Humans to Mars? The dialogue is on!


In response to yesterday’s blog post about grandiose visions for the human colonization of Mars, I received compliments from friends and a barrage of critiques and, well, some hate mail, from people (all male, as far as I can tell) who think the conquest and exploitation of space is a great idea. The Twitter stream is all over the place (good!). Rather than approving comments for posting here, I thought I’d do a blog post about them. (I’ve trashed some comments coming from people who seem to think females are born stupid. Really, gentlemen.)

My friend Keith Cowing, keeper of NASA Watch, posted about my blog today (he told me, “I thought that the issue needed airing given the Musk event”):

You Cannot Explore The Universe When Your Head Is Stuck In The Sand

“I have known Linda for 30 years and have a lot of respect for her work. But I thought this whole “but people are starving in [fill in the blank]” or “why spend money in space when we should spend it on Earth” mindset was a thing of the 1960 and 1970s. If you want to go after budgets to fix social inequalities then NASA is not the place to start – there is much more low hanging fruit elsewhere.

Decades of public opinion polls, popular media, and other cultural phenomena strongly point to a public viewpoint on space that is exactly opposite of what Linda claims. Moreover her viewpoint flies in the face of human history. People explore. Then they colonize. Then they move on to explore some more because that is what people do. In particular I am not certain why this tiny group of 30 space people (no doubt the usual suspects at meetings like this) meeting in their little echo chamber is in any way representative of what America’s 300+ million – or the billions who live elsewhere think about exploring space.”

I’ve told Keith, “We will always have to agree to disagree….”

This group of 30 people with whom I was in conference over the weekend (check them out) were not “space people” – definitely not “the usual suspects” in the space community. They were mostly college professors of philosophy, environmental science, ethics – people I’d never met before in my 35 years of working in the space community. They came from a diversity of campuses. The group included less than a handful who might qualify as “space people” (i.e. funded by NASA or otherwise employed in the space community), including me. We came together to discuss “broader issues in astrobiology and space exploration.” (By the way, NASA did not organize or sponsor this conference – it was an initiative of Kelly Smith, professor of philosophy at Clemson University.)

I surmise that these college professors (and the few grad students and undergrads who were there), who deal with new crops of students every year, might have a broader view of “public opinion” than the average hard-core space fan does.

As to public opinion, I disagree with Keith. I’ve studied historical misconceptions about public opinion regarding the space program – you can read about my findings here (this paper was published in the proceedings of NASA’s 50th anniversary history conference, held in 2008 – see section on “NASA and public opinion”). My colleague Roger Launius, historian at the National Air and Space Museum, has written more extensively about public opinion of the space program.*

Now for the comments from people I don’t know. I’ve included them verbatim and am not responsible for typos and misspellings.

From Thomas Lee Elifritz:

“If anything I want to go to Mars to get away from you, personally, and people who think, act and talk just like you. I wouldn’t want to be like you. That being said, you have a 0.7 Watt per square meter top of the atmosphere energy imbalance and none of your social theories seen to be able to conceptualize, let alone solve, that problem. So … see ya!”


From James Garry:

“Exactly when is a species mature enough to;

  1. a) sharpen a stick
  2. b) smelt iron
  3. c) discover nuclear fission
  4. d) establish a significant off-world presence?


Dr Garry”


From Wayne:

First I support all endeavors beyond our planet second I hate to be the one to say all those people in other countries should not be my problem our government had made them my problem


From Helder Cordoso:

Do you why Elon charges 200 000$ a ticket, making it an elitist enterprise? Because is not counting NASA funding. Obviously if NASA pays the bill, the US can send to Mars who they want, rich, poor, homeless, what ever, i agree with Mike interbartolo!


From Randy Campbell:

I’ve not any problems with the article as an opinion piece per-se other than your original assertion seems baseless, (libertarian space crowd support by government and media) and that your “deep moral qualms” are unsupported by either your examples or the fact on the ground. What I do have an issue with really is your use of straw man and fear-mongering in place of logical or fact supported support for what is obviously just an opinion.

[Billings: My “opinion” on this issue has evolved over 35 years of work in the space community, including plenty of research on the subject. I’m used to being dismissed by men who disagree with me. I don’t like it, it’s not fair, but I’m used to it.]

I can respect that this IS your opinion but in attempting to justify your opinion on supposed “ethical” and “moral” grounds and the obviously perceptive ‘case’ of human “maturity” as valid reasons to prevent anyone wanting to go to Mars from doing so is frankly more than a little disquieting from a professional. [Billings: Really? More dismissal.]

The latter “argument” specifically falls flat as “immaturity” is in fact a defining characteristic of youth and youth only become mature with time and experience. Which leaves your argument as one that youth should in fact be prevented and discouraged from ever becoming mature, because it should wait until it IS mature…

You are aware I’m sure that it is not the “mature” that move away from home and produce their own lives and experiences but the immature, the young. These lives and experiences then turn the immature into the mature, the young into the adult and on a species level we clearly do not have the experience yet to be “adults” but we will also never get that experience unless we expand our horizons and stretch ourselves to our fullest potential. [Billings: It may fall flat to you, but it does not fall flat for me or for many others with whom I’ve discussed this issue. I don’t do my work in a vacuum.]

We have the capability and technology to go out into space to explore, exploit and colonize if we so desire. Nothing short of the total collapse of our current civilization will take away that capability. The choice is not “if” but when, and who. Sooner is preferred and those that shall will not be some pampered elite but those willing to sacrifice, work, and possibly die attempting to make more of their lives and situations. It will not be easy, it will not be cheap, and it will not come without hardship and cost but that is also a part of how one grows up and becomes an adult.”

From Charles Houston:

“Very interesting article and discussion. Pardon me for descending into a bit of whimsey, let’s compare the Mars discussion to the early explorers who came to the Americas.

For similar reasons the English, Spanish, etc should NOT have permitted exploration of the Americas!!! Why allow the rich (people who could afford it) to go to Plymouth Colony to luxuriate in the resort that was America? Why were the poor left behind in Europe to deal with the leftovers??

Ok, as we all know, Jamestown and Plymouth Colony and Spanish Florida and all of the early settlements were places of great hardship and loss of life (for the settlers and eventually the Native Americans as well). Any settlers on Mars hopefully will not be so poorly prepared – but they will be ready for a life of sacrifice, hard work, no chance for vacation, etc. They would presumably be willing to risk everything to possibly provide a better future for their families. Fortunately there are no Martians to displace!! The people who stayed behind benefitted by the discoveries made in the New World (well, except for tobacco of course).

doctorlinda appears to be upset by more than the prospect of settlers going to Mars. She is apparently upset by our lack of concern for displaced people. Possibly governments are wasting money on “research” when it could be used to feed the poor. Let’s talk about what shared personal/government funding has accomplished for those displaced people. Bell Laboratories for instance got millions in government research money – they developed much of the electronics that allow us to now see what is happening to displaced people. Research – funded by the government and academia and corporations – has developed new industries, new capabilities, new careers.

Certainly humanity has a ways to go but I see a far, far, far better humanity than doctorlinda does. Humanity has written The Bill of Rights, has given minorities the right to vote, has created art and mathematics. We will never be perfect but the need to many of us to explore will open new opportunities for us all. We can “eat our seed corn” and be full today or we can plant some of that seed corn and harvest tomorrow.

There have always been people like doctorlinda – we see the Amish and the Mennonites and other wonderful communities today, communities that reject this bit of advance or that bit of advance. If they are not comfortable with buttons or electricity or whatever they are welcome to live in whatever era they are comfortable with.

But they must recognize that we will not all be willing to accept their limitations. We will explore the stars while they stay home and rage over the situation of the latest wave of refugees from the latest conflict zone. Charlie Bolden’s ancestors came from a conflict zone, Elison Onizuka’s ancestors came from a conflict zone. As refugees from the previous conflict in the previous conflict zone, we have places to go.”

It cracks me up that Mr. Houston compares me to the Amish and the Mennonites. People who know me will laugh about this too. I am deeply engaged in the modern world (or, as I call it, the post-postmodern world) and all of its problems and challenges. This is what a public scholar does, and that is what I am.

From Jason AW3:

“Doctorlinda, with respect, I must disagree with your position.

When observed from a limited perspective, much of what you say, does, on its surface, appear to be true. [Billings: We all have limited perspectives. No one has a god’s-eye view on any issue.]

However; when looked at from a larger perspective [Billings: I think you mean your perspective? I am very intentionally taking a broader view of the issue at hand.] , much of what you’ve stated tends to fall flat. Yes, there are many social inequities that we have yet to address, and there are issues that still need resolving. But, on the whole, we ARE becoming better people, we are reaching out and helping both those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and we are correcting the wrongs and oppression that have been wrongly foisted upon so many different peoples.

And we are becoming better shepherds of our world. Turning away from a disposable society, using nonrenewable sources of power, and turning to more environmentally aware uses of industry and the land.

Yes, it IS taking an enormous amount of time to do this, but changing the minds and attitudes of seven and a half billion people takes an enormous amount of time and effort. This is, however, inextricably tied to our need to explore and go to other lands. We know that, not all the answers we need to make life better for all, can be found within our limited scope of experience. We need to stop gazing at our navels and see the broader universe.

It’s been said in the past, that the beginning of wisdom, is knowing how much you don’t know. While I know much, I know that there is a vast amount that I have yet to learn. Wisdom and maturity are gained from our efforts and our failures.

Yes, we fail at MANY things that we ought to do better. But we now know how much we don’t know, and while it will be the elite who, at first, go into space and start taming new worlds, they will also bring others with them, the poor and oppressed, for opportunities that can advance them as well.

It is better to give a man a hand up than a hand out. In other words, let us make the mistakes, lets us stumble through the dark, and yes, let us even die from those mistakes, so that those who follow can learn from these mistakes and make wiser choices than we did.

Indeed, it is our very lack of maturity that gives us the need to go to places that we do not know, to learn what we have yet to learn, to step out and BE better than we are today.

To deny this of those who would blaze the trails for all, is to deny what it is to be Human and humane.”

From ZachF:

“Crab-bucket mentality at it’s finest.”

I have no idea what this means.

From “Mikey”:

“Same story, Same crying, Same questions. Biology cannot be discovered without Biology. back in 2009 How will extending human presence into the solar system affect society and culture on Earth? What legal, ethical, and other value systems should govern human settlements and other activities in space? Do humans have rights to exploit extraterrestrial resources and alter extraterrestrial environments? Does space exploration need reinvention to meet social needs? This article describes the current environment for space policy making and a framework of space law, ethics, and culture within which these questions can be considered.”

Your Dear Friend;

Michael D. Griffin

Immediate Past President

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics”

I know Mike Griffin, and this doesn’t sound like him at all. I clicked on “Mikey” in the message I received and was directed to the web site of the Federal Corrections Institute in Morgantown, West Virginia.

From Mike Shupp:

“This sparked a post from Keith Cowling at Nasawatch ( 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.”

I would not expect to see much agreement with me among the readers of NASA Watch. But I’m happy to hear from Mr. Shupp. My aim, as always, is not to change minds but to get people thinking about things they may not have thought about before.

And finally, from lastof7:

“I don’t agree with Linda on this issue, but this is not an engineering discussion. In fact, that’s something I fear: that we have become so STEM focused that we’ve moving toward the assumption that all technology is good without taking the time to figure out the impact of the technology. This argument is worth having and it doesn’t require an engineering degree to have it.”

Thank you, lastof7.

To borrow a quote from Linda Richman (“Coffee Talk,” SNL), “Talk amongst yourselves.”

* See, for example, R. Launius, Public opinion polls and perceptions of human spaceflight, Space Policy 19(3), August 2003; R. Launius, Evolving public perceptions of spaceflight in American culture, Acta Astronautica 53(4-10), August-November 2003.

2 Responses to “Humans to Mars? The dialogue is on!”

  1. Brett Says:

    Do you think Keith is wrong about public opinion now? I thought it was quite favorable towards the space program, ironically much more so than the tepidness in the 1960s (props to Launius, because that paper really was an eye-opener).

    Out of that crowd, I think Houston and Shupp are the best. Mars is not going to be much of an attractive sanctuary to the wealthy, and the real-life colonies were so dangerous and difficult that only coercion and the prospect of rich rewards brought people over from Europe to them in North America – and those colonies were on territory vastly more habitable that Mars is. I don’t think many of them will die, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most or all of them came home. There’s no “better future” on Mars, just a life-time of difficult work and the prospect of children who might never be able to return to Earth with you safely if you choose to go back.

    Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are a couple tens of thousands of people (or more) who would fall in love with the desolation of Mars once they’re there.

    • Brett Says:

      Sorry, I should add that I forgot about the Separatists and Penn’s colony, so those are there as well. And I should have qualifed the “territory vastly more habitable than Mars” with an “albeit territory possessed by the indigenous population”.

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