Saturday, March 11, 2006

Martian Fantasies

As a follow-up to my previous post, Screwing the Poor in Matrimony, I wanted to further discuss the idea of Mars colonization; which I had so clearly mocked.  For the record, I support the idea of space exploration and the eventual colonization of Mars and beyond.  But we’re not anywhere even close to such a thing.  In his article on The Mars Society, John Tierney compares this with the exploration and colonization of the Americas.  But there is no comparison, because we’re not even close to that stage.  The only thing stopping people in Columbus’ time was ignorance.  But they certainly had the capability to travel around the world.  They just didn’t think it was such a good idea.  And when you consider that it took almost 130 years between the discovery of America (1492) and the eventual colonization by the British in Plymouth (1620); it still didn’t seem like such an obvious idea.  

But we’re nowhere even close to such a thing.  Right now, it’s still expensive and risky just to send people into our own orbit.  Our ocean equivalent isn’t the huge ocean-worthy ships of Columbus, but the tiny fishing boats that were in danger of sinking if they lost sight of land.  And sure, it’s likely that people did travel all the way to America in ships that should not have gone there; just as we made a few trips to the moon.  But you couldn’t start a colony with such things.  Hell, I don’t even see us as having the spaceship equivalent of what the ancient Greeks used.  They didn’t have to worry every damn time they launched a trading ship; canceling each time things didn’t look quite right.  And yet for us, even launches of unmanned probes and satellites require excessive expense, worry, and risk.  We’re making the most of it, but we’re still at the early experimental stage; the equivalent of when man had first discovered that you could tie logs together and float on water.

I’m sure that someday we’ll have mastered space-travel enough that even trips to deep space will be considered routine and boring.  But that’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our children.  It took thousands of years before man’s shipbuilding capability was good enough to colonize the world.  And while our advanced science will surely cut down that leadtime, it’s still far enough off in our future that the futility of crafting a legal system for the Mars colony is a tad premature, to say the least.  

Our ships are too slow and dangerous and we haven’t a clue as to how to actually transport people over such a long distance.  We had a big headache just getting a handful of our best trained men to the Moon for a few weeks, and Mars is at least 150x further away and poses far more dangers for even a short trip there.  And yet here we have Tierney all ready to pack his bags and start humping those multiple Martian wives of his.  But again, I’m certainly not against the idea of sending him there, even if the practicalness of it still hasn’t been entirely established.  Just as long as the time delay dissuades him from continuing to get that pap of his published.

And to burst his libertarian bubble, I have absolutely no faith in the idea that libertarianism will be possible on Mars.  It can’t happen.  Not in a world with such hazards, complications, and expenses.  A Mars colony will require an even stronger government to control things, and will be dependent on earth governments for a long long time…earth governments that will want much oversight over where their money is going.  

I could see such things as polygamy being used for population growth, but even that would be highly regulated.  And things like building codes and environmental regulation would be, by necessity, strictly enforced with a fanatical adherence.  A Mars colony will most certainly be governed with the equivalent of martial law, with personal liberty being an often unaffordable luxery; and will require heavy taxation.  That Mars could be governed with a libertarian mindset is strictly fantasy.  Even the American colonies required strict rule, and they didn’t nearly have the complications of being millions of miles away on a hostile planet.  Of course, the idea that the libertarian “free-for-all” laws will ever work in reality is the biggest fantasy of all.


seth said...

This may be nitpicking, but the Greeks very definitely did have to worry whenever they launched a ship. Even in relatively calm weather, a slight change in the wind could easily doom a trireme. In fact, the unpredictability of the weather was one of the main reasons that the Greeks were able to defeat the Persians despite that the Persians outnumbers them significantly -- a few lucky storms practically decimated Xerxes' fleet and the Greeks were pretty lucky to be spared.

Aaron_J said...

And why would that be "nitpicking", Seth? The central argument of the post is that space colonization is not analogous to colonization of the Americas because it is so much more dangerous.

Nonsense. Early settlers faced unknown dangers and endured mortality rates that would not be tolerated today. They sailed in vessels ill-suited for trans-oceanic voyages, but by opening up a new world they created the need for improved transportation. Destination drives transportation.

We can wait millenia for advanced spacecraft to magically appear, or we can open up settlements on Luna or Mars that will create the need -- spurring innovation that will result in better, safer and faster ships within decades. The choice is ours.

Sitting here in Houston in 2006, I'm glad that centuries ago there were those who didn't listen to shortsighted handwringers like "Doctor Biobrain".

Doctor Biobrain said...

We can wait millenia for advanced spacecraft to magically appear

Now what the fuck kind of bullshit is this? "Shortsighted handwringers"!?! I fully support space exploration, but the idea that we can possibly set-up settlements on the Moon or Mars before we create the innovations that could make those settlements possible is obvious bullshit. And I clearly stated that it would not take thousands of years to get us to Mars; but my point was that it wasn't going to happen any time soon. Sure, rowboats can get across the Pacific, but that's not any way to establish a colony.

BTW, I wasn't going to be rude, but yes, Seth's point was nitpicking (though I do approve of the scholarly comment). I was fully aware that Greek ships could face disaster, just as our own ships still face disaster and just as any spacecraft will always face disaster. But we're talking about Xerxes' fleets, whereas we have difficulty getting one damn ship into space a few times a year. There is no comparison. Especially as the triremes that Seth spoke of did not get us across the ocean. I mean, it was over 1900 years after Xerxes' death that Columbus discovered America. And my point was that we're not even at the Trireme stage yet; because we're not.

Again, we have trouble launching just one ship. Get back to me when we can regularly send a fleet of ships into our own orbit. And that still wouldn't address the unnumerable problems with flight to Mars, or the even harder problems of establishing a real colony. This isn't about having the balls or the determination; this is cold hard reality: Without many huge break-throughs in technology, we are easily 100 years away from establishing colonies on Mars. And seeing as how the benefits of Mars colonization are unlikely to rival the benefits of discovering North America; it's unlikely that it will happen any sooner than that.

And if this is just toughguy talk, hell, why be a handwringer that stops at Mars? Why not shoot for the center of our galaxy? Or another universe? If we're talking about impossibilities, what's the difference? I wanted to keep things real; but if we're talking about not worrying about unnecessary deaths or uninvented technologies, let's go all out. I want to take a Trireme to the North Star with Xerxes at the helm. Why not? Sitting here in Austin, drunk off my ass, I'm glad to have the opportunity to fantasize about things that won't happen.

Aaron_J said...

Mars is certainly farther away than the Moon, and that adds several challenges (though some elements of Martian colonization would be easier than Lunar). But let's start with the Moon. You said: "the idea that we can possibly set-up settlements on the Moon or Mars before we create the innovations that could make those settlements possible is obvious bullshit."

So, we safely landed 12 men on the Moon and returned them to Earth about 35 years ago. We have had individuals living on Skylab, Mir and now ISS for months or years at a time. Exactly what "innovations" do we need before we can have a settlement on the Moon? Please list for me the decades-old innovations we need to "re-discover" before we can do this. Not a 4 paragraph rant. Just list them.

Thank you.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Decades-old innovations? Are you trying to be stupid? The longest moon landing was barely longer than three days; and it was only three guys at a time. I assume we're talking about a permanent settlement, right? And more than three people? You can't see any differences here? That we'd have to keep sending supply ships to the moon on a regular basis, and that kind of thing? I'm not saying you're stupid, mind you; but I don't see how this is anything that we've already done; or anything close to it.

And you're going to compare putting up people in our own orbit with settling them permanently on the moon? And could you please find me people who have stayed in orbit for years? I'll admit to laziness, but in my five minute search, I keep finding the same Russian who spent 174 consecutive days in space. Overall, he's spent over 800 days, but those were on multiple trips. But I fail to find anyone who's stayed up for years.

There, I've kept it under four paragraphs, though I haven't really covered anything. I'll try to find more on this later. I have a great National Geographic article on this very subject and it goes into many of the problems we face. Again, I'm not at all against space travel, but do think we should keep things realistic.

Aaron_J said...

Look harder next time:
Valeri Polyakov (January 8, 1994-March 22, 1995 438 days)
Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov (December 21, 1987-December 21, 1988 365 days)

(One year equals 365 days, I think, so there are three.) All single missions, and zero-gee to boot. At least on the Moon you'd have some gravity, making it easier.

Among Apollo-era innovations I would include: craft capable of landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth; long duration life support and recycling systems capable of operating for months without re-supply; and spacesuits allowing individuals to walk on the surface of the Moon. Since these occurred approximately 35 year ago, by definition they occurred decades ago (a decade equals ten years if I remember correctly). I would therfore define these innovations as "decades-old". Why do I have to explain this to you?

Go ahead and dig out your National Geographic article, if you can be bothered to do so when you sober up. Then list all the (new) innovations we need to build a moonbase. I'll be happy to tackle them for you so you can be less stupid.

No one (except you apparently), thinks we propose a moonbase without periodic re-supply missions. It can be permanently manned with rotating crews. Big deal.

(Note: I define Apollo-era as Mercury through Skylab, a very productive few years before we embarked on a "realistic" manned space program like the one you "support".)

Doctor Biobrain said...

I would therfore define these innovations as "decades-old". Why do I have to explain this to you?

Uhh, because you're being a jackass? Do you really think you need to tell me how many days there are in a year? Or that we've been to the Moon? And I already told you that I hadn't done much research on the amount of time people spent in orbit, and really did come up with the same one guy (the Russian who's spent the longest cumulative time in space). I did a few Google searches and even spent ten minutes at NASA's site, but couldn't find it. But I never suggested that my search was extensive, but admitted to the exact opposite; that my search was probably wrong. Why do you have to be a jerk about all this? I suppose I've been a bit uppity, but that's just because your argument thus far has essentially been to accuse me of being wimpy and dumb because I don't immediately want to fly to the Sun, and I've been a tad bit defensive because of that. But why you'd think it's ok to continue to suggest that I'm stupid is beyond me.

So just as a clarifier, are we talking about settlements in which we have a handful or so (perhaps up to 20) scientist-types who stay for awhile and then leave? Like with the ISS? Or are we talking about settlements which quickly have 200-500 people who are expected to stay there for a very long time (perhaps their whole life)? Because there are huge differences in these ideas, and you keep talking about ISS and the Moon Landing. But that's not at all anything that I was suggesting was impossible. But to me, I don't consider either of those things to be "settlements". I was speaking of permanent things that had lots and lots of people; and not another relatively minor trip to space, as you seem to be proposing. I mean, we started at this by talking about Mars colonization, and now you've watered it down to a minor extension of the Apollo and Space Station stuff; and then have the gall to pretend as if I'm the one who's changed the target.

But again, this doesn't sound like an argument in which I'm being stupid, but where you simply misunderstood what I said. I never said that minor Moon exploration was impossible; and I'm likely to agree to it if they had a good plan. I was referring to much bigger things, like large-scale Moon settlements and Mars colonization. Are those also things you think are immediately possible, or are we wasting our time with a non-argument?

Aaron_J said...

Decades-old innovations? Are you trying to be stupid?

While I’m still trying to figure out how that was an appropriate response to my question regarding exactly what innovations are required for living on the Moon, I'm OK with moving on and focusing this discussion on facts rather than rhetoric. I'll start by answering the questions you pose in your last post and hope you'll answer mine.

I expect initial settlements to be government sponsored. Whether we are talking about a half dozen scientists at a time (like ISS is supposed to have), or 200+ is a question of scale and not technology. I don’t see more than a handful at first, due among other things to budget constraints, but a sensible mission architecture will include modular habitats that can be left behind. Each mission will contribute another piece to a growing station that will eventually be able to host a larger population. This is in contrast to Apollo, which did not create an infrastructure capable of sustaining the program.

The ideal goal should be a permanent presence, with rotating crews. The duration of their stay will depend upon the results of health evaluations, among other considerations. Once the basic infrastructure is in place, consideration could be given to a role for private enterprise. I hope the private launch and space tourism industries will have made significant strides by then, but that remains to be seen.

I’ve started with the Moon because it’s the first stop, and it presents different challenges than Mars. I interpreted your earlier statement “…the idea that we can possibly set-up settlements on the Moon or Mars before we create the innovations that could make those settlements possible is obvious bullshit” to mean that neither one could be settled with existing technology. Maybe that’s not what you meant. Regardless, I’d be please to also address Martian engineering challenges (that’s all they are), after I’ve addressed those associated with Lunar settlement.

OK, in your last post you have indicated that you have no problem with “minor Moon exploration”, but “large-scale Moon settlements” are unrealistic. Where do you stand on small settlements, like what I describe above? If you believe such settlements are feasible, what technologies do you believe cannot be scaled-up for larger settlements? From your recollection of the NG article, what are the show-stoppers for Lunar settlements, large or small? I’ll guess radiation was at the top of the list.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Aaron, unfortunately, I don't have time right now to address your points (honestly, I'm not ducking), but I just thought I'd say this: The line I was referring to as "bullshit" was your line that "We can wait millenia for advanced spacecraft to magically appear, or we can open up settlements on Luna or Mars that will create the need -- spurring innovation that will result in better, safer and faster ships within decades."

By that, I thought you were saying that we'd build settlements and colonize before we had the ability to do so. Re-reading your statement, I guess maybe that's not what you were saying. But I wasn't necessarily arguing that we didn't have the technology (though I don't think we do). I thought that's what you were saying. I was calling the whole statement "bullshit" and not adding my own part to that. Again, maybe I just misread what you were saying.

Thus said, I don't think that permanent settlements of 200 people on the moon could be practically done with existing technology. And certainly not done practically with decades-old technology. I mean, just the shipments of air and water alone are massive and the expense of all this would defy practicality. Sure, we could do it, just like the Vikings may have visited North America long before Columbus; but that's not a practical way of doing things.

Overall, I disagree with the idea that it's as simple as extending existing programs. I could easily plan and execute a three-day trip to the desert; but a permanent desert settlement would be far beyond my ability. I see this as the same thing and don't see how a mere extension of our existing programs is enough. Again, if we needed to do it, we probably could. But I don't see how the benefits justify the risks and huge expense.

I should say again that I don't object to more minor missions to the moon, or even a permanent base capable of repeating our ISS sucess (ie, on a very small scale). But to suggest that we have the technology to do anything on a massive scale is just wrong.

And I don't see how rushing things to the moon or Mars will give us the technology we need to do for more. And I do think that excessive costs without great benefit could actually serve to hinder these programs; particularly if people died on the moon. I know the whole "mortality rate of colonists" argument, but that's just absurd. People have a different view of death than they had even one hundred years ago and people just aren't cool with unnecessary death. And like I said, that kind of thing could serve to really put the brakes on the space movement.

Aaron_J said...

So, when we slow down and stop misinterpreting each other’s comments, we’re not that far apart after all. I agree that very large settlements cannot be done practically at this time. However, small ones can be, and here’s the kicker: they will hasten further innovation that will make larger settlements practical.

For example, as you point out, our first settlements will rely on air and water brought from Earth. On the Moon, we will have to reuse and recycle those resources to the maximum extent possible. Once there, we can test new technologies to extract the water that we are almost certain resides in craters at the poles and process it into usable water as well as oxygen for breathing air. Depending upon our success, larger settlements can be practical sooner than they would be otherwise. The same is true for testing technologies for radiation shielding, growing food, and dealing with the deleterious effects of low gravity. But one thing is certain: if we don’t take the initial steps of constructing small settlements, there is little reason to expect that advanced technologies will arise spontaneously. We have technologies for dealing with these challenges, but the most effective way to advance them is to test them on the Moon.

I will have to disagree with two of your points (as I interpret your meaning): 1) “rushing things to the moon or Mars will give us the technology we need to do for [far?] more”, and 2) your concerns that deaths could “really put the brakes on the space movement”.

Regarding the first point, I think I addressed that above. You drive technology and innovation by creating a need. A clear destination focuses resources and effort and minimizes waste. For the last three decades our tax dollars have funded countless dead end NASA programs that have gotten us no farther than low Earth orbit. The shuttle clearly needs to be retired. Let’s replace it with a more efficient fleet that can accomplish more at lower cost because it is designed with a clear purpose. And a plan to put us back on the Moon around 2018, 12 years from now and nearly half a century after we first set foot there, cannot fairly be called “rushed”.

Regarding the second point, our most costly missions in terms of human life (the Challenger and Columbia disasters) occurred on some of the least significant missions we have ever flown. While those astronauts lost there lives as part of a greater endeavor, and deserve to be honored for that, in terms of the actual missions they were flying their deaths were the most “unnecessary” we have experienced. Still, check the public opinion polls and you will find that support for manned exploration remained steady. If we are going to risk lives, and spend our tax dollars, why not actually achieve something and push the technological envelope?