All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2015:
“Drowning in Process” (Nov.)
SETI and Sanity (Oct.)
SpaceX, SpaceY, SpaceZ (Sept.)
Should We Phone ET? (March)
More Pluto Controversy (Feb.)
The Pluto Controversy (Jan.)
New in 2020:
2022: What’s to do on Mars?…
2021: New space company Planetopolis…
2020: Cruising in Space…
2019: The Doomsday Fallacy, SpaceX successes…
2018: I, Starship, atheism versus religion, the Copernican principle…
2017: Mars, Supercivilisations, METI…
2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…
2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…
2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…
2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…
2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…
2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…
2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…
Index to essays – including:
The Great Sociology Debate (2011)
Building Selenopolis (2008)
Mars: 25 Years After Mars Direct – Discussion
Darren Oliveiro-Priestnall (1 May 2015, via Facebook): A good post which I largely agree with. I personally don’t believe that NASA or ESA will be the first to put people on Mars.
My own belief is that the only reason people have walked on the Moon is because there were very specific circumstances which made a Moon landing a necessity as part of a war effort. People weren’t sure what was possible, there was a lot of paranoia, a lot to prove, no one wanted to find themselves staring down the barrel of some big Moon gun. People say it was a space race to prove a point but I think it was more than that, there was a genuine fear in governments about what might be possible and they didn’t want to get caught out.
The circumstances today are very different. People know what’s possible and what isn’t. People know that the Moon isn’t a sensible place to build some WMD. There is no and will be no equivalent need to go to Mars. There’s no military advantage to being on Mars and if someone else gets there first, who cares really? Economies are under increasing pressure with the rise of economies in Asia, Africa and South America. There’s better places to spend your war money, big things to get paranoid about.
So I believe if we’re waiting for some magic set of circumstances to arise that will compel NASA or ESA to rave to get people to Mars then we are going to be disappointed. For me the most likely contenders for sending people to Mars are…
1. Another, smaller agency. China? India? What about a pan-Asia space endeavour? They have the money, the will and perhaps something to prove.
2. The private sector if there’s a compelling reason to go. Drilling for oil is costly and dangerous, building large numbers of nuclear power plants is costly and dangerous. The private sector does have the money to spend if the return and risk is right. In 1983, twelve companies spent nearly $2 billion drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea, North of Alaska when it might have been a dry well. BP has set aside $40 billion for damages from one spill, Iran has lost $60 billion in oil infrastructure investment and oil companies are being told to save $170 billion. In the nuclear industry companies deal in tens and hundreds of billions also because they have a good risk/return for that investment. Also the private sector can and does take more risks when it comes to health if the financial returns are there.
So it’s an unpopular view maybe but I think if people are to go to Mars it will either be from a smaller/alternative space agency or because someone develops a real business case to go.
Stephen Ashworth (3 May): Darren, thanks. A couple of questions for you. If a space agency sends astronauts to Mars (you suggested China or India), why should their programme be any more sustainable or growth-capable than was Apollo? And if a private sector company, where would the return on their investment come from?
Darren Oliveiro-Priestnall (3 May): Very good questions which I think are very closely related.
If you look at the precious minerals mining industry in Africa you’ll find that they are predominantly funded and run by Chinese business supported by the Chinese state. Countries racked by poverty with world class roads, transport and infrastructure which can look oddly out of place. Why does all this money flow from China, effectively building up countries in Africa? It isn’t to be philanthropic, it’s to create the environment, links and infrastructure to support the flow of precious minerals out of Africa and into China to fuel the massive domestic hunger for these minerals. Manufacturing in China is so important that business and state invest whatever is needed to support it. This isn’t a short term investment, this is massive investment for long term sustainable return. You won’t find American or European money or influence on the same level in Africa, the politics and way of doing business is quite different.
The reason I raise this is that this I believe is one way that Mars could be different to these new large, growing, hungry and different economy. China needs Africa and South American minerals to fuel their economies, much more that the USA or Europe. As African countries become more developed, as the politics changes over time, access to minerals change. The domestic demand however is unlikely to change in step, indeed it could continue to grow. Therefore one way that this could play out is that China, seeing success from organisations such as Planetary Resources could look off-world at ways to fuel this huge growing economy. That might mean mining asteroids, it might mean creating something more sustainable such as mining the Moon or Mars. China clearly has plans for space and Mars, I don’t believe it’s as benign as proving they can do it. I do a lot of business in China and you will not find a more shrewd and financially astute country anywhere in the world. If China is seriously making plans for Mars you can be sure that they believe there’s opportunity to be had there. Any such endeavour will not be entirely state run, it will be a combination of state and business.
Other countries such as India will not want to be left in the shadow of China and will have their own plans and ways of doing things. As the USA and Europe looks inwardly, protecting protracting economies, growing Asian and other countries will be looking 10, 20, 50 years ahead and what they need to do to achieve these lofty ambitions. Mars could well have its place in there. Western business will have its part to play as it does in the Chinese precious minerals industry in Africa.
But it could play out in many ways. My own belief is that NASA may some day stick a flag on Mars, ESA may do the same with NASA but for anything sustainable it’ll be the commercial interests of large corporates or a resource hungry state such as China, perhaps a consortium of countries such as China and Russia using high tech east and west business. That’s just my view, I don’t have any preference who goes there in reality, I’d love for NASA to be first but I don’t see any real evidence that it’ll happen.
Stephen Ashworth (5 May): Darren, thanks, an interesting perspective. If you don't mind, I’ll copy this comment thread to my website so it doesn’t get lost.
Darren Oliveiro-Priestnall (5 May): Sure, feel free. Of course the good thing about mining is that colonies have always sprung up around them. Where there’s mining there’s miners and they need cooks and suppliers and dentists and doctors and so on. I don't know, maybe NASA will go there first, they certainly have the lead on technology. I don’t doubt the will of the good people at NASA, just the will of those who must send them. The good thing about greed is it’s pretty reliable so if there’s money to be made there then the greed will pull people.
Darren is Chief Executive Officer at Red Skies Software.
M.V. “Coyote” Smith (2 May 2015, via e-mail): Stephen,
Always a delight to read your commentaries. Once again you put things into perspective for me.
As we contemplate our Silver Anniversary of Martian Disappointment, we should also look ahead to our coming Golden Anniversary of Lunar Disappointment. A few weeks ago I was sitting next to Buzz Aldrin at an event in Washington DC, and he was lamenting that “the totality of all human spaceflight beyond the lowest of Earth orbits began and ended in the first Nixon administration.” (He includes Apollo 8 because Nixon had already been elected, but not inaugurated.)
Stephen Ashworth (9 May): Coyote, thanks very much.
I can only counsel patience. Thinking about extraterrestrial settlement, it seems to me to be an even greater leap into unfamiliar territory than was the case when our lungfish ancestors crawled out onto the land 400 million years ago.
People living permanently beyond Earth will have to rely on a new lifestyle that goes beyond anything seen before, with a fully enclosed, fully controlled life-support system. Of course we’ve all been reading science fiction which makes this seem easy, and the technologies appear to be ready to hand. But to actually live out there, as opposed to making brief Apollo-style visits, entails addressing the subtle issues of complexity when maintaining biological systems in harsh extraterrestrial environments. Even a simple visit to Mars planned in the straight there, straight back manner of Apollo requires a three-year mission, thus going a long way towards demanding the necessity for long-term sustainable life support.
Meanwhile we’re seeing slow but steady progress towards opening up low Earth orbit for cheaper and more reliable access, which will be an essential first step for any sustainable Mars programme. So I don’t feel disappointment, but rather long-term hope.