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Mars: The Interstellar Connection

Aerospace engineer Gerald W. Driggers embraced the dreams of Dr. Werner von Braun and his team at an early age and was privileged to meet and work with many of them. He was a prominent figure in studies of space colonization and industrialization with Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill in the 1970’s and also served as an officer in the US Air Force working on satellite launch vehicles. He has published over 35 technical papers and general interest articles and contributed to three books on technical subjects, but is now turning his attention to science fiction, authoring a series of books called The Earth-Mars Chronicles. Gerald and his wife became the first U.S. sponsors of the Mars One Project, whose objective is to place a team on Mars in 2023. A portion of the proceeds from sales of “The Earth-Mars Chronicles” goes to the Mars One Project. For 17 years, Gerald has lived on a series of boats because, in his words, “It was the closest thing I could get to a space ship.” He currently resides in Florida with his wife and Wilson the cat.

by Gerald W. Driggers

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I was in the middle of working on The Earth-Mars Chronicles Vol. 2 Home for Humanity when the opportunity arose to submit an abstract for the second Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop. The review committee selected one of the two abstracts I submitted with the title “Martians Will Make the Best Interstellar Voyagers.” My research into human factors related to extended isolation away from Earth (i.e. settling Mars) led me to an appreciation of how many issues were time and distance independent. Following that chain of logic provided me with the title of my presentation. However, the concept of a connection between going interstellar and settling Mars grew as I delved further into the subject matter.

Although I applaud heartily the current enthusiasm exhibited at starship and interstellar conferences and symposia, I am convinced that the roadmap to the stars must include suitable infrastructure and capability within our own solar system. This sentiment was expressed by Paul Gilster in Centauri Dreams with this statement commenting on the Deep Space Industries announcement on 22 Jan 2013 of a new asteroid mining initiative. “Could it be the beginning of the system-wide infrastructure we’ll have to build before we think of going interstellar?” Equally as insightful was the comment “I think before we ever really undertake sending something to another star, we will probably have to be masters of our own solar system,” made by Les Johnson in an interview with Space.com. The infrastructure mentioned by Paul and the mastery referenced by Les both have many dimensions including the human as well as the technical.

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A question I posed to myself was: What are the elements of the human dimension? There has been considerable research in this area over the past fifty years and luckily much of it was summed up in 2012 by Dr. Nicholas Kanas and Dr. Rhawn Joseph in a table of long duration space mission stressors (in Colonizing Mars: The Human Mission to the Red Planet, edited by Levine and Schild, Cosmology Science Publishers, 2012). In the following list items one through nine were summarized by Dr. Kanas and number ten is from the work of Dr. Joseph.

  • 1. Extended separation from family and friends (Potentially forever – added by me)
  • 2. Unknown psychological effects of long-term low gravity and high radiation
  • 3. Extreme feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • 4. Lack of support from Earth due to distance and communications delays
  • 5. Increased autonomy and dependence on on-board resources
  • 6. Limited social contact and interpersonal novelty
  • 7. Filling leisure time with meaningful activities
  • 8. Increased risk for medical and psychiatric illness due to time away from home
  • 9. Earth-out-of-view phenomenon
  • 10. Concerns over sexual tension, pregnancy and normal childbirth

My objective was to evaluate how the human population of Mars would compare to other pockets of humanity in a possible era of starship development so I picked 100 years as a target for extrapolation. Making an accurate specific prediction of where we will be in the Solar System 100 years from now is totally impossible so I examined a number of scenarios stretching from interplanetary stagnation (no fun and of no use to us) to highly optimistic where humans are operating throughout the inner Solar System. I subsequently picked the optimistic scenario with Mars settlements, exploitation of NEO and main belt asteroids, and lunar mining and settlement being mature and growing in 2113. This scenario was used to define where there would be permanent concentrations of people suitable to provide crew for an interstellar voyage.

The evaluation and comparison criteria are too detailed to present here but consisted of considerations of levels of automation and remote control for mining operations, maintenance and repair; likelihood of families as part of a large staffing; and likelihood of permanent long-term (lifetime) residency. My conclusion was that the three most viable sources for interstellar voyagers would be the Earth (by definition), the Moon and Mars. The next step was a subjective assigning of a measure of confidence related to an individual’s coping with the stressors based on their background and experience.

Figure 1

As I stated this is highly subjective, but I believe an examination of the environment and attributes one would expect from a citizen of Mars may assist in understanding my red, orange and green assignments. The very existence of expanding multi-generational Mars settlements implies that the individuals and culture will have the following characteristics although the number of generations required to achieve steady state in all areas is unknown.

  • a. A stable social structure in an isolated, self-reliant environment.
  • b. Have learned how to handle diversity in a society of limited size.
  • c. Physically and mentally stable population in a less than 1g environment.
  • d. Totally self reliant and capable of making anything they need.
  • e. Minimal ties to Earth.
  • f. Physically adapted to a lower atmospheric pressure.
  • g. Physically and mentally adapted to living in an artificial environment.
  • h. Mentally and physically adapted to the foods available.
  • i. Accepts living in a machine generated environment with no reservations, but understands the responsibilities.
  • j. No Earth (or Moon) out-of-view mentality.
  • k. Comfortable with limited infrastructures such as pharma and health care.
  • l. No uncertainty & anxiety over whether subsequent generations will be healthy.

Mars residents will by definition score well in all 12 of these categories. Lunar residents are less likely to score as well in categories d, e, j, and k. It is not possible to score the last factor (l) because it is currently unknown whether normal pregnancy, childbirth, and development are possible in the Lunar 1/6 Earth gravity environment. The population on the Moon could conceivably be composed of adults and children above a certain age who were born on Earth, whereas a growing population on Mars will not happen unless normal pregnancy, childbirth and development are possible. Human beings simply do not flock to a place where they cannot have children and raise families. Subsequently, I ranked Mars higher than the Moon in this category.

This then makes my case that a significant multi-generational population on Mars will provide a hearty pool for selection of low-risk interstellar voyager candidates. Unfortunately, my assessment of milestones on the way to having that population did not fit the 2113 target date I was initially using as a goal. There are far too many details to go into here, but the evolution time for in-space infrastructure and transportation does not appear to support a flourishing population on Mars before about 2140. There are, however, a number of wildcards in the space deck that could change this. Mars One, Inspiration Mars, Space X, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and a host of other private and commercial entities are striving to significantly accelerate my timeline. I do wish them all well.

Here are my parting thoughts from my presentation. Although not absolutely essential technically, it seems intuitively obvious that humanity will expand beyond Cis-Lunar space before embarking on an interstellar voyage. But do we have to expand well beyond the asteroid belt before entertaining serious interstellar ambitions? I conclude that the answer is no, even if Jupiter has to be exploited to obtain the necessary ³He. Also, advocating for the right near-term infrastructure is the equivalent of advocating for interstellar flight, so the sooner we settle Mars, the sooner we will have our “…system-wide infrastructure…” and be “…masters of our own solar system.”

If we get it right on Mars we are much more likely to get it right in interstellar space.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Michael Michaud October 7, 2013, 10:41

    Driggers was actively involved in the space colonization movement sparked by Gerard O’Neill’s ideas, and served as President of the L-5 Society. The history of those efforts up to 1984 is reviewed in my book Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984.

    Driggers described the atmosphere at O’Neill’s 1975 space manufacturing conference as one of enthusiasm and camaraderie. That aptly describes the atmosphere at the first 100 Year Starship Symposium and at some subsequent starship conferences.

    It is refreshing to see Driggers back in action.

    Michael A.G. Michaud

  • Alex Tolley October 7, 2013, 11:10

    The assumption underlying the uncertainties is based on not being able to pre-select individuals and that post selection through some proxy environment is necessary. Is that really true? One could use existing comparable earth environments for crew selection, or apply tests for suitability, even from city dewellers. My thoughts for thinking about the larger population and experience diversity offered by Earth.

    1. Extended separation from family and friends (Potentially forever – added by me)
    Some people have strong family connectiosn and need roots. Others just want to explore over the next hill. Is that hard to select for?

    2. Unknown psychological effects of long-term low gravity and high radiation
    We could determine that fairly quickly. Nasa seems to just avoid doing “obvious” low g studies. I was just watching a BBC retrospective about the lure of Mars and they had yet another astronaut explaining how they needed to grow seeds in zero gravity, as if that made any sense at all.
    We could test this at LEO. However, for a star flight, why must radiation and gravity be different from Earth’s?

    3. Extreme feelings of isolation and loneliness
    Numerous examples include accounts of castaways, people living in remote areas, Antarctic residents, even the Mars 500 experiment, etc.
    We might even mitigate this with virtual worlds. I suggest introverts might be worth considering for this environment.

    4. Lack of support from Earth due to distance and communications delays
    See point 3.

    6. Limited social contact and interpersonal novelty
    c.f. introverts

    7. Filling leisure time with meaningful activities
    Why meaningful? Games, sports, reading are all reasonable leisure activities that can be done anywhere.

    9. Earth-out-of-view phenomenon
    Isn’t this really the same as homesickness? We can select for people on Earth who don’t get homesick.

    10. Concerns over sexual tension, pregnancy and normal childbirth
    We can determine the physical factors for normal childbirth. We could do the mammal experiments to get some model data now, if we chose. How small are viable communities. Bigger or smaller than those needed for self sufficiency?

    While it seems that Martians might make a good pre-selected population, there are factors that offset this advantage in favor of Terrans.

    1. The Martian population is small. It may be culturally homogenous with limited avenues of thinking about problems.
    2. Martians may be used to the idea of unlimited resources, e.g. space and water, whilst a city dweller on Earth may be much more used to restrictions and rationing, social control, etc.
    3. Since we know that Earth atmosphere and gravity are what we are adapted to, why not simply use those parameters for the ship rather than the possibly suboptimal ones for Mars colonies? If we find that the optimal g is 0.8, then that is what the ship should generate via spin.

    The assumptions is that star flight will be carried out by highly educated, specialized, “first worlders”. This leads inevitably to discussions of how large does the population need to be to ensure that such a civilization can be sustained at the target star, and how can the crew be kept trained if the flight is multi-generational. But we could go the other way, making the ship as robust as possibly, and have the passengers be subsistence farmers with few needs, easily able to adapt local resources to their living requirements. That lifestyle is not going to be found on Mars, but on Earth.

  • David Cummings October 7, 2013, 15:49

    I don’t think Martians are going to be prime candidates to join starship populations. For one thing, they are going to be pretty busy terraforming Mars. That’s a multi-generational task in itself that will inspire and be inspired by task-commitment and group-loyalty, both of which will be enforced by strong peer pressure to stick around and “Build Mars Together”.

    I actually look to the asteroid and habitat dwellers to be more apt to sign up for a multi-generational starship journey, especially since I believe that it is these “floater” populations (not stuck to planet surfaces) who will be most advanced in terms of applied genetic modifications. These are the people who are going to be least like us physically and most like what you would expect in a being ready, willing and able to take on the vast emptiness and high radiation of interstellar space.

    I do strongly agree with the quoted words of Les Johnson: “I think before we ever really undertake sending something to another star, we will probably have to be masters of our own solar system.”

  • Gerald W Driggers October 7, 2013, 17:30

    Thank you Mr. Tolley for your thoughtful comments. I am not qualified to discuss the efficacy of the results of Dr. Kanas or Dr. Johnson, and I really view their work as only a starting point or as a set of preliminary guidelines. You are absolutely correct that the path to building and populating an interstellar vessel does not have to include an established presence on Mars. However, from a pragmatic point of view I believe that Paul Gilster and Les Johnson are correct and the interstellar community needs to embrace all avenues which may lead to that first trip to the stars. A considerable level of effort is being expended on NEO asteroid mining, lunar exploration and mining, private space flight, heavy lift vehicles, the International Space Station, establishing a Mars colony and designing for interstellar flight. I harbor a fond hope that there is true synergy in all of this, if someone can figure out how to connect the dots. All the best.

  • NS October 8, 2013, 2:16

    Early European exploration and trade suffered great losses of men and ships, but persisted because the enormous profits from the voyages that were successful more than made up for the failures, at least in monetary terms.

    Is there anything in space that we know of that could provide similar payback (hopefully with much less loss of life)?

  • Daniel Högberg October 8, 2013, 5:45

    The people that will accept these circumstances and be able to flourish in this enviroment is the ordinary people that have dreamed about this since they where children. Not some freaking extreme military/IQ200 people – these are the ones that go insane in the long run.

  • David Cummings October 8, 2013, 6:13

    The colonization of Mars will aid interstellar flight. The problems solved moving robots, supplies and people to Mars will add to the dataset of solutions involving space flight in general, including interstellar flight.

  • Jer October 8, 2013, 8:21

    I applaud the author for an interesting and comprehensive review of the personnel characteristics suited to extended extra-solar trips – though I am not convinced that these will be the pioneers and that this type of analysis will be used primarily for those first few or early several. As with most exploratory discoveries pre-big bucks-NASA, a group of explorers (earth-bound) would be typically made up of profiteers, criminals, religious zealots, desperadoes, those wanting to escape a previous life – any group that would take advantage of some opportunistic seed money and a cheap method of transportation – often ad-hoc and questionably reliable. So, i believe it to be the case with our first several interstellar ‘missions’ – if you could call them that (witness the number of those interested in doing a one-way trip to Mars). Any sufficiently motivated and monied NGO clique could fit the bill when combined with a recently-abandoned mined asteroid, discarded space vessel, the early trappings of a space-industrial initiative, etc. Combined with biological longevity storage, energy and sustenance reserves, a compelling destination (or path), and a supplementary propulsion to gravity slingshots, a motivated group – perhaps a religious, political, special interest, or other assembly – would undertake their own journey/ campaign/ pilgrimage/ etc. I would imagine those aforementioned technologies do not even need to be perfected if the composition and isolation of the group is just as important as the trip itself. One could only hope that they would be interested in relaying their discoveries and experiences to others back home. It is the 1/1000 of one percent who will motivate the 1% who will motivate the rest of us. I predict such a group will reach the distance that the Voyager craft has recently reached before the year 2100. Whether they will survive further – anyone’s guess.

  • Peter Chapin October 9, 2013, 15:32

    NS: “Early European exploration and trade suffered great losses of men and ships, but persisted because the enormous profits from the voyages that were successful more than made up for the failures, at least in monetary terms.”

    I think this is a critical point. What worries me about the Mars One colony concept is its long term economic viability, or lack thereof. How long will the people on Earth have to pay for supplies, etc, to Mars One (or any other early solar system colony)? Even if the Mars One colony can grow its own food, will they be able to manufacture, say, computer hardware, chemotherapy drugs, or complex waste processing equipment?

    When colonies formed on Earth there was usually some form of trade that went along with them. The colonies purchased goods from the mother country with money they got from selling goods. What goods can Mars One sell that will sustain it into the future? The, “wow, that’s cool” factor can only go so far.

    Ultimately expanding into the solar system will have to be driven by economic factors. The people who do it need to be able to take it to the bank.

  • Eniac October 9, 2013, 19:38

    NS and Peter Chapin: I agree this is a critical point. It is what drives the current interest in exploiting asteroidal resources. There may or may not be platinum group metals up there in much higher concentrations than here on Earth. If so, there is a chance that it will be economical to mine, refine, and drop them to Earth. The very high price per pound of these metals clearly makes them the lowest hanging fruit. If they are really there….

  • Roger October 10, 2013, 7:40

    I don’t know what the fascination with Mars is. A colony around Jupiter somewhere would be awesome for the inhabitants to view the mighty behemoth and give a start on infrastructure truly required for an interstellar mission. If its all about home sickness then we’ll never make it to the stars. The physiology has to be a love of where your going, not longing for home. Anyway, just my two cents.

  • ljk October 16, 2013, 12:09

    Testing the Neil deGrasse Tyson Effect

    Much of the general public thinks NASA’s budget is much larger than it actually is, and as a result it shapes their willingness to support the space agency’s activities.

    Alan Steinberg describes research he performed to see if adjusting the public’s knowledge of NASA’s budget increases their support for the agency.

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    http://thespacereview.com/article/2382/1

  • ljk December 17, 2013, 12:00

    A small step for Mars settlement, but a giant leap of funding required

    Mars One, the private venture with plans to settle Mars in the 2020s, announced last week plans to develop a precursor robotic mission for launch in 2018. Jeff Foust reports on the announcement and the challenges the venture faces beyond building spacecraft hardware.

    Monday, December 16, 2013

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2420/1

  • ljk March 3, 2014, 15:13

    The manned Mars venture launch date has been pushed to 2021 and now includes a flyby of Venus:

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2464/1

    Call me cynical, but I have the feeling this will not be the last of the changes for this mission plan, including and especially the launch date. Plus the mastermind behind this plan has yet to say what its budget will be.

  • ljk April 11, 2014, 11:01