03 July 2009

House on Mars

I've already posted about old-fashioned visions of the future and why one common element of those visions, colonization of other planets, never happened -- the lack of any benefit to be derived from doing so which could even begin to cover the staggering costs involved. (The popular but silly idea of off-Earth colonies as a hedge against human extinction in the event of some global disaster is discussed here.) Beyond such practical considerations, however, it's obvious that the thought of a "house on Mars" (or on Titan or Ganymede or whatever) holds a strong visceral appeal for some people which has nothing to do with usefulness or economic practicality. They want to be there. It's a romantic idea to them.

I don't get it. Yes, I could understand it back in the days when we pictured Mars as a world of canals and exotic creatures, but now? Now that we know what all those places are actually like?

If you really want a house in the middle of a frozen, lifeless, dimly-lit wasteland where nothing ever happens and where you would immediately die if you stepped out of doors without elaborate protection, you can probably get one in Antarctica -- and for literally a millionth of the cost. I'm sure Saturn is an impressive sight from its nearer moons, but a single piece of scenery that never changes would pall eventually, and then what would you have? There's less to go out and do on a dead world than there is in the tiniest and dullest town in whatever country you live in, never mind Rome or New York or London or Tokyo.

Well, that's not quite true. There's one very worthwhile thing to do on other planets -- scientific research. And we're going about that the right way, by sending ever-more-sophisticated machines to do it for us, rather than sealing humans into large tin cans for a years-long voyage, at the end of which they would probably be in no psychological condition to spend further years collecting data.

But there are reasons why nobody wants a house in Antarctica.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darn it, I still want my Jetson's flying car, anti-gravity belt and meals in a pill!

Seriously, not everything has to be measured by profitability. There are other metrics for evaluating the worth of a proposal, national security being one.

During the first half of the 15th century, the Ming dynasty set massive treasure fleets led by eunuch admiral Zheng He on voyages of discovery that reach as far as South Africa. However, the Confucian mandarins at the imperial court felt that these voyages were an expensive waste of resources. Furthermore, they distracted from their efforts to perfect Chinese society by exposing the Middle Kingdom to potential contamination by inferior barbarians and giving too much power and prestige to money grubbing merchants. These magnificent fleets (superior in all aspects to later European navies) were left to rot in Chinese harbors while the imperial government turned inward concentrated on more pressing matters.

What followed was nearly a 500 years of isolation, backwardness and later humiliation and destruction at the hands of the same barbarians (Europeans and Japanese). The current Chinese regime has no intention of repeating this historic blunder.

During the second half of the 15th century, Portugal and later Spain embarked on voyages of discovery around Africa and to the New World. Despite massive social problems at home (abject poverty, religious persecution and religious wars, class inequalities, feudalistic tyrannies, etc.), these voyages were never cancelled. Despite having most of the same problems the other maritime European states (France, Britain, and Holland) soon followed.

What followed was nearly 500 years of world dominance by Western (European and later American) nations. Exploration and colonization created enough wealth and knowledge to finally solve many of the old problems back in Europe. As we all know, this material wealth was often created at the expense of the natives. However, this does not appear to be a problem with space exploration.

03 July, 2009 06:10  
Anonymous NickM said...

Well, it is the romance. It's the discovery, the exploration. It of course appeals to libertarians because it's the chance to build a new world a long way from gubbermint!

I think part of the problem is the gazillions spent by NASA etc on what was essentially a Cold War dick-swinging contest. I mean did anyone seriously ever believe in the 50s that within their lifetimes the US marines would be slugging it out against the Spetsnaz in the Sea of Tranquility with ray-guns? I mean not even talking the tech here. What would be the point?

As a recovering astrophysicist I can really see the visceral appeal of the high-frontier and all that but you are right. At this stage at least robots do it better, faster and cheaper. The ISS is a white elephant of humongous proportions. Hubble isn't, or Voyager etc etc.

But we'll get there and we'll get there privately. But it won't be quick. I think we now at the stage the Vikings were at when they founded an outpost on Vinland. It'll take some time to get to the tech stage of the likes of Columbus.

If this life extension malarkey works then I'll be more than happy to shout you a dinner by the methane seas of Titan.

03 July, 2009 07:14  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I remember quite awhile back you bringing up about thing's like robotic's research exploration and such... and I thought it was great. I mean... I was one of them kid's that grew up in the 60's and liked all the sci-fi old flix, that now I look back at them as silly/corny... but as a kid... I thought they were cool I guess.And of coarse watching the moon landing fascinated me... and fed my imagination and idea's of human interplanetary travel and such. I never anticipated that technology would go where it is... when I was a kid.I even thought there were ufo's possibly... but as I aged I started questioning too much I reckon, and started not believing all that stuff... or at least grew very skeptic.But you got a point, why even send folk's when we have tech to have so much done by other mean's now, and more efficiently and cost effective. I just think as kid's we were just saturated with these sci-fi stories that made us think like this, at least for me.I know that folk's say going there in person gives the human the experience... and looking at our evolutionary history we have been a species alway's on the go... and migrating, exploring continent to continent,adapting over 10's of 1000's of year's and million's of year's to different enviroment's,climates, etc. and it would only be natural to want to migrate planetary wise in time. But I also wonder if perhap's... in time... we will be able to transport the human mind with technologies here and there on other planet's... so that physically we dont have to leave earth, but our mind's can get somehow transported(the mind as the being itself)so that it would be the experience of actually being there on the planet? You have talked about uploading the mind as well.Anyway's... yep.. this I find fascinating.

enough said.

03 July, 2009 07:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

As I mentioned in the earlier posting linked here, we tend to think of space travel in terms of the earlier seaborne Age of Exploration. The analogy doesn't work -- the costs, potential benefits, distances involved, and the nature of the places being (potentially) traveled to are too different. Interplanetary exploration (by humans) or colonization would absorb vastly more wealth than they would create.

Space certainly has national-defense applications, but they all involve near-Earth-orbit platforms. Anything military that could be done using a base on the Moon, for example, could be done more cheaply and more effectively with satellites.

Unlike North America at the time of European colonization, Mars, Titan, etc. have no conceivable military uses and no resources that could be exploited economically, so there's no need to worry about Russia or China "getting there first" (one could argue that it would be better for us if they wasted their money on that than spending it on serious military projects).

Unfortunately there's not much prospect of realizing "romance" projects that would cost trillions -- nor, for the same reason, do the other planets represent a way of getting away from government, since no one but governments (if even they) would be able to afford such costs for the foreseeable future. You'd have better luck starting an anarchist colony in Antarctica somewhere. The fact that no one has ever done so suggests that no one would actually try to do it in the even more forbidding environment of another planet, even if it wer economically possible.

Virtual reality and mind-computer integration will eventually give us the experience of visiting other planets "out-of-body", in a sense, though I still think Rome would be more interesting.

Of course I don't expect humanity to stay confined to Earth for all time. After the Technological Singularity, for example, Kurzweil anticipates that our need for computational capacity will grow at such a rate that he speaks of breaking up Jupiter and Saturn and converting the mass into nanocircuitry. But such projects likely lie well toward the end of this century, when our technological capabilities will be, to say the least, qualitatively different from what they are now.

03 July, 2009 08:00  

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