The Geomancer


More Martian Ramblings

Soon after posting a short note on Paul Davies's proposal about getting to Mars cheaply by staging one-way missions, I ran into my friend Oliver Morton, who pointed me towards a post on his Mainly Martian blog that with takes apart Davies's claims in meticulous detail. Oliver is a Mars-head from way back - his book, Mapping Mars, is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of observation and exploration of the red planet - and his demolition job is pretty comprehensive. Cutting out a return vehicle wouldn't lower the cost of the mission by as much as Davies suggests; if the one-way trip isn't a suicide mission, the Mars explorers will have to set up a permanent base camp under extreme and arduous conditions, and will need continuous resupply from Earth for the forseeable future; the 'lifeboat' argument for space colonisation elides the uncomfortable fact that most people will be left behind. And so on.

All in all, it's a bracing dose of realism. If there is a cheap way of going to Mars, a one-way trip isn't the way to do it. (Still, as an irresponsible SF writer, I feel there's plenty of fictional traction in the scenario. I've already dabbled in it, as the background story of one of the secondary characters in The Secret of Life; now I'm wondering what would happen if, say, there was a privately funded one-way mission to Mars that had to rely on viewers' ratings to keep its astronauts resupplied: a Robinson-Crusoe-On-Mars reality show. Or suppose a one-way mission made a go of it with the help of a substantial resupply programme, and fifty years later their descendants were faced with the bill...).

I do take issue, though, with Oliver's last point:
Human Mars exploration is indeed a fine goal, and it is quite possible that fairly early on there will be some who elect to stay. But the only real argument for doing it sooner or rather than later is the selfish one of wanting to see/participate in it personally. I can appreciate that, but I don't think it's a compelling policy point. There are a lot of other big exciting projects to inspire us -- a new energy infrastructure for the world, the millennium development goals, in pure science the development of telescopes for characterising the atmospheres and possible biospheres of exoplanets.
Yes, going to Mars as soon as possible for personal reasons isn't a compelling reason (even if you are a zillionaire who can fund the entire caper). And yes, there are plenty of other ways to spend the money. But I'm not convinced that funding of expensive space missions diverts essential resources from more pressing problems here on Earth. It's a straw man argument that's been around since the Apollo missions, and there's no evidence that cash cut from NASA funds goes to humanitarian aid or other scientific projects instead; either it goes elsewhere in the overloaded federal budget, or it simply isn't spent. And it isn't as if all that money is blasted into orbit, never to return. Most of it stays right here. It's spent on research and development, on construction of infrastructure, and on the salaries of the thousands of men and women who are involved in supporting manned missions in every kind of way. And if manned missions are cut out of the NASA programme, then all that expertise is lost, and so is the momentum.

The International Space Station is due to be decomissioned in a few years; if it is, that will put an end to the need for manned missions to low Earth orbit. And although there's talk about going to the Moon, we've already been there, and the main rationale for returning is that it would be a staging post or training ground for the Big Leap Outwards. Given that funds are limited, why not start planning and working towards that Big Leap now, with missions to Near Earth asteroids, a round trip around Venus, and maybe a mission to Phobos, rather than a diversion to the Moon? The romantic in me would like to think that kind of thing might be possible in my life time, at least . . .


  1. Darren N4:42 AM

    I'm with you on wanting to proceed immediately, Paul, but I don't think it's necessarily a romantic vision. In order to put humans on Mars - and potentially colonise the planet - we'll need to make enormous advances in life-sustaining technology. Given that large portions of the world's population live in horrific conditions, without access to even the rudimentary necessity of clean water, wouldn't the spin-off technologies be worth every penny spent? Oh, but I forgot: the people in that category don't have mortgages or savings with the major banks, they don't vote in Western elections, they don't have insurance or pay taxes or contribute to the economies of the 'developed' nations. Not much return in helping them, then, is there?

    Of course, we would also need to make strides in engineering and power generation (among many other areas) and we do face an energy crisis and climate change, so maybe there's sufficient incentive for investment there? I mean: no government or corporation is going to invest all that money just to save a few million lives in the third world, but if there's a way to get ahead in the polls or boost their profits a couple of percentage points by making themselves market leaders in clean energy . . .

    This is a prime example of why we still desperately need science fiction. Someone has to remind the world of what's possible. Politicians are incapable of seeing past the next election and captains of industry are only concerned with balance sheets and shareholders' reports, so it's up to SF writers to map our possible futures.

    No pressure, Paul!

  2. Given the current uncertainties about the future and - as you point out - the focus on the immediate bottom-line in science and elsewhere, I think that the idea that it will be possible to mount any kind of large and inevitably long-term project like a return to the Moon or a manned mission to Mars has to contain some considerable element of romance. And what's wrong with that? Romance and idealism have been badly discounted, lately. We got to the Moon using 1960s technology and NASA was planning to get to Mars with 1980s tech (see Steve Baxter's Voyage for a detailed exploration of that scenario). We could get to Mars now, if there was a collective will to do so; but we're currently distracted by all kinds of undefined threats that have hazed out the clean lines of the future as it once was.

    There are already hi-tech spin-offs helping the third world. Cell phones and satellite dishes for instance; private banking in parts of Africa are run entirely on cell phone networks, which means that money and investment can move around much more freely. But lo-tech solutions developed in situ by indigenous people are probably going to be equally if not much more useful, there. Technologies needed to create self-sustaining biomes on Mars or the Moon would be of more use in the so-called developed world - in greening cities for instance, making them far more self-sustaining and reducing their global footprints (which would also cut back on the drain on resources in theird-world countries, whose agricultural sectors presently find it more profitable to export produce).

    But attempting to justify space exploration programmes by their spin-off technologies is a form of appeasement to the bottom line, isn't it? The research scientist in me thinks that we need to go to Mars because until we go there we won't know how it will change and enrich human experience and boost the economy on Earth (even if only by driving various kinds of hi-tech R&D forward). Focussed R&D has its place, but blue skies thinking has, until now, been the main driver of science and technology. And the irresponsible SF writer in me prefers to riff on blue-sky scenarios, rather than ploddingly dramatise some five- or ten-year plan.