October 02, 2016
Elon Musk, Trips To Mars, And A Mars Colony

I've previously argued that going to Mars and trying to live there is a dumb idea for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding assorted recent comments by Elon Musk this is still true. The best treatment of Musk's proposal for a big trip to Mars comes from The Martian science fiction author Andy Weir in his comments to Ars Technica. I think Weir went too easy the obviously ridiculous low cost estimates made by Musk and didn't address many of the problems with a Mars colony. But he makes excellent points. Read the article if you are interested. I like Weir's point that solar panels weigh too much to cart all the way to Mars. Better to take a nuclear reactor.

I've previously made several points on what we ought to do before trying to make a Mars colony. But there is a key underlying point I'll repeat here: Our modern complex and advancing civilization is only possible because of a high degree of specialization of labor. Go somewhere else with a very very very small fraction of humanity where, hey, there isn't even an atmosphere and guess what? You give up orders of magnitude of specialization of labor and live dreary and very circumscribed lives. Complexity collapses and huge benefits are lost. Plus, the colony would be dependent on supplies from Earth. So no insurance policy for decades to come. Just shorter and more boring and claustrophobic lives. I mean, why do that? It is crazy.

Musk says humanity needs a second home as an insurance policy against such things as a massive asteroid hitting Earth. First of all, we do not have enough tech to make a Mars colony self sustaining. Meanwhile these existential threats are still out there. So how about doing something about them? Hey, how about an asteroid defense system? It has a big advantage over a Mars colony: in the event of a killer asteroid heading our way it saves billions of lives rather than just a few thousand colonists. I'm really for not dying. How about you Some other insurance policies we could do for ourselves on Earth include things we could do to reduce the impact of a VEI (volcanic explosivity index) 7 or 8 volcano.

Do you really want the human species to live on a second planet too? Then support the development of tech that enables more products of civilization to be produced by small numbers of people. In particular, support the development of biotech that would enable Mars colonists to use genetically engineered microorganisms and plants to produce a large variety of foods, drugs, textiles, and other materials needed to give a Mars colony a decent standard of living. Also, support the development of biotech to repair radiation damage done to colonists on their way to Mars. That biotech would also help rejuvenate humans down here on planet Earth where we are all aging and accumulating damage in every cell in our bodies.

File this under: posts Randall writes when he's irritated by famous people and the news sites who jump on their proposals because they are eager for a story.

Update: One way to think about a Mars colony is it is a challenge for how to make a society with all the benefits of a complex industrial base with far fewer people. How to do this? Genetic engineering to make every colonist and their children geniuses would help because it would reduce the number of people needed to know a greater number of specialized skills. So would artificial intelligence. So would nanodevices that can replicate a large number of designs and ditto genetically engineered microorganisms that can produce a large range of goods.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 October 02 09:22 PM 

James Bowery said at October 3, 2016 5:43 AM:

Zubrin managed to derail Musk with Mars colonies using strawman arguments against space settlements, but he can't get to Bezos, who sees Mars colonies as a fun side-project rather than the prime directive. If his ego doesn't get in the way, Musk will recover his sanity once he sees Bezos demonstrate the economics.

PS: Although I can't claim credit for immunizing Bezos against the Zubrin virus (I've never talked to the man) I was the Space Studies Institute local support team leader in Miami from 1981 to 1983 doing outreach into the southern Florida area while manager of future architectures for Viewtron.


Randall Parker said at October 3, 2016 8:30 PM:


I do not understand your comment. What do you mean by space settlements? Not the same as Mars colonies?

Engineer-Poet said at October 3, 2016 9:19 PM:

Having read enough Bowery over the years, I'm pretty sure he means the likes of O'Neill colonies.

Nick G said at October 6, 2016 7:24 AM:

The main values of a Mars mission are probably:

the R&D it would push - think of how Tesla has pushed the whole care industry to electrify and develop autonomous driving; and

the inspiration it would give for solving other big problems. How many time have you heard: "If we can put a Man on the Moon, we can certainly accomplish X (curing something, building something, etc..."?

I strongly suspect that Musk knows this quite well. He's said many times that Tesla isn't about making money, it's about pushing and transforming the whole car industry.

kenneth t.kendrick said at October 8, 2016 3:10 PM:

A colony on mars is a bad idea.Humans will not last long in such a low gravity situation.A station on mars is a good idea.A lot of research can be done.Mars can supply water and regelith to ... a space station orbiting mars.the space station will have artificial gravity and enough shielding to keep out radiation.It will have a port(s) for excursion vehicles.It will be built in low earth orbit and then moved to mars.None of this is going to be cheap.As for insurance against human extinction a better plan would be to hollow out some mountains in anarctica with enough provisions to last for years.


Perry Metzger said at October 8, 2016 8:08 PM:

Although I prefer O'Neill habitats to Mars (Mars has low enough gravity to be bad for human physiology but too much to escape quickly, too little atmosphere to be useful but enough to impede getting there and leaving and the stability of settlements, etc.), I'm a big fan of what Musk has done. He's finally gotten off of the "we'll do this someday" crap, and onto the "what do we need to do to get this done" track.

His cost estimates may be over-optimistic, but the engineering all looks sound, and the rocket system he envisions will be great for bootstrapping O'Neill habitats at L4/L5 as well.

Oh, and I should mention the obvious: he's already built rockets that can get to orbit, and built them from scratch, and he's got them landing for reuse as well, all stuff that armchair critics have not done.

Jerry Martinson said at October 11, 2016 11:18 PM:

I'd be a bit worried about deep-space radiation. We don't know much about the specific threat from cosmic rays and high energy nuclei. These are very different animals from the radiation we see in nuclear medicine, x-rays, or bombs. The biological effects are not well-known. The apollo mission astronauts got a lot of flashes from radiation in their eyes.... there's a whole lotta stuff flying around up there. I bet it makes you have dementia.

David Gobel said at October 14, 2016 12:23 PM:

Organovo: 3d tissue printing (Methuselah first investor)
NASA/Methuselah Vascular Tissue Prize
Oisin: selective removal of senescent (eg. radiation damaged) cells (Methuselah first investor)

these all lead to "hospital in a box" of course.

Tj Green said at November 11, 2016 7:54 AM:

We are so good at warming up planets it would be a shame not to use our skills on Mars. A couple of giant mirrors over the poles is all we need.

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