Re: The Case For Mars

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.

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3 thoughts on “Re: The Case For Mars

  1. Thanks for the summary of Zubrin’s book, Pam. I never got all the way through it. I agree that he is stretching our present knowledge of science to get us all the way to Mars. If we can’t do cold fusion here, yet, how can we plan to use it for a ship? However, there are other scenarios for getting to and living on Mars that are very much doable now if we accept the risks and harsh conditions. Lots of people are ready to go.

  2. In the meantime, before we could get (back) to Mars, it’s possible to be inspired by the radiostation, BLUEMARS – Music for the Space Traveller .

    Web:
    http://www.bluemars.org

    Listen here:
    http://207.200.96.225:8020/listen.pls

    The story is that a long time ago MARS was a wonderful world, like planet Earth is now. Then something bad happened, and our forefathers migrated and MARS-formed planet Earth, to be what it is today. All knowledge about our roots was lost in the long timespan of MARS-forming planet Earth.

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