Somebody else says it: Musk is a charlatan


It is stunning that anyone still thinks Elon Musk is a smart guy. Shannon Stirone tears into one of his recent performances, in which he read from Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and took exactly the wrong message away from it.

Musk reads from Sagan’s book: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”

But there Musk cuts himself off and begins to laugh. He says with incredulity, “This is not true. This is false––Mars.”

He couldn’t be more wrong. Mars? Mars is a hellhole. The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Read: Can we still go to Mars?

Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it has no magnetic field to help protect its surface from radiation from the sun or galactic cosmic rays; it has no breathable air and the average surface temperature is a deadly 80 degrees below zero. Musk thinks that Mars is like Earth? For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground, and what is not enticing about living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights? So long deep breaths outside and walks without the security of a bulky spacesuit, knowing that if you’re out on an extravehicular activity and something happens, you’ve got an excruciatingly painful 60-second death waiting for you. Granted, walking around on Mars would be a life-changing, amazing, profound experience. But visiting as a proof of technology or to expand the frontier of human possibility is very different from living there. It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans. Mars will kill you.

If anything, you’d think that the recent and ongoing confinement due to the pandemic would hammer that lesson home: most people don’t want to live in a tin can, where the outside is deadly and nasty and unpleasant. We’re just dealing with a mundane virus, not a hostile atmosphere, and people are freaking out over wearing a mask and not going to a restaurant now and then. Imagine…you have to wear an airtight suit and bring a tank of your atmosphere if you go out, and you have to recycle your poop in order to grow lettuce. This is what Musk thinks is a desirable future for other people, but not him, oh no. You’d have to be crazy to colonize Mars yourself.

This is an accurate summing up.

The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego. He has no longing for scientific discovery, no desire to understand what makes Earth so different from Mars, how we all fit together and relate. Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter. He seems to have missed one of the other lines from Pale Blue Dot: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Comments

  1. hillaryrettig says

    The arrogance is breathtaking.

    She makes a great point about him being a “flag planter.” His is a 19th century (or earlier!) colonial sensibility, trying to cloak itself in futurism.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    hillaryrettig

    As far-fetched as Musk’s colonial dreams are, at least there are no native populations on Mars to kill and exploit.

  3. consciousness razor says

    Akira MacKenzie:

    As far-fetched as Musk’s colonial dreams are, at least there are no native populations on Mars to kill and exploit.

    Not yet. Once there, they may as well be coal miners living in a company town.

    Also, those of us still on Earth are killed and exploited, so that billionaires can do anything they want. Is there a ballot measure or something, so I can vote against this use of our resources? Nope. Nobody’s asking us. There’s just one rich dipshit who feels like doing it.

  4. PaulBC says

    Musk is a charlatan about some things and pretty smart about others. I don’t see the contradiction. In fact, he does understand engineering, but even if his only accomplishment was successfully changing the popular impression of an electric vehicle to a prestige sports car instead of hippie golf cart*, that would be enough to declare him a very influential entrepreneur along the lines of Steve Jobs. (Unlike say, the Pillow Guy who just figured how to slap a label on a commodity item.)

    His Mars dreams are far-fetched. His tunnel transportation is underwhelming, and his antics are sometimes annoying (flamethrowers and 420 jokes). But that doesn’t eliminate his actual accomplishments. Unless Ashlee Vance’s biography is a complete hoax, there’s enough documentation that Musk knows technical details of storage batteries as well as rocket engines. Musk doesn’t become stupid or ignorant just because he annoys people who don’t like his vision. He’s a showman but he’s also an engineer. It’s not an unknown combination.

    *He’s not the first to try, but he’s the first to do it.

  5. blf says

    @2, However, since the manic isn’t brothering to sanitise his vanity projectiles before launch, any unmanned mission will contaminate the (crash?) landing area.

  6. PaulBC says

    In a different context, Carl Sagan himself was eager about the prospect of terraforming Mars so it’s a bit disingenuous to pit him against Musk on this point. Part of the question hinges of what exactly we mean by “at least in the near future.”

    Musk is of course equally misguided (unless I’m missing context) in targeting Sagan for the above reason. If it’s a dispute about feasibility in current human lifetimes, Musk is almost certainly wrong. But just being wrong about an opinion does not make someone a charlatan.

    Musk manages a large portfolio that ranges from real to snake oil. I could buy a Tesla with falcon wing doors today if I felt like plunking down the money and be driving it this afternoon (my 12th grader might wonder what happened to his college fund but…). SpaceX rockets actually do take off from earth and don’t always blow up. I’m a pretty smart guy, honestly. I have a PhD in computer science if that counts for anything (and my work still gets cited 25 years on). I don’t think I could get a rocket into space, either by understanding the technical issues or by assembling the personnel who did.

    Yes, most of what he says about colonizing Mars is bullshit, but that makes him a professional bullshitter. To be a charlatan, he’d have to be all or mostly bullshit, and he is not. Sorry.

  7. remyporter says

    Musk is almost certainly wrong. But just being wrong about an opinion does not make someone a charlatan.

    I think what you’re missing @PaulBC, is that Musk didn’t do any of the things you credit him with. Musk funded those things, and the smartest thing he did was sign the checks and let experts manage the operations. But Musk basks in the credit, like he’s the sole genius who made these things possible.

    That’s what makes him a charlatan.

    I always think of it this way: let’s say a dinosaur killer asteroid slammed into the Earth tomorrow. The resulting environment would still be more amenable to human life than Mars is right now. Even if a GRB baked one side of the planet and let the other half suffocate in the noxious atmosphere that you get when that much energy hits the atmosphere, it’d still be more hospitable than Mars.

  8. remyporter says

    Hmph, I tried to put a line break in the above to make it clear that these were two unrelated thoughts. Ah well.

  9. robert79 says

    Even if we nuke the shit out of Earth, irradiate every square meter of the surface, and completely ruin the the climate, the Earth would still be more livable than Mars. It would still have enough of an atmosphere that a leaky roof doesn’t kill you, it’ll have some oxygen (at least until all the plants die from radiation) so you could be briefly outside without dying of vacuum exposure (the radiation will get you in the long term though.)

    That said, I’m optimistic enough in the progress of technology to think we’ll get some crazies to live (very short lives) up there, perhaps in the next century or two.

  10. PaulBC says

    remyporter@7

    I think what you’re missing @PaulBC, is that Musk didn’t do any of the things you credit him with. Musk funded those things, and the smartest thing he did was sign the checks and let experts manage the operations. But Musk basks in the credit, like he’s the sole genius who made these things possible.

    I read Ashlee Vance’s biography a couple of years ago, and people close to Musk will insist that he knows the engineering issues (e.g. personally taught himself about rocketry from difficult technical manuals). Do I know this for certain? Of course not. But I do find it entirely plausible.

    Does he take more credit than he earns? Probably, but that makes him an executive, not a charlatan. I think that if Musk were removed, the consumer electric car would have been set back by years, whatever his role as either innovator or only as facilitator.

    He did get a BASIC computer game published in a microcomputer magazine in the early 80s. :) That’s more than I did at the time, and I’m just a little older but spent teen years writing TRS-80 games in Z-80 assembly, and never really got anywhere with it to my chagrin.

  11. tacitus says

    I’m just a little older but spent teen years writing TRS-80 games in Z-80 assembly

    I wrote my first game in Z-80 assembler code in 1980 on Research Machines 380Z (a British computer aimed at the education market).

    Where’s my $40 billion rocket company???

  12. hemidactylus says

    The reusable rocket thingies coming back home in a targeted manner was impressive. I don’t like Musk as a person though and his celebrity allows him to spout pseudoprofundities about simulated universes and hostile AI at will and be taken seriously. On the latter at least Pinker takes issue. He might have more in his wheelhouse on that topic. Or I’d take Pinker more seriously than I would Musk on hazards of AI as an existential threat.

    To me it’s silly for the former simulation argument to make much hay out of a silly “law of the instrument” analogy which seems to partly originate from a movie based loosely on the semiotic ideas of a French poststructuralist who himself took the movie as a Platonic bastardization of his key ideas. So all the techbros have taken to bizarre notions of sign, simulation, and simulacrum? And Musk has somehow returned to the cave to enlighten us? Wonder if they take Fight Club seriously too.

  13. brucegee1962 says

    As I recall, one of the sf future histories (maybe Bruce Sterling’s) saw us eventually adapting to space until we reached the point where most of the human population lived on satellites, moons and the asteroid belt. By then, the population still remaining on Earth had mostly died off, so they took the planet and remade it into a big, managed nature preserve. That’s one of the best reasons for going into space that I can think of — if we can use it to take away some of the pressure that we are putting on the ecosphere right now.

  14. says

    If I remember correctly, in Sterling’s Schismatrix universe the human population of Earth is taken over by a kind of hive-mind — they’re borgified. They can’t expand beyond Earth because the speed of light limits them, and individuals taken far enough away lose contact with the group mind.

    Yeah, also in his universe, the remainder of humanity is extensively genetically modified to survive in space. It’s the only way I can see us living off the planet, by such radical modifications that it represents a speciation event. Note also he assumes that humanity basically splinters into multiple forms and strategies for survival at that point.

  15. loop says

    I get the impression that Musk is a bit of an a**hole and I think his plans to colonise mars are a pipe dream. But while he pursues that dream there is a good chance that as a side effect, the Starship rocket system currently under development by SpaceX is going to absolutely transform spaceflight. If it succeeds (and there seems to be a reasonable chance that it will), we will go from currently being able to launch about 30 tonnes into LEO using partially or completely expendable rockets, to 150 tonnes using a rocket that is completely reusable (both stages) with a turn around time in the region of a day, rather than weeks or months of refurbishment. Completely ignoring manned spaceflight (which has always seemed a bit pointless to me), think of the new science we could do when the cost per kg of getting a probe to Jupiter or whatever goes to a few percent of what it currently is.

  16. says

    The same libertarians who complain they risk death by wearing a cloth or paper face mask while shopping at walmart think the radiation, temperature, lack of oxygen and fines of Mars are no biggie.

  17. wubbes says

    remyporter and robert79: When my son and his buddies were high-school age they watched “The Martian” and “Interstellar” and got excited about interplanetary colonization. I kept having to remind them that the best places we’ve found elsewhere in the universe are far, far worse than the worst places on Earth.

  18. lanir says

    When I see rich people that invested in humans living on another planet or in space I tend to wonder at their motives. We’ve seen what rich humans are willing to do to get and stay rich here (see climate change, wars, opposition to a living wage, etc.) and this is without the slightest possibility of an exit plan. The only possible current exit plan is “I’ll be dead before the backlash hits.” Even now, when this is not nearly as likely rich people still make the most stupid, irresponsible and selfish decisions possible.

    So what are they going to be willing to do if they think there’s some way to escape consequences altogether? I don’t feel like I’m being overly cynical or pessimistic when I say the answer is obvious. Because it really is.

  19. says

    Mars? Please. Most of the talk of terraforming seems to have moved to Venus recently: higher gravity, thicker atmosphere, and at least a theoretical possibility that some sort of primitive plant-forms could be sprayed into the atmosphere to eat up the CO2 and replace it with oxygen. The biggest problem, IIRC, would be getting all that sulfuric acid out of the atmosphere.

  20. springa73 says

    This is just speculation of course, but I wonder if one reason that some people have wildly unrealistic expectations about large numbers of people living on Mars has to do with the photographs that robotic probes send back from the surface. They make Mars look more earth-like than it actually is – a lot of the photos look strikingly similar to very arid parts of Earth. What the photos don’t (and can’t) show is the extreme thinness and coldness of the atmosphere, and the dangerously high levels of radiation. Even when people know intellectually that the surface of Mars is uninhabitable to earth life without lots of protection, I wonder if the photos have a subconscious effect of making it seem more livable.

    (Note: I’m not trying to blame NASA’s mars probes for giving people a false impression of Mars! I love robotic exploration of other planets and moons. I’m just saying that I think that people need to be careful and thoughtful when they think about going to other worlds, and appreciate just how difficult that really is.)

    As for Musk, I think that he is very capable and knowledgeable in certain areas, but he is unfortunately one of those people who thinks that because he is good at some things, that he is good at everything.

  21. chrislawson says

    Lofty@20–

    The problems of human colonisation of Mars are far, far closer to a biologist’s remit than an engineer’s. And that’s not even getting into the really difficult problems: logistical, economic, psychological, and social.

    Every engineering problem for living on Mars is already solved or plausibly solvable. But that’s also true of living at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Which would still be more survivable, more feasible, and a better disaster insurance policy than a Mars colony. And we’ve already sent several humans down there and got them back unharmed!

  22. PaulBC says

    chrislawson@24

    Every engineering problem for living on Mars is already solved or plausibly solvable. But that’s also true of living at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Which would still be more survivable, more feasible, and a better disaster insurance policy than a Mars colony. And we’ve already sent several humans down there and got them back unharmed!

    I don’t recall anyone suggesting that as a way to survive a global nuclear war back when it was on more people’s minds, but maybe it’s not a bad idea. I agree that all of these options look more cost-effective than Mars. The undersea pressure sounds problematic though. Maybe we could colonize lava tubes on earth before moving to Mars.

  23. hiddenheart says

    The terrestrial hive mind was in Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers. Earth as nature preserve was in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline. Earth is quarantined/abandoned in Bruce Sterling’s Shaper-Mechanist stories, with it left to rot into collapse; “the exhausted Earth” is a phrase that turns up. Just to footnote. :)

  24. PaulBC says

    hiddenheart@26 I can sort of imagine humans continuing to live in their present form on earth after establishing autonomous robotic industries in, say, the asteroid belt where there is readily available resources and solar energy. If those robots got smarter than us, it doesn’t mean we’d all commit suicide. Maybe it would just be one big party. However, population pressure could harm the earth, so maybe the robots, starting out with directives inherited from us, might treat the earth as a preserve and keep the human population in check (in some benign fashion one hopes, but nonetheless controlling). I am sure a scenario like this has been covered already in some science fiction story.

  25. Silentbob says

    @ 6 PaulBC

    Carl Sagan himself was eager about the prospect of terraforming Mars so it’s a bit disingenuous to pit him against Musk on this point.

    That’s not true. He wrote a paper about terraforming Mars. That doesn’t mean he approved. The last line of the abstract reads:

    Fortunately neither program is a practical engineering venture for the near future.

    :-)

    In reality, he was terrified human would fuck up Mars like they have Earth.

    Sagan recorded a message before he died to future Mars explorers. There’s nothing in there about a new home for humanity.

  26. Silentbob says

    Well let me correct myself, he does say Mars could be a lifeboat in case of catastrophe on Earth. What I mean is he’s not talking about terraforming.

  27. PaulBC says

    Silentbob@29 I watch Cosmos religiously as a teen, and he was definitely into the idea of space exploration. I am not entirely certain of his views on terraforming. He may have made it contingent on the non-existence of any other life there. But on an aspirational level, I don’t think he was so far off of Elon Musk’s views. Clearly they have very different personalities and approaches to the topic.

  28. gijoel says

    Unless they find oil on the Mars there’s going to be no good reason to settle there. Mars settlement is a pipe dream, unless there’s a killer app as it were. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  29. says

    I take issues with some of what Shannon Stirone said.
    “For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground, and what is not enticing about living in a tunnel lined with SAD lamps and trying to grow lettuce with UV lights?”
    From what I read years ago, it is probably possible to build pressurized greenhouses on the surface that would utilize natural sunlight to grow food. That’s why there’s a sci-fi obsession with building domes.
    “It is not in the realm of hospitable to humans. Mars will kill you.”
    I don’t like this statement. I can’t really articulate why, it just seems like it is meant to end all debate by stating something obvious. But I mean, that’s why you would spend a bazillion dollars making improvements on the surface. So you don’t die.
    From PZ: “Imagine…you have to wear an airtight suit and bring a tank of your atmosphere if you go out, and you have to recycle your poop in order to grow lettuce.”
    Most of us live in cities, we’re morlocks already. Recycling dookie into fertilizer probably isn’t that big of a deal. Plus, any putative colonists would mostly be growing food in Martian soil, treated to remove toxic metals and the like. Which they could afford to do if they have the bazillion bucks necessary to move there in the first place.
    Back to Stirone: “The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego.”
    Elon Musk did not come up with the idea of space colonization. It’s an old idea, and his influence is overblown. Plenty of folks who avidly followed space exploration in the past had fantasies of people living on Mars and elsewhere. Musk has simply grabbed the zeitgeist with his company’s recent exploits. Judging from that infographic PZ so helpfully provided, Musk’s plan to colonize Mars is fucking stupid. I think maybe we’ll get a hundred or so people there by 2100, in a McMurdo Station-style international setup. Building the infrastructure base to support thousands will take centuries. To get to tens or hundreds of thousands, you would need to terraform the planet which will take millenia. And I doubt it could ever get to the point where you’re breathing freely on the surface unaided. Maybe then it would make sense to bioengineer humans, but not before. (And I think the only use for Musk’s “Starship” is giving joyrides around the Moon, probably not even landing there.)
    I question the speculation in PZ’s comment: “Yeah, also in his universe, the remainder of humanity is extensively genetically modified to survive in space. It’s the only way I can see us living off the planet, by such radical modifications that it represents a speciation event.”
    Really? Because I can’t imagine any amount of genetic engineering that could allow human life to survive on the modern surface of Mars, let alone anywhere else in the solar system. So it seems to me that massive built environments are the only option. And if you can afford those, then you can afford to make them Earth-like on the inside. By the way, PZ, the reason space cadets obsess over colonizing Mars is A: they already accept that space colonization is COOL and B: Mars is the least bad option, Venus, the Moon, and asteroids are generally worse. (Aside: I scoff at the notion that terraforming Venus is doable.)

  30. snarkrates says

    First, I agree with P: Humans will never leave Earth and colonize other planets, let alone exoplanets unless we become–effectively–a different species. Specifically, a whole helluvalot more radiation resistant, longer lived, capable of dealing with zero gravity and isolation with only a few of our fellow novohumans for company, more cooperative, less confrontational, less susceptible to delusion…

    As to Musk, he is most certainly a charlatan. He doesn’t understand engineering. He writes checks, and his “innovations” are mainly at the expense of good reliability engineering and best practices. He is also tremendously lucky.

  31. daved says

    Gravity is one obstacle nobody has mentioned here yet — it is far from clear that the human body can function well for long periods in Mars’ gravity, which is only about 1/3 of Earth’s. The moon, at 1/6, is even more problematic.

    And if Musk is so smart, why did he launch dozens (with hundreds more to come) of bright white satellites that are causing incredible headaches for astronomers? They could easily have been black.

  32. Matt G says

    Remember also the weak gravity. Unknown effects on our physiology in the long term. Yes, people can live in “zero G” in the short term, but not without major adjustments.

  33. PaulBC says

    daved@34

    And if Musk is so smart, why did he launch dozens (with hundreds more to come) of bright white satellites that are causing incredible headaches for astronomers? They could easily have been black.

    Because he’s an asshole and just didn’t care? Putting a non-functioning Tesla in space is also pretty pointless except that he’s rich and feels like doing it. These things make him a bad citizen and a bad person, but indicate little about whether he’s “smart.”

    I’d suggest that before accusing Musk of not knowing his own technology, people at least skim Ashlee Vance’s biography. Musk had an unusual upbringing but has a conventional college degree from an Ivy League university. Wikipedia:

    In 1990, Musk entered Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Two years later, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania; he graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in economics from the Wharton School and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in physics.

    He was “accepted to a Ph.D. program in energy physics/materials science at Stanford University” but dropped out in a few days to get into internet startups. These don’t point to him being anywhere near as brilliant as his rabid fans think (or even remotely likely to colonize Mars), but they’re not consistent with being stupid or uneducated either.

    This reminds me a lot of the bashing Bill Gates received in the late 90s. I know because I did it too, and I still resent some of his business decisions like making people pay for Windows on machines that they had purchased to install Linux, just for one thing, or the way Microsoft destroyed Borland, or the fact that its early success was built on stolen software. However, none of this makes Gates a charlatan, a fraud, or a mere check-signer. He also knows as much technology as he needs to, and probably a lot more than I would have guessed circa 1999 when he was the big target in my mental shooting gallery.

  34. styrbjorn says

    @consciousness razor: Once there, they may as well be coal miners living in a company town.

    Musk has hinted his Mars Colony will feature indentured servitude.

    Proving he really is a genius.
    On Mars slaves have nowhere to run. The Planet itself is the only guard needed. And the masters will be able to cut off air to their slaves at the push of a button, making rebellion impossible.

    Full-Spectrum Dominance over the Helots. The ancient God-Kings could only dream of such things.

  35. garnetstar says

    But, @32, what could you do about the radiation? A pressurized greenhouse will have to allow the visible wavelengths to enter, but will have to completely screen out almost all UV and xrays. Neither plants nor humans can live in that radiation without harmful effects. Unless everything is many feet thick or lined with lead, the xrays are a problem. And, I don’t see bringing your own ozone layer to a greenhouse, to screen out the UV.

    And nitrogen: is there any in the Martian crust? Because, another planet is an awful long way to go to get an essential element.

    @18, so true that the rich are looking for a bolthole. New Zealand has had to ban or severely restrict the amount of real estate bought by foreigners, since so many of them see a need to escape what they’ve wrought in the rest of the earth. I guess that they think, for some reason, that Middle Earth is the only place that’ll be left.

    Yes, gravity. PZ, you know developmental biology, what are the chances of human embryos and fetuses being able to grow or survive in 1/3 or 1/6 g? I just don’t think anyone knows what role gravity may play in the processes we think of as ordinary and unproblematic.

    You remember that NASA had those identical twin astronauts (one now a senator from AZ) spend really different amounts of time in the space station, then checked them against each other to see what bad things happened to the one who spent a year or so in zero g? I don’t recall what the bad effects were, but there definitely were some.

    And I think that Raging Bee @21 is right about Venus! I’d take sulfuric acid over low gravity and intense radiation any day. It’s a lot easier to deal with, and to live with. OK, we’d have to do something about the 800 degree F surface temperature, which would probably involve thinning the atmosphere and being more exposed to radiation, but I am sure that the so-smart billionaires can get together and come up with some hare-brained idea.

    If you have to pick a place with lots of radiation, too little gravity, no liquid water, etc., why not the moon, over Mars? All the same problems, but a lot closer. Perhaps too close, too easy for the ravaging hordes to get at, to be the billionaires’ safe bolthole?

  36. consciousness razor says

    And nitrogen: is there any in the Martian crust? Because, another planet is an awful long way to go to get an essential element.

    We could look at Phobos and Deimos too. They might come in handy for something at least, although more people living there would be asking for even more trouble.

    If all else false: more poop.

    Two things not mentioned above, regarding Martian soil (because even the dirt wants to kill you):

    Martian soil is toxic, due to relatively high concentrations of perchlorate compounds containing chlorine. Elemental chlorine was first discovered during localised investigations by Mars rover Sojourner, and has been confirmed by Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. The Mars Odyssey orbiter has also detected perchlorates across the surface of the planet.

    The NASA Phoenix lander first detected chlorine-based compounds such as calcium perchlorate. The levels detected in the Martian soil are around 0.5%, which is a level considered toxic to humans.[3] These compounds are also toxic to plants. A 2013 terrestrial study found that a similar level of concentration to that found on Mars (0.5 g per liter) caused:
    — a significant decline in the chlorophyll content in plant leaves,
    — reduction in the oxidizing power of plant roots
    — reduction in the size of the plant both above and below ground
    — an accumulation of concentrated perchlorates in the leaves

    The report noted that one of the types of plant studied, Eichhornia crassipes, seemed resistant to the perchlorates and could be used to help remove the toxic salts from the environment, although the plants themselves would end up containing a high concentration of perchlorates as a result.[4] There is evidence that some bacterial lifeforms are able to overcome perchlorates and even live off them. However, the added effect of the high levels of UV reaching the surface of Mars breaks the molecular bonds, creating even more dangerous chemicals which in lab tests on Earth were shown to be more lethal to bacteria than the perchlorates alone.[5]

    Also:

    The potential danger to human health of the fine Martian dust has long been recognized by NASA. A 2002 study warned about the potential threat, and a study was carried out using the most common silicates found on Mars: olivine, pyroxene and feldspar. It found that the dust reacted with small amounts of water to produce highly reactive molecules that are also produced during the mining of quartz and known to produce lung disease in miners on Earth, including cancer (the study also noted that Lunar dust may be worse).[6]

    So … going in and out, even if you’re wearing a fancy spacesuit? Not a good idea.

  37. Owlmirror says

    The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.

    Sagan was careful to qualify this with “the near future”, and of course, he was correct. At present, we don’t have the ability to set up isolated independent long-term-sustainable ecosystems anywhere, and when we do, they will be here on Earth at first. When self-sustaining sealed cities and habitats can be built in lifeless deserts without oases, and in the oceans, there will be a far better chance at building such things on the Moon and other planets and their moons.

    (I see that Biosphere 2 is still being used to track and test ecosystem development. Well, maybe the knowledge gained will help.)

  38. hiddenheart says

    PaulBC@27: “However, population pressure could harm the earth, so maybe the robots, starting out with directives inherited from us, might treat the earth as a preserve and keep the human population in check (in some benign fashion one hopes, but nonetheless controlling). I am sure a scenario like this has been covered already in some science fiction story.” I share your certainty but am not thinking of any just right now.

  39. unclefrogy says

    @31
    oil maybe not but I take your idea that it would have to be something valuable, Platinum, lithium, tantalum to be worth all the risk and expense. . Is there anything there that can be used as fuel for returning to earth?
    One of the aspects of the exploration of the solar system that I am interested to see is this robotic retrieval of samples from the martian surface.. scale that up industrially and you have robotic mining. more likely then long term human habitation I would imagine
    we can almost but not quite make a sustainable habitat of the earth, we are deeply dependent on the processes that have been going on unaided here like forever.and which we are in the process of f’n up the balance of at break neck speed
    uncle frogy

  40. PaulBC says

    hiddenheart@42 Science fiction story ideas are like the $20 bill the economist finds lying on the ground. If it’s worth anything, somebody else would have picked it up already.

  41. PaulBC says

    me@44 …especially when I consider that most of these ideas were already so freaking old when I was young and thought I could write (which I’m not now and don’t really… for the most part). While I can’t find a case of my exact storyline @27, Lester Del Rey’s short story Instinct (1952) concerns our robot descendants on earth taking enough of an interest in biological humans to try to bring us back from extinction. I am not sure if I ever read it. It just came up when I was skimming over an old anthology. The idea of the same robots keeping humans in a preserve surely can’t be far away from this.

  42. Amphiox says

    On the very day, hour and second that meteor landed at Chicxulub, Earth with the sole exception of the immediate impact zone was still a thousand time more habitable and friendly to humans than the very best place on Mars can be on its very best day.

    The idea that the best reason to send people to Mars is as some kind of “backup” for an Extinction Level Event on Earth is silly. Short of an Alien Death Star popping out of hyperspace and death-raying the planet, human civilization would have a better chance of just tanking the event on Earth than attempting to successfully move to Mars.

  43. acroyear says

    EVERY post about space colonization that tries to compare it to the colonies of the Americas and the South Pacific totally miss a key factor: the colonies were established because there were clear economic gains to be found. Though yeah, the British didn’t find the gold that the Spaniards did, but they did get into the fur trade alongside the French, the fishing trade, and lumber and pitch tar was a major export, especially in the Carolinas. Then throw in the reverse – the high taxes on acting as the exclusive middle-man for all shipping back in (this became a stickler for the eventual revolution, of course – especially in Virginia, the plantation owners were largely in debt for the costs of the decor of their elaborate homes) – but the colonies need to be producing money to make that exploitation worthwhile.

    And that means resource extraction.

    And so far, there’s no resource on Mars that is worth the cost. Maybe some deep digging will finally find some rare metals that will be worth sending an expedition for extraction…

    …but it’ll be more like the Doctor Who Robots of Death episode. A handful of tech savvy humans managing a very large task force of robots and machines to do all the real work. Scorched Mars tactics, destroying huge tons of landscape for a few pounds of product, much like how gold is extracted in America today (and what they would do to get Uranium out of the Grand Canyon and Grand Esplanade if ever given permission).

    Automation has made the idea of the permanent colony a non-starter – it only takes a handful of people, willing to live there part-time then move back, and the robots do the rest as the new slaves – that can never complain, strike, or revolt.

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