May 16, 2015
How To Colonize Mars: Send First Humans For Robot Maintenance

Elon Musk wants us to go to Mars. He sees this as a necessary move to ensure Earth's survival. I find the discussions about how to do this as impractical and premature as well. I'd like to introduce some ideas about how to go about doing this.

In a nutshell: send robots first. Only send humans once enough robots have broken down to justify a repair team visit.

First thing we have to be aware of: Mars is a very hostile environment for humans. Little atmosphere, too much radiation, too cold, too far from the Sun, low on nitrogen (which is probably a bigger problem than low on water), very costly to ship to, too far away to do remote real-time control of equipment. Really a very unappetizing place to live.

Manufacturing is the hard part. In addition to all the difficult physical conditions any new colony would not have sufficient numbers, capital, and economies of scale to produce a full set of complex and efficient industries. On Earth we have industries that supply industries that supply industries and so on to create long and complex supply pipelines. These supply pipelines are heavily interdependent. For example, silicon chip makers supply their products to companies that make equipment that gets used by companies that make equipment (with some steps left out here) that gets used to make equipment to supply to the silicon chip makers. This can't be replicated on Mars with just 1 million people living in primitive conditions.

We need to think about every move in the direction of Mars with one priority above all others: accumulation of technology and infrastructure that will create the conditions to allow permanent human habitation. A trip to Mars in the style of the Apollo Moon landings is not a step in the direction of permanent habitation. Rather it would be a huge waste of money that could have been spent laying the groundwork for permanent habitation.

So what do we need to do? Develop robots that can go to Mars ahead of us, work for many years unassisted, and build up infrastructure to support humans. Here's the real kicker: we should not send our first humans to Mars until we've accumulated enough robots on Mars to justify a trip by robot repair techs and heavy equipment maintenance specialists. Yes, mechanics and repair techs should be the first humans to visit Mars.

Think about it: If we ship humans to Mars now we have to bring them back in a year or two so they do not die of starvation or radiation sickness. By contrast, robots sent to Mars can be sent on a one way trip. If built to be durable and supplied with a sufficient energy source the robots can work for years.

Our first goal for Mars development should be to develop robots that can work unattended by humans and that last for a very long time. We also need to develop maintenance robots that can replace some parts of other robots when parts fail. But we will not be able to make every robotic part replaceable by other robots. That's where humans should first enter the picture: to show up after several years to do upgrades and repairs on a large fleet of robot workers.

The early robots should work on building underground shelters (to protect humans from radiation), water extraction systems, and greenhouses for growing food and plants for textiles and products for structures (e.g. small trees for wood).

Durability is going to be a big challenge. All parts (notably including their computers) should last as many years as possible. How long can digging, tunneling, and water extraction equipment be designed to last unattended? How hard to build robots that can repair other robots?

Designs of robotic equipment for Mars should be subjected to multi-year tests in isolated harsh environments on Earth before getting sent to Mars. Humans should be sent to Mars once enough broken down equipment accumulates on Mars to justify a repair trip. Human visitors could also do research on robot performance while on Mars and tune the robots based on detailed observations.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 May 16 02:12 PM 

Crocodile Chuck said at May 16, 2015 4:31 PM:

"…and supplied with a sufficient energy source the robots can work for years." [snip]

I laughed.

bob sykes said at May 17, 2015 5:05 AM:

I don't see any evidence that we are ever going back to space. That's now part of dead history. We can't even get to low earth orbit, and no one in Washington thinks that is a problem.

Over all, as a retired engineering professor, I am sympathetic to the view that technological innovation largely ceased in the 70's, and that we are living on that heritage, tweaking it, making it cheaper, etc.

I think we have actually regressed in some areas. Take HDTV. It's effective range is about 35 to 40 miles because of the power restrictions needed to let the added channels coexist. I live 40 miles from Columbus, OH, and cannot get broadcase TV any more. I rely on satellite.

I also think radios have degenerated, too. We have a very nice Bose CD player, but the AM/FM radio is useless and cannot receive broadcasts from the aforesaid Columbus. Moreover, the unit comes with a clock that uses a chip to generate a time signal. That signal loses about 2 to 3 minutes per week. The unit uses line power with the extremely accurate 60 Hz signal, but it doesn't use that signal. I have a nice Trane heat pump that measures external temperature, but the thermistor (?) has a error of plus 3 F.

PS. If you would like to read some old-fashioned Mars sci fi, try Andy Weir's "The Martian" (Crown Publishers, 2014).

Wolf-Dog said at May 17, 2015 7:56 AM:

Right now it is premature, but in the next century if self-building and self-modifying robots can be created, this will make the colonization of other planets possible. More importantly, by then there might be dramatic breakthroughs in energy also.

For for the intermediate future Elon Musk pointed out that the propellant rocket fuel is less than 1 % of the total cost. Thus Musk is trying to develop a reusable rocket engine, making the rest disposable, and his current goal is to reduce the cost of one pound in orbit from $1,000 to $100 in a few years. But in the long run if expensive components of the rockets can be made reusable and the disposable components can be made cheap, the potential would be 100-fold cheaper space travel.

joeyjoejoe said at May 17, 2015 9:28 AM:

Mars makes no particular sense vice Mercury or Venus. The poles of Mercury make some sense because you can find spots with good temperature and a small solar panel generates gobs of electricity. There are also probably valuable minerals there. Venus would be the "cloud city" idea: steel balls containing earth-like air will float in the Venusian atmosphere at altitudes with earth-like temperatures.

The Biodome guys were taking the next logical step in investigating space colonization, but there's been pretty much zero follow up. We have no idea if you can stick people in a hermetically sealed can for 20 years with any hope of not killing them or driving them insane, never mind the challenges of space. We have to stick 20 people down a sealed mine shaft with a nuclear reactor for a decade to prove a long term manned space mission is even biologically feasible.

Brett Bellmore said at May 17, 2015 11:36 AM:

"We can't even get to low earth orbit, and no one in Washington thinks that is a problem."

This would come as a surprise to SpaceX, I am sure. The "can't even" part, I mean, not the "no one in Washington" part.

We're making the transition from space exploration being the work of governments, to it being the work of the private sector. This is a positive development, IMO.

JCL said at May 18, 2015 7:18 PM:

We will go to Mars and other planets because it's what humans do. It's called "life moving outwards." Letting the machines go first is prudent and logical. As for humans being prudent and logical, let's see how that goes....

Texas Mike said at May 19, 2015 6:22 AM:

I don't understand the push to colonize Mars before we establish even a rudimentary base on the Moon. Sure, Mars has a thin atmosphere, but it provides scant protection and is not breathable. This one small advantage over the moon is offset by multiple, huge problems. Travel time to Mars is measured in months, vs. days to the Moon. This is a logistics killer. Anyone on Mars is on their own. There will be no salvation in the form of an emergency resupply mission if things go wrong. Something breaks? If you didn't bring a spare, it will take a year to get one. Can you survive that long? At least on the moon there is the possibility of sending an emergency resupply mission. The orbits of Earth and Mars mean there are only certain windows available each year when transport is feasible. The rest of the time it will take either too much fuel or too much time to make the transit. Communications with Mars take 3-22 minutes, vs. seconds to the Moon. Communications is via recorded message only. Double the time delay for your reply. Communications with Mars are difficult or impossible during the period when Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the Sun. The Moon is always in communications range.

Logistics make the Moon the far more practical target for colonization. Until we solve the challenges of survival on a nearby globe with Earth-based supply, I fail to see how we can have any confidence in our ability to be self-sufficient on a distant planet.

Russ in TX said at May 19, 2015 8:40 AM:

Texas Mike,

The smart money here is that the Moon and Mars are actually highly-compatible colonization goals, with each able to provide things that the other lacks. Self-sufficiency isn't the goal: commerce is. The Moon Society has had several articles about how Mars colonization serves the pro-lunar community and vice-versa.

Randall Parker said at May 20, 2015 10:31 AM:

bob sykes,

I've read Andy Weir's "The Martian". There were points in it where I could not entirely follow his descriptions of apparatuses he was building to save himself. Where he lost communication to Earth: If I was King and directing a program of human exploration and colonization of Mars I would first send a set of communications satellites to go in orbit around Mars. Then I'd send multiple sat comm phones (with connections to laptops to send data) with astronauts. So one of the plot complications of Weir's story would not be possible in the first place.

Technological regression: At least you have satellite TV (and radio for that matter). How fast is your internet connection? I am reluctant to live some place really rural (even though I like really rural) because of internet bandwidth speeds. I've got 60 Mbps now. I want something much faster.

Regressed equipment regards what you can buy: Yes, this is a problem. I hear stories of decades old hand drills that last longer than new hand drills under heavy load. Sometimes you can get better stuff by buying industrial/commercial rather than residential/personal equipment. So, for example, I have a commercial Sharp microwave oven because I do not want to replace microwave oven so often. I've only had the Sharp for 3 years. So too soon to know whether it will last a long time.

What is still progressing: software. Marc Andreessen says software is eating the world. I think so too. Software developers are going to automate most jobs out of existence.

Randall Parker said at May 20, 2015 10:39 AM:

Texas Mike,

Some people want to go to Mars because we've never been there. Other people see it as a better place to go because it has more of the raw materials (and gravity) needed for colonization.

My own view: If we are going to do it at least be smart about how we do it and accept just how incredibly expensive it is going to be. We spent a lot of money on the Apollo program to just get people to visit and left nothing reusable on the Moon. I'd rather we start building up infrastructure on Mars rather than make a show trip to Mars. Otherwise the show trip will be done and then we won't visit it again for decades.

The goal should be to build up infrastructure that would allow people to live on Mars for years. That means underground shelters, hydroponics and/or greenhouses, and whatever else is needed to enable the visitors to keep themselves going for years.

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