How many people lined up to live on Devil’s Island?


Why do artists always put domes up? We’d be living in tunnels deep under the Martian surface.

Maybe Devil’s Island is a poor analogy — prisoners sent there had a 75% mortality rate, but it was a tropical island and they had air to breathe. Mon dieu, free air! And water fell out of the sky! Maybe a Siberian gulag would be a better example. The air is still free, but it’ll eventually kill you if you try to breathe it at -50°C, and they were, of course, work camps. We really have nothing to compare with Mars here on Earth. Yet Elon Musk is dreaming of sending a million people to live there, all beholden to the company store, that is, Elon Musk. Maybe you could find a few utopians who could be fooled into moving there, but the volume Musk fantasizes over? No way. I also suspect the effort would bleed his fortune dry.

But here’s a thought experiment for you: Charlie Stross gives him everything he could want.

Let’s suppose that Musk’s Mars colony plan is as viable as his other businesses: there are ups and downs and lots of ducking and weaving but he actually gets there in the end. All the “… and then a miracle happens …” bits in the plan (don’t mention closed-circuit life support! Don’t mention legal frameworks!) actually come together, and by 2060 there is a human colony on Mars. Not just an Antarctic-style research base, but an actual city with a population on the order of 500,000 people, plus outlying mining, resource extraction, fuel synthesis, and photovoltaic power farms (not to mention indoor intensive agriculture to grow food).

Do I believe that will happen? I do not. I think when the first thousand colonists die off and the few survivors start desperately begging for rescue from this hellhole, the supply of potential colonists will wither away and that venture will end. But it’s a thought experiment — we’ll assume that it all comes together that way at first.

Then Stross flicks over one little domino…what if a new deadly coronavirus variant emerges on this distant world?

You are the Mayor of Armstrong City, facing a variant SARS pandemic, and supplies and support are 15 months away. What do you do?

Alternatively: what are the unforeseen aspects of a SARS-type disease infiltrating such a colony?

And what are the long-term consequences—the aftermath—for architecture and administration of the Mars colony, assuming they’re willing to learn and don’t want it to happen again?

I don’t know, this doesn’t seem like an unusual circumstance for a new colony. It’s happened in the past, many times. You set off to a rich, fabulous bit of country, like Virginia or Massachusetts, in a new land, and initially you’re suviving a hair’s-breadth away from catastrophe, and a plague sweeps through your colony, and it’s the 17th century so you don’t have things like vaccines or even decent medical treatments. What happens?

You die.

I don’t think there are that many unforeseen aspects of such an epidemic, although certain people want to willfully ignore the possibilities (they’re not going there after all — some other gullible sap is). This would be a colony that requires a well-maintained infrastructure to maintain the basics of life, like air, water, and food, and something will crumble and the whole thing will collapse, and everyone will die, while sending frantic, woeful transmissions back to Earth at the speed of light.

The long-term consequences will be that no one in their right mind will want to go to Mars, and the way to prevent such a catastrophe is to send robots, assuming there is some economic gain to be had from exploiting the planet in the first place.

Maybe you have a more optimistic perspective? Try to persuade me.

Comments

  1. larrylyons says

    Why go to Mars in the first place. It’s in the bottom of a fairly deep and expensive gravity well. To me it makes much more sense to first invest in O’Neil Space Colonies. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O%27Neill_cylinder) They’d be much cheaper and can take better advantages of resources etc. than the same effort on a planet.

  2. says

    You mock, but just wait until Musk unveils his secret program that has been genetically engineering Mars colonists.

    Then you can really mock.

  3. Nemo says

    In the presumed absence of any native biology, where would the plague come from? Mutation in something brought by the colonists? Maybe, but it’s a small population to draw from, nicely isolated from the parent biosphere, and they’ll have been screened before they came.

  4. PaulBC says

    I think an analogy with Antarctica is closer. If there were any kind of outpost on Mars, many people would be champing at the bit to go there. They’d be a tiny minority of human beings worldwide, but the inhospitable surroundings and alien landscape is what would draw them. Obviously, if you organized it like a prison colony, most people wouldn’t want to go there. Also, I guess most people right now don’t want to live in Siberia, Greenland, or the Atacama Desert for instance. But a research project in any of those places would still probably draw plenty of volunteers.

    I don’t believe a Mars “colony” or even a research station is in the offing any time soon, but I think it is the high cost and questionable benefit rather than a lack of volunteers that would stymie the attempt.

  5. Dunc says

    Nemo, @5:

    In the presumed absence of any native biology, where would the plague come from?

    From Charlie’s post outlining the scenario:

    One of the regular biannual colony shuttles from Earth brings an unwelcome surprise: some of the essential supplies for the life support farms are contaminated with SARS-CoV-70, leading to an outbreak which starts among workers in one of the agricultural units

    This was in the context of concerns about SARS-CoV-19 being transmitted through the shipment of frozen food.

  6. jack lecou says

    @5:
    Yeah, even if the earlier assumptions don’t bother you too much, that’s where Stross’ scenario really falls apart. He has it coming in on the passenger shuttle from Earth (where seasonal waves of Covid variants are endemic by the mid 21st century, thanks to our failure to deal with it in the 2020s).

    But if it comes with passengers from Earth, either it has an unprecedented incubation period (on the order of 6 months), or there are fast shuttles with transit times more like a couple of weeks. In the former case, you have a lot of extra time to work on the problem, in the latter case you have much faster help arriving from Earth.

    That’s on top of the obvious question about why the Martians wouldn’t have quarantine protocols for this. Even if it was a mutant 6-month strain nobody had expected, there’d be plenty of time for Earth to identify and sequence the variant and put updated protocols in place while the rocket is in transit.

    Then there’s all the other stuff (from the comment thread there):
    – A space colony might be an almost ideal place to deal with an airborne viral epidemic. It’s likely already cut up into isolated pieces with independent ventilation systems and airlocks (some of which might already configured to work as short to medium term shelters, in case of various kinds of disaster).
    – There would already be various routine isolation and decontamination protocols in place (they’ll be wanting to be very careful that a new fungal blight in agricultural tunnel A can’t spread to B or C).
    – There are no anti-maskers (whether by inclination or indoctrination, it’s full of checklist heads — people well accustomed to the idea that they will certainly die if they don’t follow correct procedures). Almost everybody literally owns a spacesuit.
    – Stross seems to be underestimating how quickly vaccine doses could be locally produced with today’s tech, nevermind with several extra decades of biotech advances.

  7. says

    @11. While I think you’re right that Stross is being excessively pessimistic, the larger point remains is that you can’t have a Libertarian Paradise in such an inhospitable environment. Even leaving out the fact that no one goes to paradise to scrub toilets, survival will require a very regimented system which would be the antithesis of it’s creation.

  8. Dunc says

    jack lecou, @11:

    He has it coming in on the passenger shuttle from Earth

    No, he doesn’t. See my post @10.

  9. consciousness razor says

    But if it comes with passengers from Earth, either it has an unprecedented incubation period (on the order of 6 months), or there are fast shuttles with transit times more like a couple of weeks. In the former case, you have a lot of extra time to work on the problem, in the latter case you have much faster help arriving from Earth.

    Why? You don’t need to assume incubation takes the entire length of the trip.

    I think you can suppose that they are on their way to Mars when some symptoms appear in somebody, but then, couldn’t it be the case that they may have strong incentives to continue on their course, rather than deciding to go back (on an even longer trip) to Earth? Also, are you assuming that each shuttle has everything onboard that would be needed to diagnose a new virus (and presumably quarantine the crew)? And can’t the medical staff still come to the mistaken conclusion that it’s some other disease which is easier to treat? If not everything goes the way it should, then what?

  10. PaulBC says

    FWIW, I don’t see way to rule out an outbreak on Mars, but they would have the advantage (lacking in past earthbound colonists) that there not be any local diseases. Presumably they’d also have the foresight to try to prevent the introduction of diseases, but it doesn’t mean they’d succeed. I am not sure how it would happen by accident, but it could be carried out by intent, e.g. with frozen virus samples (or by accident if they were foolish enough to bring human pathogens to Mars, e.g. for research).

    Who knows, there could also be latent viruses in the human travelers that are usually harmless that mutate into something worse. Plenty of people carry Epstein Barr for instance. Are you really going to populate this colony with people that are free of even the most common diseases?

    COVID-19 eventually made it to Antarctica. I am sure they took some precautions to prevent it from happening.

  11. microraptor says

    Susan Montgomery @12: And on top of that, you know that a libertarian system is, as usual, going to cut corners everywhere. Like, say, environmental sealing and waste recycling and decontamination.

  12. dean56 says

    “you can’t have a Libertarian Paradise ”

    Is all you need to say. libertarian hell-hole — certainly.

  13. komarov says

    Why domes? Two reasons:
    1) Psychological: If you keep the colonists cooped up under ground indefinitely they’ll all go insane and kill each other. With domes they can see the dull, alien sky every day. They’d also get to witness the seasonal sandstorms in their full glory. They’d panic, then go insane and kill each other, but take slightly longer overall.

    2) Money – it’s a privately funded colony after all. Digging out underground caverns for a colony is not only expensive, it also takes time. (i.e. It’s expensive squared) By comparison, rasing a few flimsy pressure domes should be quick and cheap. Don’t worry, the company Cares About You, so they’ll put in all the radiation shielding in later. Meteorites and other hazards that could damage the domes are such long-odds-long-term-scenarios that, like climate change, they don’t warrant serious investment.

    P.S.: All this talk about quarantines, isolation and whatnot sounds very expensive. Please, let’s be reasonable and not lose sight of what matters most in this grand venture for the furtherance of humanity: The shareholders.

  14. jack lecou says

    @13:
    You’re right. My bad. I must have misremembered that part.

    I don’t think that changes much though. Sterilization of materials moving from one end of the colony to the other would likely be de rigeur, nevermind materials from Earth. Doubly so given the scenario where these viruses are endemic on Earth.

    @12:
    The gulf between Libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) philosophy and the practicalities of actually building a successful settlement on another planet are so huge, I’m not even sure they’re interesting to discuss. It’s possible Musk is enough of an asshole that he hasn’t figured that out, but I don’t think the rest of us have to make the same mistake. We can assume (as Stross does) that if and when such a settlement ever does survive more than a week, it’ll necessarily run on something like sensible principles.

    Ditto for the idea (occasionally seen here) that any such endeavor will fail inside a week, because the only takers will all be clueless silver spoon types who will immediately die of shock when they somehow learn that Mars is an inhospitable airless rock for the very first only after stepping on it after an uncomfortable 6 month trip in a BO-reeking, radiation-bathed tin can.

    It’ll take a certain amount of idealism to get people there, but then a lot of realism to actually survive. Qualities like reliability, professionalism and mutual aid will be a lot more valuable for survival than the size of your bitcoin wallet. If anyone doesn’t know that before they board the rocket, it’ll be pretty apparent when the hit the ground.

  15. springa73 says

    @9

    I agree that regardless of Musk’s vision of a huge colony, the most likely human presence on Mars would be small outposts for scientific research, and that there would actually be a decent number of volunteers for that even though most people wouldn’t be interested. Any realistic human outpost would select its crew based on things like technical and scientific skill, psychological resilience and flexibility, and ability to work well as part of a team. It would be a disaster to send mainly wealthy people who are all used to getting their own way and living comfortably, or wide-eyed idealists who aren’t prepared for the difficult conditions.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    Note that this exact same argument could have been used, and was used, against every single European colonial enterprise of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Not just “maybe a supply ship might accidentally bring some bugs along.” There WILL be native bugs lying in wait as soon as you disembark for you for which you will have no immunity, and you WILL almost certainly get sick, and you WILL have a ridiculously high chance of being buried overseas next to all the other Europeans who died of the selfsame bugs. Every single European who shipped off to the tropics knew they’d be spinning for their lives on the disease roulette wheel, but even though thousands died, tens of thousands came after them anyway.

    If there is money to be made, young people will always believe that they’ll beat the odds, become fabulously wealthy, and come back home as millionaires. Why should Mars be any different? Or have we gotten so soft and comfortable now that we’ve lost the will to take risks to advance ourselves?

  17. lumipuna says

    survivors start desperately begging for rescue from this hellhole

    Or rather, one might call it Areshole.

  18. says

    What should this grand colony be called, anyway? Muskia?

    I agree with #23, first step would be a limited science presence. Underground. A later civil expansion would be dependent on one simple factor: Economic. Can anyone make money on Mars?
    This isn’t like past colonization on Earth, back then people could start out with a few bare necessities and then live off the land.

  19. consciousness razor says

    Or have we gotten so soft and comfortable now that we’ve lost the will to take risks to advance ourselves?

    Say what?

    Living on this planet, which isn’t always entirely hostile to life, is not “advanced”? Alright. I’ll just try ignore all of the advanced shit that seems to be going on here.

    But if we did get the high score … then what?

  20. George says

    The model for Space Colonization was the European Expansion starting in the Late 15th Century. But that was fueled by various “cash crops” that paid for it all. The Silks and Spices of the Orient that were so prized, came through so many middlemen, via the Silk Road, and the Arab Traders of the Indian Ocean, that, by the time they got to Western Europe, they were hugely expensive. So if you could find an alternate route that cut some of those middlemen out, you could make big bucks. Much of the European Exploration was in trying to find better routs to the East Indies. Later centuries saw new sources and products that made those areas valuable in their own right. Gold, silver, tobacco, ivory, sugar, furs, rice, cotton, slaves, the New England ship building industry, these were what funded all that. Later came coal and oil.

    But what the hell is there on Mars that would pay for the enormous investments in infrastructure and supply that would make any sort of large-scale settlement possible? Rare metals would probably be easier to extract from Asteroids. And such extraction could be more practically done robotically as well. Space-based solar energy arrays are the same: robotic assembly from materials extracted from asteroids or shipped up from Earth.

    Any Space Colony on Mars, or anywhere else, would be a massively expensive economic basket case.

  21. Dunc says

    brucegee1962 @25: Rather a lot of those Europeans left for the colonies less for the chance of riches and advancement, than to escape the virtual certainty of starvation or being press-ganged into dying a ghastly death fighting some other bugger’s war. In many cases they had been forcibly evicted from their ancestral homes and left completely destitute in societies which didn’t so much have a social safety net as a social pit of poisoned spikes, and in many others they were “transported” as a judicial punishment only marginally preferable to immediate execution.

  22. blf says

    @30, Only three? In the extremely lo-budget 1984 movie The Warrior and the Sorceress (NSFW) there’s an assassin with four.

    It occurs to me now that movie was set in an apparently-isolated settlement on an alien desert planet, where water was scare — part of the plot, such as there is one, is the settlement is divided into two rival factions fighting over control of the only well. (The atmosphere was breathable, and many characters were rather scantily dressed — the “Sorceress” of the title was, in fact, nude the entire movie — so it’s, at best, a weak analogy for a current-technology settlement on Mars (the technology in the movie was a typical swords-and-sorcery medieval mashup with slavery and bad acting).)

    Supposedly, the movie is an almost scene-for-scene ripoff of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It starred David Carradine — the “Warrior” of the title — a few years after his Kung Fu days, apparently playing a rather similar character.

  23. garnetstar says

    Kim Stanley Robinson had to carefully avoid this question in his Mars trilogy, even though he had frequent visitors arriving from Earth who presumably brought their viruses and bacteria with them, because Robinson knew that infection would completely wipe out his fictional colony.

    He did tried to work that in, though, by positing the opposite: people who had been (improbably) successfully conceived and born on Mars, natives, were extremely susceptible to dying from the slightest thing when they visited Earth, as they had no immunity.

    In order to even persuade the reader it was possible for a colony to exist on Mars, Robinson had to invent “small, portable, nuclear fusion generators” (which is something I’d sure like to see!), a new complete DNA-repair-and-rejuvenation process (to deal with radiation damage, and also so that some of the characters could survive the hundred or so years it took to terraform the place, which, again improbably, actually hapenned), “robot shuttles running back and forth to Titan” to bring nitrogen to Mars, large deposits of nitrogen minerals near the surface, immense mirrors in orbit that focused sunlight onto the surface, and machines for extra-uterine successful growth and development of human embryos to full nine months gestation.

    So yeah, when Musk and his merry crew have all that lined up, give me a call.

    P.S. They have internet in Antaractica, they wouldn’t have that on Mars, would they? That’ll discourage a whole lot of people from going.
    And, the libertarians, even with the fictional Galt’s Gulch as a model, have never formed so much as one successful colony on earth. How about they try that first? When that’s successful, as I say, they can give me a call about Mars.

  24. garnetstar says

    Also, what about viruses jumping species in our Martian colony? I presume they’d have animals there, and it’s hard to get completely sterile ones. After a while, some viruses could indeed jump.

    Also, has anyone determined yet whether the gravity of Mars is large enough to keep gases such as N2 and O2 on the planet? I mean, that those molecules’ escape velocities aren’t high enough that they’d just stream out into space, like helium and hydrogen do on earth?

    Because, without the ability to keep nitrogen and oxygen on the planet, I don’t know how you could do anything that you’d call “terraforming”. An entire atmosphere of only heavier gases would not be very terran. I’m sure that Musk has this all figured out already, of course.

  25. birgerjohansson says

    A proper terraforming will require several millennia, bringing millions of cubic km of volatile-rich objects from the ‘scattered disc’ component of the Kuiper Belt ( Mars itself has insufficient reservoirs of volatiles frozen at the poles and in the crust).
    A civilisation with the power and patience for this can easily set up a megastructure with a magnetic field between Mars and the sun.

  26. springa73 says

    @25, @31 –

    Dunc is right – a large percentage of European migrants to early colonies were either outright coerced or desperate and without any prospects in Europe. Also, of course, many of the most profitable colonies were run mostly on the labor of non-European slaves (African and sometimes Native American).

    There were some people who willingly went to colonies to either settle or try to make a fortune and then return home. Historically, temperate climates with fewer diseases attracted most of the long-term European settlers who started families, while tropical colonies attracted more short term settlers who hoped to make money then return home.

    The question is – would a settlement on Mars attract either type of willing migrant?

  27. blf says

    @33, “they wouldn’t have [Internet] on Mars, would they?”

    Yes, no, and maybe: Locally, they would.
    But internetworked with Earth… perhaps: If you mean what we’re using now, where after a momentary delay we can access a non-cached server anywhere on Earth, no. Physics, you know. However, Nasa has been working on intra-Solar System internetworking for years now, with a demonstration of a store-and-forward protocol back in 2008, NASA Successfully Tests First Deep Space Internet.

  28. ORigel says

    @4 I can imagine how it goes: “I combined human genetic material with tardigrade genetic material in an attempt to produce humans that can withstand extreme conditions but all I got was a dead cell! Back to the drawing board!”

  29. ORigel says

    @34 Mars lost most of its atmosphere because it doesn’t have much of a magnetic field anymore. It can’t protect the atmosphere from the solar wind. There is frozen CO2 on Mars, but heating and sublimating that wouldn’t thicken the atmosphere enough.

  30. jack lecou says

    @29

    Yeah. This is a pet peeve of mine. There isn’t really any loot. No Incan gold. No sugar or tobacco. Maybe somebody gets rich off a big platinum asteroid or something. Once. Then the price of all those metals crashes, because you only need one. And that has next to nothing to do with Mars. There’s really no conceivable thing Mars could do so amazing well that it somehow be worth the cost of shipping back to Earth. Certainly not in its first 100 years or so.

    But that isn’t the only model. And in some ways it’s a bit transactional — the purpose of living isn’t to make money, after all, wherever you go to live.

    Assuming you can’t convince the government to foot the bill for a full settlement outright, there’s still the possibility a research outpost could seed for permanent settlement at some point. Not necessarily by design. But if the outposts are large enough, and putter along long enough, and as time passes there’s more and more local tech to grow food and print machine parts and stuff (because at some point it’s cheaper than shipping it in), to the point where people can start making a home there, then that whole business could bootstrap spontaneously.

    Another approach, which might be what Musk has in mind, is self-funding. Each ship full of settlers liquidates their life on Earth (because home equity and savings accounts aren’t going to be any help where they’re going) and then turns the cash into as much food and medicine and solar panels and whatever as the rockets can carry. Enough for themselves, and also some for the others already on Mars. It sounds a little pyramidal, but if everybody is also positively working to build up the colony when they get there, it’s not actually zero sum. The people and resources are investments in the settlement, which grows faster and faster, closer and closer to self sufficiency, with every day and new rocket full of settlers.

    Obviously I wouldn’t say that’s the most equitable model — the participants do have to pony up some cash to buy in, so you have to figure out how to bring up some cafeteria servers as well as mining engineers — but it could work.

    (I do think this is where some of the flak Musk gets for wanting to charge six figures for a seat on a Mars rocket might be a little off base. As a vacation, that sounds pricey. Only suitable for the billionaire set, and won’t they be surprised when they get off the rocket and there’s no 5-star resort. Ha, ha, ha, etc.

    But starting a Martian colony obviously isn’t a vacation. Lifeboat notwithstanding, it’s supposed to be a one-way trip. There are quite a few middle-class-ish people who could afford such a seat once they liquidate all the stuff they can’t take with anyway. Professionals and specialists of various kinds, with the kinds of skills you’d want on a space colony.

    And if whoever’s running it is doing it right — with Musk, who knows — then every penny of the ticket price that isn’t going straight to overhead and rocket fuel would be sent along as additional equipment and supplies for the rest of the colony.)

  31. tacitus says

    Debates about colonies on Mars are pointless at this stage. As others have already pointed out, you don’t run before you can walk, and you don’t walk before you can crawl. I have no doubt that we will send human beings to Mars before the end of the century — science and exploration missions consisting a handful of people there to conduct science and have science conducted upon them.

    But a permanent settlement on Mars, even just an outpost, only happens after many years of round trip missions — decades more likely — and then only after it’s been shown that it’s physically and psychologically possible to live on Mars. If the day finally comes, 100+ years from now, where there’s cause and opportunity to plant a permanent settlement on Mars, it will be because all the pitfalls being talked about here have already been encountered and successfully countered, and that includes knowing how to govern.

  32. says

    “Maybe you have a more optimistic perspective? Try to persuade me.”
    This statement is disingenuous. You’ve already said that you don’t believe a “Mars City” can happen, PZ. Therefore, no counterargument is truly possible. Of course everyone will die if the life support system fails! What a garbage excuse for declaring a thing impossible in the future. You are in the waning years of your life, PZ. Even if Musk’s obsessions were realistic, you would never see them come to fruition. By beating this dead horse, you have become almost as dogmatic as the creationists. And who are you to declare what will forever be impossible or out of reach? It may turn out that human society centuries in the future is so rich, they can’t think of a good reason not to give a Mars colony a shot.
    And your cute little caption, “Why do artists always put domes up? We’d be living in tunnels deep under the Martian surface,” serves no purpose. If you’re gonna claim that, maybe explain why it is impossible to build thick-enough dome-walls to stop radiation, or whatever.

  33. DanDare says

    History is replete with folks hurling themselves into horrible sotuations, with no idea what they are facing, and dying in droves.
    The difference here is not so much how hostile the environment is but the cost of the endeavour.
    Kings sending colonists to the Americas was chickenfeed by comparison.
    There is a fair return on space6 exploitation and industry but robots can do most of it.
    A small mars station could be a reasonable robot repair shop. High pay. 2 year tour of duty on planet plus travel time. Although an orbiting repair station and robot manufactory wpuld be better.

  34. John Morales says

    loosenoodlepoodledoodle @42:

    “Maybe you have a more optimistic perspective? Try to persuade me.”
    This statement is disingenuous.

    Nope.

    You’ve already said that you don’t believe a “Mars City” can happen, PZ. Therefore, no counterargument is truly possible.

    Clearly, you believe that PZ cannot now nor shall he ever change his opinion about anything, and therefore, since you believe that, no counterargument is truly possible to convince you otherwise.

    (That was your basis for disingenuousness? Wow)

    You are in the waning years of your life, PZ.

    He’s basically the same age as I am.

    Whatever decrepitude has come about through aging, it’s more than made up by one’s experential dataset. Believe it or not, age brings perspective.

    (The irony is that you, apparently, believe the antithesis of what you claim PZ believes, that is, that Elon will indeed found a Mars colony. Perhaps you too are in your waning years, or else you didn’t wait to wane)

    By beating this dead horse, you have become almost as dogmatic as the creationists.

    Well, nice you stopped insinuating that and instead asserted it. Dogmatically so.

    And your cute little caption, “Why do artists always put domes up? We’d be living in tunnels deep under the Martian surface,” serves no purpose.

    Not to a dolt, no.

    If you’re gonna claim that, maybe explain why it is impossible to build thick-enough dome-walls to stop radiation, or whatever.

    It ever occur to you that it might be heaps easier and cheaper to build or repurpose tunnels, and almost certainly safer?

    See, you quoted PZ as saying what he would expect is tunnels rather than domes, and what you took (well, supposedly, since your spiel smells of spite) was that he had declared domes impossible to build.

    Different things; perhaps now that I have explained that to you, it will become evident for you.

  35. Prax says

    Jack lecou @11,

     There are no anti-maskers (whether by inclination or indoctrination, it’s full of checklist heads — people well accustomed to the idea that they will certainly die if they don’t follow correct procedures).

    They won’t all stay that way, though. Personalities change over the years, and sickness and exhaustion make even the best of us weak and stupid. If an epidemic occurs, people will make mistakes, and some of them (probably the ones in power) will try to cover up those mistakes, thereby exacerbating them. It happens every time.

    Almost everybody literally owns a spacesuit.

    Problem is, who’s cleaning that spacesuit? When you’re badly ill and spewing vomit and diarrhea, are you just laying in the spacesuit in your own filth for a couple of weeks? Or are you on a bed being cared for? In that case, are the caregivers wearing spacesuits? If so, how do they clean and remove them without contaminating their bodies or the rest of the station?

    On earth, the solutions to these questions almost always involve massive resource consumption—look at any infectious disease ward. The average hospital patient produces ~30 pounds of waste per day. Every surface they touch is wiped with disposable cloths and napkins, which are then thrown away. Sharps and tips and swabs are unwrapped from plastic, then immediately thrown away after use. At best, this waste goes to a landfill. The really nasty material has to go straight into the hospital incinerators, and, y’know, good luck running those when oxygen is actually precious.

    Even the reusable items like gowns and linens can’t be cleaned at the hospital; there’s no room. In America, they go off to a commercial laundry—which itself has a huge environmental footprint, and is usually staffed by slaves prison inmates or undocumented workers because no one else is desperate enough to do the job. (And don’t say robots could do it on Mars; someone has to clean the robots.)

    None of this would work without a country-sized economy and the resources to match. And even so, our best hospitals still can’t stop pathogens like MRSA and C.diff from evolving and then escaping into the community.

    PaulBC @15,

    Who knows, there could also be latent viruses in the human travelers that are usually harmless that mutate into something worse. Plenty of people carry Epstein Barr for instance.

    Ding ding ding. Viruses that can go latent, sometimes indefinitely, include HIV, HPV, and pretty much all the herpesviruses (Epstein Barr, HSV, chickenpox/shingles….). Over 90% of adult humans have a latent infection of at least one of these, and those infections are mostly undetectable by modern medicine. No quarantine period is long enough to get rid of them all.

    As for bacteria and fungi…there are hundreds of species living on and in any individual person. You couldn’t get rid of them all even if you wanted to; some of them are essential for human health…but they can still turn virulent. How you gonna keep out E. coli? Staphylococcus? Clostridium? The difficile was added for a reason, kids!

    I’ve worked in a primate lab. You’d think it’s one of the most ideal environments for preventing disease transmission…and it is, in most ways. Animal movement and interaction is strictly regulated, diet is controlled, air is filtered, animals are frequently tested, every surface is wiped down on the regular.

    Does that lead to a pathogen-free environment? No. Haha, no. Of course not! You’re keeping a bunch of critters of the same species in close quarters! Unless you cover them in Saran Wrap and tape down the flappy bits, germs will be exchanged. Captive primates actually have significantly stronger immune systems than their wild counterparts, as far as common pathogens go, because they get exposed to so many of them.

    Now imagine that same situation, but with hundreds of thousands of sometimes grouchy, sometimes stubborn, sometimes horny humans. Who are, at the very least, given more freedom of choice than a lab monkey has. Disease will be rampant.

  36. jack lecou says

    @45:

    …They won’t all stay that way…

    What I mean is that the people we’re talking about are presumably running out routinely doing things like taking space walks, fueling rockets, starting up nuclear reactors, and tele-operating heavy equipment. AFAIK, the best practice for all those sorts of tasks is to do what e.g., pilots and (good) surgeons do: obsessively use checklists like they’re a matter of life and death.

    I guess there are interesting behavioral questions to ask about how long any population could actually maintain that level of concentration. Lacking evidence to the contrary though, I’m inclined to believe that anyone who manages to follow their spacesuit cleaning checklist well enough to stay alive out there would be able to follow a disease prevention checklist with just as much rigor.

    Even people just slinging meatballs or whatever are going to be deeply aware of how fragile existence in a shallow air-filled Martian lava tube is. They’ll be involved in safety drills and the like, and surrounded by people who take safety procedures pretty seriously. I would think all that would pervade the culture in pretty fundamental ways.

    Maybe ‘Karens’ and ‘Kens’ can still manifest in those conditions, but if any did during an outbreak, I don’t expect they’d be humored for long.

    Problem is, who’s cleaning that spacesuit? When you’re badly ill and spewing vomit and diarrhea, are you just laying in the spacesuit in your own filth for a couple of weeks? Or are you on a bed being cared for? In that case, are the caregivers wearing spacesuits? If so, how do they clean and remove them without contaminating their bodies or the rest of the station?

    I mentioned spacesuits mainly to make the point that its a population accustomed to properly wearing life-critical PPE. But they could be used in a medical emergency in some circumstances, I guess.

    For approaches to the actual situation, there’re lots of answers in Stross’s thread if you’re interested. I think it probably depends on the exact nature of the illness, how early it’s caught, how the base is set up, exactly, etc. If we’re basically talking Covid 19, circa a year ago December, except Mars, and it’s like a Star Trek set where everyone has their own rooms, with isolated ventilation and emergency supplies, I think I’d say you just lock everyone in that you possibly can. Put anyone who has to be walking around the halls for critical tasks in spacesuits or bunny suits or whatever, and hose them and everything else down regularly with sterilizer/UV/gamma rays, as appropriate. When you’re confident the incubation period is up, or you’ve vaccinated everyone, clean out any bodies, unlock the doors again, and hope you’ve still got enough personnel that the colony is viable.

    But, again, who knows. It’s hypotheticals stacked on hypotheticals.

    …At best, this waste goes to a landfill. The really nasty material has to go straight into the hospital incinerators, and, y’know, good luck running those when oxygen is actually precious.

    Even the reusable items like gowns and linens can’t be cleaned at the hospital; there’s no room. In America, they go off to a commercial laundry—which itself has a huge environmental footprint, and is usually staffed by slaves prison inmates or undocumented workers because no one else is desperate enough to do the job. (And don’t say robots could do it on Mars; someone has to clean the robots.)

    A lot of this kind of boils down to questions about how a Mars colony works in general. Like, at all. Yes, obviously any real Martian base/city would have to do laundry and handle medical waste. They’d also have to deal with thousands of gallons of human waste daily. And produce thousands of gallons of fresh water from somewhere. And also maybe smelt ore. And grow food. And make clothes, paper, computer chips, building materials, industrial lubricants. Generally do and make at least a certain fraction of the million other big and little things we take for granted in an industrial society.

    On Earth, we tend to approach all of those problems from more or less whatever direction we have for thousands of years, usually with an assumption of plentiful quantities of air and water and soil and fossil fuels and labor. None of that’s necessarily going to be available on a Mars base, and if any of those problems are solvable at all, I expect a lot of the solutions will come from very different directions.

    I don’t think anybody really has specifics for any of those solutions yet, so it’s even harder to speculate how any of that infrastructure might or might not be strained by an unusually severe pandemic.

  37. snarkrates says

    @42: “If you’re gonna claim that, maybe explain why it is impossible to build thick-enough dome-walls to stop radiation, or whatever.”
    OK. The predominant radiation on the Martian surface is neutrons–uncharged and having quite long ranges in materials. Any attempt to shield out these particles would result in what would be essentially a tunnel above ground, rather than underground. Now, when things get really interesting is when you get a solar particle event–no geomagnetic shielding to keep out the enhanced flux.

    However, the real issue is that there is literally nothing on Mars that humans could want. There would be zero reason to go there for the long term. Now there are resources on some of the asteroids that make sense–Psyche, for instance could actually make platinum group minerals cheap. Hell, for get platinum, what could we do with a couple of tons of iridium? There is literally no way to anticipate what effect this could have on the global economy–for good or ill.

    Unfortunately, given what we are doing to Earth, it’s much more likely our progeny will exist as small groups of near-starving hunter-gatherers than as deniziens of a rich, spacefaring race.

  38. KG says

    brucegee1962 @25: Rather a lot of those Europeans left for the colonies less for the chance of riches and advancement, than to escape the virtual certainty of starvation or being press-ganged into dying a ghastly death fighting some other bugger’s war. – Dunc@31

    Musk may be counting on recruiting his colonists in a similar way. And for that matter, pushing things in the direction that will ensure a good supply.

  39. PaulBC says

    I think Musk is more likely to build an underground transit system with some actual impact on public transportation than land anyone on Mars. I also think he’s very unlikely to do the former. He has had success with electric cars, storage batteries, and reducing cost to orbit. Those aren’t such bad accomplishments. I respect him as an entrepreneur and I believe (based on his biography) that he knows at least some of the engineering. He’s no more of a charlatan than Thomas Edison was, or Nikola Tesla for that matter, who was a showman and had a lot of wrong ideas and failures.

    Musk is kind of an asshole, true, and gets himself in trouble saying stupid things because he knows he can get away with it.

    The fixation on Mars seems crazy to me. I think the big libertarian dream is just based on the fact that you’d be far from the prying eyes of government. Honestly, if I just wanted to drop out of the social contract, it’d be easier to live like the Unabomber. As long as I wasn’t mailing bombs, I could probably find somewhere that I’d mostly be left alone. There’s a strong paranoia streak in all this.

    Mars sounded cool in early science fiction that assumed it at least had breathable air and some liquid water (with the imagined canal system). That it is so desolate in reality doesn’t make it any less “cool.” The probe missions have been amazing. But it really doesn’t make it to a short list of new places to live. I don’t even see any advantages over the moon, at least if you could divert necessary material there (e.g. water from comets).

  40. dali70 says

    I’ve been trying to colonize Mars for the last week and a half, playing a game called Surviving Mars. (it’s similar to playing sim city). So far my colonists have frozen to death, starved to death, asphyxiated, terminal dehydration, gone insane and been crushed by a meteor storm. Mars 6 Me 0. I know it’s just a game, but It’s pretty good at giving you an idea of just how difficult colonizing Mars would be.

    Anyway, I think Elon has been sniffing glue or taken a few too many sharp blows to the cranium. For the foreseeable future, colonizing Mars is only going to be done in video games, movies and books.

  41. jack lecou says

    @51:

    But it really doesn’t make it to a short list of new places to live. I don’t even see any advantages over the moon, at least if you could divert necessary material there (e.g. water from comets).

    Indeed. I’ve never quite understood the Mars fixation either.

    I would, for emotional rather than rational reasons, like to see humans living in space eventually. But it’s undeniable that there are still a whole bunch of details to work out to even establish whether that can be done at all, and how, nevermind make it practical or economical.

    The moon seems like a way better place to work out a lot of the “how the heck do we live on an airless rock in tiny rubble covered tin cans using the resources around us” questions. Some of the details (how airless, exactly, what kind of rock) are a little different, but not so much that a lot of what you learn won’t transfer to Mars, or large asteroids, etc. when the time comes.

    And it’s nice and close — close enough for new prototype equipment to be rotated in quickly, for rescue and relief missions to be practical, etc.

  42. KG says

    I’ve never quite understood the Mars fixation either.

    My guess is that it’s a hangover from 19th and early 20th century beliefs that Mars is a lot more earthlike than is actually the case. These days, it’s not even the most plausible place to find extra-terrestrial life; some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn look much better prospects.

  43. ORigel says

    @55 I suspect that it is cheaper and easier to send stuff to Mars than to Enceladus. I hope we get a submarine probe to explore its and Europa’s seas in my lifetime (I am 22).

  44. PaulBC says

    I am sort of picturing a situation where they build a habitat inside tunnels or existing lava tubes on earth and see how long people can live like that, how it can be made self-sustaining, and how the cost to supply anything from the outside is reduced as much as possible.

    Now they’ve finally got it right and people can live there and not go totally insane. Granted, it would be cheaper to live in a penthouse with a view of the Golden Gate bridge (in seismically safe building that’s expensive and exceeds current capabilities, but no more so than a Mars colony would). But that’s not what they want to do.

    Great, now let’s move the roadshow to Mars! It’ll cost a lot more money, and you’ll be living the same way inside caves, harder to supply and impossible to rescue, but… but… every day you wake up you get “Woohoo! I’m on Mars. How cool is that?” I mean, that might be enough for some people, but I think it is unusual.

    OK, I did forget about gravity. It’s just possible some people would get a big kick out of living in 38% earth gravity. That would be noticeable even with all the other disadvantages. At the same time, it’d probably be cheaper to live in a space station with centrifugal acceleration to simulate whatever gravity you preferred.

  45. Dunc says

    I’ve never quite understood the Mars fixation either.

    I suspect it’s actually very simple – Mars is a fixation for (some) people who grew up reading stories about colonising Mars.

    If you really wanted to pick somewhere to colonize that could survive most cataclysms that would wipe out life on the surface of the Earth, the first place you’d probably choose would be the deep oceans. But there’s little or no mid-20th-century fiction about that. These people grew up reading Asimov and the like, and that’s shaped their dreams on a fundamental level.

  46. jack lecou says

    @58:

    I am sort of picturing a situation where they build a habitat inside tunnels or existing lava tubes on earth and see how long people can live like that, how it can be made self-sustaining, and how the cost to supply anything from the outside is reduced as much as possible.

    There are studies like that on Earth. The HI-SEAS series, for example.

    There’s still plenty of work that can be done that way, but even really well designed Earth-bound experiments can never be complete analogs. At some point there are things you really just have to go test in the field. With humans around to move things along with the occasional thwack with a wrench. I think that’s especially true for ISRU stuff, like actually finding techniques for extracting water ice from craters, or how working equipment stands up to abrasive regoliths. Not to mention long term studies of how people respond (or can be treated for) radiation, low (but not micro) gravity, etc.

    “Woohoo! I’m on Mars. How cool is that?” I mean, that might be enough for some people, but I think it is unusual.

    I’m not sure its as unusual as you might think. Certainly you wouldn’t have a shortage of volunteers.

    And don’t forget all the people back on Earth waking up to say “Woohoo! People live on Mars [or the moon or …]. How cool is that?”

    Of course, the real point of all of this is that in 1000 years or whatever, there will be 20 billion people waking up on Mars. Hopefully thinking about not much more than “I hate Mondays” or “I’m gonna try to spend a couple hours this morning working on my novel”. And another 20 billion on Earth thinking the same. And some more hundreds of billions doing the same thing on the Moon, Ceres, Europa, the clouds of Venus, orbital habitats at L4…

    @59:
    You’re probably not wrong about the stories.

    But see above about oceans. That’s not really the point. However many billions can sustainably live on Earth, oceans or otherwise, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say its not as many as in the entire solar system.

  47. Dunc says

    @60: If you want to make an argument about maximising the total human population, that’s fair enough, but that’s not the argument that most proponents of Mars colonisation are making.

  48. PaulBC says

    @62 Sure. (Though I hadn’t heard of that one.) And there is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range about whale ranching and Marine Boy. You could even include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea though it’s not about a lot of people living in undersea colonies. I think its safe to say that while science fiction has explored the idea of living under the ocean, the theme has never had quite as much traction in popular culture.

  49. Rob Grigjanis says

    jack lecou @60:

    orbital habitats at L4…

    Or L5, but of which sub-system? Sun-Earth, Earth-Moon, Sun-Jupiter,…?

  50. says

    @PaulBC 58
    That’s a good direction for them in my opinion. A city based in lava tubes? Awesome! Living underground strikes me as a good thing to become a solution for surface ecosystems. I’d make restoration and harmony a cultural value that way.

    And we get to use the tech their fears produce. The instinct makes me think of scavengers moving on after using everything. It could be the moon.

  51. jack lecou says

    @61:

    They’re certainly not articulating it well, that’s true. Usually there’s some line about wanting to be a multi-planet species so that we won’t be wiped out by an asteroid or whatever. Which sounds like a lame, and perhaps slightly innumerate, excuse. Maybe a little defensive, too.

    I can’t read minds, but I wonder where you’d get if you sat down and drilled into that further. Looked at some of the values that were driving those statements. It seems to me there’d probably be at least some alignment with the idea that humanity is good — why try to protect it otherwise. And that it’s okay to expand into other places and make more humanity. Which is at least pretty close to where I end up.

    @64:
    Why choose just one?

  52. jack lecou says

    Re-reading #66, I’m not sure that was super clear:

    What I’m trying to say is that I think that statements you hear all the time like “become a multi-planet species” are at root actually expressions about maximizing human population and extent.

    What sometimes trips people up with those statement is that they then try to express an elaborate “why” to back them up. They think they need to reach for some kind of positive justification. A purely mechanical rationale. And what they come up with never really works. It can come off as insincere, even. Because in a way, it is.

    The truth is, its normative all the way down. The “why” is entirely a question of values. If you think humanity should flourish in the largest numbers, the most places, and for the longest time possible, then the “why” is basically, “well, duh”.

    Once you realize that, I feel like it’s easier to just say so up front. It’s possible not everyone shares those values exactly, but at least it’ll be clear where the disagreement is.

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