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The Case Against Mars


by Eric Drexler

From L5 News, October 1984

Eric Drexler is the Associate Editor of the L-5 News and a member of the Society's Board of Advisors. The statements made here reflect his views rather than Society policy.

To open space to settlement, we must use space for practical purposes. What could be more obvious? In the past, mining and agriculture have motivated people to pack up and settle new lands. History likewise suggests that space development will serve space science, just as mining and agriculture have stimulated geology and plant biology.

Space activities fueled by pure politics are far less promising, in the long run. The Ming navy, seeking the glory of China, visited Africa and delivered an ambassador to Arabia. Its technical achievements were awesome, for that time. Nonetheless, this effort collapsed when the political winds shifted because it had little economic utility or immediate military value. Apollo followed a similar path, seeking the glory of the US. It visited the Moon and ended with the delivery of "ambassadors" to a meeting in space. Despite awesome technical achievements, its collapse took much of the US space program down with it. History thus joins with common sense to suggest that space development — not national prestige — is the engine that will open a road to the stars.

Mars fits in poorly. To advance space development, we need cheap resources in near-Earth space. The Moon is obvious and attractive: the velocity increment needed to escape the Moon and bring materials to near-Earth space is fairly low, and the Moon holds oxygen, rock, metals, and (perhaps) water at the poles. What is more, it can best absorb any politically-inspired mania for a planetary base, being close enough to do so at a comparatively modest cost. The asteroids are less obvious to the casual eye, but more attractive: the velocity increment needed to bring materials from suitable asteriods is lower than that of the Moon, and asteroids contain oxygen, rock, water, hydrocarbons, steel, nickel, cobalt, and precious metals.

Mars is not even in the running. Jesco von Puttkamer of NASA, an apparent advocate of men-to-Mars, admits that ". . . such a program would be unlikely to provide nonterrestrial materials in the foreseeable future as a lunar base or asteriod mining program might do . . . ." Since hardly anyone argues otherwise, this should seal the case against Mars as a goal for the next phase of space developement.

The Martian Mind

Why, then, do some cry out for expeditions to Mars, as at the recent Case for Mars II conference in Boulder? Some may do so because they don't really see space as a frontier, or because they have given little serious thought to strategies for space development. Seeing all advances as equally useless (or equally useful), they blow the horn for a space activity that seems both exciting and understandable — that is, to go through free space (a place so strange and hard to think about) and then promptly leave it again to land on another planet (a place for familiar sorts of discovery and adventure, like Antarctica).

Others suffer from an attack of false analogies. Former astronaut and Senator Harrison Schmidt, for example, has written of "the planetary shores of this new ocean." Thinking of space as an ocean with planetary shores, however, is misleading. Earth's sea is unstable, corrosive, and destructive compared to space. No one builds at sea, if it can be avoided — even ships are built on land. Space, in contrast, is an excellent environment for construction; microgravity eliminates the need for cranes, and vacuum eliminates the threat of storm and stress. Movement from land to sea is a matter of stepping from a dock to a ship; movement from planets to space is a task for mighty machines. Asteroids offer a better parallel to "shores" in space, but the "sea" still offers the best building sites, while the "land" offers only sites for mining.

The martian dream also has roots in the traditional thinking of those antique times when "space" meant chiefly "space exploration." As a planet, Mars appeals to Earthbound prejudices and habits of thought. It has an atmosphere, a tinted sky, weather, and a desert-like surface on which one can imagine building a cabin from wood miraculously found beyond the next barren hill. It still basks in the glow of its past reputation as an Earth-like planet and an abode of Martian civilizations, though this glow fails to warm its dry-ice polar caps.

Mars also benefits from the misconception that human needs demand whole planets (when even the smaller asteroids contain billions of tons of resources). It gains another measure of ill-gotten appeal from the popular notion that the asteroids are more distant. In The Third Industrial Revolution, for example, G. Harry Stine states that "The planetoid (or asteroid) belt lies between Mars and Jupiter"; he apparently never hints that asteroids might be found closer, though he surely knows better and still advocates using asteroids before Mars. The tendency to slight the near-Earth asteroids in favor of the more numerous main belt asteroids is another symptom of the big-needs misconception.

Mars is a Mess

Consider the martian atmosphere. Counting Earth's surface atmosphere as genuine, solid air, Mars' surface atmosphere is over 99% vacuum. This means that explorers will need suits and pressurized hulls like those needed in space. The atmosphere (being mostly carbon dioxide) remains unbreatheable even when compressed, yet it still manages to lift dust enough to dirty solar collectors — though martian nights may be a worse handicap. Mars has air enough to be troublesome, but not enough to be very useful.

Mining asteroidal regolith can be done with automatic sweeper-machines, but direct human exploration of Mars (the Great Goal of the Mars movement) means sending people on long trips through space in what must, if flown any time soon, be poorly shielded spacecraft. As James Oberg notes, "In the least, sufficient amounts of radiation . . . would be absorbed by Mars explorers to probably terminate their active spaceflight careers." — and this in a book entitled The Case for Mars. What is more, since the atmosphere and magnetic field of Mars provide little shielding, the martian surface is bombarded with high-energy radiation comparable to that in free space. Thus, our intrepid explorers or settlers must stay under a few feet of dirt most of the time if they plan to stay long and remain healthy. The fantasy of domed cities under the martian sky thus shrinks to pressure vessels buried under martian dirt.

Mars' gravity is also awkward. On one hand, it is strong enough to destroy the well-known industrial advantages of microgravity (which include inexpensive centrifuge construction for simulating high gravity). On the other hand, it may be too weak for normal human health and development, raising questions regarding long-term settlement.

Mars has proven resources of carbon, water, and silicate rock, but these (and more) are also found among the asteroids. As a wet, differentiated planetary body, it may well contain concentrated ore bodies. If so, then as demand for rare elements in space grows large enough, mining of Mars may become economical (early space industry will chiefly demand bulk commodities such as water, oxygen, rock and steel). The martian atmosphere does contain about 2.5 percent nitrogen — an element rare in asteroids. Thus, it may someday prove desirable to build a polar processing plant to concentrate nitrogen (by freezing out carbon dioxide) and to ship it into space. There, it would find use as an oxygen diluent in the atmosphere of large-scale settlements.

Martian Housing

Ah, but why not settle Mars instead? Some propose Mars as a lifeboat for humanity, independent of Earth. Paul Penzo of JPL, for example, suggets Mars as "a best choice for establishing a preserving colony" to escape the possible destruction of humankind on Earth. But is Mars the best place for settlement, or even very attractive?

Ben Bova has compared settlements in free space to those on planets, noting that "colonies on other worlds, such as Mars . . . would have to dig themselves into the ground or take their chances with the surface conditions of that world. Each would be in a hostile environment . . . The L-5 concept neatly sidesteps such problems . . . As O'Neill has put it, why climb out of Earth's 4000 mile-deep gravity well merely to sit yourself down at the bottom of some other world's gravity well?"

Mars is inferior to free space as a site for settlement. Its atmosphere and gravity are no help; they merely lend a superficial familarily. Worse, because no sound economic incentive for settlement has been advanced, housing on Mars must be built using tax money and maintained using still more tax money. Thomas Paine has estimated the cost of Mars settlement at $5 trillion, spread over a century. How likely is a truly independent settlement under these circumstances? Such proposals fail to follow the precedent of the New World, where investment was motivated by the sound hope of gain or by the quest for a privately achieved independence.

In response to an earlier article contrasting free space to planets, an L-5 member wrote to the author, protesting that "Some of us dream of living on other planets." No doubt this is so, but it makes sense to adapt dreams to opportunities. Some of us may dream of receiving federally-funded annuities of ten million dollars a year, but it makes no sense to ask for it. The goal of the L-5 Society is to open space as a practical frontier — not to plead for high-cost public housing on other planets.

But might not a Mars settlement be an investment, a step toward eventual terraforming? Unfortunately for this notion, taking a step toward terraforming any time soon would be like beginning to dig a second Panama Canal using a gold teaspoon shortly before delivery of a steamshovel. If we survive, the next century will bring massive space industry based on technologies that make our present abilities seem pitiful in comparison. Besides, terraforming Mars would be an inefficient way to gain living space. It would offer no new living space for a long time (centuries is a common estimate), and would ultimately deliver less than 1/1000 as much land area as could be constructed by reworking the asteroids into O'Neill-style settlements. And the residents would still be stuck with martian gravity.

Excuses for Mars

Scientific justifications have been proposed, but sending people to explore Mars seems a poor approach, at present. Advocates estimate costs in the tens of billions of dollars (though exploration will eventually become dirt cheap, as space technology matures). Greater returns could be had by devoting a fraction of that sum to a better-balanced program of space science, motivated by a vigorous, practical program of space development. If a manned Mars mission is the only way to explore Mars in the next few decades — piggybacking science on a presumed public enthusiasm for seeing citizens on distant globes — then exploration is best delayed. The cost of speeding our inquiries into that particular ball of rock and gas would simply be too high. We will gain the knowledge later anyway, when spaceflight become easy.

Why then, the rah! rah! for an early Mars mission? In part because of the psychological biases identified above, and in part because of parallel political biases. A Mars project is guaranteed to "work"; no really new technology is needed to go to Mars, and there is no economic test of practicality that the project could fail. What is more, aerospace companies have old Mars-mission studies on the shelf, just waiting to be dusted off by their proud authors. From NASA's perspective, a Mars mission offers another Apollo-like project that would bump down the old, familiar tracks that once led to glory — and there would be no awkward threat of competition from private enterprise.

But will the public buy another grand stunt, wrapped up by politicians and bureaucrats and sold as "the next logical step on the space frontier?" How many will see Mars as a fresh challenge, and how many will see it as just another cratered flagstand? When then Vice-President Agnew proposed sending Americans to Mars, opinion polls showed a whopping 2 percent in favor of the idea.

The space program has long suffered from an image of wastefulness, a problem largely stemming from the symbolic motivation of Apollo. Today, Roger Wilson of the University of Colorado states that "The overall focus for a Mars base should constitute a will to be there, not just go there," but this existentialist argument will only aggravate the problem.

The Mars goal has stirred some interest, but any student of memetics can see why. Percival Lowell's canals and Martians sent human dreams Marsward decades ago, a drift reinforced by science fiction myths and the calculations of the rocketry pioneers. These ideas lend themselves to vivid dreams, and the vivid dreams help the ideas draw attention and get themselves repeated. Though great advances in our understanding of technology and the promise of life in space have more recently spawned competing visions, these have not yet penetrated the entire space community. Thus, when the space community talks to itself about what it finds exciting, parts of it still talk about Mars. When this part hears echos from a public long saturated by the Mars-talk of years gone by, the Mars contingent thinks it has support.

Finally, there is the imagined headline, "Reds on Red Planet!" The desire to puff up the prestige of the Soviet state (punctured by Apollo almost yesterday, from Chernenko's perspective) may well combine with bureaucratic inertia to carry Soviets to Mars. We should welcome such political stimulus, but not imitate Soviet policy.

In considering what stand to take regarding space in general — and regarding strategies for space development in particular — space advocates can follow either of two strategies. One may be described as "leadership". This involved first examining the facts about space opportunities and then selecting a promising strategy for space science and space development. It then involves considering how to dramatize the resulting goals and how to sell the dream to the public and the industry. Economic growth fueled by the expansion of civilization toward the stars should be an appealing enough dream.

The other strategy may be described as "followership." This involves first trying to guess what spectacle might tickle the public's fancy, and then working to whip up the public and siphon off tax money. Finally, it involves hoping that the spectacle will somehow bring practical, enduring space activities before a shift in the political wind brings the whole program down.

A followership strategy isn't the blind leading the blind, but something worse: it is the sighted following the blind, eyes closed, without offering guidance. Which approach — leadership or followership — will best serve the space program? Which is more worthy of people trying to change the world for the better?

The sort of thinking criticized here presents a real danger to the space movement, even to those embracing other goals. It takes a risk in assuming that people will commit to large, long-term projects based on vague inclinations that have not yet been tested in public debate. A lunar base effort, with the right motives, would be a solid step forward. An asteroid mining initiative, though less in accord with followership, seems a yet more promising economical step. A Mars mission initiative, however, would likely fail, and in failing would damage the space movement's credentials as force for a better future. In effect, we would then face the public after having said "We're for space, and the best thing we can think of doing there is to land a guy in a space suit on yet another cratered ball of rock, and maybe hang out there for a long time . . . isn't that great? Just cough up the bucks!"

We face choices. One way promises to open space as a true frontier with expanding opportunities and room for freedom. The other way promises to bring a space program centered around a political stunt, with some hope of setting up an open-ended charity. The L-5 Society was established to support the development of free space for use and settlement because this seemed the best way to spread civilization beyond Earth. After nine years of further consideration, free-space development based on practical use still seems best.

We need not support all proposals for spending money in space. Indeed, our credibility and our goals may on occasion be better served by opposition.


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