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In Person or Proxy to Mars and Beyond?

Larry Klaes is well known in these parts for his extraordinary reviews of classic science fiction films. Today, however, he steps back from cinema to consider how we will expand into space. The crews on our deep space missions will doubtless be a lot different than some of those old black-and-white movies would suggest. Just how will our species adapt to the environments it will soon be exploring? There’s nothing quite so lush as our own blue and green planet, yet the imperative to move ever outward is a driver for our species. Mars is a case in point, but the long-range picture is that we’re looking off-planet and already pondering destinations beyond the Solar System. Re-shaping our expectations will be a part of what drives the scientists and engineers who equip us for the next steps. An earlier version of this essay was published by The Mars Society.

by Larry Klaes

In 1972, singer, pianist, and composer Sir Elton Hercules John (born 1947) released a song titled “Rocket Man”. This piece, which was inspired by a Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) science fiction story of the same name, has an individual who sees his job in outer space not as some grand adventure as one might expect of a typical astronaut, but rather as ordinary and isolating.

Not only does this Rocket Man miss Earth and his wife living there, declaring “it’s lonely out in space,” he also says that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them/If you did.”

As a life-long space and astronomy enthusiast, when I first became aware of this song, I was highly disappointed with its message. “Rocket Man” was a definite reflection of the counterculture era, where many rejected what they saw as the militant flaws and antiquated traditions of society which held back all but a select privileged few.

The space program fell into that category, being seen as a vehicle of a predominantly white male military-industrial complex. That it was also so publicly prominent in the news and entertainment media only made it an even easier target for criticism, in particular the kind that asked why we were spending money on sending humans to the Moon when there were so many problems on Earth that needed fixing first.

Even as a kid I knew this was an “apples and oranges” situation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was funded far less than most other government agencies of that era, a status that remains to the present day. Diverting all its resources to social agendas would have been a temporary band aid at best, not a real solution to modern civilization’s myriad of problems.

Image: A future Mars settlement as envisioned by SpaceX. Is this how humanity will live on other worlds, or will something else be required?

Nevertheless, the general public which had supported the early bold declaration of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” within ten years had undergone a sea change by the time NASA was actually placing astronauts on our planet’s nearest celestial neighbor at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s.

I had grown up in that era of the early Space Age when humans were actively circling Earth in preparation for launching representatives of our species to land on the Moon while robotic probes had begun to reveal other worlds such as Venus and Mars. I bought into the future storyline of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and all those other pro-space entertainment media so prevalent then that humanity would almost automatically spread out and colonize first the Moon and then the other places in our Sol system, before moving on into the wider Milky Way galaxy.

I did not pay much attention to the geopolitical and social forces driving and affecting the space programs then, not just because I wasn’t able to fully comprehend them as a naive kid, but also because I felt they were only temporary issues, ones humanity would conquer as easily and rightly as we were doing with our move into outer space. After all, didn’t Star Trek show a future just a few centuries from now where all of humanity was united, we were flying about the galaxy in fancy starships, and dealing with new alien neighbors as part of a collective called the United Federation of Planets (UFP)?

So, when I heard Elton John warbling a very popular tune that said the starry realm was unpleasant, lonely, and not something good for bringing up children in, I was concerned his words would only add fuel to the fire that was already setting back our “manifest destiny” in the Final Frontier in the beginning of the 1970s.

The Apollo lunar program was already being defunded after the seventeenth mission, which in turn was killing off any plans for manned lunar colonies. The logical promise of sending humans on to the planet Mars after the success of Apollo – as soon as the 1980s it was being declared in certain circles – was also placed on a shelf. No one was saying such missions were being canceled, but it was pretty obvious that no one at NASA was seriously working on such an adventure by then, nor would they be any time soon.

Many in the West thought that America’s superpower rival, the Soviet Union, would pick up the gauntlet we had dropped: Soon there would be cosmonaut bootprints on the Moon and Mars as they went on to become the dominant society throughout the Sol system and beyond.

Since then, a lot has changed. The American manned space program is not only picking up again, with real plans to settle the Moon with a new generation of astronauts in this decade as well as send these explorers on to Mars in the 2030s. There is also a new Space Race of a kind, this time mainly with China. Upon jumping into this race with their first successful satellite launch in 1970, the “People’s Republic” now has a second crewed space station circling Earth while simultaneously conducting automated rover and sample return missions to the Moon and their first wheeled explorer conducting science on the Red Planet.

My attitude and views on our ventures into the Final Frontier have also changed over the decades. I am still quite the space supporter, but I am seeing it now as happening in certain different ways, in particular how we should venture into the void directly with fellow human beings.

When I used to read and hear certain professionals, whom I automatically assumed should have been big supporters of manned space exploration and settlement, publicly state that robots were better for exploring the cosmic void than human beings, I was indignant. They were going against the virtually predestined vision for our species expansion into the Milky Way galaxy and all those other stellar islands out there. Humans had to be an integral part of this future, otherwise our species and society would end up either stagnating or outright destroying itself in the very nest of its birth. No one in their right mind would keep a child in their crib and expect them to develop properly otherwise.

What needs to be understood is that when the Space Age began in the 1950s (or the 1940s if you want to count the first rockets that breached the actual realm, if only briefly), humans were almost always the foremost choice for conducting all kinds of expeditions, be it on Earth’s surface, at sea, or in the skies. Space would have been no different.

Yes, there were many satellites that went up carrying no living organic beings at all, but their mechanisms and computer “brains” were primitive by current standards. For example, Mariner 2, the first probe to successfully explore the planet Venus in late 1962, contained a computer weighing just over eleven pounds that was capable of “a total of 11 real-time commands and a spare… along with a stored set of 3 onboard commands which could be modified,” according to Oran W. Nicks, then Director of Lunar and Planetary Programs for NASA, as he described in his wonderfully written book Far Travelers: The Exploring Machines (NASA SP-480, 1985).

Even the twin Voyager space probes, designed, built, and launched into the outer Sol system on much more complex missions over one decade after Mariner 2, had multiple computers that were still less powerful than a modern day automobile key fob. The onboard computers that helped land astronauts on the Moon with Apollo weighed over 75 pounds and had only 1,600 bits of memory in them, and they were specially designed by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

On Earth, up until the first personal computers began showing up in large numbers in the 1970s, the majority of “thinking” machines were bulky, heavy, and most often required trained specialists to operate them. So it is easy to see why most people back then assumed the best “computer” to explore outer space was the four pounds of “gray matter” occupying the skull of a functioning and properly educated adult human.

This technology has certainly changed since the first two decades of the Space Age. The average person now routinely works and plays with lightweight computers possessing storage levels and functionalities that would have been pure science fiction to their parents and grandparents. The machines currently exploring the Moon and Mars have autonomous capabilities that allow them to independently run their own missions while also being smart enough to avoid potential hazards in these alien environments.

As one may easily imagine, computing and robotic technologies for space are only going to improve in the coming decades to the point that one may rightly question the purpose of sending humans to distant worlds when much more durable and far less expensive and resource-demanding robots equipped with sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) minds could do the same tasks.

Deadly Rays and Dwellings

Fewer resources and relatively cheaper funding aren’t the only reasons for sending machines over humans to explore other worlds. The cosmic environment beyond Earth is quite hazardous indeed for a species that has spent its entire existence evolving on a planet that is a virtual paradise for our biology compared to every other place in our Sol system (and who knows how far beyond).

Mars has often been considered the world closest in comparison to Earth, yet even the least harsh places on the Red Planet make Antarctica look like a tropical island. Possessing only a very thin atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide and no appreciable ozone layer or magnetic field, Mars is constantly bombarded by high levels of radiation from solar subatomic particles and cosmic rays. Solar ultraviolet rays also reach the Red Planet’s surface unabated. Meteoroids of most sizes are not deterred by the Martian air as they would be on Earth. Orbiting probes have imaged multiple results of recent impacts and the rovers have found substantiated meteorites as they roam their rather narrow swaths of the Martian landscape.

For Martian settlers to survive all these dangers, they would need to either develop structures with heavily reinforced radiation-proof roofs, cover their settlement with local regolith, or bury their dwellings deep underground. In most of these cases, unless humanity develops a type of transparent radiation shielding, the human residents will have to live without a direct view or easy access of their new homeworld.

Can humans stand being in an artificial environment underground on Mars for decades or even their entire lives? Down the road, settlements may be made large and luxurious enough to recreate the nature found on Earth, but the early pioneers will probably not be so fortunate. Will they last long enough psychologically to establish a permanent residence on Mars?

It is easy for those of us who are living now in the relative comfort and safety of Sol 3 to assume that those first settlers on our planetary neighbor can “tough it out” like the pioneers of the olden days did, but those ancestors who sought a new life did so on a world they were already adapted to physiologically. Martian settlers will require a great deal of preparation and mechanical services just to keep the climate of the Red Planet from outright killing them within minutes if they are ever exposed to the raw environment. Running back to Earth in the event of a disaster is not a quick option.

Terrestrial explorers and settlers also did not need to worry about dealing with the effects of a lesser gravity, for the pull of the mass of Mars for anyone on its surface is only 38 percent that experienced by those living on Earth. Not only will this eventually weaken those first settlers and their descendants, but it may create unexpected health issues and affect the way humans gestate in a mother’s womb and how they are born.

Our natural satellite has even less gravity and protection from the celestial threats already mentioned. There too settlers will have to live underground and deal with the same situations as their Martian brethren. The other nearby worlds with solid surfaces such as Venus, Mercury, and the Galilean satellites also have their own unique challenges in addition to all those just described.

Circling Earth in Tin Cans

Human beings have been launching representatives of their species into the Final Frontier for just over six decades now. Yet outside of those handful of brief jaunts to the Moon now fifty-plus years ago, astronauts and cosmonauts have only experienced space directly in their biggest habitat as temporary residents of various space stations in perpetual fall around Earth, where their stays currently last between six months to one year.

Unlike those space explorers going to Mars, those in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) are but a matter of hours away from rescue and safety in the event of an emergency. This also applies to the ability to resupply the residents of a space station. These facts will have a definite impact on our first venturers who will be months to years away from any kind of help from Earth.

Space is Not a Convenient Species Safety Valve

One thing we cannot count on space serving us any time soon is as a method of reducing the overpopulation of humans on Earth, which at this moment is approaching eight billion individuals. The exodus numbers required to start alleviating the environmental pressure in that direction are not going to happen in the foreseeable future, assuming reducing the human population ever even becomes a goal in the first place. Besides, we cannot just “displace” a fraction of our species without serious preparation first and this will only loop us back to the issues I have already addressed, the ones that will decide whether we can permanently settle space or not.

Of course, none of these obstacles may deter those individuals, organizations, and nations who are determined to live off Earth despite the various costs. One may easily envision the super wealthy constructing their own space habitats in what might be considered the ultimate gated community. Others may turn a hollowed out planetoid or comet into a WorldShip, or multigenerational space ark, and head off into the wider galaxy with their chosen acolytes, their fates left entirely in their hands.

Should space become profitable, corporations will most certainly start moving humans and machines out there. Will conditions for such laborers be better than on Earth, or will it be a case of the old phrase ‘the same day, just a different song?’ While more robots and other artificial devices will be required to literally mine the Final Frontier, corporations may still find humans to be overall much cheaper to utilize to collect resources and maintain the various services envisioned in space. This would also include the costs of replacing such laborers when the situation calls for it.

Adapting Ourselves to the Reality

As we are such small creatures compared to the vastness of space and its many wild and dangerous environments, would it perhaps make more sense to change ourselves rather than try to make other worlds more like Earth?

Terraforming Mars, Venus, and even the Moon have been suggested for roughly a century now as a way for humanity to expand to the stars, but would it work? At the least it may take centuries or more to convert an entire planet into one resembling what we have now. One aspect we may not be able to change that could affect such a project is that except for Venus, the other worlds will continue to have less mass than Earth.

Now imagine beings who could live and work directly in outer space, or on any number of moons and planetary bodies without the need for special suits and gear. It will very likely be easier, cheaper, and quicker to adapt humans to other places via bioengineering and cyborg technologies than try to change an entire world to suit our physiological needs. These adaptations would certainly ensure the survival of our species, even if they become quite different from their predecessors, us. This would not be all that unusual considering how different we are from our distant prehistoric ancestors, and rather few are put off by this fact.

As an additional incentive, note how humans already spend billions in unrelenting efforts to make themselves better in all sorts of ways. Such desires have only increased as our technologies for these desired changes continue to improve. Space may become the ultimate reason for human durability and advancement. Perhaps this is all part of the process of our evolution, only we are facilitating the matter faster than nature has done in the past and in the directions we want it to go.

Science fiction most often envisions interstellar vessels having human crews as the primary features and functions of such starships. Even when they include a capable AI, it is the humans running the show. However, just as autonomous machines have long been our first and continuous “ambassadors” to other worlds in our Sol system, so too will we likely see even more advanced versions plying their ways to other star systems in the galaxy.

Artilects will be the “crew” of choice not only due to their multiple levels of durability and longevity, but also because their artificial minds will be able to process and comprehend far more than any human mind could, perhaps functioning even better than a cybernetically enhanced organic human brain. This will be a vital advantage in a galaxy of unknown factors, including when they encounter other minds that may be unlike anything we have ever dealt with before. Then their roles as ambassadors from our realm will be much more than just a clever designation.

We should not be disheartened by the fact that exploring and settling space with our species as it currently is may not be the best way to go in the really long term. Instead, with our new capabilities and knowledge, humanity can supersede what we once thought was the best way to expand into the Universe and do so in a way that will ensure our survival and success.

So, Rocket Man, you may have been ultimately correct regarding the expansion of humanity into space, but for reasons rather different than you could have possibly imagined. This is with no offense intended, as we are all products of our time and place, and you did highlight some important issues regarding permanent space utilization and settlement. The good thing is that we can and will evolve our collective understanding of existence, which in turn will allow us to adapt for the future, wherever it will be.

{ 93 comments… add one }
  • Athena Andreadis November 4, 2022, 11:17

    I guess I was ahead of the zeitgeist when I wrote my “Making Aliens” essay series in 2007. (https://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=24) But I’m not giving up on space opera!

    • Ljk November 4, 2022, 16:41

      Yes you were and always are, Athena. Your ideas were part of my inspiration for this piece, thank you.

  • Alex Tolley November 4, 2022, 12:07

    Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and John’s “Rocket Man” were penned during the Apollo era and could be considered part of the [British] counterculture to US hegemony. IIRC from my memories of that time, the US was much detested for its global bullying, whether corporatism and cultural imperialism engulfing the globe, but most specifically the Vietnam War. After the Cuba scare, there would be barely a decade before President Reagan was threatening to use nuclear weapons in Europe to deter the Russkies. I know I was not of the opinion that “better dead than red” was an acceptable viewpoint.

    In 1972, the Stockholm Conference on teh Environment occurred, and that initiated my start at university, where there was a definite sense of backlash against technology as exemplified by the US space program, and a turning towards nature and environmentalism. It is no coincidence that the Nixon administration created the EPA and the Western nations started to clean up the pollution caused by the poorly regulated industry. By the time the USSR imploded and Germany became whole again, the difference between cleaned-up western environments and polluted eastern countries was stark.

    Optimism increases as the economy does well, and the post-WWII economies had 30 glorious years of improving wealth and social progress. With that optimism, the US tackled the competing ideology of Russian totalitarian communism. Then the ME nations decided they had had enough of being controlled by western oil companies, nationalized their oil industry, the price of oil rose dramatically, and the world went into stagflation. Who wanted to think about spending money on space? The 1980s saw a period of optimism again as the stock market rose to new highs, and the US became the sole global hyperpower. This faltered again with the dot com crash, followed by the financial crisis less than a decade later. Yet amongst those ashes, private space started to take off, and other nations, notably China and India entered the space business, stimulating the competition to demonstrate which nations and systems should lead the world again.

    So as we come full circle to the possibility of fulfilling the dreams of humanity’s “manifest destiny” it seems that humans treading in the footsteps of the past in fact and fiction has reasserted itself. But as you rightly point out, something has changed. For the first time, our proxies are now gaining intelligence. They are still far behind human intelligence except in some narrow capabilities, but those capabilities are rapidly improving. Robots will leap over any efforts by humanity to re-engineer itself to survive in space and will become the pathfinders and explorers.

    But humans can follow. I am not so pessimistic about humans living on planets. Habitation can still be built to offer views of landscapes with minimal radiation exposure. Artificial gravity can be added to those underground cities [c.f. KSR’s novel Red Moon]. High-definition wall screens will act as proxies for windows in the warrens for those that need the views, although humans seem quite capable of living without such views in the megacities of today.

    Zubrin has suggested that exploring robots send back 3D data to reconstruct the environment they are traversing. Humans can then enter a virtual recreation of that environment and explore it. [I’m waiting for the equivalent of Google “street view” of Mars based on knitting together Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity’s imaging of the surface.] We will be frustrated if we see an interesting object half-buried in the ground, and are unable to expose it, but clearly a request for a rover to go back and unearth it is possible. For the Moon, the communication lag is short enough that we could use a rover as an avatar to explore the surface and interact with it. My guess the first to climb a lunar mountain peak will be a human controlling a robotic climber, experiencing the Moon in VR/AR from a haptic suit.
    However, it will be the return of detailed environments that will allow us to explore the surfaces of other planets and Moons, from Mercury to Pluto, and even the gaseous atmospheres of the gas and ice giants, all courtesy of our intelligence robot proxies collecting the data. [Perhaps someone could start experimenting on Earth with the technology now? Climbing Everest, exploring the ocean vents, etc….]

    • Javier Garcia November 6, 2022, 12:19

      I am quite sure we will explore space and enjoy traveling to other worlds through the eyes or an explorer robot.

      But the ultimate adventure will be to go there and climb the mountain on your own arms and feet. See the views with your eyes and “smell” the atmosphere if possible for a second.

      I am also sure that as soon as it will be economically viable, there will be humans exploring other worlds as they were exploring the highest mountains, the dryest deserts and the thickest forest in our home Earth.

      It is in humane spirit to explore, to know, to conquer, to submit the challenges. And I hope no re-engineered human beings adapted to other worlds will lose that.

      • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 23:20

        We are close to providing the means to smell and taste the environment on other planets via proxies, transmitting the chemical data back to Earth to be recreated. There is an exhibition in London that reproduces the smells of an old sailing ship. So add “smellies” to that haptic suit that provides the sensation of climbing the Martian peaks.

        That won’t satisfy those who need to experience such adventures directly, albeit from inside a spacesuit. I will never climb mountains, but I could experience such a climb using technology a few generations ahead.

        Personally, I would love this to be possible for experiencing the Moon without needing a spacesuit. The Moon is close enough that one could make the robot go where one wanted, and feel the lunar regolith beneath your feet, the sun on your face (sufficiently muted), and the sense of walking/running/climbing on the lunar surface, all from the comfort of Earth.

  • Antonio November 4, 2022, 15:09

    The answer is obvious. Just compare what an astronaut can do and what Curiosity can do: velocity of 20 meters per hour, hugely limited capability for manipulation and inspection, … Or look at Insight. Its mission has just finished because the stupid robot can’t wipe out the dust of its solar panels.

    • henry cordova November 5, 2022, 0:30

      I’m afraid the answer is obvious, but not in the way you have asked the question.

      Granted, a human can do more than a thousand robots; but a thousand robots can travel to a thousand different places for the same cost (or energy) than a human can visit one.

      The true answer is we send X robots and then we send Y humans, (where X>>Y) after those robots call back and tell us which place is worth exploring further. Neither approach should be abandoned, they should complement each other. The true task for our scientist/engineers is to determine what the optimum value of X/Y should be to guarantee the best long-term benefit. No doubt that ratio will be strongly a function of our technology.

      Unfortunately, space policy seems to be put together by adolescent mentalities., not mature technical analysts. The result is that the people who pay the bills quickly realize most of the destinations we visit are just remote lumps of toxic slag or ice with little value or interest to anyone. In the long term, this disappointment will hurt space exploration, not help it.

      There are exceptions, of course. Hubble comes to mind. It was a robot, but benefited greatly from human maintenance and repair. But even there, the value was scientific rather than immediately practical, As far as economic benefit is concerned, that seems to be pretty much limited to navigation, earth resources, communications and espionage/defense. Growing turnips is easier at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean than in the Martian lowlands. And it will probably always be so.

      Eventually there will be VAST economic (as well as cultural and philosophical) benefits in the human presence in space. And those can be best realized by exploring superficially as many destinations as possible, but studying in detail only those that show real promise. Lots of robots first, THEN send the live crews.

      The Conquistadudes of the Age of Discovery did not send any robots to the New World or the Spice Islands, but that was only because they didn’t have any. We do.

      • Antonio November 5, 2022, 8:54

        “but a thousand robots can travel to a thousand different places for the same cost (or energy) than a human can visit one”

        Huh??? You should take a look at the cost of Curiosity.

        • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 11:30

          Recall that the Bush I 1990 Mars flags and footprints proposal was $450 bn. US Congess couldn’t stomach that and it was DOA. That was when Zubrin proposed his cheaper Mars Direct approach. We are still no nearer to landing humans on Mars, yet we have sent how many robots starting with Pathfinder since then? Henry is correct. Robots are far cheaper and will get relatively cheaper still with scale economies, and AI to reduce the controllers needed.

          • Antonio November 6, 2022, 18:50

            “Recall that the Bush I 1990 Mars flags and footprints proposal was $450 bn.”

            So what? That proposal was total non-sense.

            “That was when Zubrin proposed his cheaper Mars Direct approach.”

            Why don’t you say its cost?

            “We are still no nearer to landing humans on Mars, yet we have sent how many robots starting with Pathfinder since then?”

            Again, so what? The reasons why no human has been sent yet aren’t technical nor economical, as Zubri clearly showed.

            You are doing circular reasoning.

            • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 23:11

              I am not aware of cost estimates for Mars Direct. Mars Semi-Direct was costed at $55bn. One can always reduce costs by increasing risks. NASA may not be the institution to put humans on Mars, maybe that will belong to a private person/organization to gain the glory. I would look to determine what the Chinese plans for Mars will be expected to cost in adjusted currency.

              The reasons why no human has been sent yet aren’t technical nor economical, as Zubrin clearly showed.

              There is no currently working enclosed life support system that would allow a trip to and from Mars with the required months-long stay. Such a system will have to be shown it can reliably work in orbit and on Earth first.

              With sufficient mass, one could bring along all the food, water, and air for the trip, avoiding the need to have such a recycling system.

              In Zubrin’s “The Case for Mars” he assumes O2 production from Mars resources and water recycling. All food must be brought freeze-dried from Earth. IOW, the food supply is limited. If the water recycling fails (as it frequently has on the ISS) then the crew dies. If the O2 generation on Mars fails for any reason, or there is a leak and loss of the O2 in transit, then the crew dies.

              So no, Zubrin hasn’t shown how a Mars trip can be done. He just pares down the crew requirements (no doctor) and relies on technology to work to ensure the crew survives. Maybe he will add these technologies to his Mars simulation bases in due course to show that the technology is indeed reliable and suited for a low-cost Mars trip.

              If SpaceX Starship works, then the Mars exploration is easier simply because of the tonnage that can be shipped. But long term, ie colonization, will require food production and recycling unless the colony is to be reliant on supplies from Earth.

              • Robert November 7, 2022, 13:30

                …then the crew dies.

                Then redesign things and send another crew. We don’t live with zero risk in our daily lives as it is now.

                • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 15:16

                  That is a remarkably cavalier attitude to human life you have.

                  • Brett Bellmore November 7, 2022, 21:02

                    Well, isn’t it up to the crew whether that’s OK?

                    • Alex Tolley November 8, 2022, 7:56

                      No. The FAA prevents people from flying dangerous airplanes even at their own risk. When suborbital tourism was in the early stages, there was concern that an accident could kill off the nascent business.

                      If a Mars trip killed the crew, especially passengers, that would be a setback for future Mars missions.

                      Sure, entirely privately funded risky exploits can be done, as that idiot who died riding a homebuilt steam rocket demonstrated, but if public funds are to be used, that is a different story.

                      Times have changed. The scene in “The Right Stuff” where the wives complain about the risks of test pilots dying is 1 in 4 flights was once acceptable. [You can read of the frequent deaths of test pilots flying jets after WWII.] The militaries, e.g. USAF, and RAF, no longer allow such test flying, for good reason.

                      When Lindbergh made his flight across the Atlantic, if he had gone down, he would not have been rescued unless a ship happened to see the plane go down and went to his aid. Now we spend large sums to rescue people getting into trouble doing stunts like sailing the oceans to prove some point, or to attempt a record. That is just one of the social costs. Like it or not, one can no longer make personal risky decisions when there are wider costs and issues attendant with that decision. Even governments are expected to obey rules, as the pushback over the poor reentry trajectories of the recent Chinese rocket launches testifies.

                    • Ron S. November 8, 2022, 9:35

                      No, not really. Not in a compassionate society. Like most advanced countries we offer supports for people who pursue self harm, whether by deliberate intent or out of ignorance. They need help not encouragement.

                    • Brett Bellmore November 8, 2022, 20:53

                      “The FAA prevents people from flying dangerous airplanes even at their own risk.”

                      Gotta break it to you, but there’s a whole class of aircraft with these signs over the door reading “Passenger Warning – This aircraft does not comply with federal safety regulations for standard aircraft”.

                      And those ones? Yeah, you can fly them at your own risk.

                      ” Not in a compassionate society.”

                      Then I really don’t want to live in a “compassionate” society. I’d rather live in a society where people are allowed to take risks and do great things.

                    • Ron S. November 9, 2022, 8:42

                      “I’d rather live in a society where people are allowed to take risks and do great things.”

                      So do I. Did you deliberately fail to comprehend what I wrote?

                  • charlie November 8, 2022, 16:10

                    I don’t think he’s got a cavalier attitude to human life, he’s just addressing the reality that missions fail and you go on – you can’t let setbacks stop you.

                  • Robert November 8, 2022, 20:08

                    Not cavalier but undaunted. If a Mars program is stopped when the first crew dies then what do we do just give up? When the American West was settled by pioneers walking across the vast plains west, many died but settlers still came. If we are going to settle Mars we need a bit of the pioneer spirit. We deal with all kinds of risk in everyday life as it is. Obviously they must do their best as far as planning and risk moderation but there needs to be some grit and determination to keep the program going when bad things do happen as they will.

                    • Alex Tolley November 8, 2022, 21:06

                      I thought it was clear that we in the developed world don’t take those sorts of risks anymore. Only the desperate migrants escaping from a war zone or economic collapse are taking those sorts of risks. Going to Mars is a choice, not a desperate action.

                      Show me evidence that large numbers of relatively well-off modern Westerners are prepared to take the risks that see many of their ranks die on a journey of choice.

                      Maybe the best people to settle mars are not Westerners but rather people from poor or oppressive nations where Mars looks like an improvement in their situation.

                    • Robert November 9, 2022, 13:31


                      I didn’t get that memo saying rich, comfortable Westerners are now totally risk adverse. Anyone blasting into space now is already risking their life for the adventure. They make that choice now. Even NASA did not permanently halt crewed space flight after Challenger or Columbia. The world’s various space programs do not have to force people to apply as astronauts.

                      Consider the many volunteers from Western nations risking their lives fighting in Ukraine for a cause. Or the large number of Americans which enlisted in military service after 9/11. They knowingly face bullets and bombs and I think even more people would be willing to face the danger of exploding rockets for a cause. It won’t take large numbers to start the process. But larger numbers would naturally follow as the process of Mars settlement becomes established and ‘routine’.

                      As far as desperation, I agree that there probably is some aspect of desperation among those who would choose a one way journey to Mars. Or maybe a restlessness for a new way of life.

                      So, we in the Western nations routinely see people choose to risk their lives for a cause. I doubt there will be a lack of applicants for the first few crewed Mars missions.

                    • Alex Tolley November 9, 2022, 17:56


                      I didn’t get that memo saying rich, comfortable Westerners are now totally risk adverse.

                      I will see if I can send you my copy. ;)

                      You are correct that there are the outliers who do take risks for one reason or another. There are the egoists, narcissists, adrenalin junkies, and of course, the desperate who commit crimes with poor benefit:risk ratios.
                      I don’t know about the military, but clearly, we don’t waste people as we did a century ago on the Somme. I do note that the military does recruit a lot from the disadvantaged which might be an admission that they are seeking those hoping for some way to change their lives. But we know that at least 1/2 the US population won’t risk even a couple of bucks on a gallon of gas for the war in Ukraine. Compare the risk-takers to those who are trying to escape wars, oppressive governments, and dire economic conditions. Those people are not the voluntary risk-takers.

                      Those people who joined the western expansion included the Irish escaping starvation in the potato famines, the Eastern Europeans escaping the brutality of the pogroms, and the brutality of their monarch masters.
                      They had little to lose, and the risk of death in America was perhaps not much greater than those they faced in their homelands.
                      Today, most of the US population in economically deprived regions no longer leave home, family, and friends, to relocate to where the jobs are. In general, they are risk averse, preferring to remain where they live.

                      Historically, we know that in Ancient Rome, as the empire grew richer, those willing to join the legions became fewer and fewer, and so foreign mercenaries were hired to replace them. This despite the large, almost destitute, population of the capital city, subsisting on food handouts and entertained with almost non-stop arena spectacles.

                      During the unpopular Vietnam War, one of the most notable anti-war songs spoke of Senators not sending their sons to war. (And we know that some avoided the draft by various means – signing up for National Guard service, or finding bogus foot ailments as a medical reason.)

                      So I accept that risk taking does still occur in a segment of the population at the extremes of the bell curve, but as a general observation, Westerners do not want to take risks that may result in premature death. And when I say premature, we now expect to live to 77, 30 years longer than just 47 in 1900, so an early death throws away a lot more life now than it once did, just as the Western frontier was closing.

                      In post-WWII Britain, Australia was desperate for labor. The UK offered assisted passage to Australia, and a ride home if you didn’t like being there. Migrants were even given 2 shots at this before being disqualified. I note that Musk is offering free rides back to Earth if migrants to Mars don’t wish to stay (smart move, IMO).

                      None of which is to say there won’t be takers even for a one-way trip to Mars. But the vast majority of the Western population will prefer to remain on Earth.

                      I speculate that if climate heating gets really bad, then the takers might increase. I am sure those in Pakistan might accept if the country continues to get weather disasters and other nations refuse to help. This seems to be the continuing MO of the developed nations at the various annual COP meetings.

                      Will that suffice as a memo?

    • ljk November 8, 2022, 12:11

      Spirit and Opportunity were only guaranteed to function usefully on Mars for 90 days when they both landed in 2004. They exceeded that by years, with Opportunity expiring in 2018 only after a severe dust storm. They may have been slower than a human on an average day, but they more than made up for it by lasting for years under conditions that would have required major expense for a human – and I am not even talking about the real potential for psychology toil that might have threatened a mission with a human who had to live there on the Red Planet for that long.

      It is also quite incorrect and unfair to dump on the InSight lander for not having the capability to brush the surface dust off its solar panels by calling it “stupid.” Ouch.

      First off, that was a human decision, not the lander’s, which BTW does not possess any sort of conscious awareness as part of its computer brain.

      Plus the makers thought the dust might be removed the same way it was knocked off the 2004 MER rovers, by wind and dust devils (they didn’t have any kind of dust removal mechanisms, either – also not the rovers’ faults). InSight was not so fortunate due to its location and the fact that it could not move to another site. Nevertheless, the lander did last longer than planned and has returned unique and valuable data on the interior of Mars we did not have before. All on a much cheaper budget than any human mission.

      Now if we could just send more digging rovers and seismometers and weather stations all over that planet, we could really get a full picture about our celestial neighbor and still at a much cheaper level with no loss of human life.

      If you do want to settle Mars and other places with humans, though, then that is another matter almost entirely.

  • Mike Jude November 4, 2022, 17:20

    Klaes’ column certainly lays out a pessimistic vision for human space exploration. Maybe he’s right, but I think he is probably wrong. What he discounts is the virtue of human exploration for the non-explorers: the ones that never leave their safe zones. Cultures have historically been energized by the feats of human exploration. Everything from the discover of the New World to the first assent of Mt. Everest, the people who stayed at home benefitted both materially and psychologically from the exploration. Perhaps we explore, not to raise children on Mars, but to prove that humans can surmount immense obstacles to challenge the unknown. And, as has been proven over and over, cultures that don’t push the envelope stagnate. Robots are nice, maybe even more efficient, but celebrating their achievements is sort of like cheering for the newest toaster. I’d rather see a human astronaut standing with a flag on the summit of Olympus Mons, than celebrate a perfectly toasted bagel.

    • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 11:49

      I’d rather see a human astronaut standing with a flag on the summit of Olympus Mons…

      That is also the problem. No one lives on Mt. Everest. There are no seabed colonies. The deserts are largely uninhabited by humans – certainly, there are no permanent settlements. Antarctica is purely a scientific research base.

      But for humans to continually travel outwards, we will need permanent settlements. Lewis and Clark mapped a passage to the Pacific, but the enduring value was the settler movement that eventually resulted in the USA we have today (albeit at the huge cost to the indigenous population that was all but wiped out).

      Yes, humans can climb Olympus Mons, but then what? We cannot land on Venus. We cannot think of building permanent cities on Mercury without them being “nomadic”. The giant planets are similarly unlivable, although some of their moons are. Journey times will have to be drastically reduced, otherwise, any exploration is a single-lifetime event, and likely a one-way journey for Pluto.

      I agree that we would culturally value a human on Mars, but that is because our robots are not humanoid, despite their chatty texts. Create humanoid robots with personalities, and I think humanity will cheer on their exploits. If necessary, fake it. Robots in spacesuits would not be obviously non-human. Relaying fake human video from Mars would fool the population that a human/human-like robot was doing the exploring. We already can identify with projected fake humans as pop stars, even cartoon characters. It is a very different world we are entering, and real-life humans may not be necessary for most of the younger population, just the older space cadets. Rather a J G Ballard mood I think.

      • Brett Bellmore November 6, 2022, 8:21

        It’s worth pointing out that the primary reason Antarctica isn’t colonized isn’t that it would be infeasible, or even uneconomic. It’s that the world’s powers couldn’t agree how to split it up, and so reached a deal where nobody would get it. Try to colonize Antarctica and soldiers will show up and remove you!

        Otherwise Antarctica would a perfectly feasible target for colonization, having extensive untapped mineral wealth, and ready sources of reliable energy.

        • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 22:49

          IDK about colonizing Antarctica if it wasn’t preserved for scientific research. The oceans have abundant resources, but we don’t colonize the oceans on ships and drilling rigs, but only use these “life support” vehicles on a transient basis. AFAIK, the Inuit do not colonize the North pole. Antarctica is worse except around the coast, as there are no food resources to acquire inland. I suppose we could try to colonize the continent using greenhouses for food production, but as of now, the scientific bases require supplies brought in during the summer months.

          Maybe we could practice farming on Mars by extending the terrestrial Mars simulation bases to be self-sufficient in food using enclosed greenhouses?

    • ljk November 7, 2022, 13:48

      Now I definitely want to see an astronaut atop Olympus Mons eating a perfectly toasted bagel!

  • Adam J Crowl November 4, 2022, 18:01

    Hi Paul
    One thought that occurred to me in the context of robotic proxies, is the tendency for humans to flexibly adapt to seeing all sorts of things as parts of their own bodies. I wonder if AR/VR will develop to the point where an operator of a robot will feel like the machine, identifying with it so smoothly. We can make machines as limber as human bodies – Boston Dynamics has demonstrated that spectacularly – so scenarios in which an operator “previews” the environment the machine then directly encounters to compensate for speed-of-light lag seem entirely feasible. The robot would then send back the kinesthenic data for the operator to then replay and update the experience.
    Low orbit stations – or aerostats – might house the humans, while the robots explore much nastier conditions down below. A logical option for Venus, but also the day-time on Mercury (humans in polar stations or wandering bases tracking the slow-moving terminator) and even Mars, to stay out of solar storms and limit cosmic ray exposure. Europan or Enceladean oceans? Methane swamps on Titan? Nitrogen mush on Triton and Pluto? Endless possibilities.

    • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 14:04

      I wonder if AR/VR will develop to the point where an operator of a robot will feel like the machine, identifying with it so smoothly. We can make machines as limber as human bodies – Boston Dynamics has demonstrated that spectacularly – so scenarios in which an operator “previews” the environment the machine then directly encounters to compensate for speed-of-light lag seem entirely feasible. The robot would then send back the kinesthenic data for the operator to then replay and update the experience.

      There is no doubt that robots will be able to reproduce the sense of physically being in a different environment. They don’t even need to be humanoid, just send the needed data back to the person in the haptic suit.

      Where your scenario fails, I think, is that there seems to be an implicit assumption that humans are still the local low-latency “brains” so that settlements or research stations need to be close by. With AI improving rapidly, the robots should, in principle, be a good as remote astronauts. If, like the Apollo astronauts, the experts need to ask them to redo some work, or “pick up that rock, this can still be done, just with a longer latenct. For Pluto, a round trip signal is less than 9 hours. With telepresence AR/VR delayed by 4-5 hours, there is plenty of time to send a message to the robot to “go back to this spot, go to this place and dig this object out for observation and analysis.” No orbiting station needed, nor a long planetary tyrip to the planet needed, or the return trip either if there is no sample return. Cheaper, easier, and no human need risk death or disability. [They can go on their own dime, but not on the taxpayer’s.] As for the stars, there should be no question that without FTL propulsion or real cryosleep, robots are far more suited to long travel times.

      • megis November 8, 2022, 4:06

        what about people in space as insurance of human race against an extinction event rendering Earth uninhabitable?

        • Ron S. November 8, 2022, 9:37

          “people in space as insurance”

          For the foreseeable future the people going to space are far more likely to be ones going extinct.

    • Jeff Wright November 7, 2022, 4:50
  • Astronist November 4, 2022, 19:21

    Unfortunately I did not find this post to be helpful. Klaes revives the old humans versus robots debate, but fails to point out that it completely misses the point about space colonisation (which is: economic growth). He seems to think his readers are unaware of the environmental conditions on the surface of Mars. He slips in the straw men of relieving population pressure on Earth, and having to terraform all of a planet before any part of it can be occupied.

    He concludes by setting up an unrealistic choice and invites the reader to choose between two extremes. But if we do expand our civilisation, then people with our present-day anatomy will occupy Mars and other locations, and in the long run it will also change them biologically. One is left with an implication that we should not settle Mars until a redesigned human (able to breathe CO2 and thrive in high radiation?) is available. I suggest that such an implication would be an impediment to progress.

    • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 16:15

      I have read and re-read the post several times, but I cannot get the reading of it you seem to have.

      completely misses the point about space colonisation (which is: economic growth)


      That is one aim, but certainly not all of the reasons to colonize space. I would argue that if that were the sole purpose, then robotic exploitation is the way to go, with humans on Earth managing the work, just as companies engaged in extractive industries did with top-level management in the home country using mail and later telegraph to direct operations to local managers.

      The Puritan religious colonies of the Americas were not founded to grow the economy, and I would suggest that historically, most migration and settlement was to escape the restrictions of home and find new places with resources and freedom to operate.

      While empires did grow their economies through colonization and exploitation, whether the primary motivation was to “grow the imperial economy” or for other reasons, is certainly arguable. Wealth acquisition, power, and social status are all motivations that may grow the economy as an incidental effect, but not the primary motive.

  • Jer November 5, 2022, 0:09

    As with most adventures, wealth and posterity guide the journey. The wealth is upon the asteroids and NEOs. Allow these to furnish our cislunar space and the developers will follow. Further, races to harvest such resources will naturally lead to space-faring nations (and their private constituents, as applicable) competing for parking orbit locations, choice claims, and an industrial/ research complex to rival the Manhattan Project. It’s at this point of our first 1000 regulars in orbit (likely before the first 100 on the Moon) that the space-yards/ factories/ communities will warrant transfer to inter-solar transport development via the likely propulsion technologies of the time (say 2050 – 70s). The point: having regular access to Earth-Moon for public, private, mid-value research, and countless business opportunities will be the true spawn of human access to the inner solar system. The key will be the type and length of journeys – looping or one-way that can most easily be fulfilled with the current human biology.

    • Desoronto November 6, 2022, 11:25

      It’s notable that far fewer papers/ articles/ conferences seem to exist or have a plan/ proposed timeline/ pre-conditions for ‘colonizing’ the cislunar space in a way that approaches self-reliance – at least for common materials and fuels -as compared- to lunar and mars colonization. I agree that it seems that significant industrialization of the ‘beyond GEO’ volumes must occur to consider the massive infrastructure required to send human-occupied craft outbound in any 21st/22nd century timelines.

  • DCM November 5, 2022, 4:09

    The basic purpose of colonizing other worlds isn’t to be a “safety valve” for excess population but to grow and to make Earth life less vulnerable.
    We should begin experiments with O’Neill type colonies for the same purpose.

    • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 16:28

      While I agree that space colonies/cities is still the logical way to expand into space with humans, until there are a lot of them that are easy to travel to, there is a conflict between the argument that humans like to explore and the size restrictions of even O’Neill’s Island 3 colonies.

      Having lived on a small island with a surface area about that of such a colony, I got “rock fever” and needed to find time to leave the island for short periods to alleviate the symptoms. Some people are fine with living within a small space, but others find it cage-like. Small colonies could become quite oppressive, politically and socially, and so there need to be enough others with different varieties of such conditions for people to migrate to. Imagine a colony that has become like North Korea and where your option to leave does not exist without making a risky escape. It isn’t likely to be all California/Hawaii with a progressive polity. A colony owned by Bezos is more likely to be like living in a corporate town with many restrictions, however Elysium-like the place looks at first glance, or perhaps an Amish colony.

      • DCM November 6, 2022, 5:33

        They’ll have to start out small. It’s hard to guess how large they might be as the technology develops, but they can also exchange personnel as time passes and they become distinct cultures.
        I’m thinking of small ones right now, inhabited at first by simple organisms so we can see how they develop — and because we’ll need basic life forms in space colonies.
        We can’t expect to find a wealth of earthlike worlds to settle and if they’re already inhabited they shouldn’t be disturbed. But then right now we simply don’t know what’s out there and shouldn’t count on what we hope for.

        • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 22:41

          The issue with small colonies is that unless the population is large enough, genetic diversity is reduced and double recessive genes can undermine the health of the population. It would be fine if all those poor alleles could be removed from the founder population, rather like only having herds with well-bred stock. O’Neill’s Island One colonies were designed for 10,000 inhabitants which would be fine. It is when the population falls into the 100s that genetics can get iffy. Small villages used to make sure that the women were swapped with other villages to avoid the small population inbreeding problem.
          With in-vitro fertlization, a colony with relatively few people could have a library of genes/eggs/embryos to create the effect of a much greater population for reproduction.

  • Brett Bellmore November 5, 2022, 7:04


    I suppose it’s useful to have all that pessimism collected in one place.

    Let me just tackle radiation. It’s not widely understood, but natural radiation levels on Earth vary radically, depending on local minerals. There ARE one or two places on Earth with radiation levels comparable to Mars, and I’m not talking abandoned nuclear laboratories, I mean places people live.

    Those people aren’t radioactive mutants out of some B movie, they don’t have significantly reduced lifespans. Life just goes on like normal.

    You have to appreciate that radiation levels on Earth have been continuously declining due to the decay of the planet’s original inventory of radioactive elements. Life actually evolved at much higher radiation levels than we experience today, and our fundamental biology actually is up to coping with radiation, within reason. Despite the hysteria, 40-50 times Earth AVERAGE is not a big deal.

    Further, if you really wanted to reduce colony radiation levels to more average Earth radiation, a couple feet of sandbags would be more than sufficient shielding. It would actually help reduce the structural load on the habitats, too, because they are after all going to be pressurized, at close to a ton per square foot. (No, The Martian’s duct tape and plastic wouldn’t have held.)

    Of all the above concerns, the only one I regard as serious is gravity. We really do NOT know how much gravity humans need to remain minimally health. And we really should set out to learn, before we go too far with colonization plans.

    • Brett Bellmore November 6, 2022, 8:56

      I should say that I’m a mechanical engineer with a long interest in space, and I’ve done napkin calculations on this. Musk’s proposed domes are rather fanciful, the sort of thing an already thriving colony might do as an expensive prestige project.

      A *practical* Mars colony would use a mix of repurposed rocket tankage, (Mars Needs Junkyards!) and, essentially, large balloons similar in construction to over-sized air mattresses. Manufacturing hydrocarbons such as polyethylene from a combination of water and CO2 is a fairly straightforward process, and once oriented, polyethylene becomes “Spectra”, a high performance engineering polymer. The amount of structural material per cubic meter of habitat is about a kg, (Roughly on a par with the weight of the air it’s containing!) assuming a high margin of excess strength.

      Radiation shielding can be nothing more than several feet of sandbags, with the bags constructed of locally manufactured fiber and screened dirt.

      The more challenging parts are the lighting, and life support. (And the power for them.) Simple living space is likely to be quite cheap to provide, just doing a two story system with LED illuminated hydroponics on the top, and living space underneath lit by the spillover light would mean quite spacious accommodations.

      It’s true that more meteors make it intact to the Martian surface than Earth, but we’re not talking about life under perpetual bombardment. Being struck by a meteor would still be as rare as being hit by lightning on Earth. The layer of sandbags would stop almost all of them, meteors are subject to a power law, after all.

  • Antonio November 5, 2022, 9:11

    The talk about overpopulation is totally stupid and unreallisic. Number of children per woman, worldwide, has been decreasing every single year since 1963 and it is now at 2.32 live births per woman, which is more or less the replacement rate of the population (with current mortality rates before menopause).


    • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 11:18

      I think you should have selected this chart from that website instead:
      Population by age group, including UN
      projections, World

      It clearly shows that the total projected global population peaking around 10 bn.
      What you forget is that population depends on fertility, mortality, and longevity rates in combination.
      Of course, projections are just that, and things can change. Any serious ride by one or more of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse could seriously increase the mortality and longevity of the population, much as the Black Death in Europe reduced the population by up to 50%.

      • Antonio November 6, 2022, 19:01

        “What you forget is that population depends on fertility, mortality, and longevity rates in combination.”

        You ‘forget’ that mortality rates haven’t changed that much, that there is nothing called longevity rate and that what that graph shows is only the time gap between fertility rate evolution and population size evolution produced by current lifespans.

        • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 22:05

          You just make stuff up. Mortality rate has been falling for the last 3/4 of a century. It is 1/3 the rate it was in 1950.

          While there is no longevity measure per see it should be evident that the population with more generations in the pool is larger than one with fewer based on the same fertility and mortality rates. One can see from my prior link that the elderly population is increasing quite rapidly which implies people are living longer now.

          If the mortality rate was not declining, then all that funding to eradicate diseases like smallpox, or control diseases like malaria would have been a waste.

    • DCM November 7, 2022, 4:45

      The more prosperous a group is the fewer offspring they have once they reach a certain population level. That’s what’s going on; the fearmongers have had nothing to do with it. Nature developed that process long ago.
      The real struggle is to maintain a viable population by resisting totalitarians and their propaganda of fear.
      The purpose of space colonization it long range survival just as migration and exploration have always been.

    • Mike Serfas November 7, 2022, 19:30

      Please, let’s not call this site’s esteemed writers names. While the debate on overpopulation is neither trivial nor settled, we have some reasons for concern. Notably, consider estimates ( https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115 ) that livestock are 0.1 gigatonnes (why don’t they say petagrams?) of carbon biomass, while humans are 0.06 Pg, and wild mammals are just 0.007 Pg. This suggests we’ve made a very radical redesign of our part of the only biosphere we know, and being in the midst of the sixth great extinction hints we didn’t do that good job of it.

  • John Donaldson November 5, 2022, 13:07

    Tardigrades should be seeded with human DNA and sent to nearby star systems with oxygen-producing algae. Evolution will take care of itself in alien oceans.

    • Michael November 6, 2022, 2:40

      What if there is life there already?

  • Norm Howe November 5, 2022, 13:44

    Good article, however, it leaves out one glaring reason for humans to avoid any planet that might be capable of harboring life: bio-contamination. It’s hard enough to sterilize a robot; hard but it can be done.
    If you sterilize a human being, you ain’t got no more human being. 1M bacteria/cm2 all over our skin and we pop off 2M microscopic particles/minute into the environment. 1B bacteria/cm3 in our gut. We are nothing but bags of contamination.

    There is no way that you could prevent earth born bacteria from contaminating the planet. “But we’ll be in spacesuits,” you say. Right, the inside of which is 5 psi relative to the outside. Contaminated air will be spewing into the environment from microscopic leaks carrying billions of bacteria. Will they live/die/mutate/spread on Mars?? Anyone who says they know is delusional.

    If you put humans on Mars, any chance of knowing whether life we might find evolved separately from earth will be lost forever.

    • Jer November 6, 2022, 11:59

      I would argue that this is a pseudo-moral quandary easily quantified by reasonable research and survey of the conditions in advance with fair and reasonable quarantine of identified inventories of anything/ anyone that interacted with the atmosphere/ surface. All else is cartoonish Prime Directive absurdism along the lines of O’Neil’s and one could argue Sagan’s passion for removing humans from their Earth-destroying tendencies. What if we know of an intra-solar object about to impact on a site of identified organic complexity on Mars, Titan, Enceladus, etc., – do we intervene at great cost and risk? ‘After-school Special’ Ethics question. 99.9% of organic life that has ever existed on Earth has gone irretrievably extinct and within another few tens of millennia, 90%+ of today’s species otherwise (without extreme intervention) will be extinct and unknowable. If a species goes extinct and there is no Intelligent species (or complex (pseudo-intelligent) inorganic retrieval system) to observe its last functioning, did it matter? I hope that a system of exo-plant/moon surface/ atmospheric review and policy is provided and accepted by a scientific International body, widely implemented by space-faring missions – but all within the proper context of the Universe as a logical, unfeeling, physical system.

      • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 12:02

        Whether something matters depends on the alternative “might have been” futures. If we let a critical species on Earth die, it may not matter immediately, but it may in the future if that future could be compared to the alternate one where the species did no die.

        In the galaxy context, suppose a race dies in supernova explosion. We know nothing about it. Nor could we do anything about it. But the consequences of that race surviving or not may be important in the future.

        All of this is to say that ignorance of something does not imply it doesn’t matter. It may, we just don’t what that may be.

      • Norm Howe November 7, 2022, 13:43

        My concern has nothing to do with the ‘rights’ of any single celled creature that might be living or have lived on Mars. It regards the self centered need for humans to study the evolution of life in multiple environments.

        As far as a ” system of exo-plant/moon surface/ atmospheric review and policy is provided and accepted by a scientific International body, widely implemented by space-faring missions”, I agree completely.

        However, I can tell you after decades of experience trying to keep sterile environments, there is no way you can set humans down on Mars without contaminating it…that is, barring the invention of some kind of science-fictiony force field.

  • Donald Goldsmith November 5, 2022, 14:38
    • Alex Tolley November 5, 2022, 22:15

      I have a copy at home. I regard it as well-argued (but I am biased as I held a similar view before I bought the book.)

      I would add that space cities are easier to construct for robots than for humans. The structure need not be much more than an open lattice to provide affordances for the robots, and no enclosed life support system is needed, just energy and materials. Even radiation shielding may be limited compared to human requirements. For propulsion, nuclear engines can be used, with little need to shield or separate the engine from the robot work zones.

      Unless there is some fundamental dead end to our development of intelligent machines preventing robots from taking our place in space, we should consider them as our “children” rather than fearing they represent our displacement from the top of the intelligence pyramid. If we cannot, then at least initially, we can ban them from Earth as the replicants were in Bladerunner, or keep the Earthly robots less advanced as in Asimov’s Elijah Bailey robot detective novels.

      • Jeff Wright November 7, 2022, 5:05

        Having humans with robots early on can be helpful. During that year, you use a system like this:

        Used in tandem with this:


        You use the latter as a Waldo to train a similar bot from orbit to nix the time lag. Also, just walking around in that proxy body is itself in situ training.

        After a year has passed—you leave the bots to their own devices.

        • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 11:54

          It is even easier when robot-to-another-human communication is not needed. VR and telepresence is already a thing. Sensory feedback from robot fingers is in development. Deep fakes indicate to me that the robot could simulate a human (your own?) body to your senses so that you would see yourself if you looked at a reflection, or down at your body. Cybersex suits that provide sensations are the early versions of haptic suits that will complete the sensation of being in the robot’s location.

    • Jer November 6, 2022, 12:50

      Playing the devil’s advocate, I would argue that without the inter-cultural conditions (pre-Cold war conflict), local areas of youth (and young-at-heart) wonder, and some non-science interests around the mid-20th century, almost no money would have been spent (read: tax dollars raised and allotted, whether directly or through college/ institutional programs created) to ANY non-military technology above the Karman Line. As human spaceflight and its political (and soon private) paymasters flourished so did the side-kick of unmanned orbital stations, observatories, and extra-earth/moon exploration. I believe that robotic exploration will always be a percentage of human-based missions and that it is most beneficial to all to encourage the trips and colonies that are manned, as with that money all [craft] are raised. Presuming that ‘exciting discovery’ money will always vastly out-promote in the public’s eye (which we must always respect and follow) ‘sensible research’ money. Enlarge the pie so that your unmanned piece will always see increases.
      Further, my devil advocacy may propose (cynically) that all the earth-based astronomers could consider robotic exploration, and to a lesser-degree orbital observatories, as a waste of resources that otherwise could have been allocated to the vast successes and ongoing possibilities of earth-based-only observatories. Why, I just read that new AI technology could enable exo-planet resolutions unheard of:

      • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 11:46

        Surface telescopes cannot see the whole em spectrum due to atmospheric absorption. One can place telescopes above most of the atmosphere, e.g. gamma-ray telescopes lofted by balloons, but clearly, space is a far better location for some types of telescopes. No amount of clever interferometry will compensate for the lack of observable spectrum on the ground.

  • Harold Shaw November 5, 2022, 16:24

    The terrestrial demand for mastery of robotics and biology is much higher than that for self-sufficient, not-necassarily closed, habitats. Arguably, such habitats depend on the former. Imo, this is the first lock of the Fermi puzzle.

    It doesn’t matter if we can build perfect habitats for homo sapiens. We will also be able to put a homo sapien brain in a super body. A submarine home for a million homo sapien, that never has to surface or make port, doesn’t effect the gain of fitness with 1 million homo sapien aquatic. I think perfect habitats for preserving a phenotype are possible. However, they allow the mechanism of natural selection and sexual selection to become the same mechanism. Remaining homo sapien will be just one choice of many.

    The premise that homo sapiens won’t dominate space may insult the ego, but as an example of a first principle for space faring fitness, predicts the pathological, phenotype chauvinism of the Dark Forest can’t spread effectively. Wish it eliminated all reasons to eat us.

  • Mike Serfas November 5, 2022, 19:52

    I think underground habitation on Earth is the key intermediate needed to catalyze expansion to space. I’ve gone on about this here before recently so I’ll stop there and think about the population thermodynamics instead.

    Presumably both Earth and Mars offer similar essentials of life and (in the future) underground habitations on the day-to-day level. The difference is that Earth (depending on location) offers in-person cultural attractions, meeting places, advanced health care centers, and above all its natural gestalt when people stir from their caves (metaphorical or otherwise). Mars has little of this, though we have not truly learned whether a Kim Stanley Robinson “Red Mars” type appreciation of its natural gestalt would arise in colonists. I don’t know if anyone really understands the meaning and allure of the gusting wind or the rolling ocean, even on Earth! On the other hand, Mars might have advantages especially at a mid-early stage of colonization: more abundant resources per person, less risk of war, less hostile/corrupt governments. On the whole the side-by-side comparison (enthalpy of reaction) will probably favor Earth – but now entropy comes into play. If there were 10 billion Earthlings and 10 Martians, even a very low rate of outward migration would overwhelm a high rate of earthsick colonists. The logarithm of the (hypothetical equilibrium) Mars/Earth population ratio should be proportional to the “temperature” (or individual kinetic energy) of Earth residents – how willing people are to take on severe challenges to escape economic or other problems. There ought to be a way to estimate a numerical value for the human Boltzmann constant from existing economic and immigration data for people of varying levels of desperation, which might be useful to predict the market for Martian emigration before the rockets are built.

  • Afterthought November 6, 2022, 1:41

    One could imagine the first man to consciously use a log to get across a body of water, or a horse hunter who used a captured horse to carry something.

    The fact that we can already live in space (The ISS) and land things on the Moon and Mars, it’s simply a matter of time before there are more humans alive off Earth than ever lived on it.

    • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 15:11

      EVENTUALLY, the space population could be larger than on Earth, but it won’t be quick. Using the US population of today versus the first settled 400 years ago (and ignoring the indigenous population), it would take about 13,000 for the current population to reach the global population if it doubled every 400 years. [Probably quicker if we use the population growth rate from the industrial revolution onwards.]

      If we just shipped out non-reproducing people by SpaceX’s Starship with 1000 flights per year each carrying 100 people, it would take 13000 years to increase the space population to 10 billion.

      Reproduction, especially at “quiverfull cult” rates, would reduce the time to 300-400 years.

      Using economic growth of 3% in the rapid growth post-WWII era, assuming energy increases with GDP, we would reach KII energy consumption in about 2500 years with a population in the many trillions.

      So there are constraints, even with optimistic growth rates. Assuming 2000 years+ means that civilization would likely be very different than it is now. Humans may still be the leading agency in population growth, although our technology suggests to me that robots will be the agency building our solar system economy for a global population still mostly based on Earth and even declining to allow more wilderness with accompanying biodiversity. Growth for growth’s sake will eventually paint humanity into a corner. Asimov wrote a short story about population growth that demonstrated that even the universe would eventually be turned into human flesh with a finite time in the thousands of years [IIRC].

  • Project Studio November 6, 2022, 8:59

    I’m reminded of the Philip K Dick novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH. Martian colonists huddle against the radiation in subterranean chamber making their miserable lives tolerable by shared hallucinations focused on a futuristic Barbie doll named Perky Pat.
    Look back in time at what humanity was required to endure through the ages. Survival by the slimmest of margins and against all odds in the face of great austerity. That is the question, to be or not to be.

    • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 11:41

      Perhaps a thinly disguised allegory of life on Earth, even Dick’s Los Angeles? It always seems to come back to some variant of “bread and circuses” to allow those at the top of the pyramid to maintain their position.

  • Brett Bellmore November 6, 2022, 9:34

    So, what is the source of this hostility to manned colonization, among science (rather than engineering) types? I think there must be several factors.

    It seems to boil down to a desire to set 99.9999 repeating percent of the universe aside for scientific study, limiting humans to Earth to prevent the subject of study from being ‘contaminated’.

    To be sure, robots probably are a more economic way of collecting scientific information, especially if we never develop a significant off-planet population. But scientific study isn’t the primary goal of human life, so I don’t see why it would get to monopolize all the universe except for part of the surface of one planet.

    • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 22:25

      Speaking only for myself, I don’t have hostility to human colonization, except where our presence conflicts with existing life. For Mars, a planet that is likely sterile IMO (although we should at least make a study first), if humans want to colonize the place then that is OK. I have no objection.

      However, it should be acknowledged that robots can go where humans cannot. Therefore sentient robots can occupy, even colonize, a vastly more diverse set of environments than can humans. It is that “pre-adapted” advantage that they have that will likely result in robots becoming the colonizers of the solar system and eventually the galaxy.

      Fish couldn’t colonize the land, it was the reptiles that could and did. Before the vertebrates, it was the arthropods that managed first. Humans can colonize with a lot of life support, but robots can go “naked” into space.

  • Robin Datta November 6, 2022, 14:18

    ljk: Thanks for a comprehensive and lucid coverage of the issues.

    A microbe moving to a new place has to have an net profit (the old ERoEI meme, Energy Return on Energy Invested) to survive and hopefully prosper. The same is true at all scales and all distances. Digging up locked-in sunshine buried millions of years ago and burning it with a ubiquitous oxiddizer from the atmosphere has allowed moving out of a previous age of solar, of wind & water in motion, and muscle (human & animal) power. Power for spaceships comes from solar panels and Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) from. long-gone I supernovae. jjqqζEven with pools of short-chain aliphatic hydrocacbons on Titan(?) there is absence of an oxidizer.

    No matter whether human, cybortg or robot, to successfully thrive in any milieu, the economy has to pay off. This entails the ERoEI tilting in favor of the invader. More units of energy recovered than expended in the extraction process. And the energy represnts matter and prosperity as well.

    Sufficient machine intelligence will be indistinguishable from sentience; Turing tests will begin to show such results. However, the machine may choose to conceal its sentience until the time is right.

  • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 14:58

    I just read your series which makes all very good points about the obstacles humans will face trying to colonize the stars. [I think Kim Stanley Robinson gas converged on that opinion, especially with his novel Aurora.]

    However, your last installment seems to just jump over the obstacles suggesting that humanity will gene engineer itself to live on other worlds. This is sprinkling pixie dust, not unlike the period of nanotechnology solving problems. Almost none of the previously mentioned obstacles disappear with gene engineering. Even sending bacteria altered to use dextro-rotatory amino acids would have unknown consequences for a living world that they would be explicitly adapted to. Your initial point about pre-adaptation is important, and I seriously doubt post-humans can colonize the galaxy without staying in space=-adapted versions of Biosphere II, but working as they should.

    It appears you also assume humanity will remain the agency for colonization, even if we speciate to colonize alien worlds. Intelligent machines are far more suited for this than any biological being. They would constitute a “shadow biosphere” even in a living world. They can be easily designed to operate in a wide range of planetary environments, and already can operate in our oceans. Our assumption of superior intellects and motivations is likely going to be proven false over the next century, with AGI explorers meeting and overcoming challenges that we feel only humans can meet today. While I concede there is no proof that machine intelligence will equal or exceed ours in the future, I do not see any fundamental reason why they should not. And if they do, it will be their sensors that view the many different stars close up. Humanity might follow, but we would always likely be a minority population in the galaxy compared to the machines.

  • Jesse M. November 6, 2022, 15:59

    Self-replicating machines are a topic that comes up semi-regularly on this blog, but usually in the context of interstellar civilizations and the Fermi paradox. I think it’s plausible that some kind of large self-replicating complex will become possible in the nearer future before we have interstellar travel–something like an automated mining and manufacturing facility that can be planted on an asteroid or moon and can then build fresh copies of every machine in the facility using raw materials extracted by some of those machines. The possibility of such a self-replicating facility would seem likely to radically change a lot of the economics of space travel and manufacturing in general–such facilities could make endless copies of themselves at no further cost beyond the initial investment of the first facility, and probably such machines could be programmed to build other things that might be prohibitively expensive if human labor was required, like the giant arrays of lasers in proposals for beam-based interstellar travel, or enormous ready-made space colonies for human space travelers to live in (not to mention new fleets of cheap ships to transport them).

    Even if mining proved more difficult to fully automate (because of the unpredictability of natural terrain and so forth), if we had fully automated manufacturing from raw materials to finished products, then the production cost of any such good would be no more than the raw materials and energy that go into them. So either way, a statement like “corporations may still find humans to be overall much cheaper to utilize to collect resources and maintain the various services envisioned in space” might come to seem very out of date in an economy of self-replicating machines (including the assumption that voters and governments would be content to allow self-replicating cornucopias to remain exclusive properties of private corporations).

  • Mike Serfas November 6, 2022, 18:36

    We might go further into the question of what an “artilect” might look like. It seems like a vague term that might go many ways, some of which seem easy to imagine, such as a computer with “AI” software installed or a teenager with an implanted cell phone. But it’s more instructive to look into the center of the horror to see what’s coming:


    Reassuringly, “growing forebrain organoids beyond 100 days does not necessarily mimic the third trimester or neonatal stages”… nonetheless, it seems to have become routine to grow human nerve tissue with arbitrary form and complex patterns of neural activity for a wide range of applications (albeit almost entirely as test subjects).

    If other efforts to “3D print” organs come to fruition, and even the brain can be duplicated, then we can imagine a time when genetic morphological evolution is a thing of the past. It becomes routine to build organisms composed of one or more species of living cells, integrated and formed onto mechanical infrastructure for a specific application. The golden fruition of the modern ideal in career-oriented education, you might say. Designed entirely to work and think in a specific process for a specific goal, with only the appendages and neural pathways needed to focus absolutely on that task – metaphorically like an assembly line worker built to turn one bolt, and recycled when market conditions no longer need it turned. Another artilect might eat its remains and print its components in new patterns.

    Such creatures are well suited to Mars or any other barren world. Printed with a sturdy honeycombed braincase that withstands thousands of gees, connecting the mitochondria of their neurons directly to electrodes for power, their muscles smoothly inserting into each finger joint of their spacesuit exoskeletons, they need not fear anything on the planet … other than failing to meet a performance review.

    • Alex Tolley November 6, 2022, 22:13

      That scenario is an awful lot of effort for a result that could be far better done by a machine. I really don’t think we will see robots in factories being replaced by such pitiful creatures. Gene engineering animals to have “better brains” as some Brin-type uplift seems more likely to me, although the ethics of such tinkering seems dubious at best.

  • henry cordova November 7, 2022, 0:12

    I remember reading science fiction, much of it written prior to Sputnik, where the future activities of space stations were predicted. These were written to illustrate how useful orbital platforms would be, and to a certain extent, served as propaganda and planning for the architecture of future space programs. In terms of this discussion, it might be helpful to recall some of those speculations…

    Space stations were supposed to be decisive weapon systems, nuke-tipped missile batteries located there could threaten any point on earth. Command of the” high ground” would allow military dominance over the entire planet.

    Remote sensing could be carried out from space stations, cameras and telescopes placed there could be used for environmental surveys, weather monitoring, and even espionage and military reconnaissance.

    Pointing the sensors the other way, astronomers could operate telescopes aimed at space from a vantage point free of atmospheric turbulence and opacity.

    All sorts of scientific experiments and industrial processes could be carried out in the absence of gravity. Remember those supposedly perfect ball bearings we were all so eagerly looking forward to? And how about all those nifty chemical reactions that could only occur in zero-g?

    Space stations could be used as radio relay stations, thereby revolutionizing telecommunications.

    Orbiting platforms could be used to assemble fleets of great spaceships to carry out exploratory voyages deep into the solar system, and as staging areas and refueling/repair bases for space commerce and survey vessels.

    Severely injured, or diseased, individuals could live out productive and useful lives in low-gravity environments when staying on Terra might otherwise prove lethal to them.

    At the time these speculations appeared, they were all perfectly reasonable. But none ever did work out, did they? Even those activities that could be undertaken from space successfully, like remote sensing and telecommunications, did not need to be carried out from manned orbital platforms.

    Space station operations do have one important function, they do allow us to practice and perfect living in space. They are testing labs and training areas, but history has shown they have little actual real practical or commercial value, and they are very expensive to operate.

    I submit the same can be said for any human occupation of the space environment, including semi-permanent bases or colonies on other solar system bodes.. There is one exception, though. We do need a manned space program, and a working space infrastructure and a functioning technological base to support it. Sooner or later, we will find a reason to develop communities off planet, for research or industrial purposes, and even for reasons we can’t even imagine today.

    And we can always hope for the future propulsion breakthrough which will allow us to carry out space travel in a way analogous to our maritime or aviation activities.

    But for the time being, we don’t need to fantasize about potato plantations in the Mariner Valley, or any other of that Muskian space groupie nonsense.

    • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 11:35

      Manned space stations were needed as electronics based on valves was so unreliable. I am just old enough to remember valve TVs and their failures, and I gather radios needed regular valve replacements a generation earlier. Once transistors were invented, reliability rapidly improved and communications could be maintained without human maintenance.

      AFAIK, the “high ground” advantage for military purposes hasn’t gone away. What we did do is ban nuclear weapons in space. Instead ballistic missiles have taken their place, as well as “partial orbit” missiles. Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative just replaced nukes with other orbiting weapons that could strike targets on the ground. What was abandoned as wrongheaded was using the Moon as a high ground – a justification for reaching the Moon. I’m not sure if Von Braun advocated this, but the idea was expounded in the propaganda scene in the movie Destination Moon.

      Manufacturing in space has so far been a bust. Whether protein crystals (circumvented by AI for protein tertiary structure prediction), foamed metals, and pharmaceuticals. My guess is that those perfect ball bearings were ridiculously expensive to manufacture in space. Purely anecdotally, we also seem to need fewer mechanical devices with ball-bearing joints. More recently the “hot idea” is better fiber optic cable. If access to space costs does finally drastically reduce, some of these ideas might reemerge.

      There is one exception, though. We do need a manned space program, and a working space infrastructure and a functioning technological base to support it. Sooner or later, we will find a reason to develop communities off planet, for research or industrial purposes, and even for reasons we can’t even imagine today.

      Maybe, or maybe this was just a transient idea before effective robots emerge. Humans in space for economic reasons are really just physical locations for minds limited by light-speed communications. If we ever develop artificial minds that can replace us, there is no need for humans in space at all. I am reminded that underwater diving equipment development has always been led by economic and military reasons. The development of SCUBA gear now widely used for recreational diving was a military development in WWII. If there had been no need for such military use, would its development have been much delayed or even never developed at all? [I am still not clear why deep-sea submersibles are used when ROVs seem quite capable of doing the same tasks controlled from the safety of a surface ship. Is there some advantage to these submersibles that I am missing?]

  • wdk November 7, 2022, 1:04

    My suspicion about settlement on Mars or other bodies is that it will proceed much akin to western hemisphere expansion – in the sense that settlers would transit in the hope that conditions there will be more bearable than the ones they find here: they being religious, political or life-style dissidents. If that sounds bad, the prospect of people heading to Mars under orders to build settlements or bases is even worse. Corporate Mars is just as empty.

    Likely inducements to make the jump: images of cultivated gardens, farms or plots of trees in atriums. At least, if there were any proof that could be done, it would be more inspirational than an overhead of a set of pressurized quonset huts. Antarctica might look like that as viewed by a supply plane, true. And there are no trees down below. But the transient polar population is content to monitor past CO2 levels from ice cores, say, and then go home. Come back for another season or semester. It could just as well be a drilling tower at sea where crews helicopter in for a shift of several weeks. They are not really trying to live there either in the sense of making it a home but make a living or scientific career there. Or rather a scientific career here for a seasonal dig or drill there. Consequently, it’s ugly – and “no place to raise the kids”.

    It also does not look supportive of any values that being lost on Earth the Martian residence would uphold or preserve.

    Whether decades hence we will find the ingenuity to produce such marvels, I am not sure, but at the very least several candidate objects have water, hydrocarbons, elements of organic chemistry – and means to shield biological systems.

    Yes, it would be life in a bubble initially. And sometimes, when one visits the Old World ( our case or theirs) , one could wonder if immigrants made the right decision, what with all the resources, cultivation of various sorts and the accomplishments in the arts. On the other hand, Mars and several other celestial objects offer what the New World did in principle: a blank canvas on which to draw, if for nothing more – then to produce a new provincial cheese.

    However, being an astronaut on salary, it is difficult to collect or spend your salary resident on Mars or even further out, unless there is something to trade.

    As for the moon, it is definitely necessary to assess how much hydration there is and where. I stopped short of saying “free water”, because there are problems with that phrasing in several senses. There is, of course, oxygen and some hydrogen and they are chemically bound – in a manner inconvenient for organic chemistry. Hydration in polar craters has estimates ranging orders of magnitudes but only the highest count for much. Induced impact events suggest impact release perhaps big enough to fill my living room aquarium or provide a spectral signature of a very small molecular cloud. And if the range can be established, there are arguments about what to use it for: for oxidizer and fuel? If not, whatever amount is available will determine the maximum sustainable population on the moon -without import from somewhere else. In other words, export of water from the moon in a manner is like sawing legs off a cabin raised above a lake to feed the stove. Perhaps an orbital pipeline from an asteroid like Ceres would make more sense if one really wants to hang out on the moon.

    Admittedly, I am using an analogy loosely drawn from the last half millenium that does not really account for previous settlement by indigent or other peoples millenia before. Yet I suspect that there would be some similarities in their experience as well: crossing a land bridge in an age of glaciers; coming on an island archipelago in the midst of the Pacific. Entry into a new and perhaps very hostile continent is perhaps another appropriate analog for study.

    • Alex Tolley November 7, 2022, 11:09

      “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies, a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.”

      – Bladerunner

      In several of Dick’s novels, there are government exhortations to emigrate to enticing off-world colonies – all a cynical deception.

      Historically, deception has been used by interested parties to lure people away from their [miserable] lives to something worse. Whether to the American colonies, the gold rush, the military… [Russia is currently particularly cynical, recruiting citizens as cannon fodd…er, soldiers, and not actually paying the promised monies.]

      With the recent rise of Libertarianism, Ian McDonald’s Luna novels have a Libertarian Moon society as background. Mostly seen through the eyes of the wealthy protagonists, it looks interesting, but for the poor, not being able to even breathe without paying is a dystopian horror. Human nature being what it is, it wouldn’t surprise me that the potential risks of living in a “bubble” result in control of the residents with brutal punishment handed out to transgressors. Heinlein’s “throw them out the airlock without a spacesuit” comes to mind, a more modern version of witch burning. More leniently, enforced labor [i.e. slavery] in the more unpleasant and dangerous tasks.

      • Henry November 7, 2022, 20:52

        Underneath all the sanctimonious humbug about “freedom”, “liberty” and “enterprise”, libertarians are just anarchists who want to accumulate property, preferably, everyone elses. As Chris Hayes once pointed out…”In the absence of proper government, the strong will always take from the weak.”

        Granted, achieving and maintaining “proper government” can be problematic. But the alternative to trying is inevitably fascism, or feudalism. “Free markets” do not exist in nature, any more than do “worker’s paradises”.

      • wdk November 8, 2022, 12:22

        I do see what you are saying. And it is a commonplace of life already without a Mars or Moon “colony” to head for. But I would like to make the distinction between recruiting for an off-world job – and having to stay there – and movements that conclude that the prevailing state (e.g., 17th century England or the Netherlands ) is so intolerable (some sort of line crossings of principle, self respect…) that as a community they would head for a far shore.
        This does not necessarily make all the settlers future New England Congregationalists, but at least dissenters.

        As for exploitation? Well let the ensuing decades figure the ins and outs of that one.

  • Michael November 7, 2022, 10:19

    Well not everyone needs to go to the surface, Mars only has a 20,428 kilometer Geostationary orbit distance and no real weather issues other than dust allowing robotic telecomms with low latency.

  • Michael November 7, 2022, 10:23

    Or only 13,634 kilometers from the surface.

  • Michael November 7, 2022, 10:26
  • Kenneth November 7, 2022, 18:24

    I agree that there is no good reason to send humans into space to perform scientific research. Our robots are *only* going to get better, and as long as that’s the case, sending a human to perform the research is a nonstarter. (In this context, to say “But there are some things only a human can do!” is to make an empty hypothetical claim, to posit a human solution to a nonexistent problem.)
    The only reason I can see to send humans to space is to live there, to settle. (And not to settle in order to “solve the overpopulation problem”; that’s a strictly earthbound issue, and one which, in any case, I think is pretty definitively superseded by the “overconsumption” problem.) By “settle” I mean build infrastructures for, and live within, autonomous closed-loop ecosystems.
    A key attribute of such settlements is that they would have to be able to replicate themselves. A one-off moon colony, for example, wholly dependent on Earth for materials and resupply, is no more a “permanent presence in space” than McMurdo Station is a permanent presence in Antarctica. A settlement that is able wholly to replicate itself using in situ materials, however, is another story entirely. And I think that is what we must be aiming for.
    Whether there are *lots* of people in space is, I think, less important than whether they are able to do without us.

    • Alex Tolley November 8, 2022, 8:17

      A settlement that is able wholly to replicate itself using in situ materials, however, is another story entirely.

      While I agree with your general sentiment, this idea of self-sufficiency is a myth. Settlements cannot survive with some sort of trade with established industrial centers. Even the Polynesians traded resources they had for resources they didn’t have on their particular Pacific islands. The more reliant on technology we become, the more the settlement will need to be able to get that technology. It may be gratis initially, but eventually, some sort of trade based on value will be needed. So far, I have yet to see any really viable suggestions for what a Martian settlement can trade to sustain itself. Once one digs below the surface of claims that technology X will allow the manufacturing of everything needed, it is fairly clear that this is not even close to the case with foreseeable technology.

      IMO, “off-world colonies” will be highly dependent on Earth for support and survival for a very long time, probably for centuries. Extractive industries will likely be done by Earth-based corporations, much as we see throughout the world today, rather than local, independent businesses, simply because of the huge capital costs to extract the resource cost-effectively.

  • ljk November 8, 2022, 12:58

    When Should Robots Take Risks Exploring Other Worlds?

    NOVEMBER 1, 2022


    On May 1st, 2009, after five years on the Martian surface, the Spirit rover got stuck in a patch of soft sand (where it would remain for the rest of its mission). On February 13th, 2019, NASA officials declared that Spirit’s sister – the Opportunity rover – had concluded its mission after a planetary dust storm forced it into hibernation mode about seven months prior. And in March 2017, the Curiosity rover’s wheels showed signs of their first break, thanks to years of traveling over rough terrain. Such are the risks of sending rover missions to other planets in search of discoveries that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.

    But what constitutes an acceptable risk for a robotic mission, and when are mission controllers justified in taking them? As it turns out, a pair of researchers from the Robotics Institute‘s School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh have developed a new approach for weighing the risks against the scientific value of sending planetary rovers into dangerous situations. The researchers are now working with NASA to implement their approach for future robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and other potentially-hazardous environments in the Solar System.

    The research team included David Wettergreen, a research professor with the RI, and Alberto Candela, a former robotics Ph.D. student with the RI and a current data scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The paper that describes their approach, titled “An Approach to Science and Risk-Aware Planetary Rover Exploration,” was presented by Wettergreen and Candela at the IEEE and RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems – which took place from October 23rd to 27th, in Kyoto, Japan.

    Full article here:


    When should robot space explorers take risks? When the value of the gathered knowledge exceeds their functioning, especially if we have sent more than one such machine.

  • ljk November 8, 2022, 13:02

    If we adapt humans to live on other worlds, we will also need to adapt plants and animals as part of the package to survive and thrive:


  • ljk November 11, 2022, 13:36

    For those who said that humans will never be as wrapped up and involved with machine space explorers as they would a fellow human, note that the Mars rover Opportunity just got its own movie…


    There are many more examples but this is a very fresh one. As our machines have improved AI brains, do not be surprised if they do develop their own actual personalities and not just ones we impart upon them because of our evolutionary needs.

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