Sailing off to nowhere
August 11, 2016 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Robert Zubrin with a brief, passionate, and well-articulated answer to the question: why should we go to Mars?
posted by swift (38 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because it's there?
posted by lkc at 7:15 PM on August 11, 2016


Because it needs women?
posted by slater at 7:20 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


We'll go, but no time soon, because it's too risky and expensive with little perceived benefit.

As to his answers,

1. It would only be a first step in answering the question of life, whatever we find.

2. Fixing Earth would do the same thing

3. That's a lovely and romantic notion, which as a result of romantic guy I appreciate, but that won't pay the bill of going.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:34 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


Following up on one of Dr. Zubrin's points, NASA should start an ad campaign: "The first person to walk on Mars is a young student in school today. And it could be you." Think of how many scientists, engineers, and explorers would be inspired by that.
posted by jasonhong at 7:41 PM on August 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


Couldn't have said it better myself.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:46 PM on August 11, 2016


3. isn't a lovely and romantic notion, it's just more expansion and conquest. 'What we remember about 1492 is the voyage of Columbus'--yeah, maybe consult Howard Zinn about what's wrong with the way we remember Columbus. Maybe the best way to set priorities for the future isn't to just project the history-is-written-by-the-victors mentality into the far future, since that mentality is what's killing us today.

I mean, he actually said what we'll remember 500 years from now isn't what's happening in Iraq. Yeah, that's because we bury our crimes; we won't remember it because we don't care whose country burns to maintain the status quo, as long as it isn't ours. If that's how we're gonna proceed into the far future, then we don't have a far future and we might as well not bother.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:55 PM on August 11, 2016 [12 favorites]


Best way to goad the average American into supporting a Mars mission would be telling them that a predominantly Muslim nation is going to land someone there first.

One news cycle of headlines like "ISIS will impose Sharia Law on the Red Planet!" and we'll get there so fast it'll leave skidmarks on the Tharsis Bulge.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:58 PM on August 11, 2016 [7 favorites]


it'll leave skidmarks on the Tharsis Bulge.

And that's why I limit my intake of beans.
posted by Literaryhero at 8:10 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


way more into the borgias than columbus tbh
posted by edeezy at 8:14 PM on August 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


Maybe the best way to set priorities for the future isn't to just project the history-is-written-by-the-victors mentality into the far future, since that mentality is what's killing us today.

Isn't the bonus of going to Mars that there aren't any indigenous people to oppress?
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:28 PM on August 11, 2016 [4 favorites]


Think of how many scientists, engineers, and explorers would be inspired by that.

Why does everyone always think we need more scientists? Try funding the ones you've got first.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:30 PM on August 11, 2016 [11 favorites]


Try funding the ones you've got first.

It's the law of supply and demand, man! If you have a lot of scientists, they'll have to compete to work cheaper. More scientists = cheaper science. QED.
posted by spacewrench at 8:36 PM on August 11, 2016


Because (literally) having all your eggs in one basket itself constitutes an existential threat.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:37 PM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


1. Finding the presence or absence of life, present or past, would be an important step toward settling the question of life in the universe. If we are alone and don't go out there, then when life on Earth dies out, there won't be any life anywhere. But if we are alone and we do go out there, then eventually life will be widespread. In that case, even if our flavour of intelligent life dies out, other intelligent species may evolve and do a better job that we did. If there's life out there that didn't evolve here, great! But why chance it?

2. If we can make another planet suitable for life, we will learn a great deal about how to fix Earth in the process. This is not a zero-sum game where we have to choose between fixing Mars or fixing Earth. We can, and should, do both.

3. I don't care who goes out there. I'll be dead by the time we have self-sustaining colonies off Earth. But whether the people writing the history books write in Latin, Arabic, Chinese or Sanscrit letters, no matter what language they speak, I'd like those history books to be written by someone. The only reason they would never be written is because we waited too long to get out of the egg.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 11:20 PM on August 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


I always want to hear a slam dunk argument for manned space exploration, now! And I always am disappointed. Sadly, Zubrin impressed me about as much as other great minds on this topic: not all that much. In fact, the arguments presented are the same ones usually presented here on MF whenever a space exploration related post pops up.

The science is on Mars? Ok. I'd argue that the science is wherever you can find it. And that would be pretty much everywhere. I don't think Zubrin is wrong. I think his proposal sounds way too open ended to be a practical argument. If evidence of life on Mars isn't found, does it just mean you haven't looked hard enough? If evidence of life is found quickly, does the science sit back on its butt and kick off its shoes in satisfaction? Of course not. I find Zubrin sounding a bit like a "trip to Mars will finally settle this whole business once and for all", which I think is meant to convince lay people, but I think just sounds disingenuous.

The challenge? This is a weird appeal, to claim that if we do not challenge ourselves with plowing ahead to Mars, we are somehow not living up to our own humanity. And I kind of hate the idea that we have to sort of bait and switch millions of young people into becoming scientists, engineers, doctors, etc. I think it's incredible that someone with such a romantic notion about human curiosity feels that humans will not indulge that curiosity... unless the fantastic notion of space travel is dangled in front of our faces. I know actual scientists, doctors, engineers. I've done my fair share of ribbing them. But they are not the sheep that needed to be led into their careers.

And finally, the destiny of humanity argument again. Continuing human civilization beyond the boundary of Earth is a wonderfully romantic notion that fills me with elation. But it puzzles me why humanity should outlive Mother Earth. In the big scheme of things, I can't really come up with any real argument why that should actually be. Why are we so special? Sure, I'm concerned about the longevity of myself, my loved ones, my offspring, etc. But the universe gives no fuck whether humans ever leave this planet or not. We are not the saviors of the universe. Our continued existence matters to nobody or nothing beyond our reach. And this is assuming we are ever truly capable of cutting the umbilical cord with Mother Earth, something about which I have serious doubt.

So, um, yeah, Dr, Zubrin still hasn't made that slam dunk.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:07 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Isn't the bonus of going to Mars that there aren't any indigenous people to oppress?

Oh, don't worry, as soon as we colonize Mars and the asteroid belt we'll create some people to oppress.
posted by Pendragon at 12:29 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Isn't the bonus of going to Mars that there aren't any indigenous people to oppress?

Mars is currently populated by robots.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:54 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


If we can make another planet suitable for life, we will learn a great deal about how to fix Earth in the process.

I think this is the big reason. For our civilization to survive on Earth we need a Manhattan-project-plus effort into figuring out sustainable living, and because we're dumb the only way we're actually going to do that before it's too late is by learning how to live on Mars. The problems that need to be solved to create a permanent sustaining colony that can't overdraft into Earth's ecology are basically the same problems we need to solve here. The payoff would be incalculable.

Currently we use a planet-year's production of resources in seven months, and each year we get worse, not better. Right now we barely even know the basics about not leaning on the environment, and what basics that we do know... much of that science was Mars research.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:27 AM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


If we are alone and don't go out there, then when life on Earth dies out, there won't be any life anywhere.

On the upside, nobody will miss it.
posted by flabdablet at 2:24 AM on August 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


why go down the gravity well at all? why not work on sustainable orbital (or Lagrange point) colonies?

yes i love Schizmatrix
posted by kokaku at 2:28 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


The problems that need to be solved to create a permanent sustaining colony that can't overdraft into Earth's ecology are basically the same problems we need to solve here.

Those problems are way easier to solve on Earth than on Mars, so if solutions for them is your goal you can bypass Mars and just solve them here.
posted by edeezy at 2:38 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


why go down the gravity well at all? why not work on sustainable orbital (or Lagrange point) colonies?

The human body might be better suited to some type of planetary gravity well. But we'll never know unless we try building a self sustaining colony in space. If we do that, then we can survive pretty much anywhere in the universe.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:55 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


you can bypass Mars and just solve them here.

To be fair, Mars doesn't have the billions of people who instantly cock up every solution implemented here.
posted by flabdablet at 4:57 AM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but it only takes one idiot to mess things up and those suckers breed like crazy.

If you're not familiar with Dr. Zubrin, he's one of the authors behind Mars Direct, a seemingly workable concept of getting to Mars in a cost effective manner. Definitely worth reading.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:03 AM on August 12, 2016


Gil Scott-Heron said it best
posted by lalochezia at 7:07 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Though the first stage of the Mars Direct plan always amuses me (emphasis mine):
The first flight of the Ares rocket (not to be confused with the similarly named rocket of the now defunct Constellation program) would take an unmanned Earth Return Vehicle to Mars after a 6-month cruise phase, with a supply of hydrogen, a chemical plant and a small nuclear reactor.
The politics of launching a nuclear reactor is just...I can't even.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:10 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why are we so special?

Because we are the most advanced intelligence ever discovered.

Our continued existence matters to nobody or nothing beyond our reach.

Since Earth is the only planet in the known universe where the ability to give a fuck about anything evolved, your argument appears perfectly circular to me.
posted by hat_eater at 7:22 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I prefer the approach to Mars colonization outlined by CM Kornbluth in "The Marching Morons."
posted by rdone at 7:30 AM on August 12, 2016


As this is my career, I've thought a lot about it. Really interested in the discussion.

Regarding Zubrin's point about science: Science is not a foundational reason for human exploration. The problem being that with the amount of money you spend on a human mission and all of the stuff getting humans to Mars and exploring one spot on Mars, you could buy a HUGE amount of robotic exploration that could explore a vastly larger amount of the surface as well as the subsurface. Robots are really inefficient explorers compared to humans with regard to time on the surface, but with regard to cost it isn't really close. Science would be enabled by human exploration and would be a huge component of a human landing on Mars, but would not be a foundational reason for doing it.

I believe we are faced with a big decision regarding human exploration of space in the next 5 to 10 years. I believe it comes down to 3 basic pathways: 1) Don't bother; 2) Flags and footprints - send humans to different destinations as a media stunt/ongoing jobs program; 3) Settlement: decide that we are interested in settling outer space.

Zubrin talks like he is after #3, but in reality he promotes a get to Mars fast idea which I believe is as sustainable as the Apollo program was -- once we've landed on Mars a few times, the motivation for going will be exhausted, and we will use the money elsewhere. It will basically turn into a media stunt and it will be over. The problem is that Zubrin is hyper focused on Mars as a destination. If the destination is used at the primary motivation, then as soon as it is reached - the motivation will be gone, and the program soon afterward.

A true believer in settlement of space will look at our challenges with regard to getting off the Earth, producing food, surviving the radiation, surviving in partial gravity, building long-lasting habitats, providing power, building infrastructure, and basically staying away from Earth for longer that 1 year - and will conclude that it is far more important to solve those problems than to figure out how to get to Mars in the fastest way possible (BTW, the SpaceX fans should note that Elon is only working on one of these problems - which is by far the easiest one IMHO). If we can solve these problems then going to Mars will be a consequence rather than a primary goal.

As far as a "slam dunk" justification for settlement of space, as far as I can tell, it doesn't exist. Either you think that going into space will provide an opportunity for humans to expand, face new challenges, formulate new solutions, occupy empty spaces that allow for new opportunities in political, moral, social, economic, and cultural evolution, or you think that going into space is a waste of time and money.

I hope that we end up deciding on #3 - but I'm pretty sure our human space program will probably remain in #2 territory for the foreseeable future.
posted by spaceviking at 7:38 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


If we want to go to Mars, or even farther, we clearly can, the technology has existed since the 1950s, it's purely a question of political will to do so.

Money isn't really an issue, it's all digital promises to pay promises in the end.... and if the velocity of money continues to zero as it is now, we're all hosed anyway, a big project would help get some spending going.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:31 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


kokaku: "why not work on sustainable orbital (or Lagrange point) colonies?"

Murderous proton exposure.
posted by boo_radley at 9:59 AM on August 12, 2016


Those problems are way easier to solve on Earth than on Mars, so if solutions for them is your goal you can bypass Mars and just solve them here.

That's a bit obvious so I'm guessing my point was missed; judging by our long history, the history of previous human civilizations, and our current trajectory and momentum, I believe we are not going to engage with or solve these problems without concrete near-term goals and testable unforgiving success conditions and tangible things to focus on and funding and core research and hope and excitement. (In other words the Mars program.)

If, instead, our only incentive to solve these problems is the existential threat that our civilization will collapse at some vague point in the distant-seeming future, then we will kick that can down the road until it's too late, and even then a significant portion of people will continue to act based on the short-term focus that brought us there.

Humans aren't going to change. But Mars is a way to bring our long-term blindspot into our short-term focus.

History also shows that when something is in our short-term focus, we tend to knock it out of the park.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:48 AM on August 12, 2016


Isn't the bonus of going to Mars that there aren't any indigenous people to oppress?

That's not a bonus, that's a downside. It's why colonizing it is going to be so hard. If we could just steal previously cultivated land, raid graves and enslave locals, we'd be all set.
posted by Hactar at 1:55 PM on August 12, 2016


If the destination is used at the primary motivation, then as soon as it is reached - the motivation will be gone, and the program soon afterward.

This seems obvious. But it's corollary is also true, a thing I call the KFC effect: Nothing happens until you open up the first fast food store. At some point it will be possible to objectify the "why" of space travel by pointing out some of the obvious economic benefits. But curiosity is the lever that pries open that door. Maybe commercialization is a way to move this idea off the drawing board and into some hardware.

Prolonged life in space is possible, as witnessed by the scores of scientists who have inhabited the orbiting habitats for the past few years. Putting people into space won't solve Earth's problems, nor will it detract from their solutions. Funding is there, it's just a matter of getting those with their hands on the fiscal hose to turn it in the proper direction.
posted by mule98J at 2:55 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have to say, I find it a little odd that space exploration has to be justified in the first place. Can someone give me a slam-dunk reason to not go to Mars, a reason that didn't exist back when we went to the moon? Sure, there's war, poverty, injustice, racism, etc., but why would that stop us now when it didn't before.

Anyone decrying the possibility of further exploration could be asked whether, had those arguments held sway back in the 60s, we would have been better off. I mean, we unquestionable wouldn't have the advances in telecommunication and computers that we have right now, for starters.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 4:02 PM on August 12, 2016


Prolonged life in space is possible, as witnessed by the scores of scientists who have inhabited the orbiting habitats for the past few years.

This has worked only because those habitats in low earth orbit are still within the Earth's protective magnetosphere which wards off most of the solar weather. Beyond LEO, an ill timed solar storm can delivera lethal radiation dose in a few hours if you don't have pretty substantial shielding, which tends to be massive. The need for and use of such shielding is demonstrated in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, and the tragic lack thereof in the fate of a fictional Apollo 18 in James Michener's Space.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:07 PM on August 12, 2016


I mean, we unquestionable wouldn't have the advances in telecommunication and computers that we have right now, for starters.

This isn't really mostly true. If you want to know why we have the telecom and computer advances, you can thank the calculus of ICBM's within the Cold War, of which NASA and Apollo was mostly an offshoot.

While the ability to put a satellite in GEO to hover over a point on earth providing comms and weather info was a nifty idea Arthur C. Clarke saw in the 40's, it wasn't seductive enough to provoke the development of rocket delivery systems powerful enough to make it happen. It was the need to put H-bombs on point half a world away that did that, and then telecom and weather satellites became a relatively cheap corollary. Apollo spurred the development of many technologies (although not Teflon, which had been developed for the Manhattan Project Y-12 gaseous diffusion plant), but it actually retarded computer tech because the Apollo program absorbed the entire world supply of then-new "integrated circuits" for several years. And while we now have hobbyists building DSKY's at the time the tech was kept secret because much of it was shared by much more classified military applications.

This is not to say it's not worth doing, or wasn't worth doing when we went to the Moon. Humans are creatures of emotion and there is a powerful call to the idea of human feet walking on another world. We will spend much and get much in return because we spent it if that is our goal. But it's not an idea to be taken lightly; even over-engineered boring simple Apollo had one of its seven missions fail. Mars will be much more complex and it is a near certainty that people will die if we try for it, possibly all the people we try to send. Sure some of us are ready for that, even ready to volunteer, but unless the public who is paying for it is ready for that it could be a really hard sell.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:22 PM on August 12, 2016


I want to go to Mars, or the moon, or anywhere really, but it depends on whether or not that's prioritized. Which it hasn't been since what, the sixties? It's kinda hard to justify spending billions on getting into space when there's so many other damn problems going on that seem more urgent that that. I want to argue with that, but I kinda can't.

At any rate, Kim Stanley Robinson says we can't do it. Waaaaah.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:42 PM on August 12, 2016


« Older "Birth is a monstrous thing, and it has no moral...   |   A Slaptstick Masterpeice. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments