Mars, recent, Tech

In Space, Let Meritocracy Reign Supreme

On October 21, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that he foresees NASA will land astronauts on the moon by 2035. “We need to learn how to live and work in another world,” he told lawmakers. “The moon is the best place to prove those capabilities and technologies.” 

The article that follows comprises the sixth instalment in “Our Martian Moment,” a multi-part Quillette series in which our authors discuss what kind of society humans should build on Mars if and when we succeed in colonizing the red planet.


For science-fiction writers, Mars always has been a blank slate on which to write our hopes and project our fears. Ray Bradbury imagined a Mars settled by farmers who cover the red planet with idyllic midwestern American towns. Robert Heinlein, swept up in 1960s counterculture, imagined a Mars where gnostic aliens teach free love, spiritual wisdom and psychic powers to a hippy messiah. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy—science fiction’s War and Peace—imagines a Mars strangely like Berkeley, with a gig economy that allows citizens to spend an inordinate amount of time hiking and pursuing other outdoor recreations. Entrepreneurs, too, use Mars as their canvas—including Elon Musk, who imagines a Martian society that features a system of direct democracy stripped of terrestrial bureaucracy.

In a distant, idealized future, life on Mars will be normalized, with the dangers inherent in interplanetary colonization having been mitigated by redundant infrastructure, a steady supply of food, water and air, and a growing wealth surplus. At such a time, we can suppose, some utopian project would be possible and even likely. But until such time, Martian lives will depend on delicate and unpredictable technical processes and life-support systems. And so the organization of Martian society will have to be based around a disciplined and rigorously meritocratic technocracy. The political overlay, whose decision-making protocols would be invoked only in regard to non-critical issues, would have to be an extension of our terrestrial government: To experiment with new forms of government during the perilous start-up period would be dangerous.

Stafleet Academy.

Here, the vision of Star Trek is closer to the truth than the writings of Bradbury or Robinson. Star Trek portrays an overarching organization—the United Federation of Planets—which delegates enormous power to Starfleet, a uniformed space force characterized by military discipline and a strong tradition of meritocracy. Civilian administrators assert their primacy in the Star Trek universe, but typically only in contexts where there are no acute military, logistical or environmental risks.

Mars is a harsh world. The atmosphere is so thin that it might as well be a complete vacuum, and temperatures can get low enough to freeze carbon dioxide. There is negligible protection from radiation. Gravitational acceleration on the surface of Mars is only about 40% of Earth’s gravity, which may present long-term dangers to any species that evolved on our planet. It is not at all obvious that Martian soil could ever grow Earth crops. For the first settlers, death by asphyxiation, hypothermia, dehydration and starvation will always be a clear and present danger. And so every aspect of operations will have to be conducted in a way that minimizes risk.

Our best model for a Martian colonization program is the Apollo program, which landed the first humans on the moon—though even in this case, technical compromises were made in order to keep the program funded. For example, manufacturing and development were spread around the United States during the 1960s as a means to attract the support of federal legislators who might otherwise cut funding. Each stage of the Saturn V rocket had a different manufacturer, complicating integration and assembly. And the tight timeline that John F. Kennedy had demanded entailed unnecessary risks. It required, for instance, an “all up” testing strategy for the Saturn V (as opposed to testing each stage individually and repeatedly), a dangerous gamble that fortunately paid off.

In other respects, however, the program was run on a technically rigorous basis. NASA required that astronauts be well-educated (preferably with a degree in engineering) and have extensive flying experience (preferably as a test pilot). Candidates were expected to have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary ability to remain calm under pressure. They also had to be in perfect health. (Deke Slayton, one of the best performing astronauts, was grounded for years because of an irregular heart rhythm.)

Deke Slayton (right) walking from a T-38 aircraft at Patrick AFB in 1969.

Consider the pedigree of the most famous of the Apollo astronauts, Neil Armstrong. As a child, he was obsessed with science, engineering and flight. He worked odd jobs to raise enough money to pay for flying lessons in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and hitchhiked to a nearby grass airstrip to take lessons. He earned his junior pilot license at 16, before he could drive. He served as a pilot in the Korean war, and during one mission over North Korean airspace, lost part of a wing. Armstrong somehow managed to climb from treetop level to 14,000 feet, and fly his crippled F9F Panther back to South Korean airspace before ejecting.

During the Gemini 8 mission, a short circuit caused a yaw thruster to misfire, sending Armstrong’s ship into a roll and then a tumble that reached a frequency of one rotation per second. Armstrong’s voice was eerily calm as he explained the problem and wrested back control, all the while—as he euphemistically put it later—“physiological limits were being approached.”

Readers can watch on YouTube as Armstrong aborts a 1969 flight on the LLTV (Lunar Landing Training Vehicle), an ungainly machine meant to approximate the experience of piloting the Lunar Landing Module, little more than a jet engine that the pilot balanced atop. On one training flight, Armstrong’s LLTV controls failed and the vehicle began to roll over. He ejected at the last possible moment. As the LLTV exploded and burned, Armstrong brushed himself off, answered a few questions, and then drove to the office for a full day’s work. The other Apollo astronauts had similarly impressive back stories.

Yet our era has a complicated relationship with the idea of meritocracy, which some now present as an illusion that operates as a mask for privilege. One prominent academic tours the United States advising colleges on their human-resources policies, instructing academics that the words “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” comprise a form of “microagression.” Other university professors claim that even the articulation of “objective” baselines can be seen as part and parcel of “white supremacy culture.”

This shift in attitude was illustrated by coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo landing in the New York Times. Much of the coverage was dedicated to attacking Apollo’s lack of diversity. One widely criticized article, for instance, was titled “How the Soviets Won the Space Race for Equality: The U.S.S.R. sent women and people of color to space years before the U.S.”

The Apollo astronauts were chosen largely from the then-available pool of college-educated test pilots. There were no women and few African Americans contained in that pool. I wish that black test pilot Ed Dwight (the subject of a lengthy New York Times profile) had been on Apollo 11. And I wish there’d been a female astronaut with him. But given the fierce competition for these roles, and the lopsided demographics of the pool from which NASA was recruiting, it wasn’t surprising that the selected individuals were all white men.

The fault lay less with NASA than with the racism and sexism that caused the talent pipeline to be so constrained. And once NASA and related organizations managed to diversify the talent entering that training pipeline, they went on to have a laudable record of diversity. As the Times itself quotes Ed Dwight, “I don’t know any person with determination and will that can’t go to space.”

If the Apollo program were organized today, its astronauts would be diverse—not because NASA would artificially skew the selection process to please The New York Times, but because the application of meritocratic principles would yield that result. This is an important distinction: Our modern fixation on diversity is focused on optics, while the integrity of any highly demanding, high-risk technical mission (of which interplanetary travel is perhaps the ultimate example) demands a focus on meritocracy, with diversity emerging as a beneficial byproduct.

It is often said that the world of Star Trek, like other idealized science-fiction worlds, is based on the conceit of a post-scarcity economy. But we will never be able to take even baby steps to this vision if we embrace a post-competence approach to engineering and project management. A post-competence mindset may be acceptable in rarefied cultural, academic and aesthetic milieus in which success and failure are not applicable concepts. But it would be disastrous in a world where a single mistake can result in the deaths of whole communities.

Those who travel to Mars will not need to debate free markets, bureaucracy, or state control of the means of production. They will not care about the ethnicity or gender identity of their peers. They will be too busy figuring out how to survive. Someday, they may choose libertarianism or socialism, or they may wade into identity politics, just as we’ve done here on earth. But first, they will need the skills to make a lifeless planet bloom.



Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher who teaches at the State University of New York. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigDeLancey.

Featured image: NASA image produced to promote the Artemis moon-landing program.


  1. 2035? We were told it was 2024.

    Our best model for a Martian colonization program is the Apollo program, which landed the first humans on the moon

    Which took a total of 10 years (not counting the 16 years of rocket and aerospace development in the US before that) to put 12 people on the moon for a cumulative total of 14 days (with 3 days actually walking around on the surface) between the 6 missions. This required 38,000 hours in training simulators, by the way.

    Unfortunately, the merit of the individual astronauts is not the biggest issue. Space travel is just damned hard. We will never colonise Mars.

  2. The Left’s dismissal of meritocracy as a principle, is based upon a huge misunderstanding of the nature of aptitude, knowledge and skill distributions. Once one gets past the ranks of middle management, it is difficult to find candidates for senior management who can perform the complexities of such roles with barely adequate levels of competence. Often the gulf between the best candidate and their nearest competitor can be huge- with the consequences of a poor choice being felt several layers down the management chain, being felt like a minor earthquake, disrupting the carefully built up structures of human talent, and adversely affecting morale.

    It’s why a change of leadership at the top can have a modest influence on share prices depending on reputation, which can become even more apparent when the first opening moves of a new strategy begin to hit the more informed elements of the press. A good example of this was Rentokil before Initial, where senior management worked out that it was impossible to sack the guy in the van, so instead decided to innovate a rationalisation process that started at the top and worked its way downwards. This became a widespread practice quite quickly, once it became apparent the influence it could have on the bottom line. It’s why executive pay is so high, because of the demand for highly capable individual, although many might argue that often this pay is too arbitrary- sometimes, but not always, paid too much for the role, and not enough for the person occupying it.

    There are all sorts of other examples of how the Pareto distribution works in practice. From Hollywood to Music, from novels to podcasts. If it wasn’t for the stranglehold the finance sector has, on new jobs in the 1%, we would be able to see quite clearly the influence that Creatives have in exacerbating income inequality. Maybe the millennials wouldn’t mind so much, if they realised that all their money was going to people like Jennifer Lawrence.

  3. A significant theme of the article was that a Martian colony would need to be inherently more meritocratic, in order to survive. Indeed, even in the egalitarian societies of abundance that we have today in the West, the precarious nature of our ancestors lives, has ingrained the urge for survival in us so strongly that we naturally sort ourselves into value hierarchies of ability, from childhood onwards- even if the need is perhaps not as pressing, especially in social situations, as it once was. One of reasons why socialism inevitably fails, often disastrously, is because the socialised desire for equality disrupts these value hierarchies, and affords mobs of less able individual to eliminate or displace their more successful competitors in the breeding pool. Of course, this doesn’t do them much good, when there is no one successful left to farm, as the most recent experiment in Venezuela proves, yet again.

    Think about it. Your gym wouldn’t stay open for long if your customers didn’t trust your expertise or ability. So I think meritocracy is very much being showcased in the article. The need to survive in new environments, always brings it to the fore.

  4. There have been many cases where some grotesquely overpaid CEO ran his corporation into the ground. I come down on the other side of this – I suspect that many CEOs could easily be replaced with a thousand other people who would do just as well for a tenth the money. Yeah, we have those genuine superstars like Musk, but mostly we have these cozy arrangements where the CEO is also the chairman of the board and makes sure that her sinecure is secure.

  5. What I’d like to do is start facing the difficulties inherent in things rather than trying to replace them with some utopian nostrum that will only make things worse. Hierarchies and meritocracy remain useful notions, but let us use them while keeping an eye on how they tend to stagnate just as you say. I like capitalism, but capitalism tends toward monopoly, plutocracy, corruption and rent seeking. The thing is not to replace it, but rather to be eternally expectant of it’s failings. I like governments, but governments tend toward bloat and sloth and waste. Let us be eternally expectant of that and not taken by surprise when it happens. We read in the paper: “Corruption and waste detected at city hall! People shocked and appalled!” Don’t be shocked and appalled, this always has happened and always will. Rather, be vigilant to clean house regularly. Turning over your bureaucracy should be seen about the same way as changing your sheets – something you do routinely. Remember when the Pope resigned because he knew he was too old to handle the job? Imagine if it was routine for CEOs to step down a level when the time came for new blood? No need for a purge, this is just the normal thing.

  6. I concede the hierarchies can become corrupted over time, but I don’t think that it’s a general principle, but rather a case of a couple of very specific circumstances. The first would be the more historic example of a business passing from one generation to the next, with the next generation only having had the more difficult scenarios in business explained to them by their elders- with no understanding of the ‘basics’ they are sure to flounder. This is also why, with the exception of a few banking families who have managed to manoeuvre themselves close to the printing press, most family wealth tends to deplete itself over time.

    The second problem, has become far more prevalent in recent times, and is sign of the financialization of the American economy in the eighties. It operates through the transfer of power from new entrepreneurs and production-based business leaders, whether making cars or media, to the specialisms of accountancy and Corporate Law. This is because once you have expanded to the point that the market is saturated, and then refined your production processes to the point that you have reached peak efficiency in terms of cost, there are only two ways you can go to extract a better rate of return.

    The first is to create a brand image that dominates the market and allows you to charge your customers more. The second is to marshal the lawyers to look into ways of externalising costs, limiting liability and weaselling out of guarantees, and get the accountants to find increasingly clever instruments to make money from cash surpluses and avoid paying tax. Often the two specialisms go hand in hand. At one point, General Electric in the US was more a finance company, than a utility firm.

    The problem is that the productive creatives in any enterprise- the square root of employees that produce the majority of the value- are almost never the accountant or the lawyers (even though you wouldn’t know it from their remuneration). Eventually these hyper-productive individuals will get pissed off with working for a company that obsesses over legalities and bean-counting, and find employment elsewhere- often going as far as to set up their own business, to escape working for the corporate types. As the productive creatives jump ship, the business stagnates. It’s why corporation that end up being run by lawyers and accountants almost always fold, ultimately, unless they can find an incredibly dynamic entrepreneur to take the helm and start to innovate again.

    Don’t get me wrong- a good lawyer or a good accountant can be worth their weight in gold, and both specialisms perform vital functions within any successful corporation, but when they take the helm, the ship almost always runs aground, in the long run. The mindset is just too orderly and structured, and usually cares too much about how much something costs, rather than whether it can or can’t be done. It’s why the European model seems to have greater longevity, with many firms possessing a pedigree that has lasted over 150 years. In such organisations, they never care about share price or the bottom line, and only ever worry about market share and whether they are innovating. Germany, for example, has 29 privately owned manufacturing businesses each employing around 6,000 employees. The UK, which followed the American model of management post- WWII, only has one. Elon Musk and the tech giants have managed to create a huge boom for the American economy, with their technological leaps forward, but innovation by refinement and increment tends to have greater longevity, because when you run this type of business, the engineers and the productive types almost always retain at least one hand on the rudder, with the lawyers and accountants only ever sharing power.

    Another way to look at it, would be to consider which is more important to any business- cost, quality or service. Other than for the low-cost operators, who tend to operate on tiny margins and often find themselves systemically vulnerable to the market, then the answer is simple. Quality should always precede service, because high quality reduces service costs, and cost should always be considered last, because it easier to reduce costs when you start from the premise of quality and service, than it is to increase quality and service, when you start on the premise of cost. Many never realise, or forget, this simple, all-important formula.

  7. Welcome to planet Earth, missing target dates is common for large projects, new roads, large buildings, F35’s, aircraft carriers, targets for the commissioning of new commercial aircraft. When those projects are at the cutting edge of technology such targets are more aspirational than concrete.

    “Deadline” has I suspect never been used to describe target dates for almost any project of Musk’s or most anyone else running major cutting edge projects.

  8. Problem is, Ray, that you really do need to reward top performers in order to keep them. However, research shows that rewarding them with money is a serious problem, because once it gets to be too much money, it actually gets in the way of their performance.

    The suggestion I liked on how to fix this was in fact by non-monetary compensation. In other words, perks that you get for being a good employee that are actually valuable to you. I remember one person who needed to be able to commute to his wife when she was pregnant. If he took a promotion he be working longer hours and would have trouble with that, and that is what he said to the CEO. The CEO said hey, I have a spare apartment in the city which I use, why don’t you guys live there. Nothing monetary in that, but a gesture of caring that helped him with a specific problem he was having, and really endeared the company to him.

    This is sort of the way that Silicon Valley operates, the Google office as an example. I think they over reach when they say bring your politics to work, but having perks that make your life easier, like bringing people into talk, like having all sorts of spaces for you to be creative in, Etc, are ways of compensating people in non-monetary ways.

  9. As I said a few posts back, it seems to me there are usually many people who are competent to fill any given position. Not that this has be written in stone of course. It’s about the same kind of thinking as term limits for politicians as you say.

    No, but that’s probably proof of the value of the idea – folks who reach the top will want to stay there quite apart from their genuine merit. If rotation was considered a normal thing, the notion of clinging to power would be mitigated. Think of a pool of merit rather than the one and only glorious leader. I’ve seen this kind of thing in practice and it works quite well, there’s less time spent holding on to power and more time spend on getting the job done.

    Wasn’t that the perfect example of the problem? GE used to make stuff, then they became moneyists.

    In decades past German cars were always well built and serviceable. I owned three different Rabbits, plus a fourth body. The stuff they make now might as well be Dodge Omnis. It seems an economy can run on empty – run on momentum perhaps – for several decades, as we see, but eventually the flywheel stops and moneyism and banksterism will not be able to conjure money out of nowhere.

    I don’t deny it. But compare the Roman emperor – you knife your way to the top, stay up there with murder and terror, and one day you get bumped off yourself anyway. Not very efficient. A ‘softer’ approach to power would be good.

    Love your ideas tho, there’s lots of things that would help. There is something to be said for the SV model. Wokeness has become a problem however.

  10. I am quite afraid you are vastly underestimating your enemy.

    Of the various entities I am going to mention which have been almost completely captured by the Left, this is only because they entrenched themselves in administrative bureaucracies? It has nothing to do with the fact that people on the Left somehow got to the top and directed them according to Leftist priorities?

    Higher Education
    Lower Education (e.g. public schooling)
    Science (for the most part)
    Some Big Business (e.g. Google, Nike, etc.)

    Whether you want to admit it or not, there are some highly capable people on the Left in all these areas. If excellence in these areas (especially higher ed, science, and art/culture) is not important to the Right, if it does not think it needs to be fostered, then it will lose.

    But no matter, because voters will eventually elect Rightist politicians to clean up the mess? Evidently the Right needs to learn that politics is downstream from culture, not the other way around, and that the “soft power” exercised by the Left is more than a match. We have plenty of Rightist politicians around now. They are capable of doing next to nothing. What happens when there’s a Republican President, a Republican Senate, and a Republican House? Nothing. That’s what we saw. The Left has the power to make people social pariahs.

    Your claim that the strategy is not successful is not supported by any real argumentation. Yes, some of the less successful elements of society are eliminated after the Revolution, but others remain, who displaced the formerly successful ones. And formerly hyper-successful males aren’t so anymore after the Revolution.

  11. @Geary

    I agree with your observations regarding the cream being few in numbers. Everything is a meritocracy. Communist, Socialist, cult, commune and leaders of the Left are not chosen by lottery. They are the leaders who rise through the ranks of followers. The only difference is some prefer to let the meritorious process work independently while others wish to control the process in order to ensure only the leaders or members of their tribe receive coveted positions.

  12. If history teaches us anything it is that human ingenuity has a track record of pushing back barriers. At the moment, colonising Mars seems fanciful and while it might be unlikely that no one alive today will witness such a thing, I have no doubt it will one day happen.

  13. People over millennia have been gradually adapting themselves to increasingly artificial environments, while at the same time learning to make built environments more amenable to human existence. We already have large numbers of people who spend a large part of their lives isolated from the natural environment, take a look at places like this:

    So I don’t really see a need to create an open atmosphere anywhere where it doesn’t exist naturally, people as a species will adapt. Individuals like myself won’t, but by the time humans start really colonizing space, I’ll be too dead to care :slight_smile:

  14. Lots of the first world isn’t even breeding to replacement levels these days, @Tj2mag, and apparently lots of them aren’t even having much sex. Controlling population seems to be mostly a question of providing enough entertainment and distraction. (Back in the early 70s I asked the farmer I was working for as to why the local families were so large. He responded, “All there is to do out here is farm and fuck. In the winter, you can’t farm.” I thought it was a good précis :slight_smile: ) If that fails, there’s lots of birth control measures available.

    As to leaks, as I assume the engineers that design the built environment will include such things as isolatable sections, same as on a modern submarine today, but on a much larger scale.

    Life is a risky proposition, and we all lose the bet in the long run.

    As for the structure of the society that evolves out there someday, well, so what? Maybe they’ll like it (there’s no shortage of people even now who seem to prefer a state-guided herd-like existence). If it started happening in my own lifetime, which alas it won’t, I’d be happy to donate a significant portion of my income to providing free one way trips for them.

  15. My comment was about frontier conditions. I do not think that first world conditions will apply. Frontier conditions seem to bring out Patton’s famous saying about soldiers. Same thing in the frontier, the risk and hard work are likely to be extremely… stimulating, shall we say? Especially the risk involved.

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