Friday, February 15, 2013

Imagining Mars Colonization

Recently, Ken Anthony invited me to critique his work over at Planet Plots. Although I've only scratched the surface of his blog, there's not much I disagree with, and recommend the visit. The only problem, as I see it, is a lack of depth.. and a lot of hand waving. Just about anything can be explained away with "free people will figure it out". I very much agree with that sentiment, as Ken knows, but aren't we free people? Can't we figure it out?

For example, take what the Mars Starter Kit page has on it. There's many links to the Open Source Ecology wiki, which is a fantastic resource, but ultimately it's still just geeks in front of the computer screen.. where's the meat? Elon Musk made a comment the other day that has stuck with me:

"Making standard efficiency solar panels is about as hard as making dry wall. It's really easy. In fact, I'd say dry wall's probably harder."

The context indicates that he's talking about making solar cells (not panels from cells). I'd love to see someone back this up in a graphic way. Make a few hundred solar panels in a carpark somewhere.

Why solar cells? Why not just demonstrate that you can make glass or bioplastic? You're probably going to want one of them for your solar panel, anyway. Well, because solar panels still represent, to many people, a level of technology that is mystical and impressive. Proof: if I say a kid in Africa has a solar panel to charge his cell phone, you might still imagine that African kid living in a grass hut, but you'll appreciate his access to "high technology".

I'm also more than a little concerned with Ken's acceptance that colonizing Mars will cost billions. I don't doubt that it will - actually, I expect his estimates are low. The concern comes from the fatalistic implication that there's nothing we can do to get it started. It reminds me of the recent announcement of Planetary Resources and Golden Spike, both of whom claim to have received an outpouring of emails and other communication from members of the public asking how they can help - "send money" has been their only response.

What I think Ken fails to recognize in his pages describing how people can live on Mars is that it doesn't fit into anyone's mental model of How People Live. The words "self sufficiency" conjure up in people's minds an agrarian lifestyle. We think of hippie communes, at best, and starving African villages, at worst. We certainly don't think about extracting aluminum from clay to cast into machine parts. Nor do we think about running our own nuclear power plant.

There is no word for a small self-sufficient high-technology society because none exist. As far as I'm aware, no-one has ever even tried to make one. The idea itself is fantastical to us - even if we're talking about right here on Earth. If we can't get people to imagine a small group of people going out into the wilderness or the desert to build a high-technology society, then how are we ever going to get them to imagine the first colonists doing it on Mars?

I think the best way is just to show them. Let's get started.


  1. "There is no word for a small self-sufficient high-technology society" ...

    "Arcology" works nicely. So does "Biosphere" and (with some ideological stretching) "collective farm." But I suspect the term that actually would be used is "colony," with the understanding that everybody will know just what a Martian colony implies.

    That said, I think Anthony is being much too conservative. Robots and versatile machines will probably perform most of the bulk material handling in a future colony, and there's probably going to be very little waste. We won't have steel plants that produce ingots that go to warehouse and then to manufacyturers who melt down the ingots all over again to make castings which are handled on factory production lines, etc. We'll mine and reduce small quantities of ore and go directly to liquid pours of alloys which are cast directly in the final desired form. And even the slag will be reworked to yield buiding material and industrial chemicals. No muss, no fuss, no bad environmental impact.

    Whether this is really compatible with Anthony's free market ethos is an open question. I suspect it's going to look like and feel like socialism, even if earth-based corporations are bankrolling things.

  2. Small communities act in ways that can easily be confused with socialism but are not.

    For example, during branding time on a ranch, it is customary for neighbors to come over and help. It's hard work for the entire day and nobody gets paid for it. Then you do it again for someone else's cattle on another day. If you have no cattle, you do it for the camaraderie.

    The key to the community thriving is that everybody is an owner. Everybody profits. The providers of vehicles for transportation will all sell tickets for a profit. The colonists will all arrive with assets worth more than a million dollars. The bankrolling company will get up to trillions for arranging all the details depending on how many settlers are taken to mars.

    That's capitalism baby!