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Let’s think about Mars

by Eric Ferguson on December 25, 2016

Mars? No, Earth didn’t just suddenly become a happy place and the man-child who won the electoral college didn’t just suddenly hand over the presidency to a adult. I just need a break from Trump and trumpers and deplorables thinking they get to lord it over decent people. I’ve written a bunch about Trump and recovering the Democratic Party and salvaging something of our democracy, and I’ll write more of course. Readers, I assume, have read and will read as much as I have, but now it’s late December and I want a break from it. So if you want a moment’s break too, … Mars.

What brings this up is the National Geographic mini-series Mars, which combines a drama about the first attempt to build a colony on Mars with a documentary about real-life space flight. It was just six one-hour episodes, so easy to binge watch. I recommend it. Spoiler alert: I’m going to mention plot points, though I’ll put them after the “read more” link in case you’re reading this on the front page or from a search result.

The fictional Martian colony was built in the 2030’s, and though NASA is currently working on a Mars lander to send a manned mission, assuming our new anti-science second-place finisher doesn’t kill it — ugh, couldn’t stop thinking about the current catastrophe — the 2030’s seem awfully optimistic for a colony. Wouldn’t it make more sense to build a base on the moon first? It’s the same technological problems to be solved either way, basically. I’m aware Mars and Earth’s moon aren’t the same, but close enough. The key difference is that the moon is about three days away, starting from blast-off, assuming Apollo speeds, whereas Mars is about a year each way. Problems will be inevitable, and not all foreseen, so it seems utterly logical to develop the technology to build an extraterrestrial base where help is three days away instead of year.

I’m thinking of how ironic it is that when in the 2012 campaign Newt Gingrich suggested building a moon base, he was laughed at, but it’s the only sensible thing he’s ever said. Well, there was the time as Speaker of the House he said, “I resign”, but otherwise the moon base was the only smart idea he had. Ugh, guess I just ventured into thinking about the anti-science party again.

I just wanted to mention some things the series did right, because getting into the stuff that bugged me in the following paragraphs, I realized I was snarkily sounding like the whole series was crap and it wasn’t, at all. For example, the colony was in a hole. I don’t mean metaphorically; literally, a hole. Technically, a lava tube which afforded protection from radiation and a source of water, two colony-stopper problems real astronauts will need to solve. Living in a hole, making windows pointless, added to the psychological stress that nearly forced an evacuation back to Earth. The dust storm, too, was weeks long and and consisted of finer dust than in an Earth sandstorm, I’m guessing because larger particles couldn’t stay suspended in the thin Martian atmosphere, and likewise no howling winds because there just isn’t enough atmosphere for that.

OK, getting back to the moon versus Mars thing: in the last episode, during the documentary bit, Elon Musk was talking about wanting to build a new civilization on Mars, and again I was thinking we haven’t even built one on the moon. Isn’t that far enough away? Staring at Earth dominating the sky wouldn’t be the same sense of distance as Mars, but that seems far enough if you’re trying to start a civilization elsewhere. Getting to the moon is a plenty big challenge, which is why no one has been back in over 40 years. If it was easy, we’d have the Pan Am shuttle to the moon shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey; assuming there was still a Pan Am, so slight problem there.


“Civilization” seems a bit grandiose for getting started. The fictional astronauts (last warning, spoilers ahead) who were the first to land on Mars were there to stay permanently. Yes, it was a colony where everyone was a scientist, but still, jumping right into a colony? Again, there’s no base on the moon to work out problems like what happens if they land in the wrong place and the pre-fab shelter is a long way away.

That actually was a plot point I was pretty unhappy with: forced to land far away from their shelter, they have to travel in a rover that wasn’t intended to drive that far, they overload it, drive it faster than maximum recommended speed, and they have no spare parts. Guess what happened! I use the exclamation mark instead of a question mark because readers have probably already guessed. Oh yeah, they hadn’t fully charged their suit batteries before leaving. Sorry if I’m taking the drama out by saying they got to their shelter with just minutes of air and battery power left, but is there anybody who hadn’t guessed that already?

The psychological stress of being in constant peril was a key point, which I liked because that’s obviously going to be an issue (another thing we could learn to handle on the nice close moon first). So having a colonist suffer a psychological break, sure, and it was set up nicely too as to how it happened and to whom it happened. A botanist, who seemed to not want to be there but was married to a scientist (I forget what sort) who was supposed to be a key person for the colony, found his greenhouse, the whole purpose for him being along, died when a severe power shortage meant no power for lighting. Add on that of course everyplace was dark, and cold, and all the people were miserable, plus there was no longer a point in him being there. Like I said, well set up. He sat in his greenhouse and hallucinated that he was on Earth, and he opened the door to go outside, depressurizing that section of the colony, killing him and several other colonists. Why have a door that goes outside which isn’t an airlock? Since the section would have to be depressurized to use the door, and the section could never be depressurized because they need the greenhouse to produce their own food, so their survival depends on NOT depressurizing that section, ever, why was there even a door outside? Sorry for the italics, but I wanted to yell at the TV at that point, “why would you even put a door there?!”

So the people in charge back on Earth decide the colony is no longer sustainable, and they’ve ordered an evacuation — for which there was no plan except to try to use the first ship that brought the first crew about five years earlier. It had a rough landing, no repair or maintenance, it was never meant to take off again, it was too small since they had been adding colonists over the years … seriously? The later colonists arrive in other ships — did they all go back to Earth? Forget where they parked? Unless the situation is leave now or die, wouldn’t the next ship just be used for evacuation rather than using this thing likely to fail on takeoff?
Yet in a “oh, come on, NOW?” moment, they discover Martian microbes. Happy accident, fine, real discoveries happen that way, and it wasn’t as if searching for life wasn’t a secondary mission. But the evacuation gets instantly canceled. What? Discovering microbes doesn’t suddenly make the colony sustainable. Maybe it was the willingness of funders to keep funding rather than doubts about survival that caused the evacuation, but then why reuse the original ship that has little hope of actually getting back to Earth?

I’ll give the producers this much, that the characters’ fear that failure would mean a permanent end to missions to Mars was reasonable. The documentary side talked about how the space program was scaled down after the near-disaster of Apollo 13. I actually think money was a bigger reason for scaling down and reducing risk, but point taken. Look how much time has passed since Apollo and we can’t get beyond low Earth orbit.

Crud, now I just made myself unhappy thinking what a fantasy world it seems like to think of world where we have rational people in charge and visions beyond cutting taxes and suppressing the rights of people who aren’t conservative enough. Wouldn’t it be great to be debating moon or Mars because we’re really going to do great things again? Even the old debate over the space program as a good use of money was a higher-minded debate than trying to convince ideologues that global warming is real. We’re trying to blast-off into the future while dragging along people who still won’t accept evolution. Who would be shocked if Trump’s NASA administrator is a moon landing denier? I guess cultural xenophobia and science don’t mix.

Space travel is only for the optimistic.

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