I have mixed feelings about The Case for Mars, by Robert Zubrin. The second half is full of reasonable-looking ideas for using the resources available on the nearest terrestrial planet to build a liveable place. But the first half is a hard slog through the self-congratulation about how brilliant he was for coming up with the Mars Direct model and tedious ax-grinding against the people who don’t agree that he’s brilliant. It gets even harder to take him seriously when the attitude meter regarding the various engineering challenges, like automated propellant manufacture from the Martian atmosphere, slides from conceivable to feasible to easy. In short, I am skeptical, but I like the way this book sparks my imagination.
For example, one good call is the suggestion to explore the surface with robots. (Of course this was written just before Pathfinder launched.) The book says Mars has an ionosphere, and computes the frequencies you could use shortwave or ham radio. (But will you still be able to pick up BBC World Service?) It discusses ways to navigate on the surface of a planet without a magnetic pole. It delves into making bricks and glass from the Martian dirt and works out how to anchor inflatable domes. It creates a homey picture of fields and orchards growing in the domes with fish ponds and mushrooms and animals for people to eat. It admits that everything depends on finding water, and that nuclear is the most likely energy source.
But then the book ties itself into knots trying to work out a calendar, and details a rather optimistic discussion of synthesizing ethylene. If it’s so easy, why don’t we do it that way on Earth? It offers the “new frontier” argument for colonizing Mars, and devises an economic triangle between Mars, the asteroids, and Earth–both of which sound great if you don’t think too hard about the cost of interplanetary transport. My favorite wacky idea is the concept of combining deuterium from Mars and tritium from the Moon to build fusion-powered starships. That is so out there, I want it to come true.
I’m deeply skeptical about the terraforming. Even with Zubrin’s best-case scenario, we’re still talking 1000 years to breathable, shirt-sleeve weather. It’s really, really hard to imagine people buying into working so hard and spending so much on something that will change so little within any given lifetime. You need a religion for that.
Fun to think about.