society that has attempted to fund–in large degree–their own projects.

  52. Dammed keystrokes.

  53. Jesse Walker,

    Zero G manufacturing, from my engineering perspective, is a joke given the nature of our propulsion systems; they also aren’t as effecient as remotely imagined in the 1970s (the space station and shuttle boondoggles have proven that).

  54. I kinda like Earth. Interesting people, good food.
    Until someone comes up with a decent propulsion system, we’re stuck here.

  55. If terraforming could ever be done, I’d be all in favor of it. Cool as all hell, if you ask me.

    I doubt it could ever be earth-like. If nothing else I’m told that earth’s magnetic field is much stronger than that of Mars (if Mars even has one, I’m not sure) and that helps protect us from a certain amount of cosmic radiation. But a warmer surface temperature, a thicker atmosphere with at least some amount of nitrogen and oxygen, and some lakes and rivers would all be nice. Even if we still had to live in domes, those features might be enough to permit agriculture (engineer plants that can grow in the outside conditions).

    Of course, this is probably a pipe dream. But it would be cool!

  56. Nobody wants to live in the Gobi Dessert because it’s not on Mars. Whereas mars is. Duh.

  57. I always wondered what planet Mars was on.

  58. The Mars controversy is ridiculous to the extent it is premature. The most important thing is to get humans… those burrowing, weaving, soldering hairless chimps up out of the gravity well that has nurtured us to date. To what benefit? Hell, I don’t know but many folks above point out the falacies in this reactionary assertion since it could be made of any great striving of history. Make the moon our doorstep. It must be done and the sooner the quicker.

  59. People speculate wildly about Mars but they tend to forget the *immense* energy cost required to escape the Earth’s gravity. Anything we find there has to be worth at least that much energy, or there’s no point in it.

    So needless to say, I’m extremely skeptical.

    Incidentally, from the point of view of astronomers, if you want to do science, it’s a lot smarter to put up some cheap satellites than go on boondoggles like this. An astronomer friend of mine went to an American Astronomical Society meeting in 1990 or so, where Dan Quayle spoke enthusiastically about manned missions to the moon.

    In response to this speech, there was dead silence from the roomful of hundreds of astronomers.

    Maybe things have changed since then, but these giant projects take vast amounts of money and time, and science can be done much more cheaply.

  60. Our true destiny is to settle the Sun. The challenges involved may be vexing, but that can be said of all mankind’s greatest accomplishments. Those of you still fixated on piddling targets like Mars have no sense of adventure.

  61. Jesse-

    Dan Quayle already has a plan for the sun: We’ll build colonies there, but we’ll only use them at night.

    As to energy: I suspect that some source of cheap, clean, and renewable energy will be needed before it’s viable to terraform Mars. Once such energy is available, not only will it be easy to get to Mars, it will be easier to achieve the necessary transformations.

  62. Where was it that I heard someone seriously discussing colonizing Mars “for the oil”?

  63. Good point, Jesse. We should turn our attention to Venus. It can be a stepping stone to the Sun. Personally, I don’t think the desire to colonize is a matter of “national greatness” or adventure. I think the human race has an innate desire to infect the entire universe. I know I do.

  64. “For the oil” might not be as crazy as it sounds. Here’s why:

    There is a plausible theory that petroleum is non-biogenic in origin, i.e. that oil is not made of dead dinosaurs, rather it’s a substance that’s been in the earth since it formed 4 billion years ago. It’s not a widely accepted theory, but it isn’t completely insane or definitively ruled out either.

    If this theory is true, then it’s plausible that Mars might have oil.

    I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to pan out, but I wouldn’t be my life savings against it either.

  65. Personally, I don’t see any real benefit (sure, it might be neat but I don’t think there’s profit in it) in going to Mars now but I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility of going there one day. If the past is any indication, today’s predictions about the state of future technology will be laughable inside our lifetimes. With any luck, Mars will look more like a profitable enterprise before I pass from this world but I doubt it.

    Anyhow, I’m firmly on board with the assertion that this is not a proper use of tax dollars. Give me my money back though and I’ll gladly give it freely to any reasonable space-related enterprise which has a potential to bring me a profit.

    I do think (though I’m far from an expert on these issues) that, currently, international treaties prevent any entity (or is it only states) from claiming ownership over celestial bodies. If true, that constitutes a very real barrier to private space exploration which would have to be ameliorated.

    As for living on Mars vs dying on Earth. If this were a choice, I’d rather live on Mars, thank you very much.

  66. One thing is clear– Bush is not only seizing the news cycle, but crafting his second term: more centrist and Nixonion every day. He wants to overcome the curse that every President’s second term is awful…maybe he feels he paid those dues already with a minority election and a divided congress?

  67. Has it really been left to me to make the inevitable suggestion; that we explore Uranus?

    Hehe. I said Uranus.

  68. Apparently the Gobi is by no means all that inhospitable, anyway (well, the Monoglian Tourism Board *would* say that, wouldn’t they?):
    http://www.mongoliatourism.gov.mn/gobi.html

  69. Well done, Jason Ligon.

    IMO, this great, inspiring adventure in national greatness is really about tens of billions in high-tech R&D, and hundreds of billions in aerospace contracts. And of course, all the patents for technology developed at taxpayer expense will be given away free. All aboard the gravy train!

  70. Jesse,

    My air conditioning bills are high enough. I vote for Neptune.

  71. To what benefit? Hell, I don’t know but many folks above point out the falacies in this reactionary assertion since it could be made of any great striving of history.

    That’s nonsensical. There has never been a “great striving of history” that was consciously undertaken by people who had no clue what possible good reason there could be for doing it.

    It isn’t “reactionary” or “a failure of imagination” to ask that people explain WHY they should be given tens or hundreds of billions of dollars just to fuck off to another planet.

  72. The only consumable that a Martian colony would need once is was firmly established is water

    Junyo,

    Couldn’t let that one pass. Two words: “spare parts”. Suppose the computers controlling the air recirculation system break down: where’re the replacement chips going to come from? Last I priced them (hey, the 90’s were good to me and I needed a place to dump some spare cash), they were in the 1.5 billion dollar range (built on Earth of course…might be a little more if placed on Mars). Big cost –> hard to do. How are our intrepid colonists going to be self-sufficient when their very lives rely on high-tech measures? (Nuclear reactors indeed!)

    OK, sorry for the tone. I’m *all* for going to Mars, but the self-sufficiency argument ain’t going to get us there.

  73. If the past is any indication, today’s predictions about the state of future technology will be laughable inside our lifetimes.

    It’s worth noting that predictions about what we will have accomplished in space in ten, twenty or thirty years have a habit of being dramatically OVERambitious.

    The previous generation’s version of the “of COURSE we need to colonize Mars!” crowd felt it was fairly obvious that, by 2004, we’d colonies on at least the Moon, probably Mars too, and that space travel would be normal, regular, and reasonably safe.

    Oops.

    It isn’t a lack of faith in human technology that’s at work here. It’s a matter of priorities. Look at the future of genetic engineering, medicine, computer science, and virtual reality, as well as worldwide social and population trends. We appear to be heading towards a world of stable population, secure food supplies, functional immortality, massive access to information, and indistinguishable-from-reality VR.

    Why would people like that want to live on Mars? They could remotely map it, simulate it, and experience it without ever leaving the planet.

    Yes, there’s still an “all our eggs in one basket” problem. But it would be easier, cheaper, and more reliable to establish something like, say, deep subterranean bunkers with a gene bank cloning and vr-educational facilities to pump out a new biosphere in the event that our current one gets plastered.

    As fantastic and outrageous as all of that sounds, it is far easier than colonizing Mars — a planet that, so far as we can tell, has nothing we’ll ever need.

  74. Not Joe,

    Mars would end up a 21st-Century Roanoke Colony:
    Expensive, ill-planned, extinct.

  75. I think any talk of actually going to Mars is at least a century premature.

    I think the goal for Nasa should be to establish a base on the Moon that can act as a hyperexpensive tourist destination – like Antarctica. Anybody can go to Antarctica, but the only way to vacation there for an extended period of time is to hike there and die miserably, or to fly there and stay as a volunteer or employee at one of the government-funded scientific stations.

    I believe a moon base is defensible if it includes plans to make room for visitors, as a way of encouraging those companies currently working on space launches to extend their views a few days to the moon, which is really our backyard. $20 million is a lot of money for a trip to the ISS, but it demonstrates the potential. I imagine in 20 years quite a few companies could develop the technology to transfer very rich tourists to the moon, but would NEVER have the ability to house them for any period of time. A government-funded moon base with a guest house, simple as it sounds, to my mind could provide a tremendous incentive for people like Burt Rutan to keep working on private space tourism.

  76. Our true destiny is to settle the Sun. The challenges involved may be vexing, but that can be said of all mankind’s greatest accomplishments. Those of you still fixated on piddling targets like Mars have no sense of adventure.

    Priceless, Jesse.

  77. I’d go to the moon, as long as there is high-speed internet service.
    And Chinese food.

  78. What a crock! Mars isn’t up for colonization, the moon is. The reason is simple, you can make money on the moon.

    Without an atmosphere to shield the cells, you can ship up a starter solar cell plant plus enough machinery to expand on the original plant. It’s close enough that most things could be done remotely from earth without a great deal of local human presence (though you’ll need some, especially at the beginning). Beam the produced power to relay satellites and beam down to the surface to a remote location. Crack water and pipeline the hydrogen to where you need energy.

    Why do you do all this? Because the DoD has come up with the bright idea that poor people that don’t have a stake in the global system are dangerous to the security interests of the United States. To get them integrated into the global system is going to require energy supplies that will dwarf what is even theoretically available on earth. The War on Terror requires the Bush democracy and freedom crusade and for that to work, the hydrogen age and moon colony have to pan out.

    70+ messages, no clue. Sheesh

  79. Glad you came along to straighten us all out, TM.

  80. Sterling is author of one of my favorite quotes: “Information is not power. If information were power, then librarians would be the most powerful people on the planet.”

  81. Fundamental differance between Mars and the Gobi Desert. If all hell breaks loose and nukes/weaponized bioweapons/worldwide jihad start flying, Mars won’t get nearly the fallout that the Gobi Desert will. For all of it’s inhospitality, colonizing Mars would represent moving some of our eggs out of our current “single point of failure” basket.

  82. I would have to agree. Information is not power. However, knowledge is.

  83. ANother fundamental difference between Mars and the Gobi Desert – we have a pretty good idea that there is nothing worthwhile in the Gobi Desert. We have absolutely no idea whether there is anything worthwhile on Mars.

    For that matter, during the early stages of the colonization of America, there was nothing in America that they didn’t have plenty of in Europe. It seems to me that in 1700 Bruce Sterling would have been scoffing at the idea of going all the way to America just to farm and whatnot, when there was plenty of good farmland right there in Europe.

    The real value of America was that it was far enough away from Europe that a new social experiment could take root there. It seems to me the same is true of Mars.

  84. Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.

  85. Mr. Sterling has no romance in his soul. Gobi Desert being a better place to go indeed. We have explored that part of the world heavily and know lots of what is there, Mars has not been explored other than in pictures and remote data broadcasts.

    As for his quote “Information is not power. If information were power, then librarians would be the most powerful people on the planet.” This quote is nonsense. Use of information and knowledge is what does it, not the study. Action versus non-action my friend.

  86. This is like Star Wars into Brilliant Pebble: Congress will trim it to the parts that halfway make sense.

  87. I suppose, to some extent, this is still a competitive thing…a Space Race? Though, judging from the fate of the Euro-rover, it isn’t much of a problem.

  88. At this point, there is one means of profitably exploiting space – low-earth orbit sattelites. That will continue to be the case for quite some time. The cost of transport to other planets, as well as the risk (keep in mind that 2/3rds of the craft sent to Mars were unsuccessful – and craft to the Moon have also had a high failure rate) is prohibitive at this point. Let the market dictate the pace of this sort of exploration and exploitation of space.

    Andrew,

    So far nothing about “Star Wars” makes sense; and what is being tested isn’t anything more spectacular technology-wise than 1970s ABM technology.

  89. TM Lutas,

    There is plenty of energy on the planet; lots and lots and lots of energy. Hell, reliance on coal by itself (not to mention nuclear power) gets us there. And at this point, most of the major river systems outside of North America and Europe have not been fully exploited.

  90. “I’m surprised no one has mentioned terraforming as an argument against the Evan/Jean/Jesse axis. That’s the only angle you’ve got to make this thing attractive: turning Mars into a functional Earth equivalent.”
    That’s because terraforming is a waste of time and energy. If you’re not in a plane, the average person is rarely more than a couple hundred feet off of the ground. Therefore it’s a small environment, a very thin layer of atmosphere we usually inhabit. With a couple hundred feet of breathable air you can create a reasonable facsimile of Earthside conditions, as long as people aren’t expecting blue sky. You can build structures that put a couple hundred acres of buildings, trees, grass and atmosphere under glass, a lot quickly and easier than terraforming the planet. Yeah, that look.

    You forgot something else, too: labor costs. Mars is, and will always be, hellish. …Environmental regulations are a bitch, but at least you don’t have to pay ironworkers $3,000,000 a year.
    No more hellish than an oil rig, or a steel mill, or doing research in Anartica, and those people don’t make 3 mil a year. As mentioned, automation would solve a lot of problems, and thus remove of lot of the labor, period. Regardless of living conditions, how much would you really need to pay technicians and administrators, the vast majority of the jobs?

    “Two words: “spare parts”. Suppose the computers controlling the air recirculation system break down: where’re the replacement chips going to come from?”
    Um, fabricated from silicon like they are now? An automated chip fabrication plant? Silicon’s only one of the most abundant elements in the universe. And since all you really need to build a computer is a shitload of AND gates (a huge bulky computer, but a working one), and since you can make AND gates with any semiconducting material, you’d have options. As I said, if it’s critical you take the ability to build it with you, or create the ability to make spares.

  91. Irony is a libertarian writer like Walker going on about how going to Mars is a quixotic pursuit that no one outside a small group wants.

  92. We go to mars at what opportunity cost? Economics is still the study of scarcity, scarcity against unlimited wants. Personally, I’d far rather see the money invested in medical research – a cure for cancer, a cure for AIDS, a vast expansion of the human lifespan, and things such new antibiotics to help us when the current ones cease working (we are almost to this point already). All of these things are no more difficult.

    And then there’s also the tricky question of who pays. My interest in space exploration is very small. I’d certainly rather see the money invested in my own bank account as well. Although I’d readily admit that per person the amount spent for space exploration doesn’t really amount to much.

    The idea that the free market would never pursue space exploration on it’s own is intriguing as well. It’s pointing to a critique that his been made of the free market that if true is actually *both* a virtue and a flaw – that the free market is short sighted and will not pursue goals with a greater than 30 year expected return on them.

  93. Mark: I don’t know of any other examples, but thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  94. Space exploration is NOT an acceptable use of taxpayer funds.

    Close NASA now.

    Change the laws to allow (not encourage, not subsidize, not fund — just not get in the way of) civilian space exploration.

    If the market (i.e. you and I) see a value in space exploration, it will happen.

    If the market doesn’t see a value in space exploration — there probably isn’t any value there.

    I am sick and tired of the Chinese having a more *COMMERCIAL* space program than the United States.

    NASA is un-American.

  95. “Space exploration is NOT an acceptable use of taxpayer funds”

    To you, Mr. Spencer, perhaps, but there are many of us who do not feel that way.

    “If the market (i.e. you and I) see a value in space exploration, it will happen.

    If the market doesn’t see a value in space exploration — there probably isn’t any value there.”

    Clearly, since there is so much interest in it, there must be some kind of value associated with space exploration. After all, 50% of “you and I” see a great value in it.

    And don’t all these arguments pretty much boil down to one way a value is placed on it?

  96. Mark A.,

    “Coal and other fossil fuel has lousy power density, and if there is anything that screams for better power density, its blasting off out of a gravity well.”

    Yet we have coal in abundance (several hundred years worth even if we increase its use ten times); its power density is not much of a limiting factor because of this. And again, there is nuclear power, and vast amounts of untapped hydro-electric power. What you are doing is preaching the same “chicken little” scheme as environmental doom and gloom people.

    Andrew,

    The Beagle II was a “thrown together” project by the British; Mars Express was never originally designed to carry a rover with it. And Mars Express has indeed been very successful. If it is an example of anything, its an example of poor British engineering. And I wouldn’t go on about American Mars missions; you’ve had several fail spectacularly over the past few years, and half of the current rovers (Spirit and Oppurtunity) is made by the Germans.

  97. And I wouldn’t go on about American Mars missions; you’ve had several fail spectacularly over the past few years, and half of the current rovers (Spirit and Oppurtunity) is made by the Germans.

    Um, in point of fact, the United States is the only nation to have successfully landed a working lander on Mars. Ever. And we’ve done it four times to everyone else’s zero, so I think we’ve got some bragging rights.

    Also, by “several,” I believe you mean “two”: Mars Observer in 1992, and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. We’ve still got a better batting average than, well, everyone else.

    Finally, who built Spirit and Opportunity is, well, irrelevant. We commissioned them, we planned the missions, we’re launching them, we’re landing and controlling them, and they’ve got American flags on them. Does Von Braun’s involvement in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions somehow make those not American missions?

  98. Irony is a libertarian writer like Walker going on about how going to Mars is a quixotic pursuit that no one outside a small group wants.

    This would be much more clever if I had actually said anything about colonization being something that only a small group wants.

  99. JB,

    “What you are doing is preaching the same “chicken little” scheme as environmental doom and gloom people.”

    Au contraire (sp?). You are under a complete misapprehension. I would never in my life preach that. Not under pain of death. I was, in fact, hinting at the nuclear possibility.

    My apologies. Perhaps I should have been more blunt.

  100. Eric,

    That was beautifully said (are there any other old Monte Python skits or songs that blog?)!

    As to the standard objection being trotted out from the Libertarian Purist’s Handbook: I would rather see the government spend tax dollars on manned space exploration than the vast majority of other things at which it throws money. And since the government will use its Constitutional authority via the 16th Amendment to take my money anyway, they might as well spend it on something I think is pretty damned cool.

    JB,

    Coal and other fossil fuel has lousy power density, and if there is anything that screams for better power density, its blasting off out of a gravity well. Also, comsats utilize the Clarke (geosynchronous) orbit — not exactly LEO. And comsats are pretty profitable.

    And for anyone who is interested, an alternative to high powered blast-offs can be found here:

    http://www.isr.us/pdfs/SE/NIACpaper.pdf

  101. The assertion that interest in space travel and colonizing Mars is restricted to a fringe element wasn’t yours. My error.

    I seemed to have run across a (steaming) pile of sudden anti-space sentiment among libertarians and some conservatives because a tiny fraction of what’s spent on any major government program will be be added to NASA for a government project that, amazingly, is almost certain not to to infringe on anyone’s civil liberties. Even if it gets nowhere. Cue the gnashing of teeth and “space nerd” quips.

    I’m sorry for the confusion.

  102. It’s particularly ironic that the moon colony announcement was made so close to the centennial of aviation. Messrs. Wright, you may recall, were not renowned scientists in the patronage of a government agency. They were small-time mechanics.

  103. Phil,

    “Also, by “several,” I believe you mean “two”: Mars Observer in 1992, and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. We’ve still got a better batting average than, well, everyone else.”

    To add to your list: Mariner 3, Mariner 8, and Mars Climate Orbiter.

    “Finally, who built Spirit and Opportunity is, well, irrelevant. We commissioned them, we planned the missions, we’re launching them, we’re landing and controlling them, and they’ve got American flags on them. Does Von Braun’s involvement in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions somehow make those not American missions?”

    Several of the scientific instruments contributed by the Danes and Germans are so important, and impossible for the U.S. to make in the time frame alotted, that the mission would be a failure without them. You would have rovers running about Mars with very little to do.

  104. Phil,

    In point of fact, the US and the USSR/Russia were the only nations ever to try to land on Mars before the UK sent along the Beagle II with the ESA Mars Express. Indeed, the Mars Express was the first mission to Mars by the EU. The only other mission to the red planet by another country was Japan’s in 1996 – an orbiter that overshot Mars.

  105. Phil,

    Indeed, the only other “nation” besides the US to have a successful Mars mission (lander or orbiter) is the EU; specifically Mars Express.

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