Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There But Not Back Again

Over at, the intriguing (though hardly new) idea of one-way Mars colonization is discussed. The idea does have a certain appeal, once you get past the vicarious dread at the notion of leaving behind the Good Earth for ever. Once you remove the reaction mass and logistical complications of a return trip, you could find yourself in the position to derive far bang per buck of mission cost. There is plenty on Mars for the establishment of a self-sustaining colony, if only the seed materials could be included in the outward-bound leg of the journey. Fuel and shielding and provisions alone would probably be a fair approximation of the mission mass for a greenhouse enclosure, where Mars' CO2-rich environment and roughly 24-hour days would make local food production (and air/waste recycling loops) eminently doable.

The main question in all this is: Who would do such a thing?

Let me go on record here and say, "No exclusively NASA (or any other government agency)-only colonization missions!" If government wants to lend a judiciously-limited hand (say, by results-based matching programs with industry, or by a prize structure, or somesuch), then that's shiny. But we can't afford some sort of Mayflower Project.

Besides, as many others have noted, NASA has proven conclusively that it is capable of rendering sterile and prosaic even the single greatest adventure on which the human species will ever embark. That such a dessicated, risk-averse bureaucratic entity should ever muster the testicular fortitude to send people on a one-way trip is simply incomprehensible. Which is a good thing! The aridity of a Government-controlled mission would rival that of the Martian atmosphere itself. The chances of true social evolution would run constantly afoul of the culture of meticulous regimentation which so characterizes NASA. Any such colony would have woven into its DNA an ethic of control which would put the most grandiose fantasies of Progressive Social Engineers to shame!

Much better would be a colony ship festooned with corporate logos, with ad revenues, reality show and documentary film rights (can you say "Planet Mars," in IMAX?), and the promise of hermetically contractually-protected mining claims (Mars has had some very significant vulcanism in its past, offering the promise of rich veins of precious and "rare earth" say nothing of the downstream value of helium-3 for fusion energy tech). Protocols would, of course, be in place, but they would stand a much better chance of being malleable in the face of local conditions than a military-style State-controlled regime. A society and an economy would arise from the exigencies of the survival situation.

In The Case For Mars, Bob Zubrin said that "the chief export of a Mars colony will be ideas." Now, you'd think that a die-hard Mars colony advocate like Zubrin would be some kind of social-engineering Utopian. In point of fact, he is refreshingly Conservative/libertarian in his thinking, and has some uncommonly intelligent things to say about our energy conundrum. He truly believes that Mars colonists will have to make hard choices with scarce resources, in ways that maximize the value of even more scarce human capital. The result will be a crucible of bold, fast-paced social and technical evolution of the sort which would make Thomas Paine weep with joy.

The kinds of people who would want to go on such a trip stand a very good chance of being precisely the sorts that we'd want on it: intrepid but not reckless, independent but aware of the importance of a chain of command...actually, now that I think of it, I'm not sure we can particularly spare them right now! But they would constitute the ultimate laboratory of what free people can do when their lives depend on it.

The ideas would shoot sunward at a pace which even the editors of high school textbooks would have a hard time buffering for censorship!

H/T to Hot Air for the headline.

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