In Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix propose colonizing Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and the second largest moon in the solar system. They reject constructing colonies on Mars and the Moon, claiming Titan offers the most resources for creating a permanent human settlement.
Even though I don’t buy their premise, Wohlforth and Hendrix have written a book that nicely sums up the current knowledge on human space travel. What’s damning and depressing is their long litany of obstacles we face living in space. Over the years I’ve read news reports about the various dangerous health effects of space travel, but reading them all in one place makes me wonder if science fiction is completely wrong about the future of humans in space.
Oddly enough, near the beginning of their story, Wohlforth and Hendrix report books on space colonization are never taken seriously by professionals in the space industry. Evidently, such wild ideas are a danger to the careers of real space scientists. Wohlforth and Hendrix say books about colonizing space give amateur space enthusiasts hope, but those folks lie on the fringe, closer to science fiction fans than scientists. I’m a space enthusiast and a science fiction fan, so Beyond Earth is my kind of book, but I couldn’t help taking this news as a slight.
Between what W&H report on the dangers of space travel and the politics of the space industry, it feels like they have damned their own hopes in Beyond Earth to oblivion. The upside of their story is the reporting on private space programs, like SpaceX. That news is very encouraging, if not inspirational.
However, I have a problem with colonizing Titan. It’s a distance too far. Earth’s moon is three days away, Mars is six months. Titan is seven years! Wohlforth and Hendrix do make a case for faster space travel, but even if Titan was only hours away, it’s still too far, too cold, too strange, and, too inhuman. Science fiction hasn’t prepared us for living on Titan like it has for the Moon and Mars.
For the past fifty years, I’ve heard many arguments for colonizing the Moon or Mars. The whites and the reds, you might say. We know those worlds well enough to feel they aren’t so strange. They are barren, not fit for man nor beast, but we have already psychologically imagined ourselves there nonetheless. Titan is too far in distance and conceptualization.
From all the medical studies that Wohlforth and Hendrix review, I’m not sure humans are meant to live in space at all. Maybe our science fictional dreams are flat-out impractical. No matter what hurdle Wohlforth and Hendrix report, they don’t get discouraged, always coming up with hopeful workarounds. I was discouraged. Is it time for science fiction to start speculating about futures where humans never leave Earth? When do we give up? I’m not ready yet, but I do believe we need to start contemplating the possibility.
After reading Beyond Earth I believe we should put all our manned space efforts into building bases on the Moon. We need to test humans living in low gravity for years. We’ve already discovered that living in microgravity for longer than six months causes permanent bodily damage. We’re learning that living in space will eventually cause permanent brain damage from galactic radiation. The safe time limit might be just 1-2 years, and there’s no practical shielding for spacecraft.
We should send robots to the Moon to construct an underground city safe from radiation. Those robots need to mine all the resources on the Moon that’s possible, so we fly the least weight from Earth. Robots should then fill the underground city with plants and test animals. When the robots have created a sustaining livable habitat, then send humans to stay for several years. Only then will we know what happens to our bodies living in less than 1 G. After we’ve gained knowledge from such an experiment, then we’ll know if we should travel greater distances. If we survive living on the Moon, then go to Mars or even Titan.
Wohlforth and Hendrix make a great case that we’re intentionally ignoring medical evidence. That we don’t want to believe that space is ultimately unhealthy. That our gung-ho nature makes us believe we can either use technology to overcome obstacles, or we can push our bodies further than the evidence suggests. I wonder if such optimism is just a way of fooling ourselves because we don’t want our science fictional dreams to come to an end.
I don’t know about you, but Titan is too far for me. What if Mars and the Moon are too far too? As Beyond Earth progresses it becomes more like science fiction than science fact. Anyone who writes science fiction might want to mine it for ideas. On the other hand, this book’s optimism makes me question the optimism of science fiction. Should we expect the future to give us everything we imagine?
One of the reasons we read science fiction is to find out what happens next. My favorite science fiction sub-genre is near future, precisely because I want someone to tell me what to expect a decade from now, a year from now, a month from now. Half the fun is discovering the future through speculative fiction. The other half is watching it come true.
We may not have our bubble cities or flying cars, but one science fiction milestone, the decline of coal from the winner’s circle, may have finally arrived. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 2016 is the year coal stopped being America’s leading energy source. King Coal’s replacement: Natural gas, which (as steampunk fans know) burns more cleanly and has long been predicted to be the “transition fuel” that will eventually give way to totally clean energy, like wind and solar. As of this year, that milestone has been reached. And it didn’t take long for coal to lag far behind. April saw natural gas producing 39% more energy than coal. No doubt that gap will fluctuate in the coming months, but coal is unlikely to regain the lead.
The next energy generation method to surpass coal? Nuclear. But, despite how it looks on the chart, that’s probably not going to happen this summer. Nuclear power hasn’t grown in over a decade and coal always recovers during the summer months (all that air conditioning creates demand). But at its current rate, coal could plummet into third place as soon as this fall, certainly by spring (2017).
On the other side of the spectrum, we have our newest forms of energy, wind and solar. It may not look it, but wind as been growing by leaps and bounds. Deselect the heavy-hitters on the above chart (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) and you’ll notice that wind is close to surpassing hydroelectric power on its way to the top. I expect that to happen by 2017 or 2018 at the latest.
And don’t be fooled by the modest squiggle representing solar energy. Ray Kurzweil says it will be the dominant form of energy generation within a dozen years. Make sure to work that into your short stories, budding sci-fi writers.
Back in 1964, when I first read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, I decided my goal in life was to get to Mars. I was 12. When Mariner 4 whizzed by Mars taking crude images in July 1965, showing the red planet was more like the Moon than science fiction, I was disappointed, but I still wanted to go. I grew up with Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik flew the month after I started first grade, and Apollo 11 landed the month after I finished the twelfth grade. I assumed Americans would be on Mars before 1980, and colonization would start before I was too old to go. I don’t think I was alone having this dream. It was impossible for me to imagine in 1972 that humans would never leave Earth orbit for decades.
A warm day on Mars is what we’d call cold here on Earth, and a cold day on Mars is what we’d call hell. We’re now all afraid of getting too many X-rays, but living on Mars would cook our gonads in constant radiation. And only a geologist could admire the scenery of the fourth planet. So why do so many dream of going to Mars?
NASA just announced a series of posters advertising for jobs on Mars. There seems to be more excitement in the 2010s about Mars than anytime since the 1960s. Elon Musk has become the D. D. Harriman of Heinlein’s imagination, the man who is selling Mars. The Martian by Andy Weir and its movie version has inspired millions to daydream about adventures on Mars even though Mark Watney had one wretched experience after another. Like Dorothy in Oz, he just wanted to go home. Thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed Martian colonization scheme that involves one-way trips. What is so alluring about Mars that some people are willing to give up everything?
For those of us who dream of moving to Mars, have you ever analyzed why you want to go? Looking back to my twelve-year-old self, I have to say reading Heinlein was my first motivation, but is fiction really a good justification? And if I had known about the details of how the astronauts of Project Gemini ate and shat in space for two-weeks, I would have given up my ambition back then. If I’m honest with myself, I know I never had the Right Stuff.
I think all adolescents want to escape their situations, and mine included alcoholic parents who dragged my sister and I around the country in their own restless search for greener pastures. It’s no wonder I would have gladly gone all the way to Mars to find a life of my own. Science fiction was my escape, my positive therapy for what should have been a psychologically damaged childhood. Science fiction and rock & roll were my trip to Mars, converting an adolescence I should have suppressed to a time I nostalgically cherish.
When Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson came out in 1993, my Mars mania reignited. Then when The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin showed up a few years later, with a very practical plan for getting to Mars, I got even more excited. By then I had given up any naïve dream of going to Mars myself, but I finally had hope again that humans would go. That was twenty years ago, and we’re still doing endless 90-minute laps around the home world.
I believe Elon Musk is an unrealistic optimistic about how to get to Mars, but I hope I’m wrong. I know the Mars One people are clueless, but I wish them well. There’s a practicality that comes with getting old. I’m glad the young aren’t infected. We need foolish people to do impossible things. But I’ve reached an age where I now question the value of going to Mars. I’m not sure space is suited for humans, but it is perfect for machines.
And, if we do want to adapt humans to space, I think our starting place should be the Moon, not Mars. The Moon is three days away, and a perfect place to construct the self-sufficient industrial city to launch human space exploration of the solar system and beyond. If Homo sapiens can’t adapt to living on the Moon, going to Mars will be pointless. But if we can thrive on the Moon, Mars will be easy.
There’s one very important factor about those posters from NASA – they’re promoting jobs that involve long term stays. Going to Mars, or the Moon, can’t be about planting the flag. I didn’t understand the value of work as a kid. Space travel was a thrill. Living in space really means working in space. I just wanted to hop a rocket and escape into fictional fantasies. The people who truly want to live in space need twenty years of relentless preparation, and then will work 15-hour days on the final frontier. Pioneers don’t waste much time reading science fiction, playing video games, or enjoying VR.
Of course, such gritty self-evaluation makes me wonder about why I read science fiction. It’s still escapism. It’s now nostalgia. But it’s also a kind of hoping that humans will adapt to living in space. Where does that desire come from? Why is it important that our species go to Mars? Species have habitats. Why should we create new habitats for ourselves? Especially ones so tremendously ill-suited for our biology? What if fish wanted to live on land? Wait, some did.
Some of our more popular posts included videos of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield explaining how water behaves when being wrung out from a washcloth in space, or demonstrating how to drink coffee in a microgravity environment. This, by far, surpasses even those kick-ass productions. Mr. Hadfield, you are our hero.
EDIT: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013. It seems a fitting tribute to repost this, today.
Bill Nye and The Planetary Society have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a solar sail spacecraft. And if that’s not enough to get you over there to back this amazing project he’s got Neil deGrasse Tyson on board as well AND it’s going to be launched by SpaceX! Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson and SpaceX. Need I say more?
Okay, Ceres isn’t actually a planet, but a dwarf planet. Still, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Pluto is a dwarf planet, and we still know about it. So why did we not learn about Ceres? Oh, sure, you may argue that Pluto is 14 times more massive than Ceres (and you’d be right), but there is one reason to believe the solar system’s smallest dwarf planet might be the most exciting one:
It’s a water planet.
Scientists believe Ceres contains rock in its interior with a thick mantle of ice that, if melted, would amount to more fresh water than is present on all of Earth. The materials making up Ceres likely date from the first few million years of our solar system’s existence and accumulated before the planets formed.
Not only that, but geysers on Ceres appear to be erupting water into space, where the liquid sublimates into ice, possibly resulting in snow (which explains the white spots in the above image). Yes, that’s right, we may have our own mini-Hoth in the sol system. All we need now is to genetically engineer some tauntauns, and we’re ready for colonization.