Why There Will Be No Mars Colony
When we peel back the Star Trek fantasy layer, we find… nothing good
If you are of a charming, sweet, and irredeemably naïve disposition you may find the superficial ramblings of billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos not merely amusing but compelling. You may, like them, have spent a significant portion of your life staring at entertainments purporting to show humans whizzing around in space as though it were as normal as going off on a supermarket shopping trip.
Perhaps, like our aforementioned billionaires, you think the answer to chronic human self-destructiveness is to ship humans from Earth to a whole new planet on which to be equally self-destructive — only this time without the atmosphere, gravity, water, and protective magnetic field we enjoy here on our little blue planet. Perhaps you’re so terrified by the fear of a huge asteroid slamming into Earth that you believe, as they claim, the only “answer” is to create vast artificial colonies off-world. Even though the probability of our species surviving long enough to intersect with an ultra-rare asteroid collision is effectively zero (most species come and go in the space of less than one million years; ours almost certainly will self-exterminate within the next few centuries).
But if you’ve thought carefully about the Mars Colony proposition for more than a few milliseconds you will doubtless have arrived at the inevitable conclusion: there will be no Mars Colony in the foreseeable future.
It’s easy to enumerate the very many physiological reasons why going off to live on Mars is a truly terrible idea. First of all there’s the six month trip to get there, during which the astronauts will absorb extremely harmful levels of solar radiation because they’ll be outside the protective envelope of Earth’s magnetic field which helpfully deflects nearly all this radiation and is the reason why astronauts can remain on the low-orbit International Space Station for a year without dying of cancer. But on the Mars trip, which will last at least six months, the radiation will penetrate their bodies unchecked. Shielding would be so heavy as to be impracticable. Worse yet, once on Mars that radiation will continue to penetrate their flesh and bones because Mars has no magnetic field. Perhaps eventually it will be possible to construct gloomy underground bunkers far enough beneath the surface to protect against most of the harmful radiation, but before these bunkers can be built everyone will die of horrible cancers. Unless they’re lucky enough to be fried first by a coronal mass ejection.
After a six-month long trip in zero gravity, those who survive the descent will have to crawl off their cramped spacecraft that by then will reek of unpleasant bodily odors, because even if they are able to exercise for four hours a day their bodies will have lost so much muscle mass and bone density that once subject to Martian gravity, which is a mere one-third of Earth’s value, they will be too weak to walk normally. Furthermore their cells will have been significantly damaged by all that radiation, even if it hasn’t killed them yet.
So far, things are looking great for these intrepid would-be colonists! No wonder so many people are eager to go on the voyage!
Next comes the problem of continuing to live. On Mars, everything must work. If even a single system and its backup fails, everyone dies — either quickly or excruciatingly slowly, depending on which system fails. The nearest spare parts are at least six months away, best case. But hey, if drinking your own recycled urine and eating your own recycled feces is what gets you all hot and bothered, Mars could be a great place to be for as long as you manage to cling on to life once you’re there.
So let’s see: the colonists get very sick during the voyage, can barely crawl at the end of it, and if they get to survive for long enough they can eke out the remainder of their days living deep underground in concrete bunkers as cancers spread through their bodies. Plus their digestive systems will be damaged so they’ll be unable to absorb many nutrients even as they squirt brown liquid out the other end.
Surely even living in somewhere as dire as Cleveland, Sheffield, Kolkata, or Lagos, is a better option?
These physiological problems, however, aren’t the main reasons why there will not be a Mars Colony anytime soon. The real reason is far, far simpler: there’s no value in it.
Sending each person to Mars will cost, even with the most reusable rockets imaginable, around five billion dollars per seat. And that’s the easy part. The up-front costs are somewhere far north of $100 billion and the annual budget required to sustain a dozen or so hapless colonists will be a few billion per year. So let’s imagine we watch Excitable Elon convince more gullible venture capitalists to pony up the funds and he is able to raise $150 billion to spend on his fanboy dream. Let’s say he manages to get 12 gullible folk to sign away their lives and he shoots them off to the red planet. Fantastic press coverage, adulation all round, Elon Saves Humanity t-shirts available on Amazon for only $22.99.
Everything the would-be colonists depend on will cost millions of dollars. Even something as mundane as sending a roll of duct-tape and some screws will come with a multi-million dollar price tag. Sadly, our Martian colonists won’t be generating any income with which to pay for their duct-tape and screws because there’s nothing of value on Mars. Sure, maybe one day someone will find some magic mineral that is worth spending tens of billions of dollars to extract and ship back to Earth — but I wouldn’t count on it. In the meantime, those poor saps (sorry, brave colonists) are utterly dependent on people back on Earth being persuaded to shell out on a never-ending basis for precisely no financial return whatsoever. Even the TV rights won’t bring in enough cash, and Earthbound viewers will quickly grow bored of watching people slowly dying of cancer in gloomy underground bunkers.
When staring happily at Star Trek or Star Wars or any other entertainment with the word Star written or implied, it’s easy to imagine that nothing has a price tag attached. But in reality every single colonization ever attempted by humankind has always been in search of gain. There was precisely one moment in history when someone undertook lengthy expeditions for which financial gain was not the primary motivation: the seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He. Not surprisingly, after making these unrewarding forays the experiment was never repeated and the Chinese contented themselves with land-based conquests, the rewards of which were much more evident and immediate. The hard fact is that when we go off to colonize distant lands we do so for very pecuniary reasons. Without reward, there’s no reason to persist. It’s easy enough to do something a few times, but persistence requires profit. Without profit, there’s no motivation to continue and every motivation to place one’s financial chips elsewhere.
Today we’re in another of our periodic asset price bubbles and Musk has been able to raise money to fund his various overhyped schemes, none of which is really viable over the medium term. Tesla makes all its profit by selling carbon offset credits and SpaceX barely breaks even on every launch. Neither company has a defensible market position despite fanboy hype to the contrary. At some point, relying on the over-exuberance of gullible investors ceases to be a fun and easy game to play. Business models predicated on bubbles are inherently flawed.
We all know about bubbles. We’re living in one right now, with Tesla and Bitcoin and a host of over-valued SPACs all eager to take our money and run. But bubbles always burst despite everyone involved believing sincerely that it really is “different this time.” When bubbles burst a lot of people lose their retirement savings. But when this particular bubble bursts (assuming it does so after, and not before, Musk shoots people off to a red and dusty grave), those poor stranded folk on Mars won’t have many fallback options. They can’t sell the family home and move into a cheap apartment complex. They’re fifty million kilometers from home (at the closest approach) and six long months away — assuming they can even get off the surface of the red planet.
As there’s no economic reason for people to be on Mars, there’s no reason to keep shelling out billions to sustain them there. Unlike colonization on Earth there are no indigenous people to enslave, no resources to exploit, no nothing. Thus colonization can’t pay its own way. And if something can’t pay its own way, sooner or later it ceases to exist. Just ask the people who used to make a living spinning wool by hand, or the folk who invested in companies like www.onlinepetfoodsataloss.com during the dot-com bubble.
That said, there may be some sort of future for a very limited Mars Base, even if there’s no future whatsoever for a Mars Colony. While there’s zero point in sending naïve colonists off to die slowly and painfully on a world wholly unsuited for life, some may imagine there’s some marginal value in sending short-term crews of scientists to Mars in order to perform on-the-ground geology, repair automated rovers, and bring back to Earth soil samples for greater analysis than can be performed in situ. But the very same problems that face our hypothetical naïve colonists will face scientists too, so we’ll have to see if the allure of Mars is sufficient to induce researchers to sacrifice their lives for a brief moment of glory.
Perhaps various tumor-suppressant drugs will be developed so as to lessen the harms of solar radiation. Perhaps some form of partial shielding can be developed so as to reduce the amount of radiation absorbed during all that time outside Earth’s protective magnetic field. Perhaps genetic engineering can be employed to increase human resilience to sustained lethal levels of radiation.
Or perhaps, far more probably, as our ability to develop increasingly autonomous rovers and drones increases, there will be no reason whatsoever to send people to their death when for a fraction of the cost we can get 99% of the science done at no risk to human life and wellbeing.
On Thursday 18th February 2021 the Perseverance rover set down on Mars to begin a two-year mission that will yield incomparable results. Total cost of the mission: $2.7 billion, or around 1.3% of what Musk imagines a Mars Colony will cost initially. Nobody will die as the Perseverance rover trundles over the Martian surface performing its samplings and experiments. Nobody will be exposed to lethal levels of radiation. Nobody will be left stranded fifty million kilometers away to die slowly and in terrible pain for someone’s silly Star Trek fantasy. Instead, NASA will enable real science to be done that will yield results of immense importance. For a fraction of the cost of even the most modest human mission.
For the cost of Musk’s hollow Martian dream we could flood the solar system with automated probes. We could land on Europa and conduct up-close examination of a celestial body that has more water than exists on all of Earth. We could land on Titan and discover its astonishing methane-based meteorology. We could add to our extremely scant knowledge of the outer gas giants Neptune and Uranus. We could put very long baseline array telescopes into appropriate locations and probe the very earliest moments when the universe re-ionized and light was free to travel across the vastness of space. We could even thrust probes out of the galactic plane so that in a couple of centuries — if we haven’t exterminated ourselves through ordinary persistent human stupidity — we could receive back images of our galaxy for the very first time and answer important questions that the dust clouds between us and the galactic center render moot at this time.
In short, we could learn a lot at zero risk or we could waste the money on trying and failing to make Star Trek real.
Unfortunately, we’re going to do the latter.