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Why We Should Settle Mars

Space exploration will bring us inventions that benefit humanity. And it will help us avoid war.

· 13 min read
Why We Should Settle Mars
Photo by Nicolas Lobos on Unsplash

A review of A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? by Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith, 448 pages, Penguin (November 2023). 

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” said Oscar Wilde—but not everyone agrees that those who look up are doing the right thing. In fact, since the dawn of the Space Age, there has been a chorus of detractors calling for a halt to the project of making humanity multiplanetary.

In the old days, when government was viewed as the sole protagonist of space exploration, this line of argument was fairly straightforward. Critics could always point to the magnificent improvements to human life that the feds could accomplish if they weren’t wasting 0.5% of their budget on space.

Now however, as privately-funded space activities have become a reality, deeper thought has become requisite to develop a compelling argument for aborting the nascent project of human expansion into the solar system. One thesis, propounded at book length by Professor of Religion and Science Mary Jane Rubenstein, is that humans should not go to other worlds because we would harm them. According to Rubenstein, even extraterrestrial rocks have rights, and their lives and liberties could be severely impacted by the arrival of human pioneers.

A Declaration of Decadence
Mary Jane Rubenstein’s real target in “Astrotopia” is not the corporate space race, but the very ideas of humanism and progress.

While of great interest as an example of antihumanism taken to its logical conclusion, the problem with this thesis is that most people don’t care about the rights of rocks.

A stronger argument has been offered by professor David Deudney in his book Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity. Deudney’s writing style is ponderous, however, and his arguments far-fetched. He writes: “If the expansion of space continues, the day will inevitably come when Terra is reduced to a marginal player, at the mercy of its gargantuan, and probably monstrous, offspring.” In short, there are no Martians now, but once we colonize Mars, there will be.

Clearly, the anti-space cause needs stronger advocacy. Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s book A City on Mars seems at first like a promising candidate.

But the Weinersmiths’ central thesis is inherently contradictory. Human settlement of space is pointless and impossible, they argue, but we also need laws to stop it, lest humanity destroy itself fighting over the unprecedented bonanza that space has to offer.

In the more enjoyable first half of the book, the authors ridicule a number of silly and/or morally repugnant arguments that have been advanced in favor of space exploration. These include the ideas that by settling space we will be able to move all heavy industry off Earth—thereby ending pollution—and that by going into space, we will create a way for some of humanity to survive after we destroy the Earth and kill off the rest.

The Weinersmiths also effectively debunk the idea that space travel will transform human consciousness by making us aware that the borders between nations on Earth are merely convenient fictions:

The standard observations are that the Earth is beautiful and fragile and that “you don’t see borders up there.” The latter claim, by the way, isn’t even true. We were told by one cosmonaut that you can see the India–Pakistan border as well as the border between North and South Korea. In any case, supposing you really couldn’t see those borders from space, would that be wisdom? We believe an insightful person ought to see that there’s a border between the Koreas. The people trapped on one side certainly do.

The Weinersmiths are certainly right about this, as can be seen in the photograph below.

North and South Korea as seen from space at night. Source: Wikipedia commons.

The problem is that the Weinersmiths simply ignore or dismiss all the more important arguments in support of human space settlement. (We will get to those later.)

After dismissing a number of absurd arguments, the authors change tack, claiming that space travel will prove impossible in any case.

In support of this, the Weinersmiths cite the high levels of radiation, extreme temperatures, and zero-gravity conditions of interplanetary space, as well as the abrasive dust and other hazards found on the surfaces of many planets. They discuss at length the many ways in which unprotected exposure to such conditions could kill. But they generally downplay or neglect to mention the fact that there are ways of overcoming those challenges—preferring instead to depict would-be space travelers in a variety of comically helpless predicaments.

But the Earth is also a planet in space, and it requires human ingenuity to survive here, too. If we believe their assertions, the human settlement of Earth should also be impossible. Following the Weinersmiths, we could make the following case:

The planet Earth appears to be an attractive prospect for colonization. However, the star around which it orbits is given to putting out massive, unpredictable bursts of radiation, known as solar flares, that are likely to inflict severe radiation sickness, causing you to cough your lungs out well before you land.

Even if you survive both this and the virulent pathogens that infest every liter of Earth’s air and water, the planet’s extreme seasonal weather fluctuations preclude plant growth for large stretches of each year. As a result, the Earth’s dominant macrofauna have evolved the capacity to subsist on meat—a category of matter that includes you. In addition to being highly intelligent, many of these carnivores have extremely sharp teeth, exquisitely refined senses of hearing and smell, an instinctive knowledge of how to hunt in packs, and the ability to ran far faster than you can.

These facts have led some to recommend landing instead on Earth’s ample oceans—but these waters abound in fast-swimming creatures, many of whom are also hungry meat eaters.

The flow chart for deciding on a mission to Earth can thus be represented by the diagram below.
Decision process for a mission to Earth. Artwork by the author in the style of Zach Weinersmith.

In addition to downplaying human ingenuity, the Weinersmiths make incessant and wearisome efforts to degrade astronauts. Here is a sample of the way they discuss the psychological challenges of space travel:

Kelly once attended a space conference talk about a new system for managing astronaut psychology off-world. The idea was clever—place sensors on your astronaut so that you can detect emotional disturbance. If they are disturbed, automatically lock the doors, sealing in the deficient human. Kelly asked whether the speaker thought that astronauts would be cool with this constant surveillance. At this point, the session moderator stepped in to say that, hey, famed astronaut John Glenn wore a rectal thermometer for his entire trip aboard Friendship 7 and nobody heard a peep out of him …

This is apparently not an isolated theory of human psychology. We found one paper by a researcher at Johns Hopkins, proposing a computer that would automatically dope astronaut food to maintain social harmony.

Of course, there are some kooks within the space community—as there are within all interest groups. If you focus on these nut cases, it’s easy to discredit the movement. The bigger problem is that the Weinersmiths don’t merely ridicule other people’s absurd theories but propose and defend their own.

Some of these crazy ideas have been borrowed from the work of David Deudney, including the notion that, should they become spacefaring, the great powers of the Earth would divert asteroids for use as weapons of mass destruction against each other.

In the course of my 35 years in aerospace, I have had a fair amount of contact with the military, and I know what they look for in a weapons system. The key desirables include precision, readiness, security, and stealth. Firepower is also important—but only when the weapon’s effects can be solely directed against the enemy. That is one reason why nuclear and biological weapons are unpopular among military men. Furthermore, the last thing you could possibly want would be a weapon of mass destruction that could easily be taken over and controlled by the enemy.

A diverted asteroid would take decades to strike its target and could be detected years in advance of impact, which would give the target country plenty of time to wipe out the aggressor nation using intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonics, or other Earth-based weapons that take only minutes to launch. It is thus an option completely lacking in both readiness and stealth, Furthermore, it is doubtful that an asteroid could be directed with sufficient precision to be guaranteed to hit a target country, rather than your own. And if that were possible, the enemy would have plenty of time to launch an expedition to nudge its trajectory enough to hit you instead.

The idea that the major powers would find asteroids attractive weapons is completely off the wall. In fact, many people contend that we need to become spacefaring precisely in order to develop the technology to divert killer asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth. The Weinersmiths disagree:

As Deudney notes … Humans haven’t been around that long, while the dinosaurs had a good long run. “Given these possibilities, perhaps the reason the dinosaurs lasted for nearly two hundred million years is because they did not have a space program.”

Like Deudney, the Weinersmiths also posit the idea that—despite their intrinsic worthlessness—the Moon, Mars, and asteroids are likely to become objects of contention between major terrestrial powers, thereby driving them towards Armageddon.

This is a remarkable claim, given the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the Weinersmiths discuss extensively in the book. The treaty has been ratified by 114 countries, including all major spacefaring nations. Its most important provisions stipulate: 

. Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
·       Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
·       States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner

Thus, all spacefaring nations have already explicitly relinquished the right to make any sovereignty claim over any extraterrestrial body or place any weapons there. By contrast, many nations have conflicting claims of sovereignty over territories on Earth. Any war over land is infinitely more likely to occur here. At least two such wars are underway right now.

Nevertheless, the Weinersmiths argue that we need a much stronger law to protect us from the outbreak of war in space. Their preferred instrument is a 1979 document popularly known as the “Moon Treaty,” which has never been ratified by any spacefaring nation—and for good reason. Article 1 clarifies that the treaty applies to all celestial bodies in the solar system apart from Earth. And Article 11 includes the following provisions:

·       The moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.
·       Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.

There is a lot more legalese, but the basic message, as the Weinersmiths concisely explain, is “Translation: ‘No, you can’t exploit it. NO! NO SHENANIGANS JUST HANDS OFF!’” They endorse this treaty because “If you believe, as we do, that there’s no obvious economic case for Moon mining … then this new Moon Race is just a pointless escalation towards a crisis, possibly even a conflict.”

Why there should be a “Moon Race” when there is “no obvious case for Moon mining” is left unexplained.

The Weinersmiths also claim that the Outer Space Treaty bans spacefarers from settling on extraterrestrial planets and creating their own new independent sovereign nations there. This is important because the birth of highly creative new nations on new worlds would be the grandest possible outcome of human expansion into the solar system. Luckily, the OST imposes no such restriction. On the contrary, its 114 signatories have explicitly forsworn any claim of sovereignty over extraterrestrial bodies, and thus any right whatsoever to interfere with the formation of new nations in space.

It is true that there are 80 nations that have not ratified the OST, so in principle they could go to war against any future Martian city states. But why they would do so remains a mystery.

This brings me to the most serious problem with this book. We do face a serious threat of war right now—but not from Martian invaders or because of disputes over mining rights on the Moon. We face the threat of war because the world today is, as Abraham Lincoln said of the United States in 1858, “a house divided, which cannot exist forever half slave and half free. It must become all one or all the other.”

If the free nations became spacefaring, that would offer us a significant advantage in this struggle. The opening-up of a challenging new domain of human activity has always benefited the most innovative nations. Thus, it was the most liberal societies—from ancient Athens to the Dutch and British in the age of sail—that prevailed upon the sea. Likewise, although it was Germany and Japan that gave the first demonstrations of the forceful use of military aircraft, the Anglo-Americans allies far exceeded the Axis nations in their mastery of airpower in World War II. Mastery of space will be no different. In fact, we are seeing this already.

In Space, Let Meritocracy Reign Supreme
Sydney. London. Toronto.

While space assets have been used in conflicts dating back to Vietnam, the current war in Ukraine is the first in which space capabilities have played a decisive role. It is only though such advantages as superior space-based communications, reconnaissance, and GPS-guided munitions that the Ukrainians have been able to hold off Russian forces that outnumber them three to one.

Those capabilities came from freedom—not just freedom in the abstract, but freedom driven to excel by the challenge of the space frontier.

SpaceX—the company behind the Starlink communication system used by the Ukrainians—exists because Elon Musk and his team are motivated by the challenge of enabling the human settlement of space in general and Mars in particular. In tandem with Starlink, the SpaceX team has also developed the rapidly-reusable Falcon rocket system, which has not only cut commercial launch costs by a factor of five over the past decade, but which, in 2022, performed twice as many launches as the entire rest of the world put together. Just as a vibrant merchant marine and shipbuilding industry have always been the foundations of naval power, this amazing expansion of commercial launch capability and the vast ecosystem of spacecraft technology it is enabling would give our side an enormous advantage in spacepower should the free and unfree worlds come to blows.

But of course, it would be better to unite our world without war. To do so, we must ask ourselves why we need war. Tyrants claim that war will always be inevitable, since we live on a small world and there is only so much of it to go around. As Adolf Hitler put it in 1941, “The laws of existence require uninterrupted killing so that the better may live.” Limited resources imply eternal war, which justifies tyranny.

In fact, Earth’s resources are infinite. That is because there are no such things as “natural resources.” There are only naturally occurring raw materials, which are transformed into resources through human creativity and ingenuity in the form of inventions. Furthermore, inventions are cumulative: since all inventions are combinations of previous inventions, the more inventions there are, the more there can be. This is why, even though the human race has grown eightfold since Thomas Malthus wrote his erroneous thesis on the dangers of overpopulation two centuries ago, the resources available per person today are vastly greater than in his time.

But the idea that Earth’s resources are infinite is counterintuitive. Making people understand that can be like trying to convince a mathematically illiterate person that a 1-centimeter line contains an infinite number of points. It just doesn’t seem possible. But even the most elementary student of mathematics can readily accept the idea that there are an infinite number of points in a line that extends an infinite distance in both directions.

This is the true value of space. It is not a question of obtaining raw materials. We will probably not get oil from Mars. We will get inventions that will benefit humanity greatly. For just as the joyously innovative frontier society that was early America showered the world with inventions from the steamboat and the telegraph to the lightbulb, centrally-generated electric power, recorded sound, motion pictures, airplanes, and much more, so explorers and settlers on Mars will be forced to innovate dramatically in many vital areas, including biotech (to deal with the critical shortage of arable land), robotics and artificial intelligence (to overcome the severe labor shortage), and advanced forms of nuclear power (to provide for the needs of an energy-intensive society completely lacking fossil fuels.)

But these benefits, as great as they are, pale in comparison to the greatest blessing we will receive from Mars, which is the knowledge that there is no need to kill each other in provincial fights over territory on Earth when we can create new worlds for everyone.

To prevent war, the Weinersmiths would lock humanity in a cage. But that is the way to insure war. For the Weinersmiths, our freedom to explore space is the problem. But exactly the opposite is true. Freedom is not the problem. Freedom is the solution.

On to Mars.

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