“We should be on Mars by now” – but it’s a good thing we aren’t

So, SpaceShipOne won $10 million for getting into space twice in two weeks. Let joy be unconfined. Lots of people are asking what took Nasa so long, and why we don’t have colonies on the Moon and Mars already. Because after all, we landed there 35 years ago.

I’ll admit to being something of a sceptic about these ideas – despite or perhaps because of having consumed enormous amounts of SF in my youth. Some was good, some was bad, but generally it all assumed that we would be out there long since. One of the most impressive films I saw when I was young was 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s still a fantastic film. Yet I think that plans for Moon and Mars colonies are premature, at best. I’m rather with the satirical take of glossynews.com: SpaceShipOne achieves historic first, few care. “Yeah, I guess it’s great for them Star Trek geeks, but I don’t see why I should have to care,” explained Deedee Wilson of Nashville, Tennessee. “I ain’t gonna be going into space anytime soon, you know? They want $100 grand just for a ride. That’s like three double-wides and a nice pickup truck.”

Why? Because space is inhospitable. It’s really not friendly to life. That’s why you don’t find life there. It’s also very expensive to get out of our gravity well. Perhaps we haven’t found the right propulsion systems yet (and maybe they aren’t there to be found). And if you’re going to set up a colony on the Moon it’ll be a race against time before your air runs out. With Mars you have a little longer – you could extract some oxygen from the air – but you have to judge everything precisely, because you’ll have a tiny window to get off the planet and safely home if you fail.

But let’s assume, for argument, that we set up Moon and Mars colonies which suddenly manage to mine some amazing mineral that can cure world hunger and bring peace, etc. All of a sudden, you have something which can hold people on Earth to ransom. If we became in some way dependent on those colonies, it could turn very ugly: there would be a mutual distrust, and need, that could quickly turn to conflict.

It’s the sort of scenario that was a subplot (at least) of Philip K Dick’s Time Out Of Joint. Between the problems of getting there and the cost and the implications even if it actually went well, I don’t like the possibilities. At the same time I can see that getting into space easily and regularly is very important to our truly long-term future. However, solve religious idiocy first, then let’s work on the spacecraft, hmm?

One thing for sure though. If Virgin is the first to offer commercial space flights, I’m really not queueing up. For American readers, who seem to revere Richard Branson, Virgin’s reputation in the UK is mud, due to the appalling record of Virgin Trains – seemingly always late or broken down. No, really, Richard, after you in the spacesuit.

3 Comments

  1. Yeah, the fact that we’re not so great with a fair few things on earth (computers that work, trains running on time, etc) makes the idea of going into space, with its very real dangers of suffocation, freezing, boiling etc., a bit of a scary prospect.

    I guess moon bases be like similar historical situations on earth – Europeans colonising America springs to mind. That’s what we need: a glossy Hollywood sci-fi adaptation of The Crucible.

  2. So… your argument is that it’s not worth going into space because it’s hard and there’s nothing up there worth that sort of hassle. And if there is something up there worth that sort of hassle, then we’ll just end up squabbling over it.

    Good, logical reasons. If we were a good, logical race then I’m sure those would be winning arguments. But either because we’re a curious, creative species that just *has* to get over the next horizon – the Golden Age argument — or because we’re insane breeders that are hardwired to suck every drop of resource out of a place before finding a way to carry on somewhere else (my preferred take), I’m quite sure we’ll get out there or die trying. Not sure which, yet. Physics and madness may yet dictate the latter.

    I’m with Heinlein (who I don’t much like) in that the good thing about space travel is that when things get messy, it lets you go somewhere else. Sometimes that’s all the justification you need.

    As for Branson and space travel: if he’d made the movie, 2010 would be the time the 14:50 actually left Euston.

    R

  3. I half-agree with your and Heinlein, Rupert. Yes, when things get messy, you just go somewhere else. Unless it happens that the planets aren’t correctly aligned to let you reach anywhere else before you suffocate.

    Really it needs a much better cheaper cleaner power source, and hyperspace, and all those nice elegant things that SF writers could just incorporate in the first paragraph. “The discovery of the n-space hyperdrive and cheap fusion power had at a stroke solved the planet’s population problem and the urge to go into space and global warming. Now, thought Minnikins, there was only one more problem: never anything to watch on TV except Robert Kilroy-Silk bidding for leadership of some new moon’s Independence Party.”

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