Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 662, March 18, 2012

"The simplest fact of history and human nature is that
people really don't play well in groups.... any formally
structured group eventually—invariably—begins to
behave like a living organism, existing for its own ends."

Previous Previous Table of Contents Contents Next Next

Global view of Mars as seen by the Viking 1 orbiter in 1980, showing the Valles Marineris (center)
from WikiPedia

The Promise and Problems of Mars
by L. Neil Smith

Bookmark and Share

Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Presented to the Space Technology & Applications International Forum
March 14, 2012, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mars, Ares, desert planet.

I've been interested in Mars since I first learned that it exists, some time around Kindergarten, about a thousand years ago.

I am not a scientist or a technician, I am an observer, a student of history and human nature.

Principally, I'm a professional liar: I make up long, complicated, internally-consistent lies, I write them down, and I sell them to publishers, who sell them to you.

I'm also very active in politics, where I always assure my readers and listeners that they can believe what I tell them because I never lie—for free.

I'm here tonight to offer you some general observations about the possibility of traveling to, landing on, settling, and terraforming the planet Mars.

Terraformation, as you know, is the process of creating a "shirtsleeve environment" on other worlds, of rendering them Earthlike by mechanical, chemical, biological, or other means. In my science fiction novels Pallas and Ceres, I wrapped both of those asteroids in gigantic plastic bags, and then employed designer microbes to manufacture a suitable atmosphere. I have something different in mind for Mars.

But before we can start on a macro-engineering undertaking like this, we have a great deal of preparatory work to do—and a lot of it consists of repairing a badly-damaged dream.

The truth is, there are three kinds of people in the world, those to whom traveling to, landing on, settling, and terraforming the planet Mars requires no explanation, those for whom no explanation of any kind will ever suffice, and those who remain to be convinced.

Our job in that respect really amounts to putting the romance back into space exploration that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration carefully throttled out of it over the past half century. I think their secret motto was, "If you're having any fun, you're not doing it right."

All that time, NASA and its supporters seemed to be asking desperately, why is the American public losing interest in what we're doing? But the answer was in the mirror before them. In a desperate bid for false respectability, in a misplaced desire not to evoke visions of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or Captain Video, they ended up not evoking any visions at all, and thereby destroyed any reason for the average individual, the average man, woman, or child, to support their program.

I have also come to think—very reluctantly, believe me—that there has been a secret agenda, probably in echelons much higher than NASA itself, to prevent that average individual from ever getting into space, which may be why they opposed the whole "space tourism" idea so hysterically.

Putting things together that "everybody knows"—and then showing that they may mean something else entirely, something unexpected—is what I do for a living. It's where I get the ideas for my books.

Here are two things everybody who's been paying attention knows. Luis and Walter Alvarez, a father and son team of scientists demonstrated to practically everybody's satisfaction that the dinosaurs, and about half of everything else living in this planet, were killed off when it was struck by an asteroid about the size of Manhattan Island, traveling about 90,000 miles per hour, some 65,000,000 years ago.

The other thing that "everybody knows"—every science fiction reader, that is, and I want to remind you that there are people who read science fiction for the CIA, for the NSA, and many other such organizations—everybody knows how the inmates in the penal colony in Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress finally won their independence: by using electric catapults to launch big rocks at Earth.

Now put those two ideas together—dinosaur Doomsday and lunar launchers—and what have you got? Maybe the reason why our glorious leaders think that space exploration, such as it is, must remain a government monopoly forever, at all costs.

But I have digressed.

And there may not be any such conspiracy, after all.

Any human organization is likely to be controlled by one or both of two distinct personality types. First, there are the visionaries, the dreamers, the Wright brothers and the Lucky Lindies who love the mission for its own sake and simply want to get on with it.

And then there are the Captain Bringdowns.

They might be lawyers of a type for whom the joyous fulfillment of magnificent human dreams seems to be a violation of the natural order of things.

They might be accountants of a kind who never understand that resources must be conserved, right enough, but only in order that they can eventually be expended. The British lost the bloody battle of Isandlwana in the Zulu War because the quartermaster didn't want them "wasting" ammunition—by shooting at the enemy too much.

They might be analysts, and we all know that you can't spell "analyst" without those first four letters.

Or they might be engineers—the "special" sort of engineers whose minds are so narrow they can look through a keyhole with both eyes.

Don't misunderstand me, here. Although it pains me to admit it, not all lawyers, accountants, analysts, and engineers are like this. You can tell the bad ones from the good ones fairly easily. The Captain Bringdown types seem to delight in giving you one reason after another why you can't do whatever it is you want to do. They never appear to understand that their job is to figure out how you can.

But in NASA, for whatever reason, Captain Bringdown won the conflict a long time ago. The Space Shuttle, for example, was originally commissioned to take off from west to east, from east to west, and to achieve polar orbit at need.

But it was so laden down with politically correct "safety measures"—with the equivalent of galoshes and mufflers and umbrellas, all of which failed to prevent two whole crews from dying horribly—that in the end, it could only do one of those three things it had been designed to do, and do it over and over and over again.

Captain Bringdown had actually succeeded in making space travel—the most exciting concept in the entire universe after sex—dull and boring.

I suspect that for all of us "average individuals", the prospect of traveling to, landing on, settling, and terraforming Mars looks more and more attractive with every day that brings us closer to the next general election.

Freeman Dyson said that once we get out among the asteroids, the IRS will never find us. But I can't help wondering what it says about a civilization when its best and brightest children would rather go someplace vastly worse than Siberia—or even the dry deserts of Antarctica—than stay here?

I know, it's a rhetorical question, and once again, I have digressed.

The good news is that the less NASA has to do with it, the less dull and boring it becomes. And for our purposes, for those of us who are interested in traveling to, landing on, settling, and terraforming Mars, the defunding of NASA turns out to be a very good thing. Suddenly private space efforts—which have actually existed for quite a long while—are in the news to stay.

The simplest fact of history and human nature is that people really don't play well in groups. They can accomplish some great things at the beginning of a collective enterprise, defeating the enemies of liberty, building transcontinental railroads, and highways, and dams.

But any formally structured group eventually—invariably— begins to behave like a living organism, existing for its own ends. It will sacrifice individuals both inside and outside of the group, and it will turn against the very reasons it was created in the first place, simply in order to survive for survival's sake.

I've seen it happen in the Boy Scouts of America, the National Rifle Association, the Libertarian Party, and practically every other organization I've ever had anything to do with. And it happened decades ago in NASA.

I'm not quite certain whether this represents a problem of biology, sociology, or cybernetics—maybe it's just all those lawyers, accountants, analysts, and engineers—but it indicates clearly that we have to find a new way to organize our efforts if we really want to get off this ball of mud and into space.

How we get around it is a topic for another time, but we have to prepare for it to happen, and devise strategies to avoid it. It's one of the subjects I write about the most, and it involves the process of unanimous consent, and the Principle of Zero Aggression.

But back to the mechanics. Mars, Ares, desert planet. No sandworms that we know of, though.

At the moment, I'm not precisely sure how we will get to Mars, although I have a couple of ideas. Basically, space travel consists of grabbing ahold of something and throwing it out the back door as hard and fast as you can. I really don't see that changing in the next hundred years.

Right now, it's chemicals that burn, expand, and throw themselves, in the form of disassociated molecules, out the back door at something on the order of 6,000 feet per second. At present, our strategy is to do that for a few seconds or minutes, burn our fuel up, and then coast. That can possibly be boosted electronically, by grabbing all that hot ionage and giving it an extra-powered electric kick in the pants out the door.

Sooner than you may expect, though, we'll be able to skip the burning part (I was never terribly happy with the idea of riding a giant firecracker to the stars) and heat things up using fusion power. Then we'll hurl them continuously at nearly the speed of light through pulsing electronic coils—Heinlein called it "constant boost"—and get to Mars in a few weeks, or even days, depending on what magnitude of acceleration we can manage.

Meanwhile, behind us, traveling much more slowly, will be our baggage train: robot cargo containers sailing the photon winds, taking their sweet time, but bringing us everything we need to stay and live on Mars until we become self-sufficient.

As for landing, we might be employing rockets, parachutes, parasails, or enormous wings, depending on our technology at the time. There is air on Mars, of course, just not a lot of it. About one percent of what we have here.

Or we might ride down to a soft landing on the Martian surface on a succession of hydrogen-filled balloons. In any event, we will have picked our landing place before we started, possibly refining it along the way.

I can think of perfectly good reasons for landing practically anywhere, except at one of the poles, or inside one of those big volcanoes in Tharsis, but I personally favor the basin in the middle, at the bottom of Vallis Marineris where the air is a trifle thicker and there's a pretty good chance of finding running water in the right season.

I can tell you this: if you're as interested in landing on, settling, and terraforming Mars as I am, you had better hope that we never find life of any kind there. We're planning to change Mars forever, and the bug-huggers back home aren't going to like it one bit. They're not going to like it much even if we never find life on Mars.

Eventually, space elevators—I hear the Japanese are working on one now—will make reaching Mars relatively easy for "ordinary" people. And they will come by the millions, insuring humanity's survival for ten thousand years.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're down safely now. Understand that you don't want to live under a communal dome, or in sealed and pressurized quarters of any kind, any longer than you have to. Terraformation is important for more than one reason. Freeman Dyson also said, "I don't want to live anywhere that Richard Nixon can turn the air off."

Think of all the things that went wrong, early on, among the settlers of North America: in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the Plymouth colony, and the lost colony of Roanoke. For our colonists, the critical moment will come, when they all have to live in one habitat and somebody gets grandiose thoughts. Personal weapons can prevent those thoughts before they occur, and if they do, Heinlein showed us the proper way to deal with those thoughts, by showing them the airlock door.

Happily, the first steps toward terraforming Mars can be taken— right here on Earth, right now—in genetic laboratories. Life is persistent, and I'm confident that we'll eventually find something like what we need growing naturally, probably among the asteroids, but we can't count on it.

What we need is an organism that can survive in terrible cold and near-vacuum, taking sunlight and minerals and the water ice that seems to be popping up everywhere in the Solar System, and converting them into more of itself, plus oxygen and water vapor.

In my forthcoming novel Ares, two young microbiologists who grew up on the terraformed asteroid Pallas, discover just such an organism, nearly microscopic, living on some of the other rocks circling the sun between Mars and Jupiter.

Essentially, it's a form of lichen—a symbiotic combination of a tough fungus and a yellow photosynthetic plant, it grows in tubules interconnected by Y-branches, consuming, reproducing, and filling its tiny, hollow insides with oxygen to protect itself from opportunistic anaerobic bacteria, which also live in space—at least in my book.

The young scientists alter the stuff, make it more efficient and much larger, until it's big enough to call it "macaroni plant". They sow it in the Martian soil—the conditions there are like paradise for the lichen—and the Red Planet rapidly starts to become the Yellow Planet.

At one point, you can walk out onto the surface at noon on a summer day, when it gets as warm as 80 degrees, take off your helmet, and breathe the oxygen liberated when you walked across the macaroni plant, crushing tubules and releasing oxygen. Don't try it at night, however, when there's no photosynthesis going on.

Finally, enough of the planet is covered with lichen so that it has a full-time breathable atmosphere. And in a pinch, you can boil macaroni plant and eat it. Or treat it to make leathery sheets of material for clothing and other purposes.

As I say, the first steps in terraforming Mars can be taken on Earth, right here, right now, constructing the organism we need, instead of waiting to find it.

I might add that if you want to get things started in a big way, then we should form the "Space Scouts", creating new generations who will expect to live their lives and work away from humanity's birth planet, and who will possess the education and skills to make it happen.

Mars, Ares, desert planet. But not forever. As the Martian atmosphere thickens, it will become moister, as well, bringing down the red dust particles that have been suspended there for millions of years. We'll finally see the blue sky on Mars that we saw in those first erroneous photos we received from the Martian surface.

Now and again, someone asks me, "What about the wind and the dust storms on Mars?" It's a legitimate question. They can last for a year and cover the whole world. But I'm not physicist enough to answer the question, even to my own satisfaction. It seems to be a sort of ballistics problem: infinitesimally tiny particles of dust, driven at 400 or 500 miles per hour. I actually suspect you wouldn't even feel it.

As the planet acquires more atmosphere, the winds will die down until it's merely like Wyoming, where, my dad used to say, you could tell if it was a sufficiently calm day by sticking a crowbar up the chimney. If you could get it back down, it was safe to go outside.

He also used to say that in Wyoming, you need two saddle blankets, one to go under the saddle, and one to wrap around the horse's back end—so the bit won't blow out of its mouth.

"But wait!" I pretend to hear somebody say. "Mars has no magnetic field to deflect the solar wind. Without it, the sun will blow away any atmosphere you provide the planet with."

It's true, Mars has no overall magnetic field apparently because it has no rotating molten metal core. Something rang that planet's bell a couple of billion years ago—maybe whatever created Hellas Planitia, in the southern hemisphere, one of the largest impact features in the System—and stopped its clock forever.

The trouble with that theory, however, is the Solar System's various moons. A surprising number of them—Ganymede and Titan for example—have atmospheres of one kind or another, some thicker than Earth's, which they seem to be retaining perfectly well. Only one of them—Triton—has a magnetic field.

I'm a little more concerned with the effects of fractional gravity—one third, in this case—on human health. "Everybody knows" that "microgravity"—zero gee to you and me—makes your bones go away, and damages your immune system. I've been told that NASA refuses to look into the effects of higher amounts of gravity. I have no idea why.

If we were to take the ballistic route out there, resting on our momentum after a big kick in the pants, it could be a problem before we ever got to Mars, unless our vessel had rotating sections like the ships in the movie 2010. NASA muffed it with the International Space Station, which we all know is supposed to look like a big bicycle tire.

Another problem is protecting space travelers and colonists from radiation. An atmosphere on Mars will eventually help with that. And I've talked with people who think crews in space can be protected by electronic fields of some kind, just as the Earth is.

Our colonists will need political protection, too. A lot of grief and bloodshed can be avoided in advance by providing them with an organizing charter that will recognize their independence anytime they decide to declare it.

Similarly, guarantees of individual rights and private property will be essential. The Plymouth colony very nearly perished for a lack of those items. We observe Thanksgiving to this day, to celebrate their ultimate rejection of collectivism in favor of individual enterprise. Historically, private property is the best way to ensure peace, freedom, progress, and prosperity.

If we wish to make sure the colony isn't taken over by some power-hungry half-wit, during a manufactured emergency, those guarantees must include the unalienable individual, civil, Constitutional, and human right of every man, woman, and responsible child to obtain, own, and carry weapons.

"But won't that pose a danger to the colony?" I pretend to hear you ask. I don't think so. In the 70s, when violent crime was steeply on the rise and Florida was considering widespread concealed carry, one of the TV networks made a movie sarcastically called The Right of the People in which they showed running gunfights from one store to another at the mall, and blood flowing through the streets. It's hard to find that movie now, because—to the network's deep embarrassment—when the law passed, the violent crime rate started falling in double digits.

If that means Mars will come to resemble the "Old West", as some commentators fear, then so be it. The fact is that violent crime was so rare in the Old West that a hundred forty years later, we remember the names of the individual criminals. Can anybody say the same of Boston or New York in 1872?

Mars has everything that human beings need, not just to survive, but to prosper, to flourish. Its surface area is roughly the same as the land area of Earth.

It has enough water at the South Pole alone to cover the planet a kilometer deep, and there is water under the soil almost everywhere you look. (Eventually we're going to have to predict what areas of the planet will be underwater, once Mars is thoroughly terraformed.)

With all those impact craters, it also has to have a lot of metal.

I would be very surprised not to find something like petroleum somewhere on Mars. It's found practically everywhere else around us, including Titan and Pluto. It's what makes oil shale oily. It's what makes chondrites carbonaceous.

Astrophysicist Thomas Gold said it's the second most abundant liquid on Earth. It might be in the Solar System, as well.

Not just to survive, but to flourish. If I were religious, which I am not, I'd almost say that we're being beckoned, encouraged by the facts of nature to make more of ourselves than merely ground-bound worms.

As it is, I'll just say that it seems to be humanity's job— some of us, anyway—to go to new places, do new things, and see what's over the next hill.

That impulse took us out of Africa, spread us across Asia and Europe, and carried us over the sea to what they called the New World way back then.

The way things are going, it could turn out to be the only way to save Western Civilization.

Mars, Ares, desert planet. Let that be our New World.

And let the New World of our children be the stars.

Thank you.

L. Neil Smith is the Publisher and Senior Columnist of L. Neil Smith's THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE, as well as the author of 33 freedom-oriented books, the most recent of which is DOWN WITH POWER: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis:
[ dead tree]
[ Kindle]
[ dead tree and Nook]

Was that worth reading?
Then why not:



Big Head Press