04 May 2021

One home

The recent technological triumph of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter have put Mars back on the front burner of the mass public mind.  Elon Musk's "Space-X" (the X seems to be short for "exploding") rockets have also been in the news, reminding us of the fascination of certain addled billionaires with the idea of sending humans to Mars or even colonizing it.  I've addressed this idea before (see here too), but it's worth another look.

To begin with, of course, there's the issue of cost.  NASA estimates that even a short manned expedition to Mars, equivalent to the Apollo 11 expedition to the Moon, would cost $450 billion (yes, with a "b").  The cost of a permanent settlement for a population large enough to be permanently viable -- at least a few hundred people -- would certainly be in the trillions.  I can’t imagine any government diverting such resources to a project with such meager rewards and dubious chances for success, nor any democracy's taxpayers tolerating such waste.

This cost issue is why natural resources on other planets are irrelevant to space travel.  Even if the surface of Mars were littered with cut diamonds and bars of refined gold and platinum, their market value would not cover the cost of bringing them back to Earth.  Not even close.  Some people are befuddled by a perceived analogy between modern space travel and the European age of exploration which led to colonizing and exploiting other continents. It's an analogy every aspect of which is totally inapplicable in reality.  Not only the costs but the distances and environmental differences involved are vastly greater.

Even if some future technological breakthrough makes space travel cheaper, the fact that Mars's gravity is only one-third as strong as Earth's is probably fatal to the entire concept of colonizing the planet.  All humans, all the apes from which we are descended, all the monkeys from which those apes were descended, and so on back to the first lobefin fish that emerged from the ocean hundreds of millions of years ago -- every one of them lived every moment of its life in Earth's gravitational field.  Given what we've seen of the physical damage caused to the human body by a few months at zero gravity on the Space Station, it's hard to imagine that an entire lifetime spent at one-third Earth-normal gravity wouldn't do serious harm.  Various schemes have been proposed for modifying Mars's atmosphere and temperature, but we will never be able to change its gravity.

Nor is it plausible that we will ever be able to change the planet's magnetic field, which is far weaker than Earth's.  Our homeworld's magnetic field deflects most of the dangerous radiation that pervades interplanetary space, but the surface of Mars is utterly exposed to such radiation, and even an Earthlike atmosphere would do little to alleviate this problem.  Earthly life, whether humans, animals, or plants, would suffer serious damage simply from being outdoors for long periods of time, unless it had burdensome protection which is unnecessary under Earth's protective magnetic canopy.

Mars is closer to the asteroid belt than Earth is.  It's been estimated that an asteroid impact equivalent to a one-megaton H-bomb happens somewhere on Mars once every three years.

In every place where we’ve tested it, the soil on Mars is saturated with chemicals called perchlorates which are known to be lethally poisonous to Earthly soil bacteria.  All Earthly plants depend on soil bacteria to mediate their assimilation of nutrients from the soil.  Before we could grow any kind of Earthly plants on Mars, even if we somehow made the atmosphere perfectly Earthlike, even if the low gravity wasn't harmful to Earthly plant biology, we would need to introduce Earthly bacteria -- but the chemistry of the Martian soil would kill them.

So we will never be able to grow crops on Mars, or grow trees or flowers.  There can never be Martian wheatfields or forests. I suppose a colony could sustain itself with hydroponics, but people there could never escape the awareness that they were living in an artificial, encapsulated environment surrounded by a poisonous desert where they didn’t belong.

It is sometimes objected that humans are highly adaptable, as shown by the diverse environments we've colonized on Earth.  Yet this adaptability has limits.  There are some fairly large areas of land on Earth which have never been inhabited by humans because conditions are too harsh.  Aside from Antarctica, there’s the Empty Quarter in eastern Arabia, a huge chunk of the interior of Australia, and some areas around the Arctic.  All those places have Earth-normal gravity and breathable air, and there have been humans living nearby for thousands of years who would not need advanced technology or huge amounts of money to get there.  Yet those places have never been settled with permanent human populations because the environments are too hostile.

Even if the enthusiasts of this absurdity someday manage to con some government into investing the trillions necessary to realize their dream, the result will never be more than a domed-over encampment of a few hundred people wracked with constant health problems from the low gravity, unable ever to step outside without elaborate protection, dependent on advanced technology to produce food and usable water and probably even air, always aware of the tens of millions of miles separating them from all the rest of humanity.  The covid-19 pandemic has shown us how tormented most people feel by a few months of "lockdown" at home.  Just imagine the effects of an entire lifetime under Mars's far more alien and isolated conditions.

I suspect that subsequent generations, rather than "adapting" to this sterile alien prison, would gaze with longing at the blue morning star in their sky, where they knew people could walk on grass among the trees and eat the natural fruit of the land.  Within a century the colony would be abandoned, humans returning to the true home of their kind.

Beyond Earth, the solar system consists of a few spheres of uninhabitable wasteland and poisonous chemicals separated by inconceivably huge expanses of absolutely nothing.  Our present approach -- exploring it with robots -- is the correct one.  Sending humans out there would be too expensive, too dangerous, and pointless.

We evolved on Earth and we are adapted to Earth.  A toxic irradiated frozen desert with meager gravity and almost no air is never going to be another Plymouth Rock.  This idea is a delusion.  So long as humans remain a biological species, there is only one planet we can call home.


Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

I know a few people I'd like to send to Mars.

04 May, 2021 04:53  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I understand the desire to go to another planet. The thing is, is it for a backup plan for when men has totally destroyed earth? Is it a vanity project? (anything with Elon Musk looks like a vanity project to me). As you said, we're earthbound, we cannot just jump in a rocket, land on Mars and start selling the land by the acre.
The whole thing seems like a science project on Mountain Dew to me.


04 May, 2021 05:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Costs, while not being insignificant aren't insurmountable.

Money is not destroyed in transactions. One man's debt is the second man's asset. And taxes serve to suck up any excessively large stagnant pools. As previously observed as long as the basics, food and shelter, are covered it doesn't matter what the rest of the economy does. You could divide the remainder of the economy into 1) digging holes 2)filling holes and it would still function.

The point here is that any Trillions that might be spent on a Mars program would otherwise be spent watching Net-flicks, smoking cigarettes, and appreciating the finer points of the Kardashian lifestyle. The money is going to move through the economy doing one thing or another.

Colonizing Mars, like the previous space programs is going to demand new inventions, technologies and methodologies. All of that will have spin-offs.

Settling Mars is a grand new adventure. An inspiration. A challenge. A goal that entire societies can invest in and focus their energies on. War, driven by nationalism and xenophobia, was used in a similar fashion to mobilize populations.

So far, like you, I don't see any direct payoff. Mars is a hostile, airless rock. So far the payoff is limited to its value as a challenging goal for bragging rights. Going to the moon was largely the same.

Robotic exploration, sure, it's a smart way to go. But eventually we are going to want to send humans there. Perhaps not a colony in any near term. The moon shows the motivations, and development cycles.

Of course, technology/resource dynamics can be unpredictable. An example being lithium. Lithium has been a useful element. But it wasn't really in demand. We develop lithium batteries that become the go-to battery chemistry and suddenly lithium is worth spending money to go get.

Who knows what sort of unobtainium we may learn we can't do without. New technology often requires new materials. We may find that belly-button-lint is the pixie dust that makes vast new industries possible. You don't ever know until you get there.

Getting people onto Mars, and back would be nice, might be the adventure humanity needs to get out of our self-absorbed and parochial mindsets. Assuming we invent nothing new, discover nothing of interest, and come back to earth wearing the T-shirt it will have been, in my way of thinking, worth it.

It isn't transactional. As the man said: 'we do it not because it is easy; but because it is hard'.

04 May, 2021 07:45  
Anonymous Jon said...

On/off lurker, first time poster, but I'm just gonna point out that the atmosphere of Venus has some much more Earth-like conditions than Mars, in terms of temperature and pressure. A balloon full of nitrogen/oxygen would have no trouble floating in it, and the gravitational pull is about 0.9 of Earth. A search for "Venus cloud city" brings up a lot of information, but here's a couple of links for those interested:


If Elon Musk is determined to live on a barren rock, he may as well colonize the Moon, where at least the inevitable evacuation can be arranged in a matter of weeks rather than months...

04 May, 2021 08:23  
Blogger Mike said...

Here's hoping that when our magnetic field flips it does so quickly. We can't afford to be unprotected from radiation for too long.

04 May, 2021 08:51  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

The asteroid impacts on Mars should be enough to make people stop wanting to colonize the planet but I doubt it will. Great info you put out there for us.

04 May, 2021 11:33  
Blogger Tundra Bunny said...

I concur.

04 May, 2021 11:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: I bet.

Sixpence: I dealt with the "back-up plan" issue here. As for Elon Musk, I've heard claims that this space travel thing is just a front and Space-X is really trying to develop technology to sell to the military. That would make sense, since the military actually wants their missiles to explode.

04 May, 2021 12:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: It's true that spent money stays in the economy, but any spending still represents a cost in that the resources the money bought for a given purpose aren't available for something else. And spending money productively does matter. If the whole non-subsistence economy consisted of people being paid to dig holes and fill them up, there would be nothing of value (beyond subsistence goods) being produced for them to spend the money on.

Sending people to Mars would similarly be economically unproductive. That $450 billion of cash would remain in the economy, but all the work hours, materials, and other resources which that money paid to be put into the Mars project would not be available for more productive uses. And that's far too high a price tag for "inspiration" and suchlike. Think what that much money could buy if the government spent it on infrastructure, medical research, education, unmanned space probes, etc instead.

"Bragging rights" over rival nations do seem a plausible motive, as with the Apollo program, but I think in this case the price tag is so high that no nation will think it's worthwhile. Still, if the Chinese regime wants to blow that kind of money on empty symbolism, better that than spending it on their navy.

It's highly unlikely that any minerals exist on Mars that don't exist on Earth, and even if they did, it would be far cheaper to synthesize them on Earth than to spend trillions shipping tons of stuff across interplanetary space.

And of course this is all just about a one-time trip. As the post shows, there are many more problems with a permanent colony than just cost.

I'm sure there's a good number of people who believe "it's worth it". If you can come up with $450 billion to try, fine with me. But I'm not going to vote for any tax money to go toward it, not when there are so many other better purposes -- including scientific ones -- it could be spent on.

04 May, 2021 12:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jon: Thanks for commenting. I assume you're talking about Venus's upper atmosphere, since at the surface the atmospheric pressure is fifty times Earth's and the temperature is almost 900 Fahrenheit (and the atmosphere is saturated with sulfuric acid). A floating city would at least have Earthlike gravity, but it would still be an encapsulated colony sealed off from a toxic surrounding environment, dependent on advanced technology for food, water, and breathable air, with no access to nature and no obvious reason for existing at all. And if something went wrong with the flotation device, the whole city would start sinking down into the solar system's best approximation of Hell. It's a nightmarish thought.

It's curious that the Mars colonization enthusiasts don't focus on the Moon instead. It's much closer and thus would be much cheaper, and while it's completely airless, Mars isn't much better. I suppose it's because unlike with Mars, the idea of terraforming the Moon to have an Earthlike environment can't be made to seem plausible.

04 May, 2021 12:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mike: As far as I know, there's no evidence of mass extinctions correlating with past flips of the magnetic field, so I guess those flips don't let a lot of radiation in.

Mary K: Thanks. Yes, if there were a one-megaton-bomb-equivalent impact somewhere on Earth every three years, I believe we'd consider it a problem.

Bunny: Thanks.

04 May, 2021 13:01  
Blogger NickM said...

You been reading my mind? Your post is pretty much exactly my thoughts. This annoyed me as I read it because I wanted to say something other than that!

OK. I'll add one thing. Communications time. We now live in circumstances of instanteous two-way communication globally and if we're used to that then the colonists of 2050 (or whenever) will be from a culture that has taken that for granted for several generations. Mars is frequently 20 light minutes from us so anything like a conversation is impossible. As a culture shock this is perhaps almost as big as not being able to "just pop outside". Less culturally and more scientifically it also means nothing like the Apollo 13 fix is possible. "Beijing, we have a problem..." just wouldn't work. Those pioneers would be well and truly alone.

PS. There is an interesting point about gravity here. Whilst things like the ISS have dramatically reduced the negative health effects on astronauts in zero-g they have done nothing to study the effects of 0.37g. Those will be totally different.

04 May, 2021 16:33  
Anonymous Jon said...

Yeah, to be clear, I was referring to the upper atmosphere of Venus. Colonizing the surface of Venus would be even more of a stretch than colonizing Mars. I suppose my point is that colonizing Venus's atmosphere is implausible whereas colonizing Mars is wildly implausible, so I don't understand the attraction that Mars holds to anyone who's thought about it in any amount of detail.

I think your points about the fundamental economics of either enterprise are valid, and while it's fun to think about, I doubt I'll live to see any humans living permanently outside of Earth.

04 May, 2021 20:33  
Blogger Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

Interesting. Thank you for this insight, Infidel. I won't be surprised if the government throws millions towards Mars, as a supposed remedy for population growth. Scary, though. I mean, even us reasonable people elate in the thought, at times, of leaving this planet. Right?

04 May, 2021 21:11  
Blogger Jack said...

I agree. Some people seem to be clinging to the hope of colonizing other planets as a way of feeling better about doing nothing that might slow climate change. This reminds me of the function prayer seems to serve for many. It isn't helping.

05 May, 2021 05:31  
Blogger NickM said...

I don't believe the Earth 2.0 back-up plan is more than a post-hoc justification for folks who dream of saying, "Make it so!" From the bridge of the USS Elon. I mean I'd love to but I'm honest enough to realise it ain't going to happen. It's for that reason I can't for the life of me understand how anyone can class Star Wars as SF. It's pure fantasy and ill-conceived fantasy at that with plot holes you could drive a Winnebago through.

05 May, 2021 09:35  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I think all of your arguments make perfect sense. Perhaps we need to start with something cheaper in the way of an expedition to somewhere devoid of sentient life- say, Florida.

05 May, 2021 19:24  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: True about the light-speed delay. It would add to the sense of isolation. And that would be even more true of colonies further out, like in the asteroids.

Jon: Thanks. I think it's because making Mars Earthlike superficially seems possible, whereas with Venus it more obviously couldn't be done. I hope I've shown that it actually couldn't be done with Mars either, though.

Rawknrobyn: Some do, but I'm more of a "stand and fight" type. At our present level of development, there's really nowhere else to go.

Jack: I've observed that, and it's very depressing. People think that losing Earth would somehow be less bad just because a few hundred neurotics survived in a giant tin can somewhere else.

Nick: There is certainly a tendency to think that just because something has been depicted in science fiction, that's an argument for its being achievable in reality. And don't even get me started on Star Wars. I don't consider that science fiction at all -- yes, it has spaceships and robots, but it's full of stuff that's basically magic. It belongs in the fantasy genre.

Green: Going to Florida might be more in the nature of a search-and-rescue mission.

06 May, 2021 03:05  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

what Debra said..and we need to clean up our planet before we go off fucking up other planets.

08 May, 2021 02:27  
Blogger Nan said...

HA! You already know how I feel about this whole idea from my blog. 😉 Of course your arguments covered several more scenarios ... but they all add up to one thing.

It'll never work.

08 May, 2021 09:36  
Anonymous Scuppernong said...

I think you're right in the "short term", but human technological progress could change your assessment radically. What costs 450 billion today may only cost 45 billion a century or so from now, and in another hundred years after that might only cost 4.5 billion. Granted, I see no economic value in settling Mars, but future generations might want to colonize Mars for scientific, cultural, political, or other reasons. We humans will eventually get bored if we stay stuck on Earth.

07 January, 2022 11:32  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I don't see how the problem of low-gravity effects on human health can ever be overcome as long as humans remain biological organisms. After the Technological Singularity when humans are fully uploaded and living in virtual reality, we won't need planets at all except as raw materials to be converted into nanocircuitry and solar collectors for the Dyson sphere.

Shorter-term, as interplanetary transport costs come down, the costs of synthesizing materials on Earth will come down even faster (even transmutation of elements, eventually). It will never be cheaper to ship minerals from Mars than to produce them here.

Earth has a vast variety of natural environments and ever-evolving human cultures and people to interact with. Mars is a frozen poisonous lifeless desert -- there will never be anything there except what we put there. Life on Mars would be far more boring than life on Earth.

07 January, 2022 19:20  

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