Monday, November 27, 2006

Moving to Mars

While I was on my vacation, my niece asked me a question. It has little to do with ethics, but it does give me an opportunity to say some things about value. Besides, it was on a topic that I am very much interested in. I did not have a chance to give her a very complete answer, so I wish to do so here.

The question: “Do you think we will some day be forced to live on Mars?”

I did not get a chance to ask her what she meant by ‘forced’. I assumed that she was worried about the Earth becoming uninhabitable and seeing Mars as the next best (only) alternative for the human race.

In that regard, I answered, “It really doesn’t make much sense to live on another planet. I think it is a lot more likely that we will be living in space stations, in space.”

I did not have much of an opportunity to give my reasons for this prediction.

Those reasons rest on a simple principle. If you want to predict and explain human actions, you have to take an honest look at what humans want.

When it comes to spending money on space development, the people of Earth are going to spend more money on those things that will provide them with things that they value. And most people are not sitting around their homes longing to live in a Star Trek type universe where everybody (except a few employees on government outposts) lives on the surface of a planet. What they want are things that will affect their lives here and now.

Two things that space can offer everybody – even those who care nothing about space – are clean energy and raw materials. The sun shines 24/7 in space, and none of its energy is being blocked by ozone layers, atmospheric dust, or clouds. Unlike nuclear power plants and coal-fired power stations on Earth, a station in space does not damage the environment. Even people who care nothing about space will care whether the property that has been in the family for generations and is the source of their livelihood ends up below sea level.

Also, near-earth asteroids promise to be a source of raw materials – particularly iron. On Earth, we have to cut deeper and deeper scars into the environment to get at the raw materials we need. As we use up sources on the land, we have two options. Option 1: Undersea mining (with the corresponding environmental destruction this entails) or space mining (where there is no living ecosystem to damage – except the one we bring with us). Again, people who care nothing about space will care to have those things that can be built out of these raw materials.

This gives us a second way to use power collected in space to benefit the people of Earth. We do not have to ship all of it to Earth. We could be using some of it in space to manufacture goods and services, and ship those manufactured products to Earth. Space-based manufacturing, like space-based mining and energy collection, can also be done without damage to the Earth’s environment.

Of course, we will need people in space to run the machines. Some people also simply would like to live in space. I am one of them. Yet, even here, we can look at what people value to predict the future.

Many (most) will still want to interact with the people of Earth on a real-time basis. They are going to want to phone home to talk to their family and friends. They are going to want to visit from time to time, and to have an opportunity for their friends and family to visit them. On Mars (for example) one-way communication takes between five minutes (when Mars is closest to the Earth, to nearly half an hour (when Mars is furthest from the Earth).

This delay will not only hinder people who want to communicate with their family. More importantly, it will hinder people who wish to engage in business. The person living in space will still have to make a living. People living in near-Earth space can telecommute – engaging in live meetings with the people of Earth using teleconferencing technology. They can run their investment accounts, buy and sell commodities, conduct interviews to sell their new book or movie, transmit architectural plans and get real-time feedback on the improvements that still have to be done.

Near-earth space not only provides an advantage in communication, but it allows for the easy transfer of material from one place to another. For example, an earth-based laboratory can send material into space for a procedure to be done in micro gravity, collect the results, and finish their research in a fully equipped earth-based laboratory. There is no need to transfer all of that machinery into space. There will also be earth-based manufacturing (e.g., computers) that will, for a long time, be best done on Earth and shipped into space. It will be a lot less expensive to ship these materials to near-earth space than to Mars.

Another advantage of near-earth space is its proximity to help in case of a disaster. If something goes wrong in near-Earth space, emergency equipment can be shipped from Earth, and the injured can be shipped to Earth, far more easily than on Mars. This reduced risk will be of interest to a lot of people. I also suspect that a lot of medical care will involve telecommunications – even robotic surgery. Earth-based engineers can look over damage to a space station and offer real-time assessments of the damage and not only offer but direct (through telecommunication) repair efforts.

I know that there are people who would like to colonize Mars. They look at the list of advantages that I have mentioned for near-Earth space and they this does not matter to them. They will note the frontier families of the past who moved far away from the comforts of the big city – the friends and family they left behind, to start a brand new life far away on their own.

Different people value different things – and there are certainly people whose values are such that they would prefer starting over on Mars to living in near-Earth space. However, the rate of growth in the two economies will depend on the number of people who value the lifestyle that each provides, and the amount of investment that it can attract. On this measure, investment in Martian settlement will always be significantly less than investment in near-Earth settlement. Near-Earth space stations will dominate any future space economy.

Would-be Mars settlers argue that Mars has the advantage of having resources nearby. Settlers do not need to import building materials. In near-earth space, settlers will have to import everything – even the air they breathe.

Yet, if proximity to useful resources is the sole criteria for development, then there are a lot of places that beat Mars out. Mountain sides, deep deserts, the surface and the floors of the oceans (and every cubic kilometer of water in between) are all places having far more useful resources than the surface of Mars. Instead, if we look at every city in the country, we see a place where people have imported building materials. When it comes to construction, it often makes far greater economic sense to bring the building materials to where the business opportunities are to be found.

Here, I would like to warn against a common problem in the way that people make evaluations. They obtain a romantic attachment to something and, at that point, they put on a clich├ęd pair of rose-colored glasses. These glasses exaggerate the strengths of their favorite project, and blind them to its weaknesses.

The Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq will, for a long time, be my favorite example of this type of foolish thinking – decision making in a world of let’s pretend while ignoring reality.

There is no moral crime in having unreasonable dreams and expectations when one puts one’s own life and property on the line. Reality will then punish only those who ignore her. However, when one invests the property and lives of others – the way Bush invested the lives of nearly 3,000 American soldiers and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and hundred of billions of dollars, then the problem of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses becomes morally problematic.

If would-be Mars settlers were to spend their own money and risk their own lives, then it would be impossible to raise any objections against them. Indeed, I am sure that they are quite willing to risk their own lives and are positively adverse to forcing those risks on others. Still, they are asking for multi-billion dollar government contributions to their romantic future.

If governments are going to spend their people’s money, it seems more reasonable to ask that they spend it on that which promises the greatest benefit to those people. Using space to harvest resources for the benefit of Earth has greater promise of benefit than any activity on Mars.

When my niece left the table, she made the comment, “I wish they would hurry up and get them built.”

I could not agree more with the sentiment. I was pleased to read, when I got home, that Bigelow Aerospace is accelerating its plans to build a private space station, working with Lockheed to create a manned vehicle capable of delivering people to that station.

Where NASA has given us 30 years of greater delays and cost overruns, the private space industry seems to always be cutting its schedules lowering its costs.

It is a good time to be young.

1 comment:

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