Buzz Cut

In an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin has taken it upon himself to bloviate about a mission to Mars. According to the Buzz, “The United States’ eyes — and our unified commitment — should focus on opening the door, in our time, to the great migration of humankind to Mars.”

This idea is so stupid as to defy belief. How could a man with a smidgen of technical training ever say such a thing? Is he senile? Is he being paid off to say things he knows are ridiculous?

He goes on to say, “… human nature — and potentially the ultimate survival of our species — demands humanity’s continued outward reach into the universe.” There it is. He thinks it will improve humanity’s survival if we head for Mars.

Oh, and by the way, he’s not an astronaut. None of them are. The word “astro-” refers to stars. They never got anywhere near interstellar travel, nor will they ever. A better term would be, maybe, “moonwalker.” Or, for those in the orbiting space station, “vacuum jockey.”

But that’s not important. Here is the simple truth about “the great migration of humankind to Mars”: The whole idea is bullshit. It has been promoted assiduously by science fiction writers for the past 75 or 80 years, but it has never been more than an opium smoker’s pipe dream. I am now going to tell you why.

To start with, our own planet is rapidly becoming uninhabitable, due to our own actions. Humanity’s continued survival is indeed in serious doubt. That said, a misplaced commitment of billions of dollars to interplanetary junketing is only going to make our lives a tad more nasty, brutish, and short. Putting those resources toward things like renewable energy and restoration of wetlands (to say nothing of the problem of the garbage being dumped into the oceans) would be a hell of a lot more sensible.

Also easier. But not nearly as sexy.

There are those who think (if we can stop grinding our teeth long enough to dignify it by calling it “thinking”) that somehow the human species can improve its long-term prospects for survival by colonizing other planets. This would be a reasonable idea if habitable planets were plentiful and within reach. But as even Buzz Aldrin knows, they’re not.

We don’t have, at present, the technology to establish a self-sustaining Mars colony. The technical difficulties are enormous. Putting a few guys in space suits onto the surface of Mars may be technically feasible, but a few guys in space suits are not a viable human colony.

Isolated, self-contained human outposts have been tried a couple of times, here on our own planet. There was one in Hawaii, I believe, and one in Arizona. They both failed. Here, on a planet that has plenty of water and breathable air, where the temperature is moderate, and where transportation to and from the “colony” cost only a few hundred dollars rather than billions, we couldn’t figure out how to do it. The plans for designing a Mars outpost that would be biologically self-sustaining and viable over any considerable period of time are not yet on the drawing board. We simply don’t know how to do it.

Mars is not the place to raise your kids. Death Valley and the interior of Saudi Arabia are a picnic compared to Mars.

But that’s not the worst of it. Even if it were possible to build a self-contained and long-term-viable human colony on Mars, the requirements in education and technical expertise that would be needed in order for one to be considered as a candidate colonist would put Mars completely out of reach for approximately 7.999 billion of the 8 billion people on Earth.

A Mars colony is not “migration.” It’s just not. Nobody is going to set up a Mars outpost where three million Cambodian peasants can live. Why do I need to explain this? For those of us living on this planet, there is no Planet B. There will never be a Planet B.

But let’s suppose we had the technology to set up a small, self-sustaining outpost on Mars. Who’s going to pay for it, eh? And why should we pay for it? What’s the advantage in doing so? There isn’t one, other than the advantage that would accrue to the inflated egos of a few politicians and technocrats. For the rest of us, it’s just bread and circuses.

Finally, with respect to the idiot notion that colonizing other planets will help ensure the long-term survival of humanity, we need to acknowledge that Mars is really quite nearby. The nearest extra-solar planet is roughly 180,000 times further away. The technology needed to get there (even if we knew the nearest extra-solar planet to be habitable, which we don’t know at all) does not exist and may never exist. Interstellar travel is not like what you see on Star Trek.

There is, as far as we can determine, no such thing as faster-than-light travel. Travel to the nearest star other than our own sun would take 20 or 30 years, even if we had a propulsion system that could get us there. (We don’t.) The health dangers from cosmic radiation, especially when traveling at a high rate of speed, the physiological effects of prolonged weightlessness, and the psychological wear and tear of being cooped up in a tin can with a few dozen people for 20 or 30 years — I don’t even want to think about it.

When the explorers finally arrived at this distant planet, there’s no telling what sort of conditions they would encounter, but a casual inspection of our nearest planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus (one an icy rock and the other a furnace), would suggest that the prospects are not guaranteed to be salubrious.

But interstellar exploration isn’t even on the table, except by implication. Buzz is really just doing PR for NASA in order to improve its chances in the budget negotiations in Congress. Given the clownish level of ignorance that passes for science knowledge in the halls of Congress, he may even be onto something.

This entry was posted in politics, random musings, science fiction, technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Buzz Cut

  1. Catana says:

    Amen to all your points, but here’s the *real* killer: global climate change. Sooner or later, this baby is going to swallow up so much of the world’s economies that most of the big, expensive science/tech projects are going to come to a limping halt. My favorite genre, science fiction, still mostly acts as if technological progress is going to continue indefinitely.

  2. midiguru says:

    That’s why I write fantasy. Science fiction is too hard, because any honest projection into the future shows none of the fond notions of SF writers but rather the impending collapse of civilization. Incidentally, Buzz Aldrin’s drum-beating about expanding into the universe is explicitly an echo of Niven & Pournelle’s novel “The Mote in God’s Eye.” The theme of that book is, an intelligent species that can’t expand across the galaxy goes collectively insane.

    As a literary trope, exploring the galaxy is simply the European conquest of the Americas, writ large.

    –JA

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