Part One: "No Survivors"
Time, Wired, CBS, online media outlets large and small have all devoted ferocious sudden simultaneous attention to an outfit calling itself Mars One which means to establish a human settlement on Mars in the year 2023. What has attracted all this attention is a recent call from the organization for astronaut applications. Since it would appear that anyone on planet Earth can apply for a chance to go to Mars if they meet the basic requirements, it is perhaps no great surprise that people the whole world over took notice.
But if this prospect of an open call for Martians has attracted notice, it is no doubt the fact that the Mars One project is premised on a one-way ticket without provision for return that has really made the proposal so fascinating to so many. This is especially so, since this prospect of frankly suicidal madness has been conjoined with the most salacious imaginable sales-pitch: "Not unlike the televised events of the Olympic Games, Mars One intends to maintain an on-going, globally televised media event, from astronaut selection to training, from lift-off to landing, to provide primary funding for this next giant leap for mankind."
It is droll to say the least to propose that funding a phony space program with a Reality TV show is described by the leading lights of Mars One as a matter of "careful, deliberate movement through both the technical and media stages, gaining momentum and credibility with each completed step." What viewer of "Paradise Hotel" "Toddlers and Tiaras" or "The Jersey Shore" can fail to be impressed by the immense credibility that attaches over time to everything associated with reality programming?
Mars One assures us, that "[i]n 2022, several months before departure, the Mars One selection committee will determine which groups in training are ready to depart to Mars… Because our mission is humankind's mission, we will make this a democratic decision. The people of Earth will have a vote which group of four will be the first Earth ambassadors on Mars." So, to be clear about this, viewers will vote the "winners" off Island Earth so we get to watch them commit suicide at launch, in flight, attempting to land, or definitely in no time flat on the surface of an incomparably alien, lifeless, bitterly cold, irradiated planet surface without any hope for return. Who can doubt that the "winners" will indeed be the most qualified competitors, and not simply the most blandly photogenic, nor simply the most outrageous showboats, nor simply the biggest jerks who we hope to have a hand in killing by voting them into this death trap for frying? For, make no mistake, this game show premise is little more than a slightly more elaborate version of a "Survivor" in which losing contestants are not just voted off the island one by one but thrown out of a helicopter into the mouth of the island's volcano. While this sounds to me like a profitable ratings winner, it is certainly no way to have a viable space program. I doubt the idea is even legal, if it ever comes to that.
One can only marvel at the glib handwaving with which a Mars One promotional video making the rounds declares that in just three years a rover will be rocketing from earth to mars to survey for a site and in no time flat advance supplies for building the settlement will be deposited awaiting the lucky "winners" of the astronaut selection Reality TV show. Given the breathtaking balletic grace and precision that brought the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars, an achievement of great cost and great genius, are the assurances of Mars One -- without national budgets at their command (dreadful misguided budget cuts to our glorious space program notwithstanding) or teams of countless scientists and engineers at their disposal -- that they expect to be able to fund and build and rocket off far more ambitious and sturdy survey rovers in just three years' time to be taken seriously as anything but the nonsensical hyperbole of modern day P.T. Barnums?
Much is made by the "Mars One" folks of the fact that they do not mean to burden taxpayers with the costs of this Mars-shot, so I guess it really comes down to the money-making after all, anyway.
Part Two: There Is No Such Thing As A Private Space Program
If I may be excused a moment of seriousness about this circus event, I want to step back and insist on a larger principle illuminated by this media frenzy. Let me say here and now snd not for the first time nor the last: There never has been and there never will be any such thing as a "private" or "for-profit" space program.
Public dollars always underwrite the "private" contractors in such arrangements. And though a good case can often be made for such public-private partnerships (Lunar Lander, anyone?) nobody should be under the illusion that Randroidal/Friedmanian "market forces" could ever spontaneously crystallize into an interplanetary NASA or United Federation of Planets or whatever libertechian moonshine drives the incessant online torrent of CGI space hotel glossy brochures and asteroid mining schemes and terraforming space pirate utopias just around the corner.
Unless the Moon or Mars or the asteroid belt are made of zero-weight sooper-soma or all-purpose unobtainium, there is no way to profitably monetize a space program by getting at their mineral wealth. Incredible up-front infrastructure costs aside, there is simply no substance actually available on earth, however costly, however rare, however hard to get at, that cannot be more cheaply gotten to here on earth than getting it to earth from off-earth. Paradigm shattering discoveries and profitable technological spin-offs from a viable Mars program are almost inevitable as a general matter, but remain much too unpredictable in the specificities of their application or in the advance determination of their winners and losers to entice the necessary levels of investment by individual firms in such a program: only national (or planetary) governments stand in the broad relation to economic prosperity that justify such public investments.
Furthermore, there is no extraterrestrial site more hospitable than the least hospitable place on earth, and there are no techniques available to make that the least bit less true that wouldn't be incomparably better spent making the least hospitable places on earth more hospitable first. So, there will be no extraterrestrial colonies to re-enact brutal "Age of Discovery" exploitation fantasies with, or to relieve overpopulation pressures with. Indeed there will be no escape hatches via space from any of our urgent and intractable political or environmental problems.
And it should go without saying that Low-Earth-Orbit momentary zero-gravity amusement park rides for boy-band ex-celebrities and celebrity tech CEOs and digi-bazillionaires do not constitute a real space program. It should go without saying, and yet this nonsense still endlessly gets said.
Part Three: The Case for Space is a Case for the State
Do please let the preceding sink in for a moment, all you libertopian SpaceX Cadets out there.
Shunting all this Heinleinian flim-flammery to the side, the only reasonable justification for a trip to Mars remains as always the collective accomplishment of so daring an endeavor, the discovery of new knowledge, and the eventual establishment on Mars of a scientific research station. And the only way to ensure those ends remains a vast public investment in a governmental space program, national or international.
And, in case you are wondering, I am an enthusiastic champion of such a project. But precisely because I am serious about NASA and international space science I have no patience at all for privateering, profiteering, skim and scam artists, pop-tech journos and celebrity CEOs blathering on about private space programs and profitable extraterrestrial exploitation in an endless avalanche of deranged, deluded, distracting articles and press releases.
I notice that Mars One is more than happy to hijack the legacy of the collective accomplishment of our public space program, all the while peddling its implausible private promises in a bid for attention and gain: "As with the Apollo Moon landings, a human mission to Mars will inspire generations to believe that all things are possible, that anything can be achieved. Mars One believes it is not only possible, but imperative that we establish a permanent outpost on Mars in order to accelerate our understanding of the formation of the solar system, the origins of life, and of equal importance, our place in the universe." Indeed, as with Apollo, these glorious possibilities have no real chance of success without the public investment of national or international will, incarnated in the budgetary and policy priorities of democratic governments, behind them. Mars of, by, and for the people requires more than watching a reality show. Champions of space science and space exploration need to shake their libertopian daydreams and get real.
This is an expanded and adapted version of a piece that first appeared at Amor Mundi.
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