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Podcast #242: Life on Mars

Iona Italia talks to Robert Zubrin, who argues that Mars offers an extraordinary wealth of social and intellectual opportunities that would enrich humanity. And we can get there soon.

· 41 min read
Podcast #242: Life on Mars

Introduction: I was especially excited about this week’s episode. Although I don’t have a scientific background or expertise in astrophysics of any kind, my imagination has always been captivated by the idea of space travel and exploration. As a little girl, I told my kindergarten teacher that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. As an adult, I’m an avid sci fi fan and I have loved the visions of Mars settlement outlined in such works as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series and in the Apple TV series For All Mankind. My guest, Dr Robert Zubrin, has dedicated his life to work that will help those visions become reality.  

Dr Zubrin is the President of the Mars Society and an experienced astronautical engineer. He founded Pioneer Astronautics, an aerospace research and development company, in 1996 and led it for twenty-seven years, overseeing over seventy projects for NASA, the US Air Force, and the Department of Energy before selling it in 2023. Before starting his own company, he was a Senior Engineer at Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin and worked on nuclear power plant safety, radiation protection, and thermonuclear fusion research. He is a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, the former Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society, and holds twenty patents. He has authored more than two hundred papers on space exploration and technology and twelve books, including The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, which is now in its 25th Anniversary Edition.

What We Can Create on Mars
Mars contains all the materials needed to support not only life but technological civilization.

I talked to Dr Zubrin about this latest book, The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet. We discussed the challenges of reaching Mars and the ways in which Elon Musk’s Starships could help us get there cheaper and faster; the forms Martian society might take; the attractions of Mars settlement and the benefits that settling Mars would bring all humanity, in terms of innovations and knowledge about the universe and the nature of life. The episode is especially timely as the Mars Society will be holding an Annual Convention from 8–11 August 2024, in Seattle.

I hope you enjoy Robert Zubrin’s wide-ranging vision.

Iona Italia: Welcome Robert.

Robert Zubrin: Well, thanks for inviting me on your podcast.

II: I’m absolutely delighted to have you.

I’m going to dive right in and begin by reading the mission statement of the Mars Society. I’m going to read it straight from the book.

In 1998 a meeting of seven hundred people was held in Boulder, Colorado to found … a movement … called the Mars Society … I am its president. In the quarter-century since its founding, it has grown to involve tens of thousands of people from all over the world.

Here is our founding declaration.

The time has come for humanity to journey to the planet Mars.

We’re ready. Though Mars is distant, we are far better prepared today to send humans to the Red Planet than we were to travel to the Moon at the commencement of the space age. Given the will, we could have our first crews on Mars within a decade.

The reasons for going to Mars are powerful.

We must go for the knowledge of Mars. Our robotic probes have revealed that Mars was once a warm and wet planet, suitable for hosting life’s origin. But did it? A search for fossils on the Martian surface or microbes in groundwater below could provide the answer. If found, they would show that the origin of life is not unique to the Earth and, by implication, reveal a universe that is filled with life and probably intelligence as well. From the point of view of learning our true place in the universe, this would be the most important scientific enlightenment since Copernicus.

We must go for the knowledge of Earth. As we begin the twenty-first century, we have evidence that we are changing the Earth’s atmosphere and environment in significant ways. It has become a critical matter for us to better understand all aspects of our environment. In this project, comparative planetology is a very powerful tool, a fact already shown by the role Venusian atmospheric studies played in our discovery of the potential threat of global warming by greenhouse gases. Mars, the planet most like Earth, will have even more to teach us about our home world. The knowledge we gain could be key to our survival.

We must go for the challenge. Civilizations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The time is past for human societies to use war as a driving stress for technological progress. As the world moves towards unity, we must join together, not in mutual passivity, but in common enterprise, facing outward to embrace a greater and nobler challenge than that which we previously posed to each other. Pioneering Mars will provide such a challenge. Furthermore, a cooperative international exploration of Mars would serve as an example of how the same joint action could work on Earth in other ventures.

We must go for the youth. The spirit of youth demands adventure. A humans-to-Mars program would challenge young people everywhere to develop their minds to participate in the pioneering of a new world. If a Mars program were to inspire just a single extra percent of today’s youth to scientific educations, the net result would be tens of millions more scientists, engineers, inventors, medical researchers, and doctors. These people will make innovations that create new industries, find new medical cures, increase income and benefit the world in innumerable ways to provide a return that will utterly dwarf the expenditures of the Mars program.

We must go for the opportunity. The settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew; carrying forward as much of the best of our heritage as possible and leaving the worst behind. Such chances do not come often and are not to be disdained lightly.

We must go for our humanity. Human beings are more than merely another kind of animal. We are life’s messenger. Alone of the creatures of the earth, we have the ability to continue the work of creation by bringing life to Mars, and Mars to life. In doing so, we shall make a profound statement as to the precious worth of the human race and every member of it.

We must go for the future. Mars is not just a scientific curiosity; it is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth combined, possessing all the elements that are needed to support not only life, but technological society. It is a New World filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilization that is waiting to be born. We must go to Mars to make that potential a reality. We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.

Believing therefore that the exploration and settlement of Mars is one of the greatest human endeavors possible in our time, we have gathered to found this Mars Society, understanding that even the best ideas for human action are never inevitable, but must be planned, advocated, and achieved by hard work. We call upon all other individuals and organizations of like-minded people to join with us in furthering this great enterprise. No nobler cause has ever been. We shall not rest until it succeeds.

 I just wanted to make sure everybody heard that mission statement before we begin.

The Mars Society

Let’s begin with how we will travel to Mars, why you believe it has become easier than ever before. Let’s begin with Starlink and how that has contributed to the ease of getting there. Starship, sorry.

RZ: Starship is a fully reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle that is in the process of being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. I and the Mars Society more broadly were largely responsible for helping to recruit Musk to making humans to Mars one of his callings in life. He read my earlier book, The Case for Mars, and he came to a fundraiser that we had in Silicon Valley, where we were raising money for our Mars Desert Research Station, which in fact was built. He made a substantial donation, and he joined our board for a while. But then at a certain point he said to me that he was one of these people that doesn’t want to be part of somebody else’s operation. He has to lead his own. He already was quite rich from PayPal and was deciding what to do with the rest of his life and he thought the two most significant things that could be done in his lifetime were either making solar energy practical or humans to Mars. I argued for Mars because the business case for solar energy is obvious. If it can be made competitive against fossil fuels, it will prevail. If not, it will not. Anyone with a credible business plan can find investors to give it a try. Whereas Mars is … you have to have a lot more vision. In the end he decided to do both and also launch the car company as well.

But to come back to this thing, Musk realised that the opening of the space frontier required a drastic lowering of the cost to orbit, which could only be achieved by making launch vehicles reusable. Imagine, in round numbers, a Boeing 737 costs $100 million and it seats something like 100 people. If you threw it away after each flight, an airplane ticket would have to cost in the order of a million dollars each just to pay for the plane. Instead, people ride on airplanes for a couple of hundred dollars a ticket, depending upon where they’re going. That’s because airplanes are reusable. Launch vehicles haven’t been.

So he first developed a very small launch vehicle to get in the business, but then he created the Falcon 9, which is a medium-lift launch vehicle that was mostly reusable: that is, the lower stage is reused; the upper stage, which is smaller, is not. But that did result in a cut of cost of launch by a factor of five compared to what had been the case for the past half century. Now they’re moving on from there to create a fully reusable vehicle which they call Starship. And it’s a two-stage vehicle, like the Falcon is, but much bigger. It’ll have five times the payload, a hundred tons to orbit, which is a bit less than the Saturn V moon rocket, but in the same class. A Saturn V could do 140. But the Saturn V was expendable. This is reusable. So it’s going to cut launch costs by another factor of five, at least, maybe more, if it’s successful. And they’re rapidly testing it. They’ve done... I’ve lost track but around three flight tests so far, of which each one got further into the flight envelope than the one before. The first one failed, it got into the air and all that, but it caused a lot of damage to the pad, it was kind of messy. The second one did a lot better, the third one did better still. They’ll probably fly it a fourth time in a month or two and I believe that by the end of the year this will be an operational system.

And this thing runs on methane and oxygen as its fuel and oxidiser. A rocket needs both a fuel and an oxidiser to burn the fuel because it flies in space, where there’s no air. And this is the cheapest possible propellant combination, but more importantly, it is the easiest propellant combination to make on Mars. In my own book, The Case for Mars, I outlined a plan called Mars Derivation, which laid out a way to do Mars missions, doing direct flight to Mars and direct return from Mars using locally-produced propellant, methane-oxygen produced from Martian water and carbon dioxide. That’s the plan that Musk has embraced but with a fully reusable vehicle.

These things are going to make all sorts of business plans that people have for commerce and Earth orbit, orbiting research labs, space hotels, all this kind of stuff that people have talked about for a long time, but which were not possible from a business point of view with high-launch costs. But if you cut the launch costs from $10,000 a kilogramme to $300 a kilogramme, then all of a sudden, things that didn’t add up, do add up. And there’s going to be a lot of this stuff, these vehicles.

A Starship would be able to go anywhere to anywhere on Earth in less than an hour: Los Angeles to Sydney, for example, in less than an hour. I believe this will open up a new form of transportation. You know, for 3,000 years, people have made a lot of money on the ocean, some by actually extracting wealth from the ocean—for example, by fishing—but much more money has been made using the oceans as a low-drag medium, a complete, convenient medium for long-distance transport. Well, similarly, I believe that, while people are going to extract money from space as it were through remote-sensing satellites and orbital research labs and all these sorts of things, much more money is going to be involved in using space as a zero-drag medium to travel from anywhere to anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. So there’s going to be space lines.

Now, there’s going to be something else that hasn’t been up till now, which is … the advent of reusable launch vehicles means that there’s going to be used launch vehicles, which is a thing that hasn’t existed up till now. You cannot buy a used Saturn V or a used Atlas because if they’re used, they’re gone. There’s going to be used launch vehicles. Now, new cars are very expensive, but around the world, perhaps billions of people of limited means have been able to buy cars of their own by buying a used car, which might cost 10 percent or 5 percent or 3 percent as much as a new car. Well, there’s going to be used launch vehicles for sale. And Musk told me that he felt that he could build the Starship, which is the upper stage, the part of this that actually flies to Mars, for around 10 million each, which means either he or a copycat … and for instance, there’s about five companies in China right now that are working on knockoffs of the Falcons … if Starship is successful there is going to be five Chinese companies working on knockoffs of the Starship, as well as free-world competitors and either him or one of these competitors, if they can build them for 10 million they’d be willing to sell them for 20 million and that means at a certain point there’s going to be used available for 2 million and a Starship could take a hundred people to Mars.

Two million dollars divided by a hundred people is twenty thousand dollars a person. Now, I have to admit I have never paid $20,000 for an airplane ticket, although there are people that do. That is the cost of a first-class ticket from Los Angeles to Sydney. But certainly for people who are looking to make a life-changing move, to cash in their chips on Earth and move to Mars, $20,000 is actually a modest cost. In comparative terms, it’s about a tenth the cost it was to move from England to America during the colonial period, that is relative to incomes.

This is something that people could do. So there’s going to be groups of people who are going to decide for one reason or another that they want to go to Mars, that they want to set up a city on Mars. See, there’s always going to be people that are going to want to have their own ideal society. And the ideas of that society will differ a great deal that people have. I think there will be a plethora of Mars colonies established by people who have their own reasons for doing it. And some of these ideas will be unworkable and those colonies will fail. But some of them will not only be workable, they will be superior. They will offer people a better way of life than they could have on Earth, and they will attract immigrants. And those cities will grow.

II: I’m really interested in the comparisons that you make between frontier life in the US and frontier life on Mars. And you say that people suggest that Mars is not habitable, but the Earth was not habitable either until it was terraformed.

It’s a very similar image that you use to the image that David Deutsch uses in the beginning of his book, The Beginning of Infinity. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, with that work?

RZ: Yes, I am. I like that book a great deal. I think it’s a remarkable book.

II: You say, “There are no natural resources on Mars or anywhere else in the universe today, but there will be plenty of resources on the Red Planet once resourceful people arrive.” I think that’s an extraordinary image. Could you talk a little bit more about what you understand by that?

RZ: All right, yeah. I will. First of all, I do want to correct something you said. The Earth was not habitable for people until they developed technology. That is, human beings are not native to the Earth; we’re native to Kenya, that is, we’re native to the tropical canyon Rift Valley. That’s why we have these long, thin arms with no fur on them. Look, no fur. [shows his arm.] But we became able to leave our natural habitat in the Canyon Reef Valley and colonise diverse habitats all over the earth, like Ice Age Europe and Asia and then eventually the Americas and Australia, by developing a variety of technologies—like clothing and fire, for example, language, which was necessary in order to accelerate technological progress, weapons that could kill at a distance, necessary to net big game, thus making food available in winter in Ice Age Europe or Asia, etc. That is a Neolithic culture such as, for instance, people witnessed among the American Indians, far more advanced than human beings in the state of nature in the Canyon Rift Valley. And this is the technological innovation that allowed us to become a global species and now not only global in extent, but linked together globally through first long-distance sailing ships, then telegraphs and aeroplanes and the internet and all of this, so that we actually have become a truly global species that can operate on a global scale.  

But to come to the point that you brought up, I believe there is no such thing as a natural resource. There’s only natural raw materials. It is human creativity that transforms materials into resources. For example, uranium was not a resource until we invented nuclear power. Oil wasn’t a resource until we invented oil drilling and refining and things that could run on the product. If you could go to a meeting of Napoleon Bonaparte and his generals and they were contemplating conquering some country and they were listing its natural resources, they wouldn’t have listed oil, let alone uranium, or aluminium, which wasn’t even known to science until the 1820s. They would have listed land for sure, but land was not a resource until people invented agriculture. Until then, it was just something you had to travel over to get where you wanted to go. Land in itself is not a resource until you know how to make it produce something for you.

Take another example. After the Neolithic period, we got to the Bronze Age, and this lasted 4,000 years, from 5,500 BC to about 1500 BC, people are using the following metals: copper, tin, zinc, lead, gold, silver. These are metals. They all melt at low temperatures, and they all collectively are 100 parts per million of the Earth’s crust. Iron, on the other hand, is 50,000 parts per million of the Earth’s crust. But iron wasn’t a resource until people invented kilns hot enough to melt iron. So for 4,000 years people are using metals but only extremely rare metals, which is why during that period metals—bronze, brass, as well as gold—are things only for aristocrats. Once you have iron, a metal which is hundreds—almost a thousand times—more common than copper and gold, then iron becomes something that can be a  metal for general use. And it affects not just weaponry, but things like iron-tip ploughs, iron axes, knives. All of a sudden, metals become something for the common people. And now you have a tremendous expansion of civilisation because the metallic resources have been expanded several hundred times.

And then in the 19th century, aluminium becomes available because we have electricity, which you need. You can’t make aluminium out of aluminium oxide just by heating it. You need to have electricity. So aluminium does not exist as a resource until people invent electricity. And uranium does not exist as a resource for any practical purpose until we invent nuclear power. And deuterium, heavy water, is not a resource now of any significance, but it will become a gigantic resource once we develop fusion power. So resources are created by people.

And this is a very important point, because if you believe that resources are something that exists and people are just using them, then the more people there are, the less resources there are for you. And what that means is that human beings are fundamentally enemies of each other, they’re competing for finite resources, and you get the view of humanity of Malthusians, of Nazis, Hitler: human beings are diverse nations in a battle for survival over limited resources.

Why We Should Settle Mars
Space exploration will bring us inventions that benefit humanity. And it will help us avoid war.

But this is not true. This is simply not true. The human race is not competing for limited resources because people from all nations—or almost all nations—are making inventions. Inventions made anywhere ultimately become used everywhere. So the actual truth is that we are a family—a rather disorderly family to be sure—of nations engaged in a joint project to expand the resources available to all of us through technological innovation.

People in China or somewhere may say, ‘The Americans, they’re using up the world’s resources because they use up so much stuff.’ Not so. America’s 4 percent of the world’s population, but it’s been responsible for the past century or more for 50 percent of the world’s inventions and the other percent, almost all of it, has been the rest of the advanced nations and it’s precisely because of those innovations that China has been able to enormously increase its standard of living over the past 30 years through everything ranging from electricity to iPhones, all these things basically created in the West. But where’d the West get its renaissance in the first place? From inventions like paper and printing that were invented in China. That is the truth.

So the question is: Are humans creators or destroyers? I believe they are creators. We have a common interest in working together to invent, to expand the resources available to all of us.

II: Can you talk us through how a Mars city might come to be developed? Give us a kind of vision: from the first explorers arriving and creating a small base to a city of a few hundred thousand, let’s say, and talk a little bit about the kind of terraforming and the visions for cities that you describe in the book, which I found absolutely fascinating.

RZ: Thank you.

First of all, I want to contrast it with a vision that is out there that I do not believe is correct. And this is the one that Elon Musk has set forth, where he’s going to build a fleet of starships and he’s going to fly a thousand of them to Mars in one year with a hundred people each. So there’s a hundred thousand people landed on Mars and then the next year they’ll land another hundred thousand and the next and the next and then they’ll have a million people on Mars inside of a decade after the first landing. Basically, the D-Day Normandy Beach approach. I do not think this is practical. I don’t believe that’s how this will happen at all.

It’s not possible because to feed 100 ,000 people, you have to have extensive infrastructure on Mars, growing food, etc. You could feed the troops on Normandy Beach by taking Liberty ships across the channel, it only would take less than a day to take a steamer across the channel and they could carry 10,000 tons of cargo each. A Starship takes six months to get to Mars, it carries 100 tonnes. So this is not possible.

So the way Mars cities are going to grow, they’re going to grow organically. That is: first, you might take one Starship to Mars and you land a hundred people and the Starship can bring enough food for a hundred people to last a long time and then they build greenhouses where they’re growing food and now you have some kind of agricultural base on Mars and now you can bring in a couple hundred more people and now they can expand the greenhouses. Now, the initial greenhouses are probably built with glass and other components brought from Earth. But what you want to do is create on Mars the capabilities to make glass or perhaps transparent plastics so that you can build the greenhouses on Mars. And even not just the glass or the plastic, the transparent part, but the pipes, the plumbing, make all that on Mars. So you need to have the capability of making plastics or metals on Mars to make plumbing. And even perhaps the motors for pumping the water around. Eventually, as you’re doing this, you’re able to build more and more greenhouses with less mass needing to be transported from Earth for each greenhouse. Maybe at a certain point you’re only taking the computer chips that are running the greenhouse, but they don’t weigh anything to speak of.

So you need to build this agricultural and industrial base on Mars, and as you do this you’re creating the capacity to house more people, to feed more people, and the more people you have there, the more people you have creating more capacities and so forth. So that’s how this thing will grow. It’ll grow organically from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands.

That’s another thing. I do not believe that early Mars cities will be metropolises of a million people Historically, on Earth there were only a very few cities of a million people until the nineteenth century. Ancient Rome had a million people, but that’s because it was the centre of an empire that had this tremendous logistics organisation bringing grain from Egypt and North Africa and everywhere, aqueducts and this whole thing. In order to support a million people, you have to be able to transport lots of materials from far away to the place where the people are and until Mars has railroads and other forms of convenient long-distance transport of not just people but materials, you’re not going to have cities of a million people. You’ll have cities of tens of thousands. That’s why my vision of future Martian cities is perhaps cities on the order of 50,000, which is the size of Renaissance Florence, for example, or Rembrandt’s Amsterdam. You can have very creative cultures within cities on that scale. Hard to do it in a city of 200 people, that’s too small, but tens of thousands you could certainly have very creative cultures. There’s some technologies needed that would help that: a lot of artificial intelligence …

more skills within a somewhat limited population etc. But yes, that’s how this will grow.

Now, initially, Martian settlements can be funded by the organisations that are sponsoring them, which could be nations, could be religious sects, groups, could be non-profit organizations of people that believe in a certain cause and certain ideology or something that this is the ideal way to work, whatever. But once it gets started, while the home front organisation can continue to be of help, it increasingly has to earn its own way. So, to take some comparisons, if you look at three of the most remarkable settlement initiatives that occurred in the past 400 years—remarkable because they didn’t have a commercial motivation, if something has a commercial motivation, it’ll just happen, you can’t stop it from happening. Things that don’t have a commercial motivation must have some kind of other.

If you look at the pilgrims coming to Massachusetts, the Mormons going to Utah, or the Jews going to Palestine in the 1600s, 1800s, and the 20th century, what you had was strong home front organisations sponsoring this thing, and the organisations themselves being motivated by transcendent purposes; that is, non-commercial purposes. They want to do it. But once these settlements get started and grow in, order to thrive, they must have some way of earning their own way. So they’re not started to make money, but once they are there, they need to make money. Because even when Mars is making all its own iron and all its own glass and making steel and pipes and all this, it’s still going to need to import some stuff from Earth. It’s going to need to have cash income.

So what are the sources of cash income for a Mars colony? There’s a variety of tertiary sources that people talk about like tourism and sponsoring scientists and sure, but you can’t base an economy on that. One thing, though, that Mars will be extremely strong in is innovation itself. A Mars settlement will be a group of technologically adept people in a frontier environment where they’re forced to innovate to meet the challenges of that environment. They’re going to be forced to innovate in numerous areas, including energy, including automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, to name just a few. Biotechnology because they’re going to have extremely limited acreage, and they’re going to have to have extremely productive crops, so they’re not going to be held back from doing genetic engineering or other forms of biotechnology. They’re going to cut loose.

Nuclear power has stagnated on earth because we have immense quantities of fossil fuels. There are no fossil fuels on Mars. I mean, you can make them if you have another source of energy but that’s besides the point, you have to have the other source of energy. Solar power is weak; wind is weak; hydroelectric is non-existent. Nuclear is the way to go. We have some nuclear on Earth, but we’ve allowed it to stagnate. The reactors that we have—and I’m a fan of the current nuclear technology—but they’re based on the very same design that Rickover introduced for nuclear submarines in the 1950s. And while they work, absolutely, they only get about 1 percent of the energy out of the uranium that is mined. On Mars, you’re not going to want to do that. On Mars, you want to get 90 percent or something comparable.

We haven’t developed breeder reactors on Earth because of two things. One is, even at 1 percent of the energy, the nuclear fuel is only 5 percent the cost of nuclear power. And secondly is, the last thing people who are in the utility industry want to do with nuclear power is try something new because it’s hard enough to get a pressurised water reactor, a Rickover reactor that’s been around for 70 years licensed, let alone try to get the regulators to approve something they’re not familiar with.

The hyper-regulation of nuclear power has been prohibitive to innovation, whereas the Martians are going to want innovation and they’re going to want fusion power. Yes, there’s some fusion research going on on Earth today, the international program ITER was begun in the 1980s; but they still haven’t completed it. They’re really taking their time. The Martians are going to want to really make this happen because, once again, no fossil fuels and because deuterium, which is the fuel for fusion power, is five times as common on Mars as it is on Earth.

Now, an analogy here is steam power. The British invented the steam engine. Americans invented the steamboat. And it’s very interesting because the very first steamboat was demonstrated to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was called the Perseverance, just like the Rover on Mars today. And the first commercially successful steamboat, which occurred in the early 1800s, the Claremont, was financed by Robert Livingston, who was the very same person who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase for Thomas Jefferson. Livingston owned large amounts of land in the West, and he wanted it to be developed and in early America, the only real, good highways were the rivers. And sailboats have a hard time on rivers; steam was the way to go. The British were using steam engines to pump water out of coal mines, but if you’re using a steam engine for that purpose it can weigh any amount, it doesn’t matter, and it can be extremely inefficient, it doesn’t matter, because you have an infinite supply of fuel right there at the coal mine.

You want to do steamboats? The engine has to be relatively speaking more compact; it needs to be more efficient; the amount of fuel you’re carrying matters. So they were driven to develop compact, high-pressure steam engines, which are enabling for steamboats, and then with a certain amount of little extra improvement, railroads, which becomes the transformative invention of the 19th century. So the needs of the frontier caused people to look at making steam engines, taking steam, which already existed, but now making it much more efficient so it could do boats and then railroads to open up the frontier. And this transforms the world, not just the frontier.

I believe that, for the same reason that Americans invented the steamboat, Martians are going to lead the way on fusion power. And then, as I mentioned, biotechnology and artificial intelligence, because if you’ve got cities of 10,000, 50,000 people, you don’t have the same kind of division of labour you have here on Earth. You need to have technologies that will allow almost anyone to do almost anything so you can have the same array of skills in a population of 50,000 as you currently have on earth with 8 billion. And it should be clear that in making all these innovations, the Martians, they need it for themselves, they’ll be able to license these innovations on earth for profit, and they will tremendously benefit life on Earth by creating these innovations.

And to come back to this, by the way, there’s a very interesting book called Voyagers to the West by a historian named Bernard Bailyn. And what he did was, he looked at the British records of who was coming to America during the late colonial period, the 1750s, 60s, and early 1770s. Because the British actually kept records of this during this period. And it’s interesting who was the dominant group among the emigrants. It was not the urban poor; it wasn’t the slum population. They didn’t go. It was not the rich; no, they had no reason to go. Although there were a significant number of farmers, they’re under-represented compared to another group, which is way over-represented. And this is craftsmen. People like blacksmiths and carpenters and stonemasons are way over-represented in the population coming to late colonial America. That’s because people are building cities in America. There’s a lot more construction going on.

But also, the thing is what this gives rise to: relatively speaking, a technologically adept population compared to the average. You get this culture of gadgeteering in America. These people are literate, and they set up magazines like Popular Mechanics for themselves, in which they exchange ideas on how to build stuff and they are especially interested in labour-saving gadgets because there’s a tremendous labour shortage in America and this is the kind of culture you get in the so-called Yankee ingenuity. The Martians by comparison will be far—I mean far—more technologically adept than the average person on Earth. So I think you’ll have a tremendous culture of invention.

Other sources of income for Mars will be supporting the mining of the asteroids. People talk about precious metals in the asteroid belt—and they are there—but those mining operations will have to be supported and it’s about a hundred times easier to transport things to the asteroid belt from Mars than from Earth. And so what San Francisco was to the 49ers, the gold rush miners here in America, Mars will be to the asteroid belt. The way to get rich during a gold rush is not to mine gold, it’s to sell shovels and blue jeans to gold miners. That’s how San Francisco got rich. That’s how Mars is going to get rich. And then finally, real estate development. Because once you actually have cities on Mars, and they’re able now to take land and turn it into habitable land by putting domes over it and supplying it with power and other utilities, that becomes something that can sell.  

II: Could you describe to me your favourite model for a city on Mars? Since this is one of my favourite parts of the book: the projected Martian cities.

RZ: Yes, I suspect I know why. On Earth, there’s two kinds of cities. I call them car cities and foot cities. And they basically differ in that the foot cities grew into substantially their full forms before there were automobiles and the car cities after there were automobiles. So, for instance, you take these compact European cities like you have in Italy, for example, and these were all clearly foot cities. In America, we have a few foot cities: Boston, Manhattan, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle are foot cities. That is, in foot cities, people walk around; they travel from store to store, and they meet each other on the sidewalk or in public squares in the street. In car cities, places like Los Angeles, people drive around from strip mall to strip mall. A famous wit from the New Yorker magazine, Dorothy Parker, travelled to Los Angeles and she said, “There’s no there there.” Where’s the city? There’s no city. There’s a gigantic suburb that goes on forever.

Martian cities will be foot cities, absolutely, for a number of reasons. First of all, they’re going to be compact. European foot cities were compact because many of them were walled cities. They had to fit inside of walls to be protected from attackers. Mars cities will be inside of domes or other pressurised structures to protect themselves from the hostile outside environment.  

There are planned cities and unplanned cities. I happen to be a fan of unplanned cities. I find them much more interesting than planned cities. I have been to Italy and places like Bergamo and so forth, or certain parts of Rome, Naples, where you have this wild, extremely interesting chaos … That’s my favourite city. But there will be people that will go there, and they say, ‘Here’s our plan. There is the radial pattern of the streets,’ and all this and all that. And in the end, how can I put it? The results will decide. Martian cities will be in de facto competition for immigrants. And what will make Martian cities attractive will be their institutions, their prosperity, and yes, their architecture. The Martian cities that are successful, that is, the ones that outgrow the rest, will need to be beautiful and interesting.

It could be that the planned city will be beautiful. It could be that the completely unplanned city of mixed residential and business and factories and everything going on, all helter-skelter mixed with each other, will be the most interesting. It could be something else. I mentioned in the book, I was visited a couple of years ago by this Chinese visionary and he had this design for a Mars city. And it was a single skyscraper that was like, I don’t know, 300 stories tall. There’s engineering reasons why this is actually an interesting idea from a strictly engineering point of view. But I just don’t see it as a place that people want to live in. I think it would be a failure. I think it would be stillborn.

Now this, by the way, this issue of competing for immigrants is one reason why I believe the prevailing form of Martian civilisation will be free societies. In science fiction, there’s a trope of the anti-utopia in space, the totally controlled space colony. And aside from the fact that it makes for a good movie because you can have a revolution against the tyranny and you’re off to the races as far as the plot is concerned, but the more theoretical argument as to why an extraterrestrial colony might be a tyranny is because the government can control the air. If you break the law or they don’t like you, they can turn off your air or something like that. There’s no place to go. Well, that’s true in principle, but an extraterrestrial tyranny would not attract any immigrants, so it would be stillborn. So while there could be extraterrestrial tyrannies, they will be outgrown by free societies.

In America, the predominant problem we had here from a socioeconomic point of view in early America was the labour shortage. This was resolved in two different ways. In the North, it was resolved through gadgeteering, therefore that society can afford high pay because productivity per person is pay available per person. And it’s going to want an educated population so that it can continue to innovate this way and have people who can be trusted to manage machinery and so forth as part of the productive process. In the South, it was the other way around. They attempted to deal with the labour shortage through slavery. So we actually had two social experiments in America, if you will and they were very different. And how was this settled? Well, it came to blows, but if you ask any American Civil War buff, ‘Why did the North win the Civil War?’ They would say, ‘Well, the North had more population and more industry.’ And that’s true. But why did the North have more population and more industry? Because all the immigrants went to the North. The Union Army, the Northern Army, was 40 percent immigrants and first-generation Americans. Confederates, 3 percent. So the more progressive—and I use the term ‘progressive’ here not in its current political vocabulary but in the ordinary English use of the word—society attracted the most immigrants. It’s also why the United States attracted a lot more immigrants than Haiti or other tropical slave plantation islands, the more progressive society attracts the talent and so it outgrows the reactionary societies. I believe that Martian cities will be free cultures, although they will need to have a high degree of social solidarity because of the nature of the environment and that is somewhat in tension with individual liberty. But that will have to be resolved. The Martian city founding fathers and mothers who can resolve that dichotomy the most successfully, they will create the most successful cities.

II: You talked about science fiction, inaccurate depictions of Mars in sci-fi. There are actually two works of sci-fi that I wanted to ask you about how accurate or inaccurate they are in your opinion, if you’re familiar with these works, whether there are any glaring inaccuracies that struck you or by contrast, any things that you thought were particularly astute. And the first one is the old classic, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, a personal favourite. How accurate or realistic were Stanley Robinson’s visions of Mars settlement?

RZ: I’m certainly familiar with that, yes.

Well, first of all, the interesting book there is Red Mars, the first. That book is profound in its way, because what he has there is this debate over whether we should terraform Mars. And there’s two factions. There’s the Reds, who want to keep Mars red, and the Greens, who in this case want to bring Mars to life. So it’s the Greens who want to transform the world of Mars. I think this is a very interesting debate. I do not believe that there would be a substantial red faction on Mars. I believe that it will be so self-evident to Martians that it is worthwhile to take a planet in the current condition of Mars and turn it into a living biosphere that someone would have to be insane to advocate that ‘No, let’s keep Mars a wasteland.’ But it’s interesting because it gets to the heart of a debate which is really happening on Earth now and the debate isn’t about Mars. And it isn’t even really about the Earth. It’s about humanity. It’s about whether humanity has the right to continue the process of creation. This idea has a prior philosophical history that goes back into religion. And it’s the question of whether human beings are of the same nature as the divine, whether we have the right to continue the process of creation, whether we are children of God or slaves of God. This is a civilisational difference. In other words, are we something unique whose rights and dignity must be defended at all costs, the rights to create, or are we something that must be suppressed because we are vermin endangering some pre-existing perfect creation?

I know Robinson and, frankly, he’s ambivalent himself on this question. I am not. I am not at all.

First of all, we are, as it were, children of God, whether you believe in God or not. But whether there is something special about humans, that we have this divine spark, if you will, that should be protected and its right to exercise its creativity, protect it, this is a very important idea. It’s one of the fundamental ideas underlying everything that’s best in our civilisation and the attack on it is something extremely dangerous.

II: One thing that we haven’t talked about as yet is … We’ve talked about—or at least you have certainly implied—ways in which Mars settlement would be beneficial to people back on Earth because of the inventiveness, the innovativeness of the Mars settlers. You’ve compared them to a kind of inventors’ colony and to a frontier society with all the creativity that that implies both technologically and also politically. But one thing we haven’t talked about—and I think it’s very important—is the way in which, if we do find life forms on Mars that have evolved on Mars, the kinds of fundamental questions that that could answer for us about the nature of life and also whether we are alone in the universe. Could you talk about that a little bit for us?  

RZ: Okay, sure.

This is one of the fundamental reasons to explore Mars. I think, frankly, the most thorough way to explore Mars is to settle it. We know the most about Earth compared to all of the planets because we have settled it and not just visited it or sent a few probes here.

But to get to the core scientific question here, the early Earth and the early Mars were twins. They were both rocky planets with some liquid water on the surface and carbon dioxide-dominated atmospheres. Early Earth did not have oxygen in its atmosphere. Oxygen is an artefact of life. Life has transformed the Earth radically. But life did originate on Earth before it had oxygen in its atmosphere, while it still looked like early Mars. So, as above, so below, as below, so above. Were the processes that led to the origin of life on Earth—if indeed life did originate on Earth, as opposed to somewhere else that came to the Earth, put that aside. Is the process that somehow led to the existence of life on Earth, are they general or are they specific or matters of chance?

If you leave a bucket of water outside on a night in which the temperature is below zero centigrade, in the morning it’s going to be ice. It’s not a matter of chance. That transformation will occur. Under those physical conditions, water will turn to ice. Period. So is the generation of life from chemistry that kind of thing, which happens simply because the laws of nature dictate the process by which it is going to happen? Or is it some weird thing that is a matter of chance that some extremely unusual molecule forms that somehow could self-replicate and then that led to evolution and life?

We don’t know right now which of those is the correct view. Because all we know is here’s one planet, the one we’re on, and there’s life there. And we don’t know whether everybody is like us or whether we’re the people that won the lottery and nobody else is like us. Now if we go to Mars and we find that there’s life there, that certainly would suggest that life is a general phenomenon in the universe.

Now, there’s a number of possibilities, though, because Earth doesn’t just have life, it has one very specific type of life. That is all Earth life, whether we’re talking bacteria, mushrooms, or people, uses exactly the same biochemistry. It uses the same set of amino acids; it uses the same RNA/DNA method of transferring information from one generation to the next. I’m an American, I speak English, I use the Latin alphabet. You are Italian.

II: No, actually, my name is a bit deceptive, but it doesn’t matter.

RZ: Okay, let’s say you were Italian. So your name, Italia, it’s not Italian?

II: I’m actually Indian. My origins are Indian Parsi, and the name was originally Ita-walla and then got corrupted over time and became Italia. So, counterintuitively, it’s an Indian Parsi name. My father was Zoroastrian Indian.

RZ: That’s very interesting. Okay, so this is an interesting thing here. Well anyway, Italians use the same alphabet, and so do Poles, and so forth, because we all got it from Latin, either from the Roman Empire or the Latin Church or something. You go a bit further afield, Greece, Russia, they use the Cyrillic alphabet. Both the Latin alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet descend from the Greek alphabet. If you go to the Middle East, you get to Israel and Arab countries, they use other phonetic alphabets which look quite a bit different than Latin or Cyrillic, but they still use the same principle of phonemes to create words. In China? Totally different. All life on earth uses the Latin alphabet. Does life on Mars use the Latin alphabet? Do they use the Hebrew alphabet which is related but at a distance?

Parsis, I don’t know—what alphabet are the Parsis’ holy books written in?

II: They speak Gujarati. They’re written in Avestan, which is ancient Persian and very often transliterated into Gujarati script. It’s a bit complicated.

RZ: Is it a phonetic script or a picture script?

II: It’s phonetic.

RZ: Okay, so it is at least related in that sense. And of course the language is Indo-European, so it’s also related. But in China, totally different. Yet you can write books with Chinese characters. It can do the same thing. So is life as it exists throughout the universe all using the Latin alphabet? Or maybe it uses different versions of phonetic alphabets that are not necessarily Latin in origin? Or can it use completely different methods of... Life must transcribe information, but could it be done with radically different language? So we go to Mars, if we find that Martian life uses the same alphabet, that would support the conjecture that this is a widespread thing. If we find it with a variant that would, say, it has to be, as it were, phonetic, but doesn’t necessarily have to use the same amino acids, it can do some other stuff. Or could it be just a totally different kind of thing? By going to Mars, we’ll find out, at least we’ll become better informed on the question of is life on Earth unique in the universe? And if it’s not, is life on Earth what all life is, or is it just one particular example drawn from a much vaster tapestry of possibilities? Someone who was only acquainted with Western Europe and America might think that the Latin alphabet was the alphabet period full stop. Someone who’s travelled the world would have a much different opinion, so we’ve got to travel the world a little bit if we’re going to find out the truth about this.

II: Yeah, and if life evolved independently on Mars, then that has extraordinary implications for the possible prevalence of life in the universe, makes the Drake equation seem much more plausible as a conjecture. That would be the most exciting discovery imaginable.

RZ: Sure.

Now, there’s another thing there. There is definitely the possibility that life on Earth is an immigrant phenomenon. This has been believed by some for a long time because one mystery about life on Earth is that there are no examples of free-living organisms on Earth that are simpler than bacteria, and bacteria are already extremely complex. So it’s like here in America, there’s no example of European architecture that can be found that predates the Renaissance. You don’t find genuine classical architecture in America or Bronze Age architecture or so forth because Western culture in the Americas is an immigrant phenomenon. Is life on Earth an immigrant phenomenon? And if so, did it come from Mars? You might find that out by finding life on Mars that uses the same biochemistry as Earth life, but also including some more primitive exemplars. And then that would tell you much more about the origin of life than you can learn by studying life on Earth. Just like if you want to study the origin of Western civilisation, you can’t do it by studying architecture found in North America. You’ve got to go to Europe  Western civilizations existed. But either way, whether we’re finding a separate Genesis or a prior Genesis, you’re finding out a lot more about what life is as opposed to...

It’s like language. If you only know English, you think English is language. If you are acquainted with a large variety of languages, especially one substantially different, you’d have a much broader concept of linguistics.

II: I know I’ve taken up a lot of your time already, but if you have time, people on Twitter had quite a few questions for you, and I’d like to put a couple of those to you.

RZ: Let’s take a few of them.

II: Stephen Fleming, who is a friend of mine and very heavily involved in space research, asks, “We’ve done very nearly zero research on human physiology at one-third gravity. How much is enough to do in a low-orbit centrifuge near Earth, for example, before sending humans to live in 1/3 G for months or years?”

RZ: That’s an interesting question. Look, it’d be great, and I am an advocate of flying artificial gravity satellites with animals and even people to learn more about one-third gravity health effects. However, I have to say that a human expedition to Mars... The risk of health effects due to one-third gravity—we’re talking first about exploration missions here, we’re going to go to Mars for a year and a half, come back—would rate pretty low on my list of potential risks to the mission. So if you’re willing to risk flying to Mars, you’re going to be willing to risk enduring one a year and a half in one-third gravity. I did once ask Buzz Aldrin, who of course has experienced Earth gravity, zero gravity, and lunar gravity, how did he perceive lunar gravity? Did it seem more like being on Earth or like being in space? And he said, “Like Earth. Because there’s an up, there’s a down; the fluids in the body go to the right places instead of puffing up your head and doing all this stuff.” There’s every reason to believe that one-third gravity is even more like Earth than lunar gravity and that any health effects from experiencing one-third gravity would be certainly less severe than those from zero gravity. And we’ve had people in zero gravity for as long as a year and a half.

Zero gravity does weaken people unless they very strenuously work out. I think it’d be logical to conclude that one-third gravity might tend to weaken you a bit because you don’t have the same stress as you get from walking around in one gravity but not as much as zero gravity where you’re just floating all over the place.

A more interesting question will be, before we have children on Mars, how do we know about the developmental aspects of human development if the mother is living in one-third gravity? Well, by the time there are people born on Mars, there will have been people who’ve been exploring Mars for a long time. We’ll probably have labs on Mars where we could see how mammals develop in one-third gravity. So we’ll have some data to support that question, to support an answer to that question. I suspect it’ll be fine because the infant inside of the mother’s womb is living in zero gravity now, because it’s living in a buoyant environment. Now the development of children after they’re born, I think they would have to be encouraged to engage in active athletic sports and so forth in order to make sure that their muscles and so forth develop well.

I think, however, that people born and raised on Mars, while they might be capable of coming to Earth, won’t like to because I think they’ll find the gravity here extremely unpleasant, and they’ll wonder why anyone would want to live here.

II: Yeah, that’s a recurrent theme in in sci-fi depictions. Certainly it’s a major part of the plot in The Expanse. And also more recently in The Orville, where there’s a crew member who’s from a planet with much higher gravity. And on board, in the Earth-normal gravity, she loses so much strength that she’s not comfortably able to go home.

That certainly seems like an ongoing issue to be solved. I don’t want to call it a problem because I’m quite optimistic about people’s eventual ingenuity in solving problems.

One final question, perhaps, which is how close do you think we are to landing on Mars and to settling Mars? Do you think this could happen in, say, my lifetime? I’m 55 now.

RZ: If Musk was to resume concentrating on SpaceX, because he’s currently being diverted in unproductive directions right now with Twitter and associated activities. But he’s quite a force of nature and if he was to resume his focus on SpaceX and have a bit of luck, then I think it’s quite reasonable to project that, first of all, Starship’s going to be operational by the end of this year, or certainly next year.  

We have a very unpromising situation with the current US election, but in 2028, regardless of who wins the current election here, we will have a new president in the United States. And by that time, Starships will have been operating for four years. This will be the reality of the world and you’re going to have a new president, one who could be president for eight years and wants to make his or her mark. And they look at this, they’re going to turn to their advisors and say, ‘Look, here’s this cat wants to send people to Mars. He’s got these ships. If we got together with him, could we get to Mars by the end of my second term?’ And the answer will be unquestionably yes and with the existing NASA budget.

Now Musk is not developing all the systems needed to do the Mars mission. He’s developing the most important one, the transportation system. But there’s a whole bunch of surface systems that need to be developed, surface power systems, mobility systems, etc. And especially the power system, which needs to be nuclear, which should be something very difficult for SpaceX to develop because there’s controlled materials involved.

To have a public–private partnership launched at that point and get people to Mars by 2036, by the end of Nikki Haley’s second term, I think that’s an entirely doable thing. So, sure, that could be very well within your lifetime.

So that’s the first expeditions going to Mars. I think, if we do that, within 10 years of that, we can have a permanent Mars base. And who knows? Within 20 years after that, the first thing that is a recognisable community on Mars, with children in schools and so forth, beginning to emerge. So yes. I think by the mid-21st century we could have our first communities on Mars.

Now, if Musk remains diverted or if SpaceX should fail for other reasons, which could be bad luck if they have a launch that sends the thing crashing into Brownsville, or if he should enrage the authorities too much by attacking the Securities and Exchange Commission or whatever, so that SpaceX does not succeed, it’s going to take a bit longer. As I mentioned earlier, there are companies that are tracking SpaceX and are copying their successful technologies, but they’re about a decade behind them. So if SpaceX should fail, it will still happen, but it’ll take about 10 years later.

II: Thank you so much, Robert. I have really enjoyed talking to you. I thank you so much for all your work, which I think is incredibly important. I think it’s perhaps the most important project currently afoot and I wish you every success.

RZ: Well, thank you. I just want to mention two things. First of all, I have several books about Mars. The one about Mars missions is called The Case for Mars. The one about settling Mars is called The New World on Mars. And secondly, as Iona mentioned, I lead a society called the Mars Society. We’re having our next international convention at the University of Washington in Seattle, August 8th through 11th [2024] and people can find out about it by going to In fact, if you want to speak at it, the call for papers is still open until June 30th. You can submit a 300-word abstract on the website. So I hope some of you will be there. I hope some of you will come and present your ideas there.

II: Thank you so much. I hope so too. I will make sure we spread that message. Thank you very much, Robert.


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