A peculiar feature of the human condition is that a society in distress will call forth intellectual witch-doctors to put on a colorful show that distracts the supposedly thinking class from the insoluble quandaries that portend serious trouble ahead.
This feature is on display these days in the person of freelance space pioneer Elon Musk. He intends to establish a human colony on Mars of one million people by 2040.
Musk, who is also developer of the Tesla line of electric cars and businesses that make solar-electric gear and batteries, has tested a series of space vehicles, most recently last week’s celebrated launch of his Falcon Heavy Rocket, said to be the most powerful in the world. It is just the precursor of the soon-to-come colossus Musk calls the BFR (“Big Fucking Rocket”) that will convey as many as 200 people at a time to their new home on the Red Planet.
NPR reporter Ari Shapiro was rhapsodizing about this “Space-X” project last week on the airwaves, lending it the media stamp-of-approval. And since NPR is a major news source for the US thinking class especially, you can be sure this meme of colonizing Mars is now embedded in the brains of the Pareto distribution (“the law of the vital few”) who affect to be thought leaders in this land.
There’s an old gag about the space race of yore that goes something like this (trigger warning to the ethnically hyper-sensitive):
The UN convenes a General Assembly session on space travel. The ambassadors of various nations are asked to talk about their space projects. The Russians and the Americans tick off their prior accomplishments and announce plans to explore the planets. Finally, the ambassador from Poland takes his turn at the rostrum.
“We intend to land a man on the sun,” he declares. There is a great hubbub in the assembly, cries of “say, what…?” and “wait a minute now….”
The Secretary-General turns to the Polish ambassador and says, “Your scientists must be out of their minds. It’s six thousand degrees up there! How can you possibly land a spacecraft on it?”
A hush falls over the assembly.
The Polish ambassador looks completely relaxed and serene. “We are going to do it at night!” he announces triumphantly.
NPR’s Shapiro interviewed blogger Tim Urban of the Wait But Why blog for the segment on Musk’s space program. Here’s a sample of their conversation:
URBAN: If humanity is, you know, like a precious photo album you’ve got, the Earth is like a hard drive you have it on. And any sane person would obviously back it up to a second hard drive. That’s kind of the idea here – is all of our eggs are currently on one planet. And if we can build a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, it’s much harder for humanity to go extinct.
SHAPIRO: And a million people is about how many people he thinks it would take for a population to be self-sustaining.
URBAN: Right, self-sustaining meaning if something catastrophic happened on Earth during some world war or something that has to do with, you know, a really bad-case scenario with climate change, maybe some – I don’t know – the species went extinct on Earth but ships stopped coming with supplies and anything else, a million people is enough that Mars’ population would be fine.
Not to put too fine a point on, I never heard so much fucking nonsense in my life.
There’s absolutely nothing that might make Mars a “sustainable” habitat for human beings, or probably any other form of Earthly life. The journey alone would destroy human bodies. If you think that living in Honolulu is expensive, with most daily needs of the population shipped or flown in, imagine what it would be like sending a cargo of provisions (Doritos? Pepperoni sticks? Mountain Dew? Fabreeze?) to a million “consumers” up on Mars. Or do you suppose the colonists will “print” their food, water, and other necessities?
Elon Musk’s ventures have reportedly vacuumed in around $5 billion in federal subsidies. Mr. Musk is doing a fine job of keeping his benefactors entertained. Americans are still avid for adventures in space, where just about every other movie takes place. I suppose it’s because they take us away from the awful conundrums of making a go of it here on Earth, a planet that humans were exquisitely evolved for (or designed for, if you will), and which we are in the process of rendering uninhabitable for ourselves and lots of other creatures.
This is our home. Can we talk about the necessary adjustments and arrangements we have to make in order to continue the human project here? Just based on our performance on this blue planet, we are not qualified to infect other parts of the solar system.