Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Musk raises the bar on Mars

 One of the serious space policy lists sent out a posting "Musk raises the bar on Mars."

My initial reaction: "Trump says that his followers are so loyal that he could shoot someone on the streets of New York and they would still support him. Is Elon Musk now showing he could promise to open a Star Wars cantina on Mars, and get lots of support from gullible customers asking to pay for tickets today?"  I strongly support most of the causes Musk supports, but am a bit concerned about reality.

But it turns out that Mars is the big PR theme of the day in Washington DC, mainly because folks looking for billions of dollars believe it's a good PR strategy. Others on the same list questioned how real those policy debates are now.

My reply:


HI, Jerry!

I am happy this morning to see some folks asking some of the right questions about where we are going in the long-term in space.

For example -- could settlement of Mars ever become economically viable/sustainable?

What worries me most here is that people in power in DC are so utterly unwilling to take that kind of question seriously, except for a 
contingent who simply want to zero out all space activity (a justified position when the rest of us don't provide a convincing answer to the question). Maybe the vote in New Hampshire has emboldened me a little to feel there are still a few folks who actually want to do things right... and cut out the really gross corruption and misdirection which makes it hard to pay really serious attention to the question of sustainability of space activities. But at the same time, in the presidential debates, I still notice how many candidates complained about "all that reality stuff getting in the way."

Getting to reality -- settlement of Mars MIGHT or MIGHT NOT be economically viable or sustainable, DEPENDING on what else is accomplished in terms of OTHER infrastructure, markets and technology. In some contexts, Mars settlements are sustainable. In other contexts, they aren't. In a way... in a weird way... I would actually mostly/almost  agree with the idea that the core mission of NASA should be to maximize the probability that settlement of Mars becomes sustainable and viable. But:
   (1) Why just Mars? From the viewpoint of philosophy... of the meaning of life... ANY sustainable human settlement of space should count. When we are at that high level of defining what we want, the core mission should really be sustainable human settlement of space, period, INCLUDING Mars but not restricted to Mars only. (Who needs humans in space? Who needs humans on earth? Humans, that's us. A very basic starting point.)
  (2) TO ACTUALLY ACHIEVE the goal of sustainable human settlement of Mars, or anywhere else, we really need a kind of rational long-term strategic "plan" (or "decision tree") which maximizes the probability that we create the context which makes it economically feasible, or at least plausible. I agree with the folks on this list who say that we simply aren't there yet. We haven't done what we need to do.   A major charge to Mars with inadequate preparation and infrastructure would be a lot like Lyndon JOhnson's fast charge to the moon, which cut out so much of JFK's infrastructure building and resulted in flags, footprints, disillusionment and budget cuts.

What does it really take to get to economic settlement of Mars of anywhere else in the solar system? My general analysis, based on real economics rather than iron triangle PR,  is at:

In a way... talking about the economic settlement of Mars today would be like talking about the economic settlement of Nevada in the 1600's, before the East Coast had much of an independent settlement itself. If we do things right, Mars will be one important and growing part of a larger interconnected solar system economy, not an isolated bubble. But then again, it would be great if NASA or anyone else could really develop the technology needed to build such bubbles, or "terraria for humans," as they tried to do but failed on in... Arizona, was it?

In sum: we do not have the technology and infrastructure yet EITHER for export-driven sustainable settlement on Mars, or for closed system "terrarium" type settlement. To develop that technology and infrastructure is ever so important for the human species, but to ASSUME it and act as if the problem doesn't exist... would be a way to seal our doom. Really. No hyperbole.  

Best of luck,



I also attached a policy paper by myself and Ed McCullough detailing what we think a new rational policy would be for NASA. That was unanimously approved by the IEEE Committee on Transportation and Aerospace Policy, but on the way upstairs... well, DC is DC. I hope someone lives up to his or her promise to fix it.

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