June 23, 2005


A Case for Space (The American Enterprise, December 2004)

In popular culture, earthlings have both conquered Mars and been conquered by it. Even Robert Zubrin has taken up this beloved topic of books and films, with his Mars novel First Landing. But his contribution to America's fascination with the Red Planet goes far beyond that. In 1990, as a senior engineer for the Martin Marietta Company, Zubrin showed how to get there. His plan, a version of which has now been adopted by NASA, is described in detail in his book The Case for Mars. Zubrin is also president of The Mars Society, which promotes the importance of manned trips to Mars and engages in technical work to advance the likelihood of success. Zubrin now runs Pioneer Astronautics, a space exploration and research company in Colorado. He was interviewed for TAE by contributing writer David Isaac.

TAE: Why should we send humans to Mars?

ZUBRIN: First for the science, second for the challenge, and third for the future.

First, for science. Mars is the key to letting us know if life is a general phenomenon in the universe. Mars was once a warm and wet planet. We have found the shores of an ancient ocean, thus it was a place where life could have evolved. The question is: Did it? If we go to Mars and find fossils, we'll have shown that the development of life is a general phenomenon. If we go to Mars and drill down to the ground water, which is where life could persist, we'd find out if it has the same biochemical structure that all Earth life has. We all use the same amino acids, the same method of encoding information with RNA and DNA, and the question is: Is that just how we do it? And you're not going to be able to drill down a kilometer with little robotic rovers. You've got to send people.

Second is the challenge. Societies are like individuals. We grow when we're challenged. We stagnate when we're not. A humans-to-Mars program would be a tremendously productive challenge for our society to embrace.

Third, the future. What will people 500 years from now think about what we're doing today? Will they care who was in power in Iraq? What we did to create civilizations on hundreds of other planets, starting with Mars; what we did to transform the human future and open up vast possibilities that otherwise would not have been there--that's what's going to matter.

TAE: You grew up in the '60s and describe yourself as one of Apollo's children. The Apollo missions influenced you as a child, but you say you then fell away from those interests. What took you away?

ZUBRIN: It stopped. The Nixon administration said it's over. We did it. We're done. Goodbye. Here I was in college. And I said, "What do I want to be? Teaching is a noble profession. I'll be a science teacher." So that's what I was for eight years.

Around 1982, I was teaching in Brooklyn and living in northern Manhattan commuting on the A train, reading novels by Herman Melville about sailing the South Seas and wondering, "What am I doing here?"

I applied to graduate school and chose to go to the one that was furthest from New York, which was the University of Washington in Seattle. I enrolled in the nuclear engineering program because at that time the greatest hope for doing something really important in science was controlled fusion.

But the fusion program in the '80s was on a downward slope. This didn't look very good to me, especially as a kind of an inventor, an alternate-concepts type of guy. When you have a program that's in contraction, no one's interested in alternate concepts. They want to try and figure out how to make the single-name concept stay on track. At the same time, I heard about this group of people called the Mars Underground who were holding meetings over at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It was called Underground because it was totally unsanctioned by the space establishment. I went to one of their meetings in '87. People were presenting papers on propulsion technology, life-support technology, human factors, scientific objectives, terraforming, and so forth. I made some contacts at the conference, including a guy who was doing the man-Mars mission design for Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed Martin, and got myself hired doing preliminary design of interplanetary missions. [...]

TAE: You are president of the Mars Society. What are its main achievements?

ZUBRIN: One is broad public outreach to spread the vision. Second is interacting with the political class to get them to embrace humans-to-Mars as a goal and also to support the robotic program and defend it against cuts. Third has been publication of technical and non-technical ideas that are relevant to the exploration and settlement of Mars.

Fourth has been the building of our own projects that relate to Mars exploration. There, the most important achievements have been the building of two exploration stations: one in the high Arctic, where there is a crew right now 100 miles from the North Pole; and one in the desert in southern Utah. We have a third station that has been built: the European Mars Arctic Station. It's supposed to go to Iceland. Human-Mars analog exploration is not a new idea. It's been around for decades, the idea that you'd build an Arctic or Antarctic station in preparation to learn how to explore on Mars.

Back in 1989 we worked on a design for an Antarctic station for NASA. But no one could ever get funding because Congress viewed it as the camel's nose in the tent. "Oh, this is just a few million dollars, but if you do this you're starting the humans-to-Mars program and we're not paying for it so get out of here."

We raised over a million dollars privately and we built the Arctic station. The paradrop failed. The construction workers left. That was an epic in itself, but since then the ninth crew is now in the station. We've had about 28 crews in the desert station.

TAE: What are your scientific findings?

ZUBRIN: Some of the stuff is so obvious you can ask, "Did you really have to go to the station to know that?" Maybe not, but it has driven home a number of points that make people look at these missions differently.

Observation No. 1: Three days in the station doing stuff and you realize this is a physical activity. You do not want to go to Mars in zero gravity.

Artificial gravity is a requirement for effective human-Mars exploration. What that means is that NASA's entire space medicine program is misdirected. NASA has been spending billions to look at ways to operate at zero gravity. They instead should be avoiding zero gravity through artificial gravity.

TAE: Why does NASA pursue zero gravity even though they know it weakens astronauts?

ZUBRIN: Zero gravity health researchers control NASA's space medicine program. In World War II, when the bombers started flying so high that you could get hypoxia, there were two schools of thought on how to deal with it. One was to supply oxygen to the crew through oxygen masks. The other was to try to cure people through drugs to make it possible for them to breathe less oxygen. There were all these people who insisted that with the right drugs we could alter human metabolism and make it possible for the pilots to make do with less oxygen and it would be so much simpler than to bring oxygen cans with you. Changing human physiology to use less oxygen is a lot more complicated than putting oxygen in a can and putting a mask on somebody. That seems obvious now. And it became obvious by 1943, but for a while these people were dominating things.

What you have here is people who think they can alter human physiology to not be negatively affected by zero gravity, a condition that we are not adapted to and have not been living in since we left the ocean 400 million years ago--as opposed to just rotating a spacecraft. Which is the more difficult scientific problem: spinning a rigid object or changing human physiology?

TAE: Where does the future of space exploration lie? In the private sector?

ZUBRIN: That depends on a number of factors. I believe the near future, in terms of actually getting people to the moon or Mars, will require government action. The government has the money. So, like Columbus and Lewis and Clark, the first to go to these new worlds will have to be government-sponsored.

I do think that the development of Mars will require increased takeover by the private sector. You just can't create a viable society out of a base composed of government employees. You'll probably have groups of people. The Puritans were largely self-funded. Many of them had to liquidate their entire net worth in order to pay for their transportation across the ocean. But they were able to do it. Similarly with the Mormons, or the Zionist settlement movement that sends Jews to Palestine. You get a group of people who collectively can put together resources that are beyond the reach of individuals.

TAE: What is terraforming?

ZUBRIN: Terraforming means transforming another planet into one that is liveable for life from Earth. You cannot make it another Earth. Mars has a gravity that is one third of Earth's. That's not within our capability to change. Changing the planet's atmosphere to make it breathable and raising the temperature to make it liveable is within our means in principle.

TAE: Should we terraform?

ZUBRIN: Mars was once a warm and wet planet and could be made so once again. If you set up factories on Mars for producing greenhouse gases, you'll start to warm the planet up. There are large parts of Mars where the soil is 60 percent water by weight. It's frozen mud. You'll get liquid water on the surface of Mars. You'll get rain. You'll get rivers. Plants will be able to grow in the open and spread. And if humans are spreading them, and perhaps genetically engineering them, you'll cover the planet with plants and you'll start putting large amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere. And eventually it will be breathable by people and other animals from Earth. You'll have a novel living world because of the low gravity. Animals and plants will evolve in new directions.

There are some people who call themselves environmentalists who think that this is wrong, that Mars should be left in its natural lifeless-desert state. It's simply reflexive anti-humanism and perhaps political correctness gone berserk.

TAE: You say terraforming Mars "can create the technological underpinnings for not only a new branch but a new type of human society."

ZUBRIN: I can elaborate by analogy. Human beings are not native to the Earth. We're native to East Africa. We're tropical animals. We have long, thin arms with no fur on them. No human could survive a single winter night here in Colorado without technology.

But then around 50,000 years ago, people started migrating from Africa to Europe and Asia, right into the teeth of the Ice Age. To survive in the winter you had to engage in ice fishing or big-game hunting, both of which are very complex activities. Humanity transformed itself radically from this East African being to homo technologicus, the creature who can cope with all sorts of novel environments through technological creation. That is the basis on which we became a global species.

We go to places like Mars, which are perhaps comparatively hostile to us in the way that Europe was to early tropical man. But we figure out how to address that. Ultimately it leads to the creation of a human story that is richer and vaster in its possibilities. Human societies on thousands of planets orbiting thousands of stars in this region of the galaxy. Innumerable social forms and vast arrays of technologies that are as yet unconceived. A profusion of artistic creation and literatures. So yes, a new type of human civilization. That's the stakes.

Mars is the critical test that will determine whether we become a spacefaring species or whether we continue to be limited to Earth. That's why humans-to-Mars is the most important thing that our society will do when viewed from the future. It's going to be risky when people go to Mars for the first time. But nothing great in human history has ever been accomplished without courage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 23, 2005 2:52 PM

The ball is in the President's court. As a child I was fascinated by the Apollo project. I joined a club, read everything I could find and built models of the rocket, capsule and lunar module. What do today's children (and adults) have that can so capture the imagination and make science fun?

Posted by: Patrick H at June 23, 2005 3:41 PM

We are, in fact, not limited to Earth.

Posted by: Luciferous at June 23, 2005 4:09 PM

So long as the US government continues to support treaties which make space exploration uneconomic and thereby subsidize that utter waste of space (both inner and outer) known as NASA, the species will remain Earth-bound.

Posted by: bart at June 23, 2005 4:37 PM

It's not now.

Posted by: oj at June 23, 2005 4:41 PM

Since as a matter of treaty, space cannot be exploited for profit, we have no idea. Perhaps if someone were allowed to light up the moon to say 'Coca-Cola' or 'Microsoft' we might actually get some exploration.

Even Cortes said,'We went for the glory of G-d and for gold.' Do you think anyone would have come to this hemisphere to settle if they couldn't make a buck from doing so?

Posted by: bart at June 23, 2005 5:09 PM

It's not about profit.

Posted by: oj at June 23, 2005 5:27 PM

Everything rational is ultimately about profit.

Posted by: bart at June 23, 2005 5:33 PM

A few years ago, you were adamently against any sort of space program (including satellite-mounted deathrays). "What has the space program ever gotten us?" you asked. "Space food sticks?!"
"Well," I said, "There have been advances in computers and heat resistant ceramics and-"
As I recall, you had a little poll on your site designed to show that the majority of the American people thought going to Mars was a stupid idea. Why the big switcheroo on space travel? You've gone from Pat Freaking Buchannan to John Freaking Kennedy on the matter, and to an amateur Orrinologist like myself it seems that the only reason is because Dubya said it was a good idea.

Posted by: Governor Breck at June 23, 2005 5:46 PM

OJ: Our technology is not there. We have a long way to go. Until we have a practical nuclear powered propulsion system, sending men towards Mars will just be a way of watching them die horrible deaths on television.

Second, I do not think is something the government should do.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 23, 2005 5:49 PM

Yes, I opposed the space program. I support exploring space.

I've always been pro death ray though. Indeed, I think we shopuld pre-emptively take out every other countries' satellites and establish a monopoly.

Posted by: oj at June 23, 2005 6:01 PM


Exactly. Very little that we do is about the rational.

Posted by: oj at June 23, 2005 6:52 PM

Most excellent. Orrin herewith has a new nickname: SpaceFoodSticks. As in "Hey SpaceFoodSticks! How are those Supreme Court nominations coming along?"

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 23, 2005 7:10 PM

The response of the mass of men is always rational, given the stimuli to which they are exposed. Hence, the trenchancy of much of economic theory and the irrelevance of theology for the most part.

Posted by: bart at June 23, 2005 7:15 PM

response to stimuli is by definition irrational. Our economic theory is theological.

Posted by: oj at June 23, 2005 9:11 PM