Wednesday, March 11, 2015

More Martian musings – – reality shows and diet pills

Given all of the renewed attention to the Mars One project, this might be a good time for a quick little catch-up essay.

Maybe it's just me, but there are a few extremely salient points that have a way of being neglected in this conversation.

First, manned interplanetary spaceflight is almost certain to be very expensive and the cost for setting up permanent self-sustaining colonies is almost certain to be many times more so.

Second, the superiority of manned versus unmanned spaceflight is, for now, almost entirely symbolic. This does not mean that there are not certain specific economic and scientific benefits associated with manned spaceflight nor does it mean that manned spaceflight is a bad idea. It just means that, given current technology, sending explorers to Mars is something that, in the final analysis, we would do because we choose to as a society. This is even more true with sending colonists.

I actually don't have a problem with this kind of argument. At the risk of some muddleheaded nostalgia, I like the idea of leaders standing up and asking the people what kind of country we'd like to live it. Though I am not a huge fan of JFK, I greatly admire both the rhetoric and the sentiment behind "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Which brings me to my main objection to Mars one.

Without delving too deeply into the promise and the limitations of businesses like space X, when it comes to the kind of massive operations we're talking about here, we really only have two choices:

The first is to decide this is something we want to do and that we are willing to spend a considerable amount of money it would take to do it;

The second is to wait for a technological breakthrough which will change the underlying economics, with the understanding that this breakthrough may not come through in our lifetime.

I don't want to wait into that debate right now but, if landing on Mars is important, then it is a debate we need to have.

Though every major aspect of the Mars One proposal is laughably unrealistic, it resonates with people because it gives us an out. We can sit around and enjoy dreaming about how exciting the future will be without actually having to make any of the tough choices or do any of the hard work to make it exciting.

The idea of sending people to Mars just by watching a reality show is analogous to the idea that you can solve a lifelong problem with obesity by taking a miracle diet pill. I suspect that most of the people who try these products know on some level that it is foolish to trust the unlikely and unverified claims of late night TV pitchmen but the desire to believe outweighs their judgement.

Buying a proposal for a space program from a reality show producer isn't all that different.


  1. I largely agree with you, but technological breakthroughs don't come from nowhere. They come from wasting the taxpayers money on crackpot ideas. OK, some of the projects aren't completely out of cloud cuckoo land, but they are a bit out of easy reach. Funding them isn't about the project, it's about getting enough relatively bright people thinking about new stuff, trying new things and basically banging on the edge.

    It's like interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney scammed the Continental Congress, even before the US was independent, to spend money on manufacturing guns with interchangeable parts. It took 30 years before his son, EW Jr and Sam Colt actually produced such guns and another 30 years to develop "armory practice" and another 30 years before "armory practice" became the standard for machine tooling and metal work. At any given point this 90 year project looked like a ridiculous boondoggle, but the result was a manufacturing nation full of machine people. Funny how that works out.

    1. We've got a couple of posts coming up that address some of your points, including one on Whitney's "enhanced" prototype.