Re: To Mars 2

Charlie Stross (
Mon, 2 Mar 1998 11:51:58 +0000

On Sun, Mar 01, 1998 at 01:02:50PM +0100, den Otter wrote:
> Some additional advantages of the Mars trip (see Mars post no. 1) would
> probably be that it would create all kinds of useful technological spinoffs

I think you've got it the wrong way round. Tech R&D for a deep space
mission implies huge funding devoted to solving small problems -- an
Apollo-style program. But the private capital doesn't exist for such a
program, and the political will isn't there either. The spin-offs you
mention are usually the commercialization of prototype ideas developed
for solving specific problems on a money-is-no-object basis.

Yes, my life is better because of velcro, pocket calculators, medical
telemetry, teflon, hang gliders, and all the other things that showed up
in the wake of the apollo R&D loading. But I suspect we'd have got them
without the $25Bn price tag in any event.

> (perfected suspended animation, which would make the trip dramatically
> easier and cheaper, might get some more attention and funding, for
> example)

Now you're assuming suspended animation _can_ work for something like
a human being. Given that no other anthropoid demonstrates hibernation,
I hope you'll excuse me for being sceptical about the prospects of
a decent suspended animation system suitable for space travel being
developed using current medical techniques. (I'll grant you Drexler's
vitrification proposal, but I'm talking about something you can achieve
using drugs or surgical procedures to lower the human metabolic rate
and induce narcolepsy for a substantial period.)

In fact, if you want to reduce the oxygen/food consumption of astronauts
on a voyage to Mars, probably your best solution is to give them a
comfortable sofa and a wide-screen TV set -- I believe human metabolic
rates when watching TV are not much higher than those measured during

> *and* it would almost certainly give an impulse to governmental
> space programs (a matter of ego, paranoia and greed), which would in
> turn produce even more useful spinoffs. Once on Mars, the motivation
> to develop new technologies would be much higher, because you need
> high tech to survive & prosper, while on earth the situation is somewhat
> less urgent.

But on Mars, the cost of _not_ starting off with the tools for self-
sufficient survival is certain death. Developing new technologies will
probably take a long-term back seat to churning out replacements for
parts that are wearing out, and working down in the dome-covered farm
to produce food! I'd expect a Mars colony to begin making valuable
contributions to technology a generation or so after its foundation --
but there's a fairly long-term investment required leading up to that
point, to build up a margin beyond bare survival.

>Also, there wouldn't (initially) be much else to do then to
> develop new ways to make life more comfortable.

What? No TV? ;-)

> Since you have your
> "spies" (mechanical/human) on earth you don't have to miss out on new
> developments, on the contrary, new technologies can be implemented
> much more rapidly because the laws on Mars are presumably liberal,
> and there's more than enough room to test potentially dangerous new
> stuff etc.

Again: I expect laws on Mars to be draconian -- laws enforced by the
fact that there's about 0.01 atmospheres of freezing cold CO2 on the other
side of the wall, and if you make a mistake you are going to be breathing
near-vacuum. At least at first, anything that jeopardizes life support
integrity is going to be, er, discouraged to say the least.

As for room to test dangerous new stuff, it's worth noting that if you go
to the Moon, you don't need reactor containment vessels for your dirty
fission reactors; if they melt down, well, you just stick up a wire
fence saying NO ENTRY FOR 50,000 YEARS and walk away. With no atmosphere
and no water around, there's no easy way for the dirty nucleides to
spread and no way for them to get into your biosphere. On Mars, on the
other hand, people are presumably thinking about terraforming within
the next thousand years or so, and there's atmosphere ...

The best place for dirty experimentation is in orbit out of the plane
of the ecliptic, where if anything goes wrong it will _never_ come back
to haunt us (where _never_ is a large but finite number evaluated in
terms of geological time, not human lifespans).

> [Oops, I'm rambling again...pardon the high SF-factor, but after all this
> *is* a list where even crazier topics (like putting your mind into a machine,
> and robots the size of a virus -- yeah right ;-) are discussed, so some
> space travel will hardly make it weirder...]

Hell, if you can stick your mind in a machine then the whole space
colonization thing gets a lot easier. Human beings are soft, wet,
messy machines that are inefficient and require lots of support

My personal bet is that humans like us never get beyond Mars orbit in
person -- but our minds will be exploring the nearer stars before the
21st century is out.

-- Charlie