Mars Base One: Humanity’s Greatest Triumph
When I was six years old my father was nearly killed in an explosion that tore apart the oil refinery he was helping to construct. The cause: two workers lighting a cigarette right next to a source of volatile hydrocarbons.
Engineers had built in various safety devices, there were warning signs everywhere that made it unambiguously clear that naked flames were lethal, and extensive training of all personnel had been provided.
And yet, regular human stupidity ensured that the two employees in question were instantly vaporized and hundreds injured as a massive blast ripped through the facility.
When we look at the list of spectacular failures in the field of energy supply, we see one constant factor. Whether it’s Three Mile Island, Fukashima, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, BP Gulf of Mexico, BP Texas City, or any one of dozens of other accidents there is one shining thread running through them all: regular human stupidity.
No matter how carefully engineers attempt to create failsafe systems, no matter how diligently employees are trained, no matter how many warning signs are put in place, we humans will always find ways to defeat all of these obstacles. Just as rain and wind eventually erode even the strongest granite cliffs, so human stupidity will eventually erode even the best-engineered safety features.
On Earth, this simply means some number of dead and some area contaminated.
Anyone who’s served in any military organization will have tales of total fuck-ups, all of which were due to ordinary human incompetence and stupidity. Since 1950 the USA alone has experienced more than thirty-two “broken arrow” incidents in which nuclear weapons have been accidentally fired, dropped, or just lost. And these are the world’s most dangerous weapons, supposedly secured by multiple layers of failsafe.
On a more prosaic note, well over one million auto deaths are recorded each year, every one of which is the result of ordinary human stupidity and incompetence. The real mortality rate is almost certainly many times higher, as most African nations and many Asian nations don’t bother to keep accurate records.
In all of these daily situations, and in many more too numerous to detail here, people overcome even the best-engineered systems to create disastrous outcomes. Fortunately for us, the Earth is very big and even though thousands may die in any one incident, we continue to thrive in a biosphere that is very forgiving and to which we are perfectly adapted.
But let’s fast-forward to every billionaire (intellectually and emotionally teenage) boy’s fantasy: a colony on Mars.
From a purely engineering perspective, provided one is willing to expend hundreds of billions of dollars on humanity’s most pointless activity, it is technically feasible to build a habitable base on Mars. While it seems obvious that no one in their right mind would wish to spend their lives deep underground within protective bunkers (for Mars has no magnetic field to deflect lethal solar radiation and the atmosphere is too thin to burn up meteorites before they hit the ground) drinking their own recycled urine and eating their own recycled feces while perpetually cheek-to-jowl with their fellow exiles, the idea of an extra-terrestrial panic room has irresistible appeal to the ignorant and intellectually limited.
And so, chances are, someone will eventually create a base on Mars and this will be hailed in the popular media as a great triumph. No doubt the valuation of MarsToGo Inc. will briefly reach a thousand trillion dollars as excitable investors imagine millions of people rushing to populate the vast inhospitable wastes of the solar system.
The great triumph, however, will actually occur sometime later.
As we humans are supremely good at one thing and one thing only, it’s beyond the bounds of possibility that we won’t carry our single talent to the red planet.
So what impact will ordinary everyday human stupidity have in an environment that relies absolutely on everything working perfectly every second of every day?
No matter how many backup systems, no matter how much training, no matter how many warning signs are deployed, the hard fact is that humans will ultimately find a way to be really stupid and cause a huge accident.
On Earth, this results in local calamity. On Mars, the results will be all-encompassing.
And a Mars base is precisely the right sort of environment to grow human stupidity to monumental proportions.
Let’s consider the environment: totally artificial, which will lead to various psychoses as we’re not adapted to live where there is no fresh air, no plant life, no running water, and no sunshine. Regardless of the makeshift substitutes deployed, living permanently inside bleak concrete bunkers alongside the same irritating people year after year will cause all manner of novel and interested mental problems. Any of these could trigger a person to behave irrationally — which is not exactly desirable in an environment where everyone is seconds away from instant death.
Modern nuclear submarines can remain submerged for years if necessary. But across the globe, naval operating procedure is to spend no more than 90 consecutive days before surfacing. Even the most self-disciplined sailors begin to exhibit unfortunate psychological symptoms once this limit is exceeded. On Mars, such conditions will persist forever, without respite. It is not difficult to imagine the psychological consequences, provided one hasn’t overdosed on Sci-Fi fantasy nonsense as an impressionable small child.
Next up comes normal human complacency. We may pay attention to the warning signs initially and we may sort-of remember some of our training, but after a while it all becomes so familiar that we begin to relax, we “know” it isn’t really as dangerous as they said it was, and hey, we’ve done this before and no one’s died so it must be OK really, right?
In addition, we can also remember that some people perform intentionally malign acts. Johnny is really unhappy that Celine went off with Sharon and he wants to “teach them a lesson.” Or Paula is outraged that the capitalistic fundamentals of Mars Base One are so inequitable that she wants to “teach everyone a lesson.” Or perhaps simply Danny isn’t very bright and he imagines how much fun it will be if he breaks the air filtration master systems.
In short, once we abandon our Star Trek spectacles that carefully remove all the actual human psychology elements from the story, we can see that Mars Base One will be in reality not a technological achievement but rather will be a sociological and psychological petri-dish. It is not a question of “will something go wrong” but simply “when will something go wrong, and what will cause it to happen?”
On Earth we have the most forgiving environment imaginable. We have recovered from self-inflicted catastrophes more times than anyone can count. Even with our hugely destructive modern technologies we’ve found it difficult to kill more than a few tens of thousands of people at a time.
But on Mars the game changes.
On Mars, any single act of ordinary human stupidity will be lethal to all.
That’s why Mars Base One will be the site of humanity’s greatest triumph: despite all the ingenuity of the engineers who design the place, ordinary human stupidity will ultimately triumph.
And every corpse left there will be silent testimony to our tiny-ape-brained greatness.