Category Archives: Space Science

Mars

Let’s go, but not live there.

I would take issue with this:

The first astronauts to travel to Mars, perhaps in the 2040s, will need to cope with a nine-month journey cooped up in a tiny spacecraft. Then they’ll need to survive the landing. If they get that far, life on Mars will be harsh. Frequent sandstorms can bury key equipment or solar panels. There’s no soil for growing food, so they’ll have to rely on whatever they brought with them. A hole in one’s spacesuit would mean certain death. Any significant problem on base—like a loss of power, oxygen, water, food or communication with Earth—would probably doom the whole crew. If something goes awry, they’ll be on their own. While the moon is nearly 1,000 times as far away from Earth as the International Space Station and the Tiangong space station, Mars is hundreds of times more distant than that.

The isolation of the Covid pandemic might give us a small taste of the psychological challenges of life on Mars. Those first visitors will be trapped in one or two small structures with the same few people for something like 2.5 years, counting travel each way and around a year on the ground. Just going for a walk outside would be a huge ordeal. They would never see a single tree in any direction, never dip their feet in a river, nor fill their lungs with fresh air in the morning. Everyone will have a good chance of getting cancer (thanks to a high dose of space radiation) or losing bone and muscle mass (thanks to the long flights and the planet’s weaker gravity).

There is no reason that this has to be the case. Yes, there won’t be trees or rivers, but there are ways to deal with radiation and low gravity, and neither the spacecraft or the habitats have to be cramped. Soil can be created from the regolith, after removing the toxic chemicals, and food grown, and even meat from fish and rabbits. I’m not saying that Mars is the best place to do these things, but if a sufficient number of people want to, it will happen.

Such off-world ventures can also seem hard to justify when we Earthlings are plagued by climate change, pandemics, risks of nuclear war, and rampant inequality. Setting up a research station and living quarters for a half dozen visitors—as space agencies might eventually do—would likely cost tens of billions of dollars. (If Musk really intends to send thousands of Starships to Mars, that’s more like a trillion.)

You can always tell that someone doesn’t understand the economics of spaceflight when they try to extrapolate from the current ways of doing things to scale it up. It doesn’t have to cost tens of billions to get people to Mars unless it is done the NASA way, and certainly not a trillion. But now come the “decolonization” people:

Depending on the animating vision behind Mars exploration, the first astronauts could be scientists, poets, tourists, or military officers. They could be viewed as visitors, settlers, cowboys, or colonists. Treviño prefers the term “migrants”—partly to destigmatize migration on Earth—and she favors including an artist to make sense of the existential experience, and enormous culture shock, of living on this ruddy, barren world.

Let’s say it works: Humanity overcomes the cost and practical barriers of settling Mars, and the migrant Earthlings arrive. There’s one thing left to consider: Maybe Mars would be better off without us.

If our treatment of Earth’s atmosphere is any sign, we’ll corrupt the Martian one too. We’ll litter it with junk, as we have despoiled our own world. Maybe we’d geoengineer the atmosphere, or live out Musk’s desire to terraform the world by blowing up nukes to create a “nuclear winter”—something we’ve managed to avoid so far at home—to raise temperatures, initiate a helpful climate change, and melt some of its polar ice. As with geoengineering proposals meant to combat climate change on Earth, such schemes carry huge risks.

We’d also mine the surface, likely reproducing the economic inequalities and unsustainable practices already prevalent on Earth. For example, Treviño says, there’s a limited supply of Martian ice, but no binding rules exist saying who could use it, how much, and for what purpose. Plus, if any Martian life-form lies underground, terraforming and mining attempts may well destroy them and their ecosystem, and who are we to decide their fate? It’s the height of hubris for one species to decide what should be done with an entire planet that’s not their homeworld.

Sigh…

Where to even start? Mining produces “economic inequalities”? No, mining produces “wealth.” And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with economic inequalities, as long as they aren’t produced by force or fraud. People who demand “economic equality” are demanding that everyone share poverty.

If there are lifeforms on Mars, then we should seek them out and attempt to preserve them, but that doesn’t mean that we have to leave the entire planet a biological preservation site. Rocks don’t have rights, and Mars is simply a very large rock. If we can bring life to it, and the rest of the solar system, and ultimately the universe, we should do so. My religion says that it should be our goal, to the extent feasible, to locally reduce the entropy of the universe.

The Value Of Space Exploration

An essay:

For its part, Webb suffered repeated delays and cost overruns even before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed work on a number of projects in both the public and private sectors. Initially meant to launch in 2010 at a cost of $3 billion, Webb eventually launched last December at a final cost of more than $10 billion. Similarly, the enormous Space Launch System rocket has cost more and taken far longer to lift off from Kennedy Space Center than originally planned – though NASA now expects to finally launch the rocket that will take astronauts back to the Moon at the end of August or beginning of September.

All the same, criticisms focused on excessive delays and busted budgets tend to fall by the wayside when we see the results of America’s space exploration programs. That’s certainly been the case with Webb, whose first images have received a rapturous reception by the media and public alike. But few people would say that this sense of wonder and inspiration is the reason America invests as much of its national resources as it does in space exploration, and even fewer would say it’s worth the financial costs involved.

One of these things is not like the others. I’m confident that history will record that SLS/Orion played a trivial, if not non-existent role in actual space exploration. And (as always) I would reiterate that out exploration of space will be much more effective when it is rightly viewed as not an end, but a means to a grander goal: the development and settlement of a new frontier, and the expansion of life and consciousness into the universe.

Ukraine And Space

Thoughts on the implications of the invasion, from Bob Zimmerman.

[Friday-morning update]

The repercussions of this for the space industry could be broad and unforeseeable.

It was always a mistake to make ourselves so reliable on Russian/Ukrainian hardware.

[Afternoon update]

Ukrainian invasions have affected our own space policies in the past.

As Jeff notes, if the Russians pull out of ISS, their human spaceflight program wouldn’t have much to do.

[Mid-afternoon update]

Yet.

[Saturday-morning update]

Eric Berger runs through the potential implications for space.