The Woman in the Red Dress

The 67th International Astronautical Congress convenes today in Guadalajara Mexico. All the world’s major space players will be there, discussing policy and product development. If there’s one conference I could walk around with a badge on, it would probably be this one. There are few things more exciting going on right now than the leaps in commercial space exploration. Tomorrow, Elon Musk will outline SpaceX’s path to Mars. And in recent weeks, Blue Origin unveiled their new rocket design which will be the most powerful in existence, the sort of thing you need in order to get to Mars (and beyond).

My last planetary astronomy course is twenty years behind me. For my final, I wrote a thesis on Io, and I haven’t been graded on anything having to do with the planets since. But there’s a reason I’m a science fiction author and not a literary guy: I’m a geek for this stuff. I try to stay on top of it. Which is why I don’t understand for the life of me why we’re aiming for Mars right now. In fact, I see the red planet as being precisely like that lady in the red dress from The Matrix: A distraction for boys and their toys. We need to look beyond her.

Musk seriously wants to send dozens of colonists to Mars within the next twenty years. (He actually says within 10 years, but I’m accounting for the fact that Musk misses his production estimates for both Tesla and SpaceX launches, plus the recent loss of a second Falcon 9 rocket). Let’s ignore for a moment all the technical hurdles (sticking the landing, refueling for a return trip, power / food / water) and ask something that’s really been bugging the hell out of me: Why Mars?

Mars is a terrible place to try to live. Yes, there is ice on Mars, but we’re talking a thin coating, not large chunks of the stuff to be melted and consumed. Yes, there was probably life on Mars at some point, but we can discover that with machines, not people. Yes, we need to get people off Earth so all our eggs aren’t in the same basket, but there are better baskets. And this is what I would say to SpaceX or Blue Origin if I was at the IAC: Look closer, folks.

There are three (perhaps four) things we should be doing before we go to Mars to set up a colony. Before I list these things, I want to point out my guesses for why we’re wasting precious resources doing the wrong thing. There are three that I can come up with:

The first is the primal desire to Go Where No (Wo)Man Has Gone Before. We’ve already set foot on the Moon, and we already have a space station in orbit, which makes those targets booorrring! These missions to Mars are flag-planting missions, and that’s a terrible reason to do science. It’s too emotion-based.

The second reason is the pop culture allure. We’ve been reading and watching Mars adventures since we were kids. There’s a nostalgic desire to make that happen which outstrips the logic.

The third reason is that Mars is a planet and the alternatives are not. We seem to be hung up on this. We want our next outpost to be very much like our current one. I think this is very much the wrong course of action. In fact, there are advantages to having some diversity among our baskets.

Here are the four things our private and commercial space organizations should really be focusing on, and thereby helping to drive government agencies in the same direction:

The primary focus should be on the Moon. You might think Mars’ size, or the presence of ice, makes it more hospitable to a colony, but that’s not the case at all. Mars has almost no atmosphere (which is why landing there is difficult). It also has no inner dynamo (liquid metal core) to generate a strong magnetosphere to ward off solar radiation. So Mars would be just as inhospitable as the moon, except for two things, which make it less hospitable: It’s a long way to ship supplies and send rescue missions, and the mass makes landing and relaunch a lot more dangerous and expensive.

The Moon is closer and smaller, and this makes it the best place for our first off-world terrestrial colony. All the things we will need to learn to do (such as shield ourselves from radiation, which is the largest hurdle yet to conquer) are better off learned here. Water, fuel, and air can all be generated from the Moon’s regolith. Tourism and industrial science can help finance the colony. Communication delays are negligible, and the colony stays the same distance (roughly) year-round. There is absolutely no good reason in the galaxy that we should be aiming for Mars over the moon. Just the three emotion-based ones listed above.

Being on the Moon protects us from apocalyptic disasters here on Earth. It also puts our lifeboat much closer. We could build up the colony much quicker, and more countries could be involved, making this a truly human endeavor. The Moon would also make for the best place to build our launch pad for the rest of the solar system (and stars beyond) with its low gravity. It’s also much, much, much more affordable to go there. We shouldn’t let the fact that we’ve set boots on its surface before, or that it’s not a planet, have us overlook the enormous benefit to a Moon colony over a Mars colony.

There are three other things we should be looking to do to aid this endeavor: We should expand our presence in orbit, attempt to mine the heavens, and get people paying to visit space. Some companies are already working on the first one; we are doing a basic version of the second; and number three is probably going to be in operation in just a few years.

The International Space Station is an impressive machine, one of the most impressive things we’ve ever built. We need a bigger version, open to tourism, and a place to train and acclimate the growing number of astronauts that a colony will require. Space stations also create lifeboats for our lifeboats. There will be times when even Earth is too far for the help that the Moon will require (because of launch conditions needed here and our gravity well, more than distance). This would also be a great place to work on artificial gravity (the centripetal kind). What I would propose is that our space station be designed, from the beginning, to be modified into the living quarters of our eventual interstellar craft. That is, the thing we build in orbit for a hotel, will one day be our winnebago to Alpha Centauri.

Mining the heavens is going to be critical to finance all of this. One large asteroid could have enough precious elements to finance years of space exploration. And it’s much cheaper to develop industrial capacity in orbit (or on the Moon) than it is to heave all the things we build up from Earth. Automated drones will bring asteroids back and place them in the Moon’s orbit, where they will be mined. We are probably a century or two away from achieving this, but it will happen. We could do it in 50 years if we weren’t so distracted by that woman in the red dress.

The third thing I mentioned is going to happen soon, and that’s to get people paying for a trip into space. Blue Origin is probably just a few years away, and Virgin Galactic would already have been there were it not for a catastrophic failure of their previous design (they flew their new carrier for the first time this month with the spacecraft attached). I’d put my money on Virgin having the first paying passenger into space, but I think the ride with Blue Origin will be more exciting (more time spent at higher altitudes). If it was possible, I’d volunteer (and pay) to be on the first commercial flight for either company. That’s how keen myself and many others are to pay six figures to fulfill a lifelong dream. Squeezing people like me for large sums is going to not only help fund the other stages, it’s going to be great data for future cosmonauts.

But perhaps most importantly, space tourism is going to fuel imaginations, which are the true rockets of innovation and exploration. Emotional allure can be just as useful as it is distracting. While the big lady in the red dress up there is leading us in the wrong direction when it comes to commercial space exploration, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t get people fired up and wistful. Send a manned mission to Mars, to touch down and do some science and return home. That’s a noble endeavor. But seeing that planet as a basket for humanity’s eggs is misguided to the point of being downright stupid. Our own orbit and the surface of the moon are far better targets. Here’s hoping that someone comes along and disrupts the very companies disrupting space exploration, or that one of those companies lowers its sights while expanding its ambitions. There are so many far grander things we can do closer to home.


UPDATE: After watching Elon’s talk, I’m even more convinced that this is a terrible idea and a terrible distraction. I have seen a few comments about the Moon being for tourists and Mars being for explorers, and nothing could be further from the truth. Mars will be for tourists. The real work of settling the stars will be done in Earth orbit and on the moon.

If Mars hopefuls will be realistic for one moment, they will admit that interstellar spacecraft will never be built on Mars. That makes no sense. The gravity well is still an obstacle, but without all the industry and manpower here on Earth. If we build a colony ship for the stars, it’ll gleam bright overhead, visible from Earth on a clear night. It’ll be fueled from Moon regolith.

Mars is a distraction. And the little bit where Mars is terraformed at the end of SpaceX’s presentation made my jaw drop. As did the idea of people opening the door, and there they are on Mars, with their one-way tickets, and what now? I’m devastated that this is where our ambitions are taking us, down a dead end, when we could be doing so much more here close to home. Let’s start building the orbital station that one day becomes our ark. If we’re going on one-way missions, let’s send them to the stars.


22 responses to “The Woman in the Red Dress”

  1. Not just Elon wants to colonize Mars–it’s NASA, as well as the ESA (European Space Agency) . They’ve done decades worth of research on the red planet. I doubt it’s an emotional decision at all–not if billions of dollars and decades of research is involved. Mars has the key resources of life support: O2, N2, and H2O and it has tons of valuable resources ( Magnesium, Aluminium, Titanium, Lithium Iron, Chromium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc etc.) , and rare steels which can be used for screen technology, superconductors and pretty much any electronic advice you can imagine.

    1. The Moon has everything we need for life support (we might have to provide liquid hydrogen, but that would probably be the case on Mars). And metallurgy is a poor reason. Orbital capture of asteroids would pay off a lot more (no need to send humans beyond our orbit).

      I wouldn’t underestimate the ability for large institutions to overlook the obvious while investing vast sums for mostly psychological reasons. That’s pretty much every bubble that’s ever existed. We’re in a Mars bubble right now; I’m trying to point that out.

  2. I always thought the moon was a better target too. Why not start there? Im with you, Hugh ?

  3. Disagree!

    Infrastructure like in orbit reueling and his mars scale rockets will be able to take us to the moon (as well). Hes pkanet the goal posts to far out that the other easy targets will ve hit alog the way. (Moon, ceres).

    Bring on mars. Bezos can follow and set up shop on the moon.

    1. This is why I think Musk is doing great on garnering hype but is destined to fail. Bottom up iteration is better than his top-down model (the Roadster leading to the affordable car). Pushing too far too fast is why we have a Tesla autopilot death hanging over the self-driving industry. Google was going about it the right way. Tesla is being brash and over-hyped itself, and a fatal accident was the result. Same with SpaceX: It’s too much too quickly. Same with Mars. The Moon is a much better target, and everything we learn can scale up as things become more affordable. Overshooting to scale down makes no sense.

  4. The Woman in a Red Dress is nicely apt for Mars. Well done. I’ll have to think about the Mars vs. moon question more, but in general I agree with your moon suggestion. It’s just a more realistic, short-term target (as space stations at the appropriate LaGrangian points may be as well).

    Also, “Communication delays are negligent” should be “negligible”.

  5. Great thought piece as usual. Why is it that everyone underestimates the danger of space radiation? There were a number of articles last year after The Martian came out in theaters that said that the movie was unrealistic because Mark Watney would have been fried to death by radiation long before he could have figured out how to save himself.

  6. I definitely think that this isn’t a JFK-esque initiative such as the Apollo program. There is definitely something not on the up and up (feels even sinister) that we are going to be pumping all of these $$$’s into it but will somehow wind up in Elon Musk’s pockets. Hasn’t 90% of the ocean’s gone unexplored? Wouldn’t the feasibility of having under water colonies be much more so that putting one on the moon or Mars??

    1. You bring up a good point about the ocean. There’s even an argument to be made that we can double the number of baskets for our eggs by settling the ocean floor (they would survive many of the catastrophes that can take out life on Earth).

      Unfortunately, the technological hurdles to life on the ocean floor might be even greater than life in space. Pressure is harder to ward off than a vacuum. And saltwater makes life difficult for technology and people. There’s a small habitat in the Florida Keys that’s like 20 or 30 feet underwater, and it is abject misery. Wounds don’t heal. Humidity is stifling. You go mad down there. We’ve had less success below the sea than we have in orbit, believe it or not, and for very good technical reasons.

  7. Arguably, both locations have merit. Extraplanetary expansion is humanity’s only real insurance against extinction, but I often find myself wondering if we’re once again rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Establishing a permanent presence beyond our own failing atmosphere is the greatest challenge our species has ever taken on, an endeavour that demands all-in participation. Most humans are presently too distracted with more immediate concerns. Flashy new iPhones, Brad and Angelina, intractable economic deprivation, social injustice, profit motive, environmental collapse and let’s not forget perpetual war; since Kennedy’s race to the moon conditions haven’t substantively improved for the vast majority of humans on this planet.

    This koan has particular relevance I think.

    Once a monk made a request.
    “I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
    The master said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
    “Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
    “Then,” said the master, “wash your bowls.”

    1. Okay, maybe I was a little pessimistic there. I’ve been writing a great deal of SF on the other end of the spectrum of prosperity and consequently I’ve been researching the depths of poverty and deprivation.

      Allen Steels’ phenomenal Coyote series explores a vision of the future in which we push forward into the stars without addressing fundamental human suffering. Relativistic space travels as an exercise in hubris. I’d love to see what folks at the International Astronautical Congress might say about the disparity. Even more than those words, I’ve love to hear how guys like Musk might hack society if only to widen their pool of off-world candidates.

      I think, right there is the problem with any solar-system expansion effort (Moon, Mars or otherwise). The space tourism of a handful of exceptionally wealthy people isn’t the stepping stone humanity requires establishing a lasting presence off-world. Extra-Earth colonization needs thousands, hundreds-of-thousands of us to embrace our shared genetic heritage with the lowly cockroach because a few of us are going to get squished along the way.

      Elon Musk performed an experiment some time ago in which he lived for a month on $30. His intent wasn’t to experience poverty but to endure a particular sort of deprivation. I’ll likely never get the opportunity to seed this idea directly in the mind of someone like Musk, but you might. How can space programs, private or public, bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots in order to bring more of humanity into a place where it can contribute? How might these people hack society and culture to make this a central human desire?

  8. Hugh, if you’re interested, here’s some complementary points to your article from an interview I did recently promoting Mars Endeavour.

    “Mars is kinda like a gas station on the way to Disneyland. Mars has lots of interesting science targets, but none quite as rich and promising as the moons of the gas giants…

    I doubt we’ll ever terraform Mars. I get criticized for saying this, as, “Never say never,” but I think it’s misleading to suggest Mars could be a replacement for Earth at any point in the next 100,000 years—minimum. Mars is simply too small. It’s a physical limitation no amount of technology is likely to ever overcome.

    Mars has two major problems. Physically, it is so small that it struggles to retain an atmosphere. As gases warm, they become more energetic. At any temperature even remotely approaching that on Earth, Mars will rapidly lose gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, etc. There’s really no technological fix for this problem as it arises from the low gravity. Also, Mars lacks a decent magnetic field, which means it gets bombarded by solar radiation, which exasperates the loss of atmosphere, and will leave any inhabitants exposed to harsh cosmic rays.

    For a long, long time to come, Mars is going to be akin to an Antarctic research station. There will come a day, when our descendants can partially terraform sections of Mars, perhaps in gigantic domes, but Mars will never be Earth 2—and to me that highlights the need to take care of Earth 1 and steward its resources properly. The biodiversity we have here on Earth is truly astonishing—3.8 billion years in the making. Let’s not squander that with a few centuries of pollution.”

    Cheers, Peter

    1. Thanks for reminding me Mars Endeavour is out already, purchased it now! Relevant reading, considering the Elon Musk talk is happening today. :)

  9. “As long as I’ve been involved in spaceflight, for about 20 years now, there has been this debate going on between the two groups,” said Roger Launius, senior space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “I refer to them as the Martians and the Lunatics – the people who want to go to Mars, and the people who want to go back to the moon. No one side has the clear-cut answer. There are positives and negatives for both.”

    1. This.

      Personally, I prefer Mars, partially for the “emotional” reasons Hugh listed, but I absolutely agree that there are benefits to the “Moon first” approach – but also negatives. And it’s the same with Mars – lots of pros, many cons.

      I also think Musk is a genius so if he says Mars is the more reasonable choice, I tend to agree with him.

  10. Hugh, I pretty much agree with all of your points.

    But, let’s face it, the real short term goal is to get people into space to stay there, not just fly up parabolic curves back to earth. I think Musk and Branson should put their money into either 1) adding to the existing ISS, or 2) starting a new station from scratch with new materials and 21st century technology. Getting people into space on a semi permanent basis will give us a way station to collect the materials, (preferably from asteroids) and assemble them for the firsts serious moon base. Think of the experience gained by doing it this way. The moon. in addition to being a permanent habitat, should be the the place where we prepare for Mars and/or the outer planets.

    All of the above can be done with existing technology. But, we need to empower both NASA and private industry to develop new more efficient and powerful propulsion technologies.

    Look, I’m 72. I’ve been an SF geek since I started reading at age 3 (my mother was a librarian). I’m healthy and in decent shape, but, short of new life extension technologies, I’ll never make it up there. While I am around, I really want to see something more than the old, timeworn ISS up there. And, I would love to inspire a new generation of people to look outward with something like the joy and exhiliration I have felt for the last 60 years or so. I still get enormously excited thinking about getting off the earth and seeing the universe. Even if I have to read my cherished SF to accomplish it.

    Per aspera ad astra!!!

  11. Have you read Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars? I don’t pretend to know which argument has better merit, but he makes a lot of claims about the greater suitability of Mars than the Moon for colonisation that you don’t address here.

  12. Gary Martin Dennis Avatar
    Gary Martin Dennis

    Everybody keeps saying “WE” Does that include the Chinese? They have a moon program right? “WE” should be watching what they are up to. Not from a fear perspective, but rather where this super power is going. I’m inclined to agree with Hugh, but I think that the Chinese are going to be the ones to do it.

  13. Agreed. There are no arguments put forward that I can find a logical argument against. But then again, we are talking about industry and securing finances for this endeavor. Mars is the new black in a manner of speaking. Doing anything with the moon is exactly as you stated: old news. One could hope that maybe people would come to their senses, to use logical argument to come to a better solution, but we are emotional creatures. Colonizing Mars just has a zing to it in the human psyche that isn’t duplicated when discussing the moon. And despite the scientific financial arguments one could post to pursuing a moon colony over Mars, good luck convincing the ignoramuses to open their coin purses for it.

    I imagine some old Hollywood exec being present in the pitch:

    “The moon? Nah, that’s old news! Who wants a moon colony? My grandfather, that’s who! We need to aim bigger! Picture this: MARS!”

  14. I agree, we should shoot for the moon instead of Mars. However, we should aim for Europa instead of our moon – we all know that Dave Bowman is out there waiting for us. That and they gave us a warning to stay away from Europa, which makes it all the more attractive :).

    In all seriousness, though, I agree. I think our moon is the best next step to staging what we want to achieve in space exploration. The idea of colonizing Mars is simply a bit grandiose at this point.

  15. I agree that Mars is a terrible choice for humans in space. The Moon is only a quarter million miles away and doesn’t require a lot of the maintenance that a space station does. However, I don’t think we should be manning a space station or the Moon. We should be weaponizing them for the purpose of protecting our only viable basket from killer asteroids.

    There is actually no chance of a calamity on Earth that will make it less habitable than either the Moon or Mars. We can account for everything that would truly reshape the Earth, and there are none on the radar, except maybe a killer Sun Flare, which would wipe out colonies on the Moon, Mars and in orbit faster than us here on the ground behind our atmosphere and EM field. The only other threats are far less challenging than Mars or the Moon. A hundred year asteroid particulate winter is a trivial challenge compared to creating a self-sustaining colony on the Moon or Mars.

    The challenge of having such a project on the Earth is the morality, choosing who lives. At this point in time, citing space travel as the salvation of the human race is irrational. There will come a time when it would come into play, but we aren’t anywhere near the point where we have a remotely viable alternative to even a ruined Earth. We would be far better served by building robotic platforms based upon our learning from Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity than this human exploration nonsense.

  16. If SpaceX will get people to Mars then it will be an historic event. If they will set up a permanent outpost there ten that will be a fantastic enterprise. If other organizations want to go to the Moon or the asteroid belt then that’s awesome too! There’s a whole Universe waiting out there so let’s just get off this rock already!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *