Thursday, November 4, 2010

Future Mars Colonists Will Take Clues From America's Wild West

Analysis by Ray Villard
Wed Nov 3, 2010 03:18 PM ET

Taking pages from the history of the American frontier, a pair of scientists has proposed sending a small group of humans to Mars to live there for the rest of their lives to establish a permanent colony. Call it Adam & Eve II.

My Discovery News colleague Irene Klotz reported on this idea by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies who published their concept in the Journal of Cosmology.

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This is not a new idea. It was proposed nearly 60 years ago by rocket pioneer Werner Von Braun. He laid out the architecture for an ambitions one-way Mars mission using an entire fleet of spaceships. Another space engineer, Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, has been the most published advocate of Mars colonization.

But once a Mars habitat is established what happens next? Some parallels can be drawn to the colonization of the New World.

A small settlement of pioneers will set up farms under huge inflatable domes to grow their own food and become somewhat self-sufficient. But they will have to keep an umbilical cord to Earth for needed technology, medical supplies, and many other items that cannot be manufactured on Mars.

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For this to happen at all, a robust interplanetary “railroad” will have to be in place. I imagine majestic fusion-propelled space clippers sailing along “conveyor belt” trajectories between Mars and Earth.

But someone has to foot the bill for the high transportation costs and other infrastructure. Ideally a colony will find a way build up cash by exporting goods back to Earth.

But what kind of trade? Mars has a complex geologic history. It probably has concentration of precious metals, like germanium, gallium, and iridium -- and even gold. Imported ores might have a market if freight costs are low. Imagine, Fed-EXtraterrestrial.

Zubrin thinks Mars could be a waystation for supporting asteroid mining operations. Imagine a trading outpost on the Maritan moon Phobos where asteroid miners stop by for space parts, repairs, food and drink.

Sparse resources on Mars might spur good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity says Zubrin. Exotic technologies might be developed for energy generation, extensive robotics, and nano-technology and biotechnology for terraforming.

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But a technological manufacturing and mining colony will need to grow to over 100,000 people to offer adequate goods and services to become even more self-sufficient.

What’s the cost of emigrating to Mars? With today’s rockets a one-way Mars ticket would cost $40 million. Zubrin thinks this cost can be shaved down to about $300,000 per passenger if an advanced interplanetary transportation system is in place.

Pioneers will have to sell all their assets and cash-in their life savings to buy a rocket ticket. They could only carry along a couple hundred pounds of person items. (Just imagine the extra baggage charge!) Zubrin envisions about 100 Mars immigrants per year for starters.

Once colonists arrive on Mars, land would be dirt-cheap. Even if sold at only $10 per acre, Mars real estate would be worth $358 billion. But buy now. This value will skyrocket to $36 trillion if Mars is eventually terrformed to have a breathable atmosphere, Zubrin predicts.

But who would go to Mars? If America’s history is any example it would be people with little of value to leave behind on Earth. Colonists might be yearning for a pollution-free, crime-free, Utopian society.

But for Marsopolis to effectively survive in the deadly hostile conditions colonists might choose a quasi-military rule, authoritarian bureaucracy, an Israeli-style Kibbutz, representative democracy, a hierarchical corporate structure, or some amalgam of these Earthly social experiments. And if the government got unpopular, it might incite a terrorist or emotionally unstable individual to sabotage life-support equipment, dooming the entire colony.

Even more challenging, will the colony model itself after capitalism, socialism, or be egalitarian? Yikes! Could we end up with a Martian Tea-Party protest against Imperial Earth?

Above all, the Mars colonists will be more isolated from Earth as our American pioneers were from Europe. An instantaneous two-way conversation is impossible because of the long light-travel times.

Earth will be a mythical place to children born on Mars. They’ll be hard pressed to imagine a world largely submerged under water, with a staggering array of life forms on land, sea and air.

Colonizing Mars seems like our Manifest Destiny. But as the Wild West pioneers would tell you, it will be a very long and arduous conquest.

Image Credits: JAXA, Time-Life (May 1991 edition), NASA

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