Oct 30 2010

The Allure of Moving to Mars Points to the New Space age

When I was with General Dynamics, Space Systems Division in San Diego studying manned Mars missions for NASA — e.g., see “The Challenge of Mars” — I often thought about the option of becoming a permanent Mars resident, and knew it would appeal to many people.

Where would you rather live: the Ocean World or the Red Planet? Mars is growing in popularity.

Professors Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Washington State Univ) and Paul Davies (Arizona State Univ) have recently advocated one-way manned Mars missions on cost and political grounds as a way to jumpstart the colonization of Mars (Journal of Cosmology, Oct-Nov, 2010). This is an admirable goal, but before I get into the details of their vision, I want to explore its real significance.

Mars Colonization Ascends into Pop Culture
I first became aware of their article through the Chronicle of Higher Education (10/22/10; D. Troop), which was a big surprise. The Chronicle is more likely to feature trends in education than the latest thinking in astronautics, which confirmed my suspicion that Mars colonization is again becoming a hot topic, just like it was one long wave ago in the 1960s; in fact it is becoming part of popular culture.

A New International Space Age by 2015
This, of course, is what we would expect as we approach another 1960s-style transformative decade — the 2015 Maslow Window. It is one of several key indicators that point to a new international Space Age igniting by 2015, including: 1) the financial Panic of 2008 and its great recession, 2) a great economic boom by 2015 and political realignments, 3) macroeconomic trends over the last 200 years, 4) expanding interest in extraterrestrials, new Earth-like planets, and UFOs, 5) birth of the space tourist industry, 6) surging international plans for lunar science and development and interest in human Mars exploration, and many others.

In the next 3 to 5 years — based on macroeconomic data and global trends over the last 200+ years — we will rapidly transtition from a multi-decade period of low self organized criticality (SOC) to an ebullient, fractal (high SOC) international environment (i.e., a Maslow Window) where almost anything is possible. Previous Maslow Windows have featured quantum leaps in human exploration (e.g., Lewis and Clark) and technology and management (e.g., Apollo Moon program), and are usually terminated by a major war (e.g., World War I).

True Space Colonization, Not Suicide Missions
One-way Mars missions — not to be confused with suicide missions — could be viewed as a subconscious longing to escape the current financial, environmental, geopolitical and other stresses of Earth. But they are much more than that as the authors show by emphasizing familiar themes of survival of the human race (from asteroid as well as Earth-based threats) and the human spirit to expand and explore the unknown. “A permanent human presence on Mars would open the way to comparative planetology on a scale unimagined by any former generation.”

Although the initial colonists would have estimated life spans on Mars of only about 20 years, in several decades (after numerous followon missions), the total Mars colony population might reach 150 and form a viable gene pool. The authors compare the risks of initial Mars colonists to “the first white settlers of the North American continent who left Europe with little expectation of return.”

Near-Term Mars Strategy Bypasses the Moon
Schulze-Makuch and Davies are focused on Mars colonization, not the buildup of near-Earth space infrastructure. A Moon base is not required, although a “split-mission” strategy is employed to build up necessities on Mars (e.g. energy sources, agriculture tool kits, rovers) prior to the arrival of the colonists.

No advanced propulsion is needed and the moons of Mars — Phobos and Deimos — are not involved, although the cost, safety, and scientific advantages of an early Phobos outpost for Mars colonization have been recognized for over 20 years.

Mars Colonizaton Requires a New Culture
Perhaps their most interesting insight is that a human colony on Mars

would require not only major international cooperation, but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays been replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.

In addition to Amundsen, they could have also mentioned the exploration spirit of Lewis and Clark, Dr. Livingstone, and the Apollo crews — that captured international admiration during the extraordinary Maslow Windows of the last 200 years.

It takes a Maslow Window to colonize Mars. And Schulze-Makuch and Davies will get their wish sooner than they think … starting by 2015.

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