My visit to the 20th annual Mars Society conference

Posted on October 25, 2017

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The Mars Society is an advocacy group for human settlement of Mars. In brief, going to Mars, or other celestial bodies, is important because we can’t stay on Earth forever. Whether it be finite resources, potential dinosaur like asteroid, or the ever expanding sun, we need to go other places.

There are two impediments to human space travel.

  1. Economics
  2. Humans

We have upwards of ten robots on or around Mars. We have zero humans. Economics are why there aren’t thousands of robots, and partially why we didn’t stay on the moon. Humans are the other factor. It’s hard to keep us alive and healthy off Earth.

I’ve found numerous applications of space biology to Earth, and vice versa. I went to this conference to try and pick up some more. Plus, I think it’s a good idea to go outside your dominant sphere of competence at times. You went to stay within your lens of the world, but at times try to put other shades on that lens.

Truth be told, I didn’t find much this time. So I’ll go through a few talks as they happened at the conference, giving highlights and commentary, referring to issues I’ve talked about, but this will have a fair amount of random, though human related, space talk.

Robert Zubrin

This is the president and founder of the society. He’s a great speaker. Intense, but has humor.

One of the themes of the conference was debating SpaceX’s and Elon Musk’s Mars plans.

How much will your weight matter when going to Mars, SpaceX style?

One of Zubrin’s main contentions is how fast you get there. He thinks six months is the right time. Musk and SpaceX have referenced three months, if not faster. In Zubrin’s view, this throws off your potential return trajectory. I haven’t studied the orbital dynamics, but Zubrin says you get a free return trajectory with a six month trip. So if you go faster than six months, your return trajectory gets thrown off, because Earth won’t be properly aligned when you get back. In other words, going slower is a hedge if something goes awry. Going slower also provides the ability to use less propellant, which means a smaller ship.

However, going slower is advantageous for everybody but the passengers. An extra month on a ship might be the threshold where more people start losing their minds. It’s an extra month where you have to keep the people from deconditioning.

Musk is viewing this like a business. When you vacation, the worst part is getting to the destination. Even if you’ve never been on a plane, the novelty wears off quickly. A cruise ship is fun…but not for months at a time. Astronauts are delighted to come back to Earth, and they have a lot better view than Martians! (They can look at Earth.) Staring at stars and empty space won’t be so entertaining after months.

And frankly, I think Musk is viewing this like a classic engineer as well. Where human factors are to be removed as much as possible. The longer we’re in space, the greater risk of deconditioning. Exercise can prevent this, but in many’s view, that’s a pain in the ass. Musk’s take then? Just go faster.

Overall, I lean towards starting with Zubrin’s view. Initially, Martians should be so well vetted, a couple extra months won’t tip the scale psychologically. Deconditioning wise, we’ve solved it with exercise. On Mars, we’re going to want them exercising too. So it’s not as if we’re extending that time. The human factor can be dealt with here, helping us save cost elsewhere.

Down the line, once economies of scale get better where you can build a bigger ship and have better reliability, you can then shorten the duration. Until then, every decision should be aimed at reducing cost, working from there the best you can.

Ugh, Westward expansion and Moore’s law

While this was a theme of the second talk, this isn’t so much a criticism of the speaker as it is space advocacy. I’m a newbie to the space world but you can spot the themes quickly. One is comparing the space frontier to Columbus, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Western movement of the United States. It’s an absurd comparison.

Just use the Western expansion of the United States. With the ability to hunt, you could make it from east to west. That is, you could do it with barely any money. You cannot do space travel this way. It is insanely more expensive than any other frontier expansion. You do not need cutting edge technology to travel across state boundaries. You need every synapse of human intellect to get between planets.

Next, many explored for opportunity. Their lives were already shit, so why not take a chance to make them better? Space won’t be that way. Poor people won’t be going -at least not initially- because they can’t afford it. You can’t walk to space. Speaking of which, you could walk New York to California, AND BACK, in six months. Right now a single Mars trip would be upwards of three years.

You can’t hunt in space. You have to bring years worth of food with you. You can’t live off the land as you do the journey. You have to diligently take care of your body hours per day. You can’t walk outside without dying unless you wear an incredible feat of engineering. There is currently NO economic opportunity in space.

When we went west and saw California, BAM. Opportunity. Coastlines for tourists, farm land, gold, animals, lumber. It’s a more beautiful place than the rest of America. From the international travel I’ve done, the west coast is as amazing as land in this world gets. It’s hard to fathom something it does not have. Have you seen what Mars looks like? Palm Trees ain’t on the list.

Will there be economic opportunity in space? Of course. But it’s not at all clear how that will play out, and it’s unlikely to be by transferring resources from one planet to another any time soon. New York to California is three thousand miles. Earth to Mars is 34 million miles, on a good day. The gas bill will be a wee bit higher than a train.

Moore’s law was referenced by multiple speakers. This always gets generalized to technology, but Moore’s law is a very specific technological advancement, which I’m not sure any other in history has, or will, replicate. Rockets being the prime example here. Our ability to travel with rockets in the United States is currently zero. We’ve been trending downwards for 40 years. That’s not Moore’s law. Plus, Moore’s law looks to be dying.

-Be careful betting on the future of medicine

George Whitesides- CEO Virgin Galactic

I wrote a lot about this company in

Exercise to improve g tolerance

George hit a fair amount on opening up space to everyday people. He has a business background, so he’s also looking at it from a potential customer standpoint. More people, more potential customers. Thus, I raised my hand and asked,

“You mentioned passengers being everyday people. So we’re not talking fighter jet pilots or astronauts. Are you at all concerned about the g forces these people will incur? Whether that be liability, blacking out, throwing up, screening?”

He told me in the early days they screened one hundred people and put them on a centrifuge, had NASA doctors help look at them, and they did well. That g-training will be part of the deal, and is highly trainable. I later found out he’s a pilot himself, so he’s more intimate with the trainability than most.

I thought it was a solid answer, though I wish I got more out of him. Would have liked to know exactly what was part of the training. He did mention it being part of a manual they give to their customers, which is what I wrote about.

I will say Virgin Galactic has gotten a lot of publicity by booking celebrities on their initial flights. From what I’ve seen, mainly young ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if they primarily screened younger, already healthy, already exercising customers. (Hollywood has gotten pretty into exercise the last decade.) My hunch is as they get the safety and reliability of the hardware figured out, much like airlines, this human factor will end up being a bigger and bigger deal. Young people aren’t your primary flight customer. They can’t afford it.

John E. Parks

The title of this talk was

-“Look to the Sea: Applying Knowledge and Lessons from the Management of Earth’s Oceans for Permanent Human Habitation on Mars.”

This was given by an ecologist, and one of the highlights of the conference. John was very well spoken, and I thought brought up some of the best theoretical issues I’ve seen regarding space travel. Much of the time when people bring up abstract issues my reaction is “Ugh, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”

But John brought up an issue that needs to be solved either before we get there, or as soon as we do. If we think of Mars as the ocean, a problem we’ve run into is there is no sense of ownership. In economics it’s called a tragedy of the commons. Because no one has ownership, the area gets trashed and overused. You would never treat your home the way you treat the middle of the ocean.

With Mars, many are not in favor of flag planting. That Mars will provide us an opportunity to get away from arbitrary country lines and be one big United Nation. John used the ocean to show that might not be a great move.

He went into other details too. Such as what is the threshold of food supply before violence disproportionately increases? If you have two different settlements on Mars, how far away can they be before one group doesn’t want joint ownership with another? Or, how I phrased a question to him,

“What is the distance in which we give another group the finger? For example, there was this group of people in Boston who said screw you English people, we’re doing our own thing.”

We don’t have a clear answer on this. And using the past might not work. If those Englishmen could have communicated with modern technology rather than it taking two weeks to have a conversation, they may have given a greater sense of representation within Boston. John’s point was knowing this distance means we can either arrange our order of settlements differently: each new settlement has to be X miles from the previous. Or we allow for multiple territories- a new settlement is Y miles away, so we let them own that land.

The most pressing reason to figure this out is we don’t want to go to Mars and kill one another. Survival will be hard enough as it is. No need to put ourselves in a situation which makes it harder.

Joe Carroll- Tether Applications

A good deal of this was about using tethers for artificial gravity. Something I’ve discussed in,

Should we give up on artificial gravity?

Long story short, I asked,

“I’m an outsider to the engineering world but I consistently hear the need for redundancy. What do we do if the tether malfunctions or breaks?”

I wasn’t confident in the answer…

As I previously wrote, the redundancy would be people exercising. Which can prevent deconditioning. Meaning there is no need for artificial gravity, because we want people exercising whether they’re in artificial gravity, or in Earth’s gravity!

Closing out- space philosophy

I grouped the attendees into two categories: the realists and the optimists.

The optimists have spent 30 years complaining NASA and government won’t get its act together. That politicians care more about NASA from a jobs perspective than an exploration.

The realists say duh. Politicians care about getting elected, and people having a job increases your odds of re-election. Not siphoning off money to another planet. They don’t hate NASA or anything, but they feel ~$17 billion a year for NASA is enough.

The optimists think the public just needs to get fired up about space. That’ll pressure politicians to command NASA to explore.

The realists say unless we get the cost down, it doesn’t matter. Government can help, but it can’t make a business out of exploration, and longterm you need businesses for this to sustain itself.

I was stunned how many at this conference are still the optimists. The hopers. The attendees obviously love Elon Musk, yet the whole reason Elon started SpaceX is because he realized it’s not about building a will where we will then find a way. Instead, we have to show the way and people will show their will.

We went through the optimist phase when we went to the moon. We’re not there anymore because there was no clear way to make it work economically. When you’re talking on the order of billions of dollars, it doesn’t matter how small it is relative to GDP or the DOD budget. It’s billions of dollars not used on healthcare, roads, social services, lessening taxes. For each issue, we only have so much threshold for that.

In my view, NASA has largely laid the foundation, and we shouldn’t expect much more out of them when it comes to the moon or Mars. They’ve shown it can be done. How many of us really want government conducting research and development? Manufacturing? Instead, we want government to help provide a structure to let citizens do that work, then largely get out of the way. Once in a while, it needs to do what nobody else will. Government is good at taking on risks nobody else wants, like funding projects no company wants to touch, and showing a path for the private sector to piggyback on its work and make it sustainable. NASA has largely done that already.

This is how the National Institute of Health, the government’s health research branch, works. It either helps fund research that often has no immediately obvious application or financial win (80% of the budget), or conducts it itself (10% of the budget). Once an application has been found though, it doesn’t manufacture, market, distribute a drug. It lets the private sector do that and moves on to the next thing nobody wants to fund.

Sure, NASA, the NIH, their budget is tiny compared to the military, but absolute numbers matter here. Voters don’t check how much your budget affects their paycheck. They instead hear “You get $30 billion a year to…I’m not exactly sure how you directly help me, the everyday person, and you want more? lulz.” When NASA was working like it was part of the military? Boom, more funding was no problem. Seemingly random space exploration? Yeah, you’re not going to get defense money.

NASA lessened the risk of entry, it removed any imminent threat from space, now more people need to actually enter and take on some risk themselves.

You can, and people like SpaceX and Blue Origin have, literally go to NASA’s site and read algorithms they came up with, biological research they’ve done, and it’s all free. There aren’t many industries where government gives that much to help you get started. For years, to read a single NIH study required a $35 payment! Even though as a taxpayer you already paid for it!

It’s like NASA came up with an AIDS vaccine, yet all these people are bitching they didn’t manufacture and distribute it. The latter is business oriented i.e. not for government.

What’s the one aspect of healthcare we have nearly universal agreement? Medicare. How does that work? Government funds care, gives some rules on how that money is used, but it doesn’t deliver care. This is the way forward for space.

Elon started SpaceX with about $90 million. Relativity, a new space company, is 3-D printing rockets with $10 million in funding. Yes, a lot of money, but not impossible. When Elon needed more, but it wasn’t clear success was on the table, who came to the rescue? NASA. Elon is the poster child for this model.

Or hell, don’t start an entire rocket company. Just figure out how to make a single part cheaper. Anybody qualified can work on that. But screaming into a pillow doesn’t change reality. Space is too expensive. Humans too hard to deal with. If you’re not working on how to make it cheaper, how to make the human factor easier to deal with, instead complaining somebody won’t do something you want done, you’re not pushing us in the right direction.

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