Humans to Mars: a deeply disturbing idea

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Credit: “Mining Mars,” http://www.keithlaney.net

One of many cultural phenomena that worry me as much as the U.S. presidential campaign (I voted for Bernie in the primary, and I am voting for Hillary on election day) is the persistent public cheerleading for the human colonization of Mars. The media repeat every bit of the libertarian narrative of progress and freedom that they’re feed with virtually no critical analysis.

I will not repeat much of what Elon Musk said yesterday about his “vision” for colonizing Mars, as it’s plastered all over the mass media. If you want to read a level-headed account of yesterday’s announcement, see Marcia Smith’s report on Space Policy Online.

As Marcia notes, “Elon Musk has made no secret of his passion to make humanity a multiplanetary species by creating a self-sustaining society on Mars as a backup plan in case Earth is destroyed in a cataclysmic event.” NASA’s embraced Musk and his wacky ideas as a way to promote its own “journey to Mars.” Musk said yesterday he wants to accomplish his goal by public-private partnership.

Really? I don’t want a penny of my tax dollars going into such a project. (Musk has already benefited from millions of dollars in direct subsidies, not to mention contracts, from the federal government.)

Musk said he will take people to Mars for $200,000 apiece, transporting 100 to 200 people at a time, starting in a few decades.

First, I don’t believe for a minute that he will accomplish that goal in the foreseeable future.

Second, I have deep moral qualms about this idea, as it appeals to a small fraction of humankind and proposes what would inevitably be an elitist enterprise. Would it be ethical to enable people with enough money to buy a ticket to leave our troubled Earth behind? Would it be ethical for government(s) to subsidize such an enterprise? In Musk’s disturbing “vision” – a nightmare in my mind – how many poverty-stricken Bangladeshis or Congolese, how many permanently displaced Syrian refugees, will come up with $200,000 – or $2,000, for that matter – to “start anew,” as the colonization zealots say they want to do?

I participated in a conference this past weekend about “social and conceptual issues in astrobiology.” Among the questions we 30 attendees were asked to consider in our discussions were:

“Should humans seek to exploit and/or colonize space? If so, how should this be done? Are there truly universal principals of biology, psychology, morality, etc. that would apply to extraterrestrial life?”

My views on these questions are: No. We should not do it. No.

Right now, at this point in time, humanity is too immature to leave home. We can’t even figure out how to take of ourselves – that is, all humanity – on our home planet. It’s crazy talk to claim that simply by moving to another planetary body we’ll reinvent society.

Human social behavior, intellectual capability, and psychology, will not “evolve” in any noticeable way over the next 10 or 40 or 50 years – probably not even in 100 years. We have not changed noticeably in these respects over the past 100 years, after all. What we have accomplished over the past 100 years is more technology. Hence, crazy talk about colonizing other planets and mining the asteroids.

Last year I blogged about these issues in a post about last year’s Mars Society conference. I’ll repeat what I wrote then: “As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the ‘space libertarian’ crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the ‘triumph of neoliberalism’ – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice.”

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4 Responses to “Humans to Mars: a deeply disturbing idea”

  1. Mike interbartolo Says:

    Myopic vision from a communication major. Please stay as far away from human space exploration as possible Doctor Linda cause it is not for you.
    To look up at the night sky and know people are living and working on Mars will inspire folks, will drive technology innovation and spur humanity cause if that is possible what else is. Just cause you have an advanced degree doesnt make you educated to discuss complex engineering issues like exploration. And whomever you work with at NASA​ should terminate your contract with extreme prejudice.

  2. doctorlinda Says:

    Mr. Interbartolo, do you know anything about the study of communication? If not, please refrain from disparaging this established field of study. Terminate my funding “with extreme prejudice”? Really? My NASA funders know exactly where I stand on these issues. They are respectful enough to support a diversity of perspectives. I am approving your comment in the spirit of supporting a diversity of perspectives.

  3. mike shupp Says:

    This sparked a post from Keith Cowling at Nasawatch (http://nasawatch.com/archives/2016/09/you-cannot-expl.html) and a rather good comment stream. I’d not say there’s a lot of agreement with Dr. Billing’s views, but the discussion pushed some of us space buff types into a more philosophical vein than normal.

  4. Andrew Maxymillian-Wheeler Says:

    I am a space fanatic who grew up dreaming of humans on mars so obviously I reacted quite negatively to your post but from a public policy perspective I think your central point is very valid: if we had $10 billion or $100 billion to spend where it could be best spent to the benefit of society? In defense of the idea of space exploration generally I’m going to sum up the most common arguments for space travel. I’m sure you’ve heard them all before but I think having a rational response to your post is much better than ‘quick NASA fire this PhD of 30 years experience for the temerity of questioning Sir Elon’ response that’s here now.

    The way I see it such a large project to Mars will have three major benefits: science and technological research, the production of cultural/entertainment capital, and the provision of a firm push in the direction of continued advancement rather than regression of human society.

    The first benefit is the most tangible. Modern computing owes much to the research and development that occurred during the Apollo program. Many other fields such as materials science and the study of lunar geology benefited for obvious reasons. We can’t predict what technologies will arise from a mars program but I am confident that there will be many profitable & enriching technologies developed as a necessity for sustaining human life on mars. For example, techniques developed to sustain farming in arid and controlled martian conditions might be applied to areas on the earth gravely effected by climate change.

    The second benefit is perhaps the one that people think of most commonly when recalling the Apollo program and other NASA endeavors. The success of the program gave a shared boost to all the peoples of the earth and the inspiration from man on the moon led countless young children to study math and engineering. Whatever nation or consortium of nations colonizes Mars will enter the history books forever and these sorts of grand achievements define human civilizations in the eyes of history. More immediately, the multi-year initial voyages will provide entertainment in the form of news updates, livestreams, etc. It is conceivable that the first human landing on mars could be the most watched/streamed event in human history!

    The third benefit is the least tangible but is nonetheless deeply motivating to space fanatics such as myself. History teaches us that the arrow of progress does not inevitably travel forward but has regressions and pauses through time. The classic example of Ancient Rome is not far from my mind. How inevitable did Roman progress seem in 50 or 100 AD? Roman engineering built incredible aqueducts and structures. Roman armies had conquered most of the world known to the west at the time and Roman culture, laws, language, and money was dominating most of Europe as well as North Africa. What Roman could’ve predicted that in mere centuries their civilization would collapse and that for the next 1,500 years people would walk on roads or gaze at aqueducts whose construction they could barely fathom, let alone reproduce? Just take a look at a picture of the rusted Antikythera mechanism and consider how easily a future civilization could house a twisted piece of silicon in their museum and wonder at *our* wisdom?

    It is the height of arrogance to assume that we have surmounted such risks and while the probability of a new dark age is low it is not zero. I may be a space fanatic but I am not some doomsday prophet – I don’t expect a dark age to occur anytime soon if ever. But still from a position of utility what value should we assign to the ethical/moral weight of having billions of future humans living in an avoidable dark age? If it is possible that a mars program buys down the risk of another dark age then that is in fact a benefit to our descendants even if it is intangible to us.

    I think the biggest weakness of all these arguments is that even the most tangible benefits – science and technological advancement – are still a matter of decades away, not years or months. In the time we are spending money on boosters and orbital propellant depots millions will die from avoidable diseases, poverty, or war. Climate change threatens to alter the very course of human history. So there are serious and real problems on the Earth that we ought to deal with. The argument of the space fanatic is that this is not a zero sum game – we can have a mars program and investment in clean energy at the same time. Ten billion dollars – a wildly low figure – or more realistically ten times that is a lot of money but it is not beyond the means of our civilization. Entertainment has value – look how much is spent on the super bowl! Culture has value – look how much is spent on museums, on art, on TV and film? Science and Technology have value – look how much is spent privately and publicly in R&D the world over! Surely in the mix of all these benefits and desires we can find sufficient funds and justifications for what would be hitherto the greatest adventure in the history of mankind?

    Finally to address some of your specific concerns –

    Elitism of the venture: I am of two minds about this. Firstly, there may very well be many rich people who would not want to go themselves but would want to pay for someone else to go in their place. Sponsorships, research grants, etc,. could allow people of more modest means to go to Mars as well. Secondly – I’ll grant that this is probably not enough to ensure a ‘reasonable’ mix of backgrounds. There are very valid questions here – would we go back to some form of indentured servitude to get those of lesser means to Mars? (for example, saying a 30 year work contract with a firm where a large part of your compensation is the travel to Mars.) We can’t predict the exact economic relations that will characterize the mass transit of humanity to another planet and so I agree there are risks here. But are those risks a compelling enough argument to torpedo the whole venture?

    We haven’t solved our own problems, why travel to space: This is the most common argument against space exploration/colonization. The immediate response from the space fanatic is to use my third benefit as response: if we wait until we fix all our own problems the human race will hit a dark age or an extinction event before we solve everything. I’m not convinced that poverty or human suffering is inevitable but we do seem to have an unending capacity to inflict pain on one another. If you believe these problems CAN be solved, and that we will likely solve them before the next dark age then I have a second argument: the act of settlement on mars may actually serve to help solve our problems of suffering. Just like the US raised up new possibilities for the arrangement of wealth, capital, and power so too would a mars colony. And it would benefit from everything we have learned so far just as the founders benefited from the knowledge of what failed Athens and ancient Rome. I don’t reject the importance of the path towards alleviating human suffering but I do reject the notion that because we haven’t reached the end of that path we should ignore (manned) space travel.


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