The 67th International Astronautical Congress convenes today in Guadalajara Mexico. All the world’s major space players will be there, discussing policy and product development. If there’s one conference I could walk around with a badge on, it would probably be this one. There are few things more exciting going on right now than the leaps in commercial space exploration. Tomorrow, Elon Musk will outline SpaceX’s path to Mars. And in recent weeks, Blue Origin unveiled their new rocket design which will be the most powerful in existence, the sort of thing you need in order to get to Mars (and beyond).
My last planetary astronomy course is twenty years behind me. For my final, I wrote a thesis on Io, and I haven’t been graded on anything having to do with the planets since. But there’s a reason I’m a science fiction author and not a literary guy: I’m a geek for this stuff. I try to stay on top of it. Which is why I don’t understand for the life of me why we’re aiming for Mars right now. In fact, I see the red planet as being precisely like that lady in the red dress from The Matrix: A distraction for boys and their toys. We need to look beyond her.
Musk seriously wants to send dozens of colonists to Mars within the next twenty years. (He actually says within 10 years, but I’m accounting for the fact that Musk misses his production estimates for both Tesla and SpaceX launches, plus the recent loss of a second Falcon 9 rocket). Let’s ignore for a moment all the technical hurdles (sticking the landing, refueling for a return trip, power / food / water) and ask something that’s really been bugging the hell out of me: Why Mars?
Mars is a terrible place to try to live. Yes, there is ice on Mars, but we’re talking a thin coating, not large chunks of the stuff to be melted and consumed. Yes, there was probably life on Mars at some point, but we can discover that with machines, not people. Yes, we need to get people off Earth so all our eggs aren’t in the same basket, but there are better baskets. And this is what I would say to SpaceX or Blue Origin if I was at the IAC: Look closer, folks.
There are three (perhaps four) things we should be doing before we go to Mars to set up a colony. Before I list these things, I want to point out my guesses for why we’re wasting precious resources doing the wrong thing. There are three that I can come up with:
The first is the primal desire to Go Where No (Wo)Man Has Gone Before. We’ve already set foot on the Moon, and we already have a space station in orbit, which makes those targets booorrring! These missions to Mars are flag-planting missions, and that’s a terrible reason to do science. It’s too emotion-based.
The second reason is the pop culture allure. We’ve been reading and watching Mars adventures since we were kids. There’s a nostalgic desire to make that happen which outstrips the logic.
The third reason is that Mars is a planet and the alternatives are not. We seem to be hung up on this. We want our next outpost to be very much like our current one. I think this is very much the wrong course of action. In fact, there are advantages to having some diversity among our baskets.
Here are the four things our private and commercial space organizations should really be focusing on, and thereby helping to drive government agencies in the same direction:
The primary focus should be on the Moon. You might think Mars’ size, or the presence of ice, makes it more hospitable to a colony, but that’s not the case at all. Mars has almost no atmosphere (which is why landing there is difficult). It also has no inner dynamo (liquid metal core) to generate a strong magnetosphere to ward off solar radiation. So Mars would be just as inhospitable as the moon, except for two things, which make it less hospitable: It’s a long way to ship supplies and send rescue missions, and the mass makes landing and relaunch a lot more dangerous and expensive.
The Moon is closer and smaller, and this makes it the best place for our first off-world terrestrial colony. All the things we will need to learn to do (such as shield ourselves from radiation, which is the largest hurdle yet to conquer) are better off learned here. Water, fuel, and air can all be generated from the Moon’s regolith. Tourism and industrial science can help finance the colony. Communication delays are negligible, and the colony stays the same distance (roughly) year-round. There is absolutely no good reason in the galaxy that we should be aiming for Mars over the moon. Just the three emotion-based ones listed above.
Being on the Moon protects us from apocalyptic disasters here on Earth. It also puts our lifeboat much closer. We could build up the colony much quicker, and more countries could be involved, making this a truly human endeavor. The Moon would also make for the best place to build our launch pad for the rest of the solar system (and stars beyond) with its low gravity. It’s also much, much, much more affordable to go there. We shouldn’t let the fact that we’ve set boots on its surface before, or that it’s not a planet, have us overlook the enormous benefit to a Moon colony over a Mars colony.
There are three other things we should be looking to do to aid this endeavor: We should expand our presence in orbit, attempt to mine the heavens, and get people paying to visit space. Some companies are already working on the first one; we are doing a basic version of the second; and number three is probably going to be in operation in just a few years.
The International Space Station is an impressive machine, one of the most impressive things we’ve ever built. We need a bigger version, open to tourism, and a place to train and acclimate the growing number of astronauts that a colony will require. Space stations also create lifeboats for our lifeboats. There will be times when even Earth is too far for the help that the Moon will require (because of launch conditions needed here and our gravity well, more than distance). This would also be a great place to work on artificial gravity (the centripetal kind). What I would propose is that our space station be designed, from the beginning, to be modified into the living quarters of our eventual interstellar craft. That is, the thing we build in orbit for a hotel, will one day be our winnebago to Alpha Centauri.
Mining the heavens is going to be critical to finance all of this. One large asteroid could have enough precious elements to finance years of space exploration. And it’s much cheaper to develop industrial capacity in orbit (or on the Moon) than it is to heave all the things we build up from Earth. Automated drones will bring asteroids back and place them in the Moon’s orbit, where they will be mined. We are probably a century or two away from achieving this, but it will happen. We could do it in 50 years if we weren’t so distracted by that woman in the red dress.
The third thing I mentioned is going to happen soon, and that’s to get people paying for a trip into space. Blue Origin is probably just a few years away, and Virgin Galactic would already have been there were it not for a catastrophic failure of their previous design (they flew their new carrier for the first time this month with the spacecraft attached). I’d put my money on Virgin having the first paying passenger into space, but I think the ride with Blue Origin will be more exciting (more time spent at higher altitudes). If it was possible, I’d volunteer (and pay) to be on the first commercial flight for either company. That’s how keen myself and many others are to pay six figures to fulfill a lifelong dream. Squeezing people like me for large sums is going to not only help fund the other stages, it’s going to be great data for future cosmonauts.
But perhaps most importantly, space tourism is going to fuel imaginations, which are the true rockets of innovation and exploration. Emotional allure can be just as useful as it is distracting. While the big lady in the red dress up there is leading us in the wrong direction when it comes to commercial space exploration, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t get people fired up and wistful. Send a manned mission to Mars, to touch down and do some science and return home. That’s a noble endeavor. But seeing that planet as a basket for humanity’s eggs is misguided to the point of being downright stupid. Our own orbit and the surface of the moon are far better targets. Here’s hoping that someone comes along and disrupts the very companies disrupting space exploration, or that one of those companies lowers its sights while expanding its ambitions. There are so many far grander things we can do closer to home.
UPDATE: After watching Elon’s talk, I’m even more convinced that this is a terrible idea and a terrible distraction. I have seen a few comments about the Moon being for tourists and Mars being for explorers, and nothing could be further from the truth. Mars will be for tourists. The real work of settling the stars will be done in Earth orbit and on the moon.
If Mars hopefuls will be realistic for one moment, they will admit that interstellar spacecraft will never be built on Mars. That makes no sense. The gravity well is still an obstacle, but without all the industry and manpower here on Earth. If we build a colony ship for the stars, it’ll gleam bright overhead, visible from Earth on a clear night. It’ll be fueled from Moon regolith.
Mars is a distraction. And the little bit where Mars is terraformed at the end of SpaceX’s presentation made my jaw drop. As did the idea of people opening the door, and there they are on Mars, with their one-way tickets, and what now? I’m devastated that this is where our ambitions are taking us, down a dead end, when we could be doing so much more here close to home. Let’s start building the orbital station that one day becomes our ark. If we’re going on one-way missions, let’s send them to the stars.