Often when we meet, Harry manages to put in a plug for the colonization of Mars. I used to kick myself for telling him that I was writing another book about the solar system, causing him to assume that I am a Mars fellow traveller. “I can’t imagine why, after our success with Project Apollo, we just didn’t follow it up with a manned mission to Mars,” he says, shaking his head unhappily. “We should be there now, with people.”
Well, I thought, Harry is not crazy and he is an educated man. This idea has been considered and reconsidered many times and the technology has improved. We might be able to get half a dozen people there by the end of next year, but how would they survive without being able to slide from the spacecraft into a ready-made, warm, oxygen-supplied and radiation-protected lab/dorm/recreation building? The technology has not advanced that much.
I love astronomy and the magical feats performed by spacecraft and planetary rovers, and I greatly admire the people who build those high-tech marvels, control them, determine what makes the planets tick, and produce those wondrous images. I can imagine what it would be like to walk the Valles Marineris with geologic hammer in hand. Do we really need to go there as well?
So I answer Harry with my commentary on the cost of mounting such a huge enterprise, especially considering the need to design a habitat that will be assembled, inspected, and tested on Mars by people joy-sticking robots remotely around the regolith. Or built as a self-contained unit like a section of the International Space Station and plonked down on the martian surface, your ready-to-go, rad-hard immobile home.
“Well, you know we have to think of the future,” Harry said gravely the next time we met, continuing the conversation. “People need to have some place to go if things get really bad on this planet.”
I have to confess that from time to time it seems to me that things really are getting bad on Planet Earth, and something cataclysmic may be in the offing, like the Fall of the American Empire, which the gods of history might already be orchestrating in a gently resolute sort of way. Indeed Harry’s youth may have been affected by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is reminiscent of Edward Gibbons’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, writ very large indeed. I was comforted in the knowledge that, at this stage of our conquest of the galaxy, we would have considerably more time than the Romans to work on ways to deal with the Fall of Terrestrial Humanity.
Harry was unimpressed by this deviation from his real point, which was that our species has a kind of manifest destiny that involves homesteading the other planets. I listened, but for some reason I was disinclined to begin lobbying for a Mars Ferry project, not that I am a stick-in-the-mud but because I was wondering about cost, who would be chosen for seats on the ferry, who would be the new Adams and Eves, who will choose them, and what they will eat. “Terraforming is the answer,” said Harry happily when I mentioned the need to eat, as though landscaping Mars into farmland were a self-evident “given.”
I excused myself to revisit the bar and ran into someone I had met for the first time that evening. He was a chemical engineer, so I tested his views on colonizing Mars. “Silly to waste our time on that,” he said good-naturedly. “We have enough problems to take care of on our own planet, and plenty natural resources if we use them sensibly.” I thanked him and asked the barman for a double.
Harry was all smiles when I returned. “Manifest destiny,” he said, “you remember that? Our future is in space.” He raised his glass, nodding with an avuncular grin, and I winced internally because I once put something similar in print myself. But going to Mars struck me as considerably more difficult than setting out across the plains with a wagon or a handcart, hazardous though that proved to be. I could just about get my mind around the idea of setting up a lab on Mars a decade or two from now, but transforming the Red Planet in the image of agrarian America because it is a solemn duty was beyond my imagination.
Harry now launched into a short lecture on teleportation, borrowing from Craig Venter’s work on DNA that can be digitized and reconstituted in another place, transmitted perhaps by microwave. “It’s a digital biological converter,” Harry said. “You wouldn’t have to worry about rockets and all that. If we can do 3-D printing we should be able to learn how to convert brain waves into electromagnetic waves and back again.” I didn’t correct him but Venter’s work so far was on proteins and very simple organisms and I felt squeamish about the idea of putting human minds on chips, if that ever became possible.
“That’s going to take a while to develop,” I said tiredly, adding that I could imagine getting three or four people to Mars sometime in the next five years with existing technology, but how would we get them back? Yes Harry, Mars gravity is just a tad more than a third of Earth’s. That means the launch system would need considerably less fuel for the return. But you’d still have to carry that fuel from Earth until folks learned to manufacture kerosene from Mars dirt.
Harry said there may be very little water on Mars’s surface but there could be ice a kilometer down, far below the Curiosity lander’s reach, and under that perhaps even liquid water. Not only water to drink and run your morning bath, but water that could provide hydrogen for fuel.
I sighed and thought of Elon Musk, the remarkably successful businessman and space entrepreneur who as the chieftain of the civilian space enterprise SpaceX has already delivered cargoes to the International Space Station and like Virgin Galactic is selling seats for suborbital tourism. Musk is a businessman who really believes in going to Mars. He told Rory Carroll of The Guardian that he doesn’t believe humanity is on its last legs, though some unforeseen problem might emerge (a speeding asteroid on our doorstep?). “It’s sort of like why you buy car or life insurance,” he said. “It’s not because you think you’ll die tomorrow, but because you might.”
Virgin’s Richard Branson is even more bullish, and cheerful. “In my lifetime I’m determined to being a part of starting a population on Mars,” he told CBS News. “I think it is absolutely realistic. It will happen.”
SpaceX and Virgin Galactic both have the laudable vision of rocketing to the Moon and Mars without spending a penny of taxpayer money, financing their programs with revenues from space tourism (currently $200,000 a seat at Virgin Galactic) and other suborbital or low-earth-orbit ventures. I sincerely hope they are successful. But then I also know NASA will probably test-fly an uncrewed Orion interplanetary command module this year, using a mighty United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch system. That’s big news from the giants of spaceflight, and their lust for the Moon and Mars has been revitalized, albeit not with Apollo-scale funding.
A few days after the last chat with Harry, mulling over what was going on at SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and especially NASA, I confess feeling more enthusiastic about crewed, even civilian spaceflight to the Moon and beyond. Suppose these three combined their efforts! Suppose they invited other countries to join in!
It struck me that sending humans to the Moon and other planets has very little to do with logic, except in satisfying some half-daft idea that to protect our international standing we need to build a habitat on the Moon or Mars before the Chinese. Something’s at work here that is more than prestige or international competition. It’s human nature, the curious, adventuresome nature of the human beast that regardless of our origin or our wealth makes us want to experience the marvels of nature with our own senses, to be there, in imagination if not in person.
In a time when there is frustration over geopolitical tensions, lack of faith in government, concern that the widening gap between rich and poor will result in violence, that parents and schools are failing our children, that even the ideal of democracy is growing tired (I could go on), we need to make the most of our precious gift of vision. It’s allowed to imagine what it would be like to go looking for fish under the ice of Europa, join a scientific expedition to the highlands of Mars, marvel at the geysers of Enceladus or Triton, go sightseeing among the rings of Saturn, fly over the volcanoes of Io, attempt a football game on our own Moon.
Could we colonize Mars with half a dozen people, just for a start? Of course, but not tomorrow. We, our children, and their children need to let loose a load of vision, of inventiveness, and of courage, to design ways of making other planets livable for alien life — us. With Project Apollo we learned 45 years ago that people could fly to the Moon, take a brief walk, and return. It’s time now to start working on ways we can stay there for a while, and on Mars as well. Identify useful natural resources and learn how to utilize what we find. Devise ways of producing and recycling usable air, water, and healthy foods. Invent clothing that we can walk around in with reasonable comfort without being harmed by radiation, heat, or cold,
Branson and Musk, the Virgin Galactic people, the SpaceX people and the NASA people, have vision. Better still, they are working inside their vision, intent on making it happen. Whether or not our vision is applied to spaceflight, we should liberate that which is in each of us, even if it is slow to flower. Sprinkle its most precious fruits with wonder, let them loose but always within sight, and this will be a happier and more peaceful world. Here’s to the Mars Ferry Project.