Plumbing the depths of gullibility


I was reading some of Elon Musk’s claims from July, and marveling at how much he gets away with.

“Mars may be a fixer upper of a planet, but it has great potential!” the billionaire wrote.

User @PPathole responded, asking Musk what he believes is the “timeframe for creating a self-sustaining civilization” there.

“20 years? Self-sustaining meaning not relying/[dependent] on Earth for supplies,” he said.

“20 to 30 years from first human landing if launch rate growth is exponential,” the Tesla co-founder replied. “Assumes transferring ~100k each rendezvous and ~1M total people needed.”

I goggled at that exchange. Such blithe confidence! Where were those numbers coming from? He seems to believe plopping one million people (as if he could) onto the surface of Mars will trigger some miraculous auto-catalysis that will solve all the biological and engineering problems that he can’t even imagine. Throw enough people at this hostile world and they’ll figure everything out for him.

I don’t know that he actually believes in that. He seems to be an autonomous hype machine.

But then I wondered, are there actually people out there who listen to Musk and don’t constantly think, “that’s bullshit”? Are you one of them? I’ve never met a Musk true-believer, but if they exist at all, they’d be fascinating to have a conversation with…until it got too frustrating. Speak up! Explain in the comments how MuskMath works.

And finally, I wondered how a credible journalist could quote that claim without instantly raising objections (I know, it’s a Fox News link, so it’s a purely hypothetical credibility.) The commenters on that article, with a few exceptions, certainly are gung-ho, and amusingly, many are complaining that they are so old that 20 years is unattainable. Again, if you’re out there, explain here how you would support the claim. I know, it’s a bit like jumping into a shark tank, but hey, you’re the one who’d provide the math and engineering background.

As a starting point, let’s begin with a simpler example. You’ve been granted a large chunk of Antarctica as a gift (and a generous exception to international law), and have been able to lease a fleet of cruise ships, with a capacity of 5000 people each. You load them up, and make 200 trips from ports around the world, dropping them off on a rocky beach in Antarctica, along with tents and prefab buildings. How long until you have a self-sustaining colony that is sending profits back to you? How long until the distress calls go out and you have to rescue the survivors?

I’ve often wondered how, if erecting self-sustaining colonies is so easy, we haven’t been eagerly plundering our southern-most continent, which, while possibly a bit inhospitable, does have the little amenities of air and water, both lacking on Mars.

Shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that this is all an improbable fantasy of total civilian control by a breed of ignorant oligarchs, anyway?

Comments

  1. Artor says

    In his Red Mars series, Kim Stanley Robinson, who is infinitely more qualified to discuss scientific matters than Musk will ever be, has the terraforming take 200 years, and even this is a wildly unrealistic timeline compressed for the purposes of the story. I don’t think it could be done in less than 2000 years, if at all. But the series is a good read, and I highly recommend it.

  2. Jason Nishiyama says

    We haven’t even figured out how to get people there in a condition where they could do anything to keep them alive for the first week. Hasn’t Musk looked at people when they return from 6 months on the ISS? They can barely stand in Earth gravity and it takes a team of people, who wouldn’t be on Mars, just to get them out of the spacecraft.

    Whoever he throws at Mars would struggle surviving the first week, let alone longer times, until we can figure that out.

  3. strangerinastrangeland says

    Musk’s plan of Mars colonization sounds a lot like the plan the Khmer Rouge followed in Cambodia: Take all the people from the cities, drop them into the countryside and they will become self-sustained farmers just like that.

    It did not work.

  4. heffe7 says

    Where are these 1 million people going to go? 10 feet underground to escape the Sun’s deadly solar rays and cosmic rays from space? SHM
    Mars has no substantial molten core – to produce a protective magnetic field like we have hear on Earth.
    The first 500,000 martians will die of cancer within the first months on the planet.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    @5: Mars has no substantial molten core

    I don’t want to get in a waffle fight over the meaning of “substantial”
    Scientists Say Mars Has a Liquid Iron Core

    March 6, 2003
    In addition to detection of a liquid core for Mars, the results indicate the size of the core is about one-half the size of the planet, as is the case for Earth and Venus, and that the core has a significant fraction of a lighter element such as sulfur.

    You are correct that Mars no longer has a strong magnetic field

  6. mordred says

    Last year I read a lot of “reasons” from techbros why Musk’s Twitter takeover was pure genius and a devastating blow to the left’s control of all media, but I can’t remember ever seeing someone defending the idea of his mars colonisation in the near future…

  7. wzrd1 says

    His plan is easy and already on display.
    Just look at his Boring company and Twitter. Jump in, fuck things up, then wander away screaming “SUCCESS!!!!!”.

  8. Doc Bill says

    Being a huge reader of science fiction from the 50’s it pains me greatly to come down on the side of sending biology into space as stupid. There, I said it. What killed my dreams and fantasies was, of all things, evolution. Cursed be ye! Everything we have and everything we are is related to the same stuff, from plankton to PZ. Aside from the problem of distance and travel time, the likelihood of finding “our” kind of biology on another planet is zero.

    Thus, ironically, as one of the lamest Star Treks of all time, “The Way to Eden,” about a band of 24th Century hippies who still say “far out” and “peace, brother” looking for the planet Eden on which to build a Utopia, instead find theirselves on a planet covered with incompatible biology (poisonous in the minds of the script writers).

    But, the real issue with the likes of man-child Musk is why would the collective we spend untold wealth and time to “terraform” Mars when we can’t be bothered to turn out the lights in our own homes to save a few kW hours? Makes no sense.

    Now, if you don’t mind, there are some clouds that need shouting at.

  9. Rich Woods says

    Perhaps Musk has a masterplan. Maybe it’s to offset all the bad publicity he’s received this last year by earning the gratitude of humanity for sending a million of the most blindly stupid and ignorant people off-planet to die far from where we can hear their sobs of fear, pain and dawning realisation. And don’t tell me he isn’t sociopathic enough to do that, if it’s in service to his ego.

  10. raven says

    I goggled at that exchange. Such blithe confidence! Where were those numbers coming from?

    Where most of Musk’s predictions come from.
    He just makes it all up.

    Musk’s track record is decidedly mixed.
    His Boring machine, Hyperloop, Neuralink, and humanoid robotics projects haven’t gone anywhere.

    Twitter is still in the air.
    While he has definitely landed some solid blows on Twitter, it is still standing albeit rather shakily. It is not clear why he thinks beating up his own company is a good idea.

    Amazingly enough, he does have some real successes with Tesla cars and SpaceX.

    PS Once again, I will never spend one penny on anything associated with Elon Musk. He is a malevolent person who hates people like me so why should I?

    There are millions of people who have said the same thing.
    Tesla cars aren’t selling as well as they were.

  11. raven says

    Are Tesla sales slowing down?
    They have declined 37% this year against the backdrop of Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter and concerns over a slowing economy, higher inflation and rising interest rates.Oct 19, 2022

    Tesla Sales Fall Short of Estimates as Stronger Dollar Bites https://time.com › Business › Automobiles

    I might buy an EV vehicle someday.

    It won’t be a Tesla.

  12. says

    ” ‘… if launch rate growth is exponential,’ the Tesla co-founder replied.”

    Sure, and if I beg for change on the street corner and get 1 cent on the first day, 2 cents on the second, and then assume an exponential giving rate each day after, I’ll have a million dollars in a month.

    See? It’s easy. You just need to make the right assumptions at the start.

  13. René says

    As a non-native to the lingo, I didn’t know the word fixer upper. Merriam-Webster tells me the word is just as old as your humble servant.

  14. Michael says

    Remember Elon has declared that his preferred pronouns are prosecute/Fauci, so we need a rewrite:
    “I don’t know that he actually believes in that. He seems to be an autonomous hype machine. ”
    becomes
    “I don’t know that prosecute actually believes in that. Prosecute seems to be an autonomous hype machine.”
    It sounds like gibberish but then that is the perfect idiom to talk about Fauci. (Just so you, know that is the pronoun not the former NIH leader).

  15. lotharloo says

    Also, there’s a very good reason why Elon Musk does not want to give any prediction later than 20 years for anything really. He wants to profit from being a hype man and predictions that are too far in the future, say 100 years, are absolutely worthless for his financial gain.

  16. xohjoh2n says

    Throw enough people at this hostile world and they’ll figure everything out for him.

    Well, it worked at the Somme.

  17. says

    maggie@1 no, Musk isn’t going to Mars. Musk doesn’t want to do the kind of work surviving on Mars would take. Besides, he wants to sire lots of babies, which he won’t be doing on Mars.

  18. outis says

    I’d say His Muskiness has been soft-pedaling the Mars stuff lately, as he’s really busy making a Twit of himself with his newest toy.
    But anyway, the idea is absurd and maybe some of his engineers managed to impress this fact on his skull, perhaps using something suitably heavy and dense. That Starship may make a decent Moonship, when and if it’s launched with its booster, something for which no schedule has been given IIRC.
    As for Mars, well:
    – the ship was announced as rated for fifty (50!) people, each with a palatial allowance of four (4!) cubic meters of space each. Hhhh.
    – the trip should take something like six months for each leg in the best of conditions. Air, food, water for fifty? Not exactly trivial.
    – during flight time, space radiation will be roughly half a Sievert for each leg at the very least, ensuring delivery a cargo of crispy-fried humans back to Earth. It has been suggested that human waste may be good shielding, but you will excuse me if I cannot manage to visualize Spaceship Poo putt-putting its merry way to Mars. There’s a limit to grotesque ideas.
    So I don’t know what form EM’s dreams will take in the next years, but I really doubt Mars will be involved in actual reality, the one outside his head.
    And as #2 Artor said, even K.S. Robinson’s depiction described the process as something complicated, controversial and multi-generational, and that was fiction. Thumping good read tho’, and while writing it Mr Robinson pestered many scientists in order to get his details straight and plausible. Heartily recommended.

  19. Tethys says

    This is a boy whose ideas about life on Mars are taken straight from comic books.

    A Martian colony would never be self-sufficient, due to the fact that Mars lacks basic requirements for earth life, such as an oxygen atmosphere bound in place by a gravitational field. Lack of air is going to kill those colonists long before they get cooked by the radiation. Lack of food is another huge roadblock, since humans tend to die quickly without it. I can imagine an extra horrific version of a Donner party scenario.

  20. keinsignal says

    This plan “might* work if Musk intends to use ~999,900 of his projected million colonists as compost.

  21. wsierichs says

    As a lifelong, 70-year-old science-fiction fan, I’ve certainly had hopes that not only would we find workable ways to create colonies in our solar system, but also FTL drives to do Star Trek-level voyages.

    But I know just enough science to understand all the problems with trying to set up any kind of colony on Mars. A few thoughts:

    1) The radiation in space will be lethal unless a spaceship has lots of shielding. Barring some easy forcefield invention, a lot of heavy elements (I assume lead) must be launched into space to enclose the ship. Even building a shelter inside the ship where people can spend some time radiation free will still be super costly. And, of course, the fuel needed for a very heavy spaceship will be immense, all of which must be launched from Earth. I don’t see any realistic possibility of sending one big ship from Earth, so it will have to be something big assembled in orbit, like the space station.

    2) The ship must have doctors/dentists for the health problems that can always arise without warning or prediction, so I estimate 2 doctors and a dentist. That’s 3 slots right there. A well-rounded engineering team will be needed to handle all the problems that can arise. No technology is 100 pc perfect, so repair crews that can handle any problems will fill multiple crew slots. And they must have at least one spare part for each piece of equipment as they won’t be able to drop into a hardware store.

    3) Providing enough food will be expensive and, in my opinion, for safety will require multiple uncrewed ships to be sent to Mars with ample food, fuel and repair supplies. I say multiple because of the history of failed flights to Mars, so we will need to know the ships have landed safely before our hypothetical expedition leaves Earth orbit. Also, supply ships should be put into orbit around Mars so that our ship can fuel up or get supplies before landing if necessary.

    4) The crew will need shielding while on Mars even if they only stay a few weeks. A colony would need it far more. The only way I think people could be safe is if they dig down into the surface deep enough that radiation is blocked. In other words, mining equipment must be waiting for them when they land. All of it first launched from Earth. Think of the massive amount of fuel and money. And it can’t be one ship; at least 2 to ensure one set of equipment lands safely on Mars; probably several ships will be needed for the digging equipment, and of course, each of these needs a backup ship.

    Lots more obstacles come to mind. Musk either has no idea what he’s talking about.or he does but spouts nonsense for the rubes to get him news attention and maintain his super-sized ego.

  22. StevoR says

    @5. heffe7 : lava tubes are one option that’s been discussed and yes, underground with a bit of shielding – see :

    https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/19/world/moon-mars-lava-tubes-scn-trnd/index.html

    For astronauts exploring the harsh environments and fluctuating temperatures of the moon and Mars, the lava tubes could provide natural shelter from radiation, impacts by micrometeorites and unstable temperatures.

    As that article notes there are challenges but NASA and other space agencies are already planning how to use such lava tube caves – which are thought to be larger due to lower gravity for possible homes.

    If you read much SF, esp harder variety, you’ll also find plenty of ideas of how Martian (& lunar & other) bases could work and be developed.

    Hell, there’s even a wikipage with the basics of various ideas here : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_habitat

    @ 3. Jason Nishiyama :

    We haven’t even figured out how to get people there in a condition where they could do anything to keep them alive for the first week. Hasn’t Musk looked at people when they return from 6 months on the ISS? They can barely stand in Earth gravity and it takes a team of people, who wouldn’t be on Mars, just to get them out of the spacecraft. Whoever he throws at Mars would struggle surviving the first week, let alone longer times, until we can figure that out.

    Mars has much more gravity than the ISS and other space stations and more than the Moon. Not as much as Earth certainly – about 40% of our gravity – but I don’t think the low gravity will be as big an isue as you think. NASA and others have of course looked into this as again have a lot of SF (& popular science at least for the latter two) writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov etc.. We will also very likely learn more from having a lunar station or base first. See among sources here :

    https://www.nasa.gov/hrp/bodyinspace

    Scroll down to #4 on the list there.

    @8. mordred : “.. but I can’t remember ever seeing someone defending the idea of his mars colonisation in the near future…”

    I won’t defend Musk’s specific plan and program here but i do think there is a lot of value in having people explore and even yes attempt to terraform worlds in space. Remember a lot of scientists gave reasons why heavier than air travel was supposedly impossible before we developed aircraft and said we could never land on the Moon too. People even said it would be impossible fro humans to survive going faster than 25 mph once so I gather!

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having bold visionary dreams of human space exploration and constructing homes on mars, our Moon and elsewhere and working wonders in space and other worlds & trying to make it so those visions and dreams come true. I think we learn and are inspired and all benefit from actually trying to achieve space travel and put humans on the Moon and Mars and maybe Musk will help us do that – indeed he is already doing so through SpaceX which has changed at least travel into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) which is a key step.

  23. says

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having bold visionary dreams of human space exploration and constructing homes on mars…

    QElon’s blithering about going to Mars aren’t “bold visionary dreams,” they’re bullshit recycled from OLD AND OUTDATED visionary dreams, which Musk just repackaged without bothering to read up on what we’ve learned since those dreams became current and common to the genpop. He knows he’s full of shit, and doesn’t care. All he wants is constant attention and fawning adulation, and he’s learned from experience that repackaging old futuristic space-colonization fantasies as something he, the stupid person’s idea of a bold visionary tech-bro genius entrepreneur, can actually deliver.

  24. Tethys says

    lava tubes are one option that’s been discussed and yes, underground with a bit of shielding

    Eliding the necessary step one, they have to arrive there alive in the first place.
    Your own comment about the atrophy should have illustrated why any Mars arrivals aren’t going to be able to disembark or walk, much less start terraforming possible lava tubes.

    We can’t even fix our polluted warming atmosphere, so it’s preposterous to posit that humans can travel to Mars or create an atmosphere from scratch.

    Because some SF writers imagined going to Mars, or Mars colonies, is not a compelling reason to waste energy trying to turn fiction into reality.

  25. says

    PS: Penelope in that comic strip was right: terraforming Venus is a much better bet than Mars (not that that’s saying much), and Bezos would be a far more competent colony-builder than Musk (not that that’s saying much either).

  26. canadiansteve says

    I actually do think that terraforming is an interesting theoretical problem in the thinking of how could it be done. I also find it interesting that so much focus is on Mars over Venus, when it seems the advantages of Venus (closer, already has an atmosphere) would make it a better target than Mars. I guess everyone figures dealing with constant freezing is easier than extreme heat. Logically robots would have to be at work for many years, more likely multiple centuries before humans could do more than touch down for a few days not matter the location. Simple math on atmospheric volumes to gas conversion/creation rates in some kind of automated systems could give at least an order of magnitude type estimation for how long to really get anything done but considering all the industry of 8 billion people has changed the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere by about 100(ish) ppm in the last 100 years it seems like several thousand years of work might be a serious underestimate for how long to make/change an atmosphere….

  27. StevoR says

    @33. Tethys :

    Eliding the necessary step one, they have to arrive there alive in the first place.
    Your own comment about the atrophy should have illustrated why any Mars arrivals aren’t going to be able to disembark or walk, much less start terraforming possible lava tubes.

    Strongly disagree with you there. People have stayed longer on the International Space Station and other Space Stations than it takes to travel to Mars and been okay and able to work afterwards. There is a growing understanding on how to cope with long periods of microgravity and, of course, useful robot technology has improved too. Martian gravity is much greater than microgravity and as noted we’ll see how lunar bases go and learn more from that first too. I don’t think its the big deal-breaker issue you claim it is. Neither does NASA & other space agencies more importantly.

    We can’t even fix our polluted warming atmosphere, so it’s preposterous to posit that humans can travel to Mars or create an atmosphere from scratch.

    We won’t be. Mars already has its own atmosphere and if we can heat up and alter the chemistry of our planet’s atmosphere then we can do the same to Mars. It will take at least centuries if not millennia but I see no reason why we can’t do deliberate positive terraforming as well or better than we’ve done unintentional negative terraforming. There are plenty of ideas – not all just in SF on how this can be accomplished.

    Because some SF writers imagined going to Mars, or Mars colonies, is not a compelling reason to waste energy trying to turn fiction into reality.

    Because some SF writers imagined going to Mars, or Mars colonies people being able to build heavier than air flying machines, is not a compelling reason to waste energy trying to turn fiction into reality.

    See how that works? Sheesh. Let’s never do anything that people have imagined doing that isn’t immediately easily practical and for specific boring, immediately, blatantly obvious gains? Where would that have got us as a species? Never mind serendipity and what we might perhaps learn and gain. Why bother to create art, to do esoteric science or maths or try and satisfy curiosity and explore and learn anything, all just a “waste” in your view huh?

    You call it “waste” I strongly disagree and think it is well worthwhile.

    NASA has already produced a lot of good by taking us humans to the Moon :

    https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/blog/nasa-spinoffs

    Of course the Apollo 8 earthrise image also played a key part in boosting and inspiring people to take environmental action among more. :

    In Life’s 2003 book 100 Photographs that Changed the World, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”.[13][14] Another author called its appearance the beginning of the environmental movement.

    Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise#Legacy

    As Phil Plait puts it here – being spot on in my view :

    First, the question of why spend money there when we have problems here is a false dichotomy. We have enough money to work on problems here and in space! We just don’t seem to choose to, which is maddening. $12 million an hour is spent in Iraq; the US government chose to do that instead of fix many problems that could have been solved with that money. NASA is less than 1% of the US budget, so it’s best to pick your fights wisely here. Second, space exploration is necessary. We learn so much from it! Early attempts discovered the van Allen radiation belts (with America’s first satellite!). Later satellites found the ozone hole, letting us know we were damaging our ecosystem. Weather prediction via satellites is another obvious example, as well as global communication, TV, GPS, and much more. If you want to narrow it down to exploring other planets and the Universe around us, again we can give the practical answer that the more we learn about our space environment, the more we learn about the Earth itself.

    Source : https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/what-value-space-exploration

    As the Bad Astronomer has also noted elsewhere, the money isn’t spent in space or on Mars but here on earth and does good here.

    Yeah, Musk is a douchebag and his specific plans probly aren’t realistic but that doesn’t mean you (or me or anyone) should reject the whole ideas of Human spaceflight, exploring and landing and living on and even terraforming other worlds.

  28. Tethys says

    It took about 3 billion years for Earth to develop the current atmosphere with free oxygen. We have a large body of science on the subject, but it’s far from being refined to the point of creating atmospheres or manipulating Venus into something suitable for humans. Colonizing Venus with Thermophilic bacterial colonies and Cyanobacteria might be within our foreseeable technological abilities?

    I did not say humans should not study terraforming, but rather that we don’t have any reliable terraforming technology or ability. Therefore any notion of Mars colonies is as realistic as flying off to Atlantis.

    Space flight and its valuable contributions to science should be conducted by science organizations, not private megacorps owned by narcissist kooks with ill gotten wealth.

  29. John Morales says

    StevoR, I do like your space-cadet glow, but a bit of realism wouldn’t go astray.

    Yeah, Musk is a douchebag and his specific plans probly aren’t realistic but that doesn’t mean you (or me or anyone) should reject the whole ideas of Human spaceflight, exploring and landing and living on and even terraforming other worlds.

    Of course Musk’s ambit claims (“specific plans” is way overstating it) are utter bullshit.
    But then you end your counterpoint with terraforming.
    Not exactly on the cards in any near future, is it?

    Far as human (“Human” for you) spaceflight goes, I think the consensus is quite clear. What it entails is a shitload of overhead to carry apes in a can, instead of reliable instruments that need no pampering or consumables or waste disposal or protection from the elements or atmosphere or any of those expensive things.
    So the scientific research advantage of that is… well, no less bullshit than Musks wankings, to put it mildly.

    If it happens, it will be symbolic. Certainly within the next few generations, after that, who knows? I mean, it’s not like it breaks the laws of physics, or something.

  30. John Morales says

    PS there’s a concept called ‘telepresence’; been around for quite a while.

    And gamers regularly play e-sports with varying amounts of ‘ping’ depending on the various servers. Just saying.

  31. zakalwe says

    Ah PZ, you have to go find your own muskrats if you are curious about it. There is r/elonmusk on reddit.
    I tried to send a muskrat here, but he got discouraged by the title of the post… I can’t say that debating muskrats is much different than debating creationists. However, I can’t say I’m very skilled at debating.

  32. unclefrogy says

    ah yes a colony on Mars! lets start tomorrow. To get it off to a start we need the things that have already been suggested simply air, shelter, food, an energy source all ready per-positioned. The vision is indeed H.G. Wells and the muscled hero conquering the planet the genius tech-bro. a fun fantasy adventure maybe but a little short of reality, the question of what will the “New Martians” do besides build the survival gear is a little unclear.
    I see no way to avoid that the only way to accomplish the first part of per-positioning and prep for earth men is extensive use of robots and they will have to be able to do an awful lot of their work completely autonomously. In a word the simple logical conclusion would be that the majority of the Martian colonist would be artificial intelligence using extensive robots of all kinds to build the habitat for the visiting earth travelers. One of the spinoffs from that kind of development would be in the mining and infrastructure construction industries here on earth. let the colonists of inhospitable worlds be AI machines and the humans visitors for some business and pleasure who the hell wants to live the rest of their short lives in underground “cities” without blue seas and clean beaches or soft breezes?

  33. chrislawson says

    As Tethys says, Earth has a natural history of being terraformed, and it took almost the entire biosphere pumping oxygen into the atmosphere for 3 billion years before air became breathable. This is, of course, not a problem on Mars because it does not have enough of an atmosphere to be terraformed! (The atmospheric pressure on Mars is 0.6% of Earth’s, and it has been estimated that if we sublimated 100% of the CO2 frozen at the poles, this would bring it up to 1.2% of Earth’s.)

    https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/goddard/2018/mars-terraforming (and this article doesn’t even discuss atmospheric loss!)

  34. mordred says

    @41&42:
    According to the BBC:

    Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott – a Catholic – praised the cleric as a “saint for our times” and “an inspiration for the ages”, saying the charges he’d faced were “a modern form of crucifixion”.

    I think I found another candidate for the Mars colony.

  35. nomaduk says

    For those interested in what people who actually think about this sort of thing think, there’s a great site that covers not only the issues involved in planetary exploration but (gasp) interstellar exploration: Centauri Dreams. The science and engineering issues presented are cold and hard, yet hopeful. Timescales are long; I probably won’t get to see any of it, I’m afraid.

    But, then, I’ve been used to being disillusioned ever since I turned 40 in 2001 and the big, rotating space station in orbit and permanent Moon base I’d been promised weren’t there.

    (Also, if you want hard SF concepts, the sites Atomic Rockets and ToughSF are brilliant.)

  36. gijoel says

    @45 Yeah, the Mad Monk as he’s called down here. The suppository of all wisdom. A man who consistently finds the worst take on any issue. His only saving grace was that he made Scotty from Marketing look calm and compassionate. Actually, that wasn’t a good thing.

    The right wing in Australia are falling over themselves to praise him, despite Pell’s long history of ignoring pedophile priests, screwing victims out any form of compensation for what they suffered, his admission that he knew back in the 1980s that Gerald Ridsdale was a pedophile, as well as the numerous complaints about a number of pedophile priests stretching back to his first parish.

  37. ockhamsshavingbrush says

    @44 chrislawson

    Prezactly…and let’s not forget that a lot of the carbondioxide ice on the poles already sublimates during martian summer, so if it would contribute significantly to the temperature profile, we would have already measured it with the assorted landers, but nope.
    But Phony Stark will come up with a sooooper genius suggestion like…… let’s say for example nuking Mars with a bazillion megatons, this would surely evaporate all the underground water and that will raise the temperature and make it rain and we will have rivers and lush rainforrests, right? Right??

  38. says

    Yeah, Musk is a douchebag and his specific plans probly aren’t realistic but that doesn’t mean you (or me or anyone) should reject the whole ideas of Human spaceflight…

    NO ONE here is “rejecting the whole ideas of Human spaceflight;” we’re just rejecting QElon’s obvious scamming and bogus promises — all of which are doing more harm than good to any potential space-exploration program anyway.

    Seriously, Musk is not the sole personification of our dreams of conquering the next frontier. He’s not even the most credible voice on this matter. We can kick Musk to the curb and still have a useful dialogue about a credible space-exploration program.

  39. KG says

    From what I can see online, shielding astronauts adequately from radiation on a voyage as long as that to Mars – particularly from cosmic rays, which can be far more energetic than the UV and protons which make up most of the sun’s contribution – is very much an unsolved problem, and it’s not even obvious there is a practicable solution. Once on the moon or Mars, astronauts could huddle underground, and the journey time to the moon is short enough to be reasonably safe. I can see advantages to having a scientific base on the moon similar to those on Antarctica – it looks feasible to build one earlier than I’d expect general AI to be developed, it’s close enough that most of the time away would be spent actually on the moon rather than in transit, sending help would be feasible, and while telepresence is a possibility with a half-second round-trip delay, I have a feeling that would still be long enough to be awkward. But past the moon, I’m not convinced a human presence has sufficient advantages to make the extra problems and costs worthwhile, even if radically improved radiation shielding turns out to be possible.

  40. rorschach says

    This planet will likely be uninhabitable in 100-200 years, if we get 2+ degrees of warming. We are in a mass extinction event as we speak. 70% or so of species lost since the mid-1950s. The bees are fucked too.
    Terraforming another planet won’t be an option for another 1000 years, and by that time, we won’t exist anymore. Hunkering down in some vents or caves on Mars hardly seems like a viable solution to this problem. Collect some Earth species DNA samples and shoot them into space, maybe someday someone picks them up and recreates us. Best chance in my view.

  41. Jake Wildstrom says

    Mars is probably* the most human-habitable non-Earth planet. That news should be depressing rather than cheering, because “the most human-habitable” is not even remotely human-habitable, as it turns out. Any “colonize other planets” plan would be a lot easier to execute if we leave off the “go to a different planet” step. Have a brilliant technology to change atmospheric balance and fix sterile ground? Great, use it here—our planet, despite the damage we’ve done, still has the most life-conducive atmosphere around and is going to be easier to fix than anywhere else is. Planning to create sealed self-contained structures to live in? OK, if you just put them on Earth then you save yourself the trouble of shooting them across millions of miles of space and assembling them on the far end of the journey.

    *The fact that I have to hedge this is really part of the problem: terraforming is a science that basically doesn’t exist, and we have no idea of the relative difficulty of various projects except for that they’re all way beyond our capabilities now. It’s possible that the technologies to mend the incredible hostility of Venus’s (not entirely un-Earth-like) atmosphere are easier to develop than technologies to furnish Mars with a sufficiently thick atmosphere at all. It’s even possible, if terraforming ends up requiring massive amounts of energy and no other resources, that Mercury might somehow be the most viable. The point is that all three are straight-up impossible now, and we have no idea what kind of development could bring any of them over to “possible”.

  42. KG says

    Why Not Mars? by Maciej Cegłowski. Answer: for very good reasons. Reading it has made me question my slightly pro-moonbase opinion, even though it is only tangentially about the moon. The “justification” for sending people to Mars from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is toe-curlingly embarrassing in its inadequacy.

  43. R. L. Foster says

    The Antarctica analogy is spot on. This is the same thing I tell people when the topic of colonizing Mars comes up. Antarctica is an oasis compared to Mars. Air, water, oceans nearby. Mars is a hostile, bitterly cold, mostly waterless desert planet. Terraforming Mars will never happen with our current technologies. Perhaps if laser-fusion ever becomes an economic reality the calculus could change. The only thing we could possibly use Mars for in the foreseeable future is as a jumping off point for exploring the Jovian planets and their moons. Some of those moons are much more interesting than Mars itself.

  44. astringer says

    R. L. Foster @54 “Air, water, oceans”… + food and building material (scintered blizzard snow). Even fuel (if you take a blubber stove with you). Over a century ago Elephant Island proved it was possible to survive there with near zero external supplies, and yet no one (yet) voluntarily stays there off-grid. Somewhere above in the thread was mentioned K.S.R’s “Mars” trilogy. As someone who’s lived on the continent for a couple of years, I’d also recommend his “Antarctica” novel as a (IMO) perceptive exploration of existing highly-isolated social groups as well as (as far as I can assess) possible near-future politics of the continent.

  45. John Morales says

    Silentbob, sure, I get it. NASA propaganda. Appeal to emotion. No substance.
    Basically, an ad.

    (And the annoying background music is only to be expected, of course)

    Really, I do get it. I just recognise it for what it is.

  46. Silentbob says

    I have to admit; when I hear people say humans should stay on Earth and send robots to explore the solar system, I’m reminded of something I remember Arthur C Clarke saying. I’m paraphrasing from memory from 30 years ago, so it’s probably wrong, but I remember him saying something like, “now that we’ve developed machines that can compose music, perhaps we can develop machines to listen to it, thereby saving us the trouble”.

    Don’t get me wrong – I loves me some robotic space exploration. But to only ever send robots? To never follow up with humans? To stay only on this one speck forever and just send robots to live our lives for us, while we sit and watch it on TV? Srsly? Like… what are we even for then? A species that exists only to gather knowledge for no particular reason? A species that exists only to replace itself with robots? We’re never to grow and adapt and expand beyond our current environment like life has always done? :-\

  47. John Morales says

    Silentbob:

    But to only ever send robots? To never follow up with humans? To stay only on this one speck forever and just send robots to live our lives for us, while we sit and watch it on TV?

    Um, not “only ever”, rather, right now. With what tech and resources we have.
    At this current time. In this milieu.

    Not “forever”, rather only until it’s actually doable and affordable and practicable. Opportunity costs.

    Point being, if the basis is supposedly garnering of information and exploration, that’s precisely what machines are good at. Affordably.

    (We’re no longer in the 1950s, when neither telepresence or AI were things)

    A species that exists only to gather knowledge for no particular reason? A species that exists only to replace itself with robots? We’re never to grow and adapt and expand beyond our current environment like life has always done? :-\

    Oh, FFS.

    If you’re gonna dream, at least know what you need to get to what you dream about. Again, a bit less aspiration, a bit more realism.

    We’re not even at the point where we have proper nanotech and AI, are we.
    Where we can build replicators, and where we do not have to push metal cans into the air by combining chemicals for an exothermic reaction?

    We’re never to grow and adapt and expand beyond our current environment like life has always done? :-\

    And all because, right now, it’s at least a couple of orders of magnitude to send apes up in a tin can just to see what’s there. I left out, above, the obvious case that one expects people to go there to actually come back. Machines, not-so-much. You know, the sappy xkcd comic?

    Anyway, only such as you appeal to claims of “forever” and of some sort of manifest destiny and furthermore apply a teleological approach to the very fact of existence. Bah.

  48. seachange says

    Seeing that snippet by Mr. Musk reminds me very much of folks in England saying the same sorts of things to get rich folks to come to America to start the first colonies.

  49. Tethys says

    Humans have very successfully grown and adapted our way into playing mass extinction with the whole planet.

    We desperately need terraforming technology to fix our atmosphere. It’s comic book SF to imagine we will simply export humans to other planets because we foolishly killed the only known life support system in the solar system. We need the whole global ecosystem and it’s web of life to thrive and grow, not just the parts humans deem necessary.

  50. KG says

    Seeing that snippet by Mr. Musk reminds me very much of folks in England saying the same sorts of things to get rich folks to come to America to start the first colonies. – seachange@64

    America certainly had dangers for the colonists, but at least it had a breathable atmosphere and protection from cosmic rays!

  51. KG says

    Like… what are we even for then? – Silentbob@62

    Ah, there’s your mistake. We’re not foranything – that’s religious thinking. The “Man has always…” crowd are basically a religious cult, worshipping an entirely abstract version of Homo sapiens.

  52. consciousness razor says

    Silentbob, #62:

    I’m reminded of something I remember Arthur C Clarke saying. I’m paraphrasing from memory from 30 years ago, so it’s probably wrong, but I remember him saying something like, “now that we’ve developed machines that can compose music, perhaps we can develop machines to listen to it, thereby saving us the trouble”.

    If we could make those, we would learn tons of incredible stuff about music and about ourselves, not to mention whatever mind-boggling things it would take in computer science to get there in the first place.*

    Similarly, we could learn many new things with robots in space, as we have already. Seriously: they’re faster, better, cheaper, and it’s just so much easier for such missions to not end in complete disaster. If your goals are to explore or learn, rather than moving humans from point A to point B (and trying to keep them alive while this happens), then machines are the obvious choice.

    That sounds a lot better than the proposed alternative, which is to not actually learn much of interest, unless your one and only interest is precisely to carry out the colonization mission itself and whatever that entails.

    Also among the results: most likely, it would get a bunch of people killed, then they’d cancel the whole thing in utter failure, once the enormous levels of funding which would be required start to dry up.

    Or, if people could figure out how to survive there to some extent, they would probably be spending the short remainder of their lives toiling underground in a miserable fascist work camp. That doesn’t exactly sound like Buck Rogers if you ask me, so that’s also a big fail assuming you were hoping for something along those lines.

    *That said, there would still be the usual ethical issues to worry about, as with any sentient AI, so I’m fairly hesitant to claim that we should spend huge amounts of resources on something like that, along with generations of labor and research — much of it inevitably being a dead end. Also, we haven’t actually done that first step of having them compose in any meaningful sense either, but I’m just treating this hypothetically.

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