« And the beat goes on ... | Main | Hold the front page »

Historical contingency

Apparently there's more ice on Mars than we realized. Lots more ice. In fact, Viking 2 came within eight centimetres of uncovering ice on Mars in 1977:

Meteorites that crashed into the Martian surface last year exposed buried ice to the digital eyes of NASA spacecraft. Scientists have used those images to deduce that there is a lot more ice on Mars — and that it's closer to the equator — than previously thought. In fact, subterranean Martian ice should extend all the way down beyond 48 degrees of latitude, according to the model, which was published in Science Thursday. That happens to be where the Viking Lander 2 was in operation from 1976 to 1980. As part of its science program, the Lander dug a trench about 6 inches deep. The new model predicts that if it had gone an extra 3.5 inches — a bit longer than a credit card — it would have hit ice.
The only thing I can say is: wow. The whole focus of space exploration during the 1980s and 1990s would have shifted dramatically if the Viking landers had uncovered ice. I don't think we'd have seen an Apollo-style rush to send astronauts there, but there was a hiatus of nearly 20 years after Viking during with the American space science academy mostly ignored Mars, focusing instead on the grand outer planets missions (Galileo and Cassini) and the Hubble space telescope. And the decision to build the international space station in the late 1980s might have gone somewhat differently if there'd been serious competition from a manned Mars mission lobby.




Actually, the proven ice deposits of Mars are still quite a bit less that what Kim Stanley Robinson described in Red Mars (written in 1990 or so). It seems like the scientific community actually suspected a lot of ice on the planet for a long time, but without being able to prove it.

I also remember hearing a lecture 10 years ago that spoke of a litany of signs for water on Mars that - despite my KSR contaminated youthful mind - struck me as somewhat unreal. So, incredibly, the greatest surprise would be a lack of further surprises on that front.

Oh well, even the moon seems to be a swamp nowadays, at least compared to what everyone kept telling us until the day before yesterday.

Now, with water being no longer a matter of shortage, but more a matter of the inconvenience of getting it out of whatever celestial body you're dealing with, what are the implications for space travel and finding life elsewhere?

I for one suspect that the result of Drake's equation gained an order of magnitude or two during the last week or so.


I was about to disagree... but having thought about it, yes, I totally agree.

The major impact would (sorry, might) have been what happened to the USSR. A space-race to Mars would have been... interesting.

But... maybe that would have brought forward the end of all space exploration -- we would spent a trillion or two to get there, planted a few flags... and then what? We've had 128 space shuttle missions (IIRC), 2 failed. If *any* Mars missions failed, well, that's a lot more eggs in one basket, if say, Mission 3 failed, maybe we wouldn't've bothered with any more.

What if it was easy to get to Mars (parity with the cost of, perhaps 3 space shuttle missions)?

Alternatively, ignore manned flight, perhaps we would have sent dozens of additional unmanned probes? Personally I would prefer that.


I'm not sure the whole focus of exploration would have shifted that much. Recall that the Viking life experiments were interesting but controversial, yet there was no follow up on life experiments for decades. Nor were life detectors added after the controversial announcement of fossil life on the Mars origin meteorite ALH 84001. Arguably only the failed ESA Beagle mission has tried to detect life directly since Viking.

While I am skeptical about life elsewhere in the solar system, one might have thought that some instruments could have been added to Mars and Titan landers as high risk, but potentially high return experiments.


@ Alex T
'the Viking life experiments were interesting but controversial'
I'm half remembering so may have got this totally wrong, but didn't they at one think that they'd found evidence for bacterial life?


I think Manned Mars will run into the same problem that it did in OTL: nobody wants to pony up the 100 billion plus that it would cost.


@5: It kind of worked with the ISS though ...


SteveG@2 The USSR was going broke during the 80's so I am not sure where they would have got the money for any kind of manned Mars mission. They did of course have the two Phobos missions which did not go so well in the late 80's.

Maybe the result of an ice discovery by one or both of the Viking landers would have been the space station being redesigned so that it could be used as a staging point for some future manned Martian mission. There certainly would have also been more robotic missions.


I'm not sure it would have made that much of a difference. Perhaps a couple more Viking type probes might have been sent, but unless real evidence of life was found, there wouldn't be more follow up. The Shuttle and Voyagers were already past the planning stage.

I doubt the Soviets would have done much either. They never had much luck with their Mars probes, that's why they focused on Venus -where they had success, and the US wasn't paying much attention to.


The biggest hurdle to manned exploration of Mars is the deadly radiation astronauts will experience on the trip (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327266.100). Radiation protection requires one or all of the following: increased distance from the source, decreased exposure time, and increased shielding. Since space radiation comes at you from all directions, the first is not possible. Vasimr ion engines make the second feasible (to Mars in only 30 days), while some combination of artifical magnetic field and shielding mass (surrounding the crew quarters with tanks of water and or fuel) makes the third posible - if expensive.

The debilitating effects of zero gravity can be avoided by spinning the crew quarters on a long tether to provided artificial gravity. Smaller centrifuges like the one shown in "2001 a Space Odyssey" wouldn't work becaue of its small spinning radius would induce nausea do to Coriolis forces. So an interplanetary vessel would need a central engine module forming the axis with two our more counter balancing crew modules (or other service modules of equal mass) spinning on tethers about the engine at a large enough radius (kilometers?) to keep the crew form becoming "space sick".

Maybe we'll find that space sickness is, like sea sickness, only temporary and that prolonged exposure allows an astronaut to get used to it and get his "sea legs".

Food and water needs can be minimized by hibernation techniques that keep most or all of the crew asleep during the voyage.

Landing will be extremely dangerous to the crew and robot landings have a 60% failure rate(http://www.universetoday.com/2007/07/17/the-mars-landing-approach-getting-large-payloads-to-the-surface-of-the-red-planet) - assuming that they bring down everything they need in one landing craft. Instead of large single payloads, manned landings on mars would need dozens of smaller landing craft setting down in the same vicinity.

All the above is doable and is simply a matter of engineering - and money. But perhaps we've been making the wrong analogies all along. Maybe we should equate our robotic probes (Pioneer, Viking, the Hubble space telescope, the Mars rovers, etc.) as the EXPLORERS, equivalent to Columbus, Hudson, Cook and Magellan. When humans finally land on Mars we should arrive as COLONISTS, equivalent to Jamestown, Plymouth, St. Augustine, Botony Bay, etc. Which means that manned missions to Mars should be one way trips (http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-09-16-fly-me-to-mars-oneway). When my ancestors came over to America from Ireland during the Famine, they had no thought of ever going back.

Manned missions in space should be considered as immigration, not exploration.

As for making Mars livable, maybe we should just start "small" and terraform not the entire planet, but "paraterraform" just the 4 mile deep Valles Marineris. It's depth would allow it to sustain (with some biological/industrial maintenance and replenishment) a sufficiently thick and breathable atmosphere. At 2500 miles long and 360 miles wide, it's area is 900,000 square miles (about the size of Alaska and Texas combined, more than enough room for any conceivable colonization effort). Cities could be carved into the canyon walls like pueblos. The colonists would think of the rest of Mars in the same way we think of the Tibetan Plateau.

(Wow, that's a long post. Sorry, I got carried away...)


I'd like to see a manned Mars mission . . . but only if the crew stays in orbit and teleoperates all the equipment. Not going to happen with that sort of constraint, of course. I wonder what the constraints would be though if you did it up Zubrin-style and had the volatiles extracted from Mars and shot up to orbit for the trip home.

For that matter, wouldn't it be possible at this stage of the game to send all the consumables ahead robotically? Have the LOX and H20 already there and ready to go for the return?


If colonization of Mars was like Sid Meier's "Civilization" game, what would the tech tree look like to ensure a successful effort?


@OP: Well, I hope they don't screw with Voyager or Galileo! Those probes already got more than their fair share of knocks, especially considering that Voyager's predecessor mission, TOPS, was canceled to make way for the Shuttle, even though it would have been (IMHO) a much more scientifically valuable program.

@10: Well, that depends on where we start. Post-Apollo/current not even close? Manned missions having been done? Start of the colonization program (a la Alpha Centauri)?

@9: Well, you might be able to use Phobos or Deimos as fuel bases. Might be volatile-rich, and so possible to make CH4/LOX or H2/LOX out of. Probably somewhat more technically difficult than surface-based production, though.

@8: Yep, the infamous 'Mars Curse'. Not a single Soviet/Russian Mars probe has been an unqualified success. Even the few that managed to scrape out something were very unimpressive.

As far as the Soviets go, it probably doesn't help that they had just retired the N1 program (OTOH they had the Energiya program ramping up, and that was in an equivalent-throw class), that they were just starting to come out of their space program's nadir (seriously, they had an absolutely horrible success rate in the late '60s to mid '70s, at least), and that they were starting their terminal economic spiral.

Maybe we'll find that space sickness is, like sea sickness, only temporary and that prolonged exposure allows an astronaut to get used to it and get his "sea legs".
Actually, I'm pretty sure that's how it works. Space sickness *usually* only affects you for the first few days of your flight, then everything settles down. Of course, there are exceptions...like that Tokyo TV reporter who flew to Mir, and (IIRC) spent the whole time huddled up, miserable and sick.

PhilD@4. Several of the Viking experiments could have been interpretable as supporting the hypothesis that life was responsible for the results. However, the alternative chemistry only hypothesis was concluded because there was no evidence of organic material in the martian soil samples. That seems to me to be the best hypothesis. All the experiments were designed to look for the side effects of living organisms, not to look for them directly. Of course, since then, we know that Viking could not have detected the sparse life that exists in the dry soils of the Atacama desert. We also have since discovered extremophiles living in hostile conditions on earth, plus bacteria living deep in the earth's crust. So it is possible that life does exist there, but not in the surface soils.

Current thinking at NASA reduces the chances of a manned mission the higher the probability of life being present is. This is because humans are almost certain to contaminate the landing site, far more so that a nearly perfectly sterilized robotic lander. That is not to say that this would have been the thinking back in the 1970's and 1980's when Charlie is positing a different space program.

While the presence of subsurface ice is very interesting, we have always known water ice exists at the poles and more recently we have known that it exists in subsurface boreal zones. But bear in mind that for life to use the water in ice, it must become liquid. Some algae on earth can live in ice and trap enough sunlight to melt the ice in thin films. But clearly it would be more likely that the ice would melt below the surface if Mars generated any heat in its core. Unfortunately there are no heat flow measurements for the planet that I am aware of that could indicate whether Mars has a temperature profile that could allow for liquid water somewhere below the surface.


Sooooo, we are looking at two potentially habital corridors north and south of the equator, determined by the following set of variables:
1: Sufficiently deep to enable enough attentuation of incoming radiation
2: Shallow enough, and close enought to the equator, to allow sufficient heating from the sun
3: Within the range of either the North or South subterranean ice 'caps'.

It is seeming that the availability of H2O is lot more prevelant than was thought, just nice to see underlying assumptions challenged.

Just looking to see the next announcement of finding that a reachable near Earth object is essentially a giant coke slushy with two fried chickens and piece of white toast.



The main areas would probably be

1) Autonomous machines

Autonomous as in "go to place x in the middle of the Gobi and don't you dare to get stuck", as well as in "build me a hammer, handle made of brass, head made of stainless steel, pronto" and preferably "See that pile of bricks there? Build me a house."

But really: "Build me a new set of wheels for the rover, use local soil deposits of magnesium, allocate no more than 20% of total power budget without special permission."

In short, we should have a working industrial complex on Mars before we go there. One that doesn't need constant attention of human operators and should, as near as possible, be able to make anything (including chemicals) from scratch that doesn't require sub-micron precision, given the resources, energy and blueprints, including replacement parts and copies of itself. Transport of information is cheap, transporting stuff isn't.

If in any way possible, such factories should also be build on near earth asteroids - spaceships are called spaceships, because they should be build in space. Getting a naked monkey to space in pretty cheap. If you don't need to bring your own heatshield, food, air, fuel and water ...

2) Social Science

Implementing politics that can deal with the aftermath of 1) here on Earth.

3) controlled, closed biological systems

At least to a certain degree. If you need to supply some extra oxygen, so be it. But it must be under control. You can't have a sudden, complete collapse of the ecosystem because some organism felt like hogging all the phosphorus, or whatever, at least until you get some redundancy.

I guess all the rest is more or less a matter of engineering. Nothing that anyone would ever have bothered putting into a Civ tech-tree. But all that is several decades out and even then you will not be able to rush build "Mars Colony Ares-1" by switching away from "The Gerontological Treatment" ...


Honstly, autonomous robotics that capable would make sending biological humans to mars utterly pointless. If you need or want to explore extremely hostile/lifeless areas, and you have robotics that advanced you recruit the entirety of your on-the-ground science team from the part of your citizenry that eats electricity rather than food..


Jorgensen@17: That is probably the case, but what about the slightly relaxed condition that the equipment merely be teleoperated?


@17: (Cut out most of the verbosity ... or tried to)

Ok, maybe I was a bit too demanding.

But we need much more autonomous machinery, if we ever want to colonize Mars. The ISS needs 2.5 inhabitants merely to keep it in working-condition, despite regular resupply. That, however, is a fixed threshold. Since we finally have 6 people up there, we have the equivalent of 3 people actually doing science (or whatever) up there full-time, instead of just one, half of the time.

On Mars, using current technology, the threshold would be hundreds of people. "Colony" implies self-sufficiency. Maybe not making microchips, but chemicals, bulk materials to build houses, vehicles, machines etc. Not to mention water, food and air. It's all too expensive to bring to Mars in the long run.

The less automation you have, the more people you need for self-sufficiency and some free time, because we must use humans instead of autonomous machines. The more people you have, the more people you need to supply the people. Economies of scale determine if and how self-sufficiency can be reached.

The more autonomous the installed industrial base, the closer you get towards a critical minimum of maybe 20 people. Then a colony of 50-100 could be feasible, because you also want people to do science and ... well ... *live* up there. Leisure is not a luxury! Also, you need extra people as backup in emergencies. A bail-out from Mars is no option!

And even with the strong requirement for autonomous machinery there would still be good reasons to do it:

Because it's there. Because we can (pay for it).


doowop @ 9:

Since space radiation comes at you from all directions,
Do you have a citation for that statement? As I understand it, most of the incident radiation flux is solar wind and flare particles (mostly slow electrons and protons), with some hard X-rays thrown in during large flares. The isotropic radiation is cosmic rays, mostly very energetic protons and light element ions. The individual cosmic radiation particles are much more energetic than the solar particles, but there are a lot fewer of them than the solar flare particles. The other side of the energy coin is that electromagnetic shields are a lot less effective on cosmics because their paths will have a larger radius of curvature in a given strength field.

On the subject of water and life in the solar system, I'd guess that Europa is still the best chance for water-based life. There's evidence for an ocean of salt water 50 km thick beneath a water ice surface.


Charlie, I'm kind of doubtful. Some models of Mars before Viking already predicted the possibility of subsurface water. This merely would have confirmed them. Water didn't get turned into a *thing* until (I believe) the Zubrin live-off-the-land models of Martian exploitation, which were developed circa 1990, far too late for any Soviet competition.

From the perspective of 2009, yes, that's nineteen years ago.

And it's not all that interesting from a comparative planetological perspective. Thought experiment: play "defend your science mission against five other teams." What are you going to claim? "This frost layer Viking 2 discovered is REALLY INTERESTING because..."


Not sure I agree, but it' a neat idea.

One thing to remember is that the Voyagers launched in 1977, so the focus on the outer planets was already in motion when viking ended. Likewise, Galileo got postponed quite a while because of the Challenger disaster.

The basic point is that the outer planets studies take such a long time that some of them were in planning concurrently with Viking, but got there later. I know some people who work at JPL, and those probes usually take at least one decade to design, fund, and fly, let alone the transit time. Because of that, it's hard to say whether finding ice closer to the martian equator would have gotten people excited enough to switch away from getting basic exploration done on the outer planets.

It's neat to speculate that finding ice on Mars would have pushed them a little faster, but I suspect that Viking was, if anything, too early. Extremophiles weren't on the radar in 1976. Some people knew that some existed, but the 80s and 90s is when people really got interested. DNA technology was primitive, PCR didn't exist, and cladistics was limited to a few people who had read Willi Hennig's Phylogenetic Systematics in the original German and thought he was on the right track (it wasn't even translated into English until 1979), and although the Gaia hypothesis had been published in the journals, the book wasn't published until 1979. Basically, a lot of the theoretical underpinnings that would make (astro)biologists and the public excited about ice really weren't there.

Not that the people who designed Viking were stupid or even ignorant. The problem was that Viking didn't find little green men or unambiguous signs of life. Finding ice might have been cool and gotten people to dream of settling Mars, but in general, it was just another nail in the coffin of dreams of Barsoom and canals. Ice or not, Mars is not a nice place to live right now.


my father's comment on Viking / Mars was that if they got the bugs out of the life-support systems, he'd go.


Bruce @20: you've been missing the recent health worries about cosmic radiation outside the Van Allen belts. here's a NASA news item on the subject. The real problem is that Mars doesn't have Van Allen belts (or much of an atmosphere) to stop them, so astronauts on a Mars expedition would be exposed for most of the journey and surface time, unless they dig a bloody deep hole (either on the surface, or in one of the Martian moons) and nest in it while they run exploration 'bots by remote control.

Flip side: breakthroughs in propulsion technology (e.g. VASIMR) could reduce the exposure period, and breakthroughs in cancer treatment could move the goal posts significantly -- if you can cure it or stall it indefinitely it ceases to be a show-stopper.

(My money is on medical solutions coming along within the 20-30 year time frame, just in time for a Mars expedition. Nevertheless, it'll be kind of ironic if the first Mars expedition has to take a clinical oncologist as their flight surgeon ...)

heteromeles @22: The Voyager probes were in turn a bigger, better re-run of Pioneers 10 and 11 (which, I think, qualify as "heroic" given the technology available when they were designed). Your point about the changing image of Mars as a place of interest in the late 60s/70s is taken.


Bruce @20: Titan and Enceladus are also prime candidates in the search for life. It's a shame that ESA/NASA can't give equal priority to the Titan Saturn System Mission and the Europa Jupiter System Mission.


Send old people.

If you have a 40% chance of developing cancer on return from Mars, then let a 70 year old fly. Better cancer at 75 than cancer at 45. (Note - I reserve the right to change my mind about this when I'm 75)

Of course, the problem then would be having enough payload capacity for a year's worth of boiled sweets for the journey....


Here is a link to an interesting paper "Mars Before the Space Age", which is a history of what was known and thought about Mars up till the Mariner missions.



all the discussion of "whether we could" (colonize mars) seems to miss the point here-- which is that we came close to earnestly pursuing the question a couple of decades ago.

"then" is important: the "the sky is the limit" can-do space age mentality we had back then has lapsed; has run out of gas; the inertia to get up and out of LEO and see the solar system has been shed. the launch window passed us by. the collective focus has come down to earth. presidential mandate has tried to resuscitate a public interest in space, has on paper at least given us a long term colonization goal, but the awe and fervor does not seem to have been rekindled in earnest.

to anyone that wants to dream on, travel to 2075 and fly the Mars colonies[1]. the x-plane flight simulator has modeled mars & its 1/3 gravity, 1% air density[2], allowing engineers and pilots to design and fly aircraft across the martial surface.

[1] http://www.dreamsenses.com/mars/marsx.html
[2] http://www.x-plane.com/adventures/mars.html


As Earth inches toward the climate "Tipping Point" some Rich people may thinking of Mars as their Plan-B. Maybe I should start buying Lottery tickets! Imagine living between Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison 8-|


Vic: Earth may be getting warmer, but Mars certainly isn't.

tp1024: I have my doubts about the independent viability of any extraterrestrial colony with a population much below the double-digit millions. Not because of gene pool size or similar 19th century nonsense, but because it takes a lot of very fiddly high-tech infrastructure to keep humans alive in vacuum or on another planet, which in turn requires lots of specialities. Consider that the Apollo program employed around 300,000 people and didn't really tackle the problem of getting a working toilet, never mind hydroponic food production or mining and refining of raw materials. What sort of knowledge and infrastructure base would a Mars colony need, in order to be self-sustaining without inputs from Earth? (NB: The requirements change a lot if we get rugged high-precision 3D printers that can work with metals, and change out of all recognition if we get Drexler-style mature nanotechnology and programmable replicators. But they're still there in the background: if nothing else, our hypothetical Mars colony would need enough folks who understand the technologies it depends on to maintain the equipment and fabricate replacements as parts run out. And given that a space colony would be an apex activity for a planetary civilization with a population in the 5-10 billion range, there's a lot of specialities to go round ...)


Carlos@21: Yes, but Mars + Water = (faint possibility for) Bugs seems to sell very well,
so even just the confirmation might trigger follow-on missions. Just look at the vast increase in publications in the field over the last 10 or so years. I don`t think we would have seen a manned one, but definitely more unmanned visits during the 80s.
With interesting knock-on effects, depending on what they would find...



Well, with that sort of calculation, it is *really* easy to differ by a few orders of magnitude here and there and still talk about the same thing.

I think I should have talked about "reduced dependence" instead of "independence". So, you could still get the a lot of fiddly stuff from Earth, as well as the stuff that you can't avoid sending along. (I'm thinking of huge piles of containers in African ports right now.) So, it's not about not sending anything, but minimizing the amount you can get away with.

One kind of fiddly stuff that you definitely won't need to make on Mars is blue-prints. And that is what the 300,000 people in the Apollo program were mostly working at. You simply don't need those guys on Moon or Mars to do their work. They can do it on Earth and sending information is pretty darn cheap.

Sure, you still need lots of plumbers ... It's really a matter of how far you can increase the marginal utility of an additional expert and how far you can decrease the marginal expense of having him there. Small differences in those numbers can make huge differences in how many people you need to sustain any kind of settlement.

Btw. can anybody tell me the point of having McMurdo Station, except for growing weed and making sure there's an American flag waving in Antarctica? ... Reading up on it, you really seem to have a much better point than I thought. Most people there are concerned with upkeep. But then again, nobody *really* tried to minimize it there.


CS, have you read Zubrin's "The Case for Mars" ? Highly recommended. It's a bit long in the tooth now, but nothing as good seems to have been written on the subject for a while. It changed my views completely, by pointing out a small number of things:

- Self-sufficiency is not necessary. Supply from Earth can be done by Big Dumb Booster, and can be started well in advance of manned launches. The actual mass of consumables you need for a small surface mission (e.g. 8 people for 3 years) is not huge, and can certainly be put on the Martian surface with one BDB launch. Send several for safety's sake.

- Quite a lot of useful stuff (e.g. propellant) can be made by simple automated machines in situ from local materials (and again, this can be started well in advance of manned launches).

- Very little research is needed into Magic New Technology to make a manned mission viable. We don't need new propulsion technology. We don't need better automation. We don't need sixteen robot missions to test which varieties of zucchini seeds sprout best in Martian conditions. Lower technology is better: it would be best if anything we send to Mars can be fixed in situ by a bunch of smart people and a machine shop (and so everything should use standard parts).

- We can probably get surface radiation exposure down to a manageable level by living under soil cover.

As to the point about radiation, there are thousands of scientists and engineers who would be willing to go one-way to Mars. I suspect that large numbers of them would volunteer even if they knew they would be dead of radiation in five years.

I think it's quite likely that the Chinese will go to Mars first, using ideas similar to those described by Zubrin. The low-budget, low-tech approach, making the most of what we already do well, seems quite a good fit for their space program.


Since it wasn't mentioned yet, but should be all over the place:

The real problem with all of that is, of course, that the USA is spending $700 billion each year on defense (not counting war expenditure). 75% up from Clintonian levels.

We could have had several manned missions to Mars, even according to the more pessimistic cost estimates, had just half of the increase been spend on it. (Much more than half a billion dollars.)



Yes, I too was wondering about the Zubrin's plan and why there seems to have been little discussion about it in recent years. Has someone refuted the idea ? Not sure about
Mars, but I would not be surprised that the next explorers on the Moon will be Chinese, unless they decide on a different goal, like a rendevous with a near Earth asteroid. Such a mission would also be useful for getting experience with the equipment and techniques needed for any Mars trip.


David, Nick, et al: one problem with Zubrin's plan is that nobody really knows how to land large quantities of stuff on Mars safely.

We know how to land small (under 500Kg) landers -- parachutes, rockets, and air bags, basically. But how do you land > 20 tons in one lump? Mars' atmosphere is so damn thin that aerobraking from orbital velocity to stationary ain't practical, and parachutes for such a large mass would be the size of football fields. Wings, also problematic (yes, we can make aircraft that would fly on Mars; but they'd resemble terrestrial human-powered craft -- insane aspect ratios, lightweight structures). But carrying enough rocket fuel to decellerate from orbital velocity is also a no-no -- Mars' gravity well is irritatingly deep.

There are some hybrid proposals that might work, involving delta-like heat shields for bouncing off the atmosphere and slowing right down, and rocket motors for the final descent, but they all add parasitic weight to the problem of Getting Shit Onto The Surface Of Mars.

(My preferred route, if we're serious about Mars: go to Phobos. Drill into Phobos. Use it as rad-shielding for astronauts who do exploring via teleoperator-controlled bots on the surface, taking advantage of the 0.1 second latency to get more stuff done than we can do now. Ideally, use local materials to assemble an orbital pinwheel or something similar. Finally, humans get to the surface via the pinwheel, once the base there is up and running.)


@32: From what I recall, McMurdo is essentially the home base for US Antarctic programs. That is, it functions as a supply and logistical hub for the entire program (and I believe it also serves something of the same function for a few other programs as well). Therefore, it's not surprising that it has a large population of service workers and the like; that's its purpose, after all.


Charlie@36: That sounds a lot like an argument for getting serious on the Moon before we try Mars. Similar problems, but lower gravity and the chance to send new stuff up from Earth fairly quickly.

Maybe my perspective is slightly different on this, coming from a country (NZ) that's isolated and relatively recently settled. Nobody arrived in NZ in experimental craft, trying a voyage for the first time. Both the Polynesians and the Europeans got here in mature technology that was capable of return voyages without fuss, and they'd both Done This Before over shorter distances. I don't see that as too stretched a comparison.


Charlie@36: With the proviso that no humans are landed, I don't see a manned mission being feasible for a while(maybe that's my bias showing, and I should say an American manned mission will not be feasible for a long, long time.) In any event, just how good is AI today for passively safing machinery? Even a 0.1 second delay is troublesome, and these won't be cheap probes - if only because they were hauled the best part of 100 million miles. I'm thinking of things like 'over-ride manual instructions if slope is more than 30 degrees', insufficient battery power for return, etc. Would a specialized 'servicer' module be practical in this instance? Something that could execute instructions like proceeding to a dead surveyor's location to give it a recharge if necessary. Maybe a tow back to base if not.


Charlie @ 36:

IIRC, you can build a full space elevator at Mars, using existing materials, given 2 things: mass for the counterweight (maybe taken from one of the moons) and a way to avoid Phobos when the elevator crosses its orbital plane. One way to avoid Phobos is to anchor the elevator a degree or two away from the equator, so it's always outside Phobos' orbital plane.

Pinwheels are good for moving things between the martian surface and martian orbit; an elevator does that and allows throwing payloads to Earth or other parts of the system.


@36: Charlie, this is why I read your blog. After reading about the martian landing problem, I had this head-slapping "duh!" moment. Thanks for pointing that out.

@38. Hi Chris: you have to remember that there are two models here, the Polynesian/Oceanic model and the European model.

The European model was based on fairly short-distance travel that initially imported large amounts of tech from the Old World to the New World, and only later transferred the technology. It was also explicitly based on a colonial model where materials, tech, and slaves were being shipped. I don't think this model is going to work all that well for space colonization, despite the He3 mining crew.

The Polynesian/Oceanic model was based on settlement and living off the land. There was certainly trade for raw materials over short distances (principally tool basalt being shipped to atolls without suitable rock, although the Yap and Tongan "Empires" were more complex), but most of the islands were largely independent and self-sufficient without external inputs, at least on the year-to-decade time frame.

Oceanic settlement is a profound lesson for anyone who wants to settle space. For one thing, there were at least two attempts to colonize Melanesia before someone succeeded, based on the archeological record. The first wave apparently tried to live off the land through hunting and gathering, caused in a wave of extinctions on the islands they colonized, and ultimately died out. Colonization in Melanesia only succeeded when they could bring the crops and animals with them that would allow them to grow their own food. The second challenge (for the Polynesians and Micronesians, I think separately) was learning to live on coral atolls, which are extreme environments that can only be settled by people who bring their domesticated crops and animals with them. The missing part of the Polynesian story is how they evolved from the Lapita, who didn't really know how to live on atolls, to the Polynesians who did, and who had abandoned all the technology that couldn't be created using atoll materials, and created the boats, fishing techniques, and oceanic technology to live in this extreme world they found themselves in.

Bottom line, though, is that it took the islanders several thousand years to work all of this out. Partially this is due to the relatively small number of people involved, but they surmounted formidable technical challenges, and just having boats capable of traveling into the Pacific was massively insufficient for actually settling there. They had to reshape who they were in many ways.

Getting back to Viking and Mars, we're at the stage of the ancestral Lapita. We've got some of the basic technologies and lifeways, but we're nowhere near ready to colonize space. Given how many problems we're having with creating a sustainable technological culture on this planet, I think it's going to take centuries for us to get there.

If this seems like a harsh assessment, I've got a simple question: how sustainable are you right now? For anyone in space, sustainability is going to be a no-brainer. If you're not very close to sustainable in your space colony, you're going to die, probably in the near future. The fact that we as individuals, and our society at large, have so much trouble with sustainability says to me that we're not ready for space. Charlie made an even better point that we're not technologically ready either.


Heteromeles@41: Hey! That was my idea! Something I've talked about here (and in this thread) and elsewhere! Ah well, ideas are cheap :-)


@36, we're not that good at landing small landers, either... the success rate is not very good.


@42: Sorry, we're going to have to share, since neither of us came up with this idea first. To my knowledge, that honor belongs to Ben Finney:

Ben Finney. 1981: "Exploring and Settling Pacific Ocean Space—Past Analogues for Future Events?"[27] Space Manufacturing 4: Proceedings of the Fifth Princeton/AIAA Conference May 18-21, 1981 (p. 261). New York: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Finney for more details.


36: I don't think it makes a lot of sense to say "We don't know how to land large payloads on Mars, so my solution is to go to Phobos and build an orbital pinwheel" since we don't actually know how to build a pinwheel either, and the problem of "landing big stuff on Mars" is one that we can address from our extensive experience of a) landing big stuff elsewhere and b) landing small stuff on Mars, while we have never built anything like a pinwheel, certainly not in orbit round another planet!


Ajay: unpacking it a bit, building an experimental pinwheel in Earth orbit first would of course be a good idea.

My point stands, though. Pinwheels don't require the same insanely super-strong material as a full-blown space elevator, and they can in principle be developed iteratively from the relatively unambitious tether systems that have already been tested (and found buggy -- as one would expect for a first attempt) in Earth orbit.

Plus, my suggesting it as an option for Mars should give you some idea of how long I expect it to be before we're ready for a manned Mars base.


'in times of peace a war-like man destroys himself'~fn
in times of peace a peace-love man creates missions to mars
with some funding saved from wlm to find a rainy day.
you know the electrics have to go whatever direction plm gives it.


heteromeles@44: No no, I mean the idea of teleoperating from orbit to avoid long latency times[1]. Of course, that probably predates me by some time too :-)

[1]Also, to avoid contaminating the Martian ecosystem, such as it hypothetically may be. In an historical aside, the earliest mention of extensive underground ice being the place where life is found on Mars (in sf, and that I know of) is James Blish's "Welcome to Mars", a juvenile published in 1967. Are there any earlier mentions in the literature?


Following that up, the book is basically how to survive on Mars for $2.00 a day. Very prescient for its day. It made mention of the fact that wind power is a fairly reliable power source, and the fact that 'On Mars at least, it paid to be at the bottom of a deep, deep hole' when it comes to air pressure. Lichens were also noted as being about the only complex multicellular life that could survive on the current surface of Mars.


Can skyhook pinwheels be combined with the so called airship-to-orbit (aka "space blimp") concept?

The current concept calls for an airship rising to the edge of the atmosphere and then utilzing an ion engine to provide enough thrust to achieve escape velocity and orbit (though it may take days of acceleration to do so).

Unfortunately, crunching the numbers reveals a lift/drag and thrust/weight ratios that are too low for the blimp to achieve sufficient velocity. Suppose, however, that a blimp is used to carry the actual payload to the edge of space where it is plucked from its blimp carrier by a descending sky hook which then hurtles it to orbital velocity.

Is this feasible or crazy?


Bruce @40:

The counterweight is optional in principle and may well prove superfluous in practice (if practice ever comes). The longer you extend the elevator cable/ribbon beyond synchronous orbit, the less counterweight you need: not only because of the added mass of cable, but also because the farther out it extends, the more the velocity of each segment exceeds orbital velocity at that distance, and the harder it pulls up (or out). In the Edwards design for a terrestrial SE, the ribbon is ~100K km long, and only trivial counterweight -- the used-up "spinners" that added plies to the cable -- is needed.

Think about it: if you can make tens of thousands of km of superstrong material in the first place, doesn't it make sense to just keep doing so (and get more "jai-alai" velocity for free at the way-out end) rather than get into moonlet-moving or asteroid-wrangling? IMHO, the counterweight got implanted in people's minds mostly because it sounded extra elegant to spin the cable's superstuff out of a carbonaceous chondrite or whatever. Me, I think that elegance is, uhh, outweighed by the advantages of manufacturing and QA on the ground.


Monte Davis @ 51

The reason I suggested an elevator is that it's possible to build one out of steel at Mars with a reasonable taper factor (whereas the taper for steel at Earth is something like 10e4 or more, which is ridiculous). You don't need exotic materials, and can probably get the iron you need from the moons. Using a counterweight that's just a chunk of rock saves you some thousands of km of steel you have to make; the advantage is mostly construction time, since you have to move the distal end of the elevator out from synchronous orbit as you move the proximal end down to the surface.

I agree, additional centripetal velocity at the distal end is good for launching payloads, although more than the delta-V for a Hohmann orbit has an additional cost in matching velocities at the destination.


Celestial mechanics of the staircase: of course if the destination has a handy elevator or pinwheel, you can use that for very cheap velocity matching, but otherwise the payload is going to have to carry a rocket engine with the appropriate delta-V, and that cuts into the useful payload mass (though it's a lot cheaper than having to boost the engine and payload with another rocket).


Viking orbiters, as opposed to landers, did confirm ice on Mars at the North Pole -- there was clear evidence that a significant fraction of the permanent cap was water ice. See http://mainlymartian.blogs.com/semijournal/2004/01/great_notreally.html. Didn't make a lot of difference to things, so not quite convinced that ice in the ground at high latitudes would have made much difference


@48: Not a problem.

Anyway, I swear that I read a 60s juvenile when I was a kid that had the concept of underground seas that were frozen on top (and containing some life) and still liquid at the bottom. Someone had brought these "martian sea beasts" back to Earth, and one had been set loose/escaped. For the life of me, I can't find the book or a reference to it. Ring any bells?


As a matter of fact, yes. I bought that one from the arrow book club. Funny how memory works; I couldn't remember the title, but I remembered the name of the dolphin: Balthazar. Googling, I get: "Secret Under the Sea". Is that the one you were thinking of?


@55: That's the one. Thanks! I knew it was by a major science fiction author, but I couldn't remember which one.


Bruce @53: You could still aerobrake once you got where you were going. Even Mars could slow you down a bit, presumably.


Chris L: The Martian atmosphere is used for aerobraking by probes entering orbit. The catch is, they make numerous successive passes through the upper atmosphere to lower and circularize their orbit after initial capture. They don't use it the way the Apollo re-entry vehicles did, that is, to do a full-speed to near-dead-stop from interplanetary cruise speed in one pass. It's too thin, and nobody's very keen on the idea of lithobraking.


Charlie @58: need to distinguish aerobraking and aerocapture. Aerocapture is to go from interplanetary to planetary orbit using delta V from atmospheric encounter. Aerobraking just uses atmosphere to modify the orbit after orbital insertion using traditional rocketry. No Mars mission has yet tried aerocapture; they all use chemical orbital insertion burns, though quite a few subsequently used aerobraking (with one, MCO, destroyed by a navigation problem when its aerobraking took it too deep)


I'm much more fascinated by the discovery of water in usable amounts on the Moon. All my dreams of lunar colonies have come back online after years in my mental archives. All we need now is a cheap way to get into LEO, from where we can continue on to the Moon with solar sails or whatever.
It has to be fairly low tech though if it is going to succeed. I'm still sold on a variation of hydrogen inflated lifting bodies where we use the hydrogen as fuel for a slow steady thrust to orbit... other options include beamed power.
Once we have a colony (free or penal) on the moon then Mars will come naturally.


@60: I have one word for you Robert: Cavorite.

Seriously, I'm not sure why we'd want to put a penal colony on the moon. It would be cheaper to put them on the bottom of the sea, and the problem is that most crooks are dumber n' a sack of hammers. In Australia, the convicts were bonded labor, and smarts didn't matter, but on the Moon, there's not a lot of opportunity for manual labor. Unfortunately, on the Moon, there is a lot of opportunity for stupid, resentful people to cause a huge amount of damage to themselves and others.


@61: The Australian convicts were mostly guilty of being working class (at the time it was, for instance, an offence to walk down the street with a soot-blackened face; the "stole a loaf of bread" stories are actually true), and were shipped to the other side of the world because London was literally bursting at the seams with convicts: they had hulks moored on the Thames with hundreds of prisoners each aboard.

And that colony nearly died out. Would have died out if it weren't for the kindness of the local indigenous community, who they repaid so very very well...


"Australian convicts were mostly guilty of being working class"

. . . . and committing crimes, usually at least two. ALthough skilled workers were disproportionately transported, so I'll give you that.

I'm pretty sure that nobody was sent to Australia under the Waltham Black Acts, and that very few went merely becuase they stole a loaf of bread, although in some cases the loaf might have been the third strike.

Old Bailey Online lists 6512 people sentenced to transportation (not the same thing as actually being transported) for simple larceny after 1827. Just 29 stole only bread. Some stole it in positively wholesale quantities (18 loaves...). Just three only stole one loaf. QED.


I can't help being reminded of US prison policies there. Though I don't quite know where to send them. Perhaps, instead of the moon, you could send them to the Gobi desert? Just to prove Charlie wrong? ;-)


What I am trying to emphasize here is the Zubrin approach. Live off the land and use the cheapest most reliable technology... Cavorite sounds a bit too high tech. So do pinwheels and beanstalks.
The initial colony is going to have to exist underground and is going to be very labor intensive. Mining, digging tunnels and underground quarters etc.


#64 I think China might might already have pre-empted the Gobi desert idea... For better or worse, I think they see their prison population as an economic asset rather than a drain on the public purse.
If you look at the cost of sending someone to the moon via low tech/high risk means and forcing them to live off the land when they get there, it probably wouldn't come to much more per head than maintaining someone for the term of his/her natural life in a high secutity prison. Though I guess there is the moral issue?


Ummmm, so we want to send people involuntarily to settle a planet that's innately hostile to life? And then what? The problem with this is that if someone doesn't want to live any more, and thinks it would be a good idea to take everyone with him, it would be easy to destroy the base. This is the basic Palestinian suicide bomber scenario, except that you don't need bombs.

I think Kim Stanley Robinson got it right with Red Mars. You want crazy people, but they need to be crazy in the OCD sense, and very capable otherwise. You need people who are so in love with being colonists that they're willing to do anything to make the colony work.


I was talking to a friend of Brett Holman's the other day, who mentioned the sheer faff and effort involved in doing anything constructive while wearing NBC equipment - he thought the famous incident in which an RAF Phantom shot down an RAF Jaguar was heavily influenced by the fact everyone on the ground was working in a simulated NBC alert.

The initial colony is going to have to exist underground and is going to be very labor intensive. Mining, digging tunnels and underground quarters etc.

NBC kit is not the same thing as a space suit, but it's the same order of magnitude. Digging anything by hand (including with hand-held power tools) in a space suit = daft idea (ask David Scott what a bugger that core was to get out of the Moon's surface). Using a pneumatic drill on rocks whilst wearing a space suit because you're in space = stupidly dangerous.

How much would doing heavy manual work increase the life support requirements? I would think if you're going to exercise at high wattage all the time, your respiratory requirements will be quite a bit more - and your diet and water supply potentially a lot more.

You wouldn't dig anything more than the most trivial trenching job in London by hand - you'd use an excavator. Mars is considerably less welcoming than London. Although we try.


Heteromeles, you bring up an under-mentioned aspect of human space exploration: choosing ideal psych profiles depending on the mission. It may even be necessary to administer psychoactive drugs in order to manage the long-term mental effects of separation from Earth and lack of social/physical activities, which could cause abberant behavior that the profiles can't predict.


Hi Josh,

I think the Russians were doing more with this than us yanks. Still, psychological issues are huge when you have a group of stressed individuals isolated in a dangerous environment with no way out.

Our current approach is to medicate, but I wonder if traditional groups have any good ways of dealing. Polynesian kava, perhaps? It's not just a matter of using drugs, it's also a matter of things like social structures, rituals that allow people to get back into harmony with each other, and ways of dealing when people crack. It's worth remembering that the Eskimos occasionally had to kill people who went psycho in the long nights, and many of the oceanic groups that used kava to calm down social gatherings also were cannibals on occasion. Isolated people have to deal with extremes, and a large group of coping mechanisms are probably going to be needed.


re: crazy people

We already have a fairly large sub-culture of people for whom access to natural light is a rare & fleeting thing, and whose primary mode of social interaction is via a keyboard.

I speak, of course, of the basement-dwelling gamer.

We might have some challenges with the long term viability of a colony having such people as the primary demographic -- mostly male and mostly solitary does not make for a growing population base!

I'm sure it would be a fascinating psycho-social engineering challenge to create a self-sustaining population of troglodytic loners who nonetheless are sufficiently socialized to make them want to seek mates and procreate!


@heteromeles: canabilism was fairly rare in Polynesia (Maori practised it, Raiatians didn't, the lists go on). And it wasn't practiced for the reasons you ascribe. Ask Google about the concept of mana.


@73: That's true Chris, but you might want to check out Vanuatu and Fiji.