Zubrin's Plan to Settle Mars

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Zubrin's Plan to Settle Mars

by Ari Armstrong, March 13, 2003

People can settle Mars using today's technology. The only two things preventing them from doing so are will and money.

Dr. Robert Zubrin's 1996 book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, is riveting. He describes a plan for sending people to Mars within ten years, the reasons for doing so, and how a permanent settlement can eventually be established there.

Zubrin, who resides in Colorado, will speak April 5 at the 2003 Libertarian Party of Colorado Convention. He is the founder of Pioneer Astronautics and the president of The Mars Society. Zubrin maintains a web page for "Mars Direct," the name of the plan he originated while working for Martin Marietta.

Zubrin's book sports a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke and praise quotes from Buzz Aldrin and Carl Sagan (from the Denver Post). The Rocky Mountain News published an article about Zubrin and his associates in its Sunday Magazine on July 29, 1990. The article's title, "Rocket Men: Americans aim for Mars by the year 2000," reminds us the clock has not yet started ticking for the ten-year plan.

Zubrin offers compelling reasons to establish off-world settlements, and particularly settlements on Mars. Techie libertarians have always been interested in space exploration, partly because of the promise space holds for a more libertarian politics. Before we further explore the social, political, and spiritual implications of off-world settlement, though, a review of Zubrin's plan will show such an endeavor is possible, and in the near future.

The Plan

On July 20, 1989, Zubrin reminds us, President Bush I called for the development of Space Station Freedom, renewed trips to the Moon, and "a manned mission to Mars." This led to the NASA-sponsored "90-Day Report." Zubrin calls this the "Battlestar Galactica" approach to exploring Mars. He laments:

Around this fixed idea -- giant space stations assembling gigantic spaceships -- the unwieldy 90-Day Report team had proceeded to cast as crucial technologies every existing, planned, or wished-for NASA technology development program. In order to include everybody in the game, they designed the most complex mission architecture they possibly could -- exactly the opposite of the correct way to do engineering. (47)

In response, Zubrin circulated a memo that soon developed into the "Mars Direct" plan. Instead of relying on huge space stations or Moon bases, Mars Direct would send people directly to the surface of the Red Planet for extended exploration.

At first, Zubrin thought in terms of sending a single structure to Mars via nuclear propulsion. The hitch is that technology was not (and is not) available off-the-shelf. "Wrestling with this problem," Zubrin writes, "I hit upon a novel architectural idea, which now seems obvious. *Don't send the crew out with their own return vehicle -- send the return vehicle, with the propellant plant integrated into it, out first*" (58). This sentence reveals the two central tenets of Zubrin's plan.

By sending out the return vehicle prior to the crew's launch, the Mars mission can rely on decades-old technology such as the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo crew to the Moon.

As Zubrin explains, it's easiest to travel to Mars when it's on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth. It's best to take advantage of "free-return" trajectories -- that is, a path that leads directly back to Earth if something goes wrong. While the lowest-energy, free-return approach takes 250 days, Zubrin calls for a faster route of 180 days (from Earth to Mars). The crew will benefit from artificial gravity on the way, incidentally. He allows a year and a half on the surface of Mars for extensive exploration and study.

The dual launch system, then, is one key. Zubrin describes numerous benefits from such an approach (that readers will discover when they buy the book). The second key is to produce the return propellant *on Mars*!

The unmanned return vehicle, then, will land on the surface of Mars and roll out a small chemical plant. Zubrin explains:

[T]he chemical plant goes to work, producing rocket propellant by sucking in the Martian air with a set of pumps and reacting it with the hydrogen hauled from Earth aboard the ERV [Earth Return Vehicle]. Martian air is 95 percent carbon dioxide gas (CO2). The chemical plant combines the carbon dioxide with the hydrogen (H2), producing methane (CH4), which the ship will store for later use as rocket fuel, and water (H2O). (5)

Obviously, this plan dramatically reduces the weight of material that has to be blasted to Mars, and thus also dramatically reduces the cost of the mission. Zubrin has even made a prototype of the chemical plant. The whole setup does its thing before the human crew is even launched, thus vastly increasing the safety of the mission.

Zubrin compares his "live off the land" strategy with the "small teams of explorers... traveling freely over the Arctic by dog sled" (xvi). By contrast, the British Navy tried to send huge ships with massive supplies into the Arctic -- and failed. "Travel light and live off the land -- that's the ticket to Mars," Zubrin writes (xviii).

The Settlement

One nice thing about Zubrin's plan is that it enables the establishment of a growing colony on Mars. Each human crew travels in a "tuna can" habitat (hab) that is left on the surface. These habs can be landed next to each other over time, creating the core of a base.

But that's only the first step. In chapters 7-9, Zubrin describes "Building the Base on Mars," "The Colonization of Mars," and "Terraforming Mars." He lays out plans for making bricks and building buried, arched structures. He talks about ways to deploy large, pressurized domes in which people can live (in shirtsleeves) and grow crops. Mars provides the raw materials with which to create ceramics and glass, various metals, and power.

Zubrin thinks it's likely Mars hosts thermally heated pools of water underground. Besides the obvious benefit of a good water source, these pools would also offer a cheap source of power. Other sources of power include nuclear reactors, solar panels, and maybe even wind.

But can settlements on Mars become economically self-sustaining? Zubrin thinks they can, because Mars offers easier access to the asteroid belt (and even Earth's Moon). Thus, Zubrin foresees "triangular trade," with Mars supplying workers in the asteroids, the asteroids sending raw materials back to Earth, and Earth sending high-technology manufactured goods to Mars (230).

I'm not as enthused about terraforming as Zubrin is. It will be a long and expensive process, and I'm quite happy with the notion of people living in large, pressurized domes. I think terraforming is a project for a future generation -- one that thinks the project is worth the expense.

Zubrin's account is more fascinating than most science fiction, precisely because it doesn't have to be fiction at all. As I read through the book, I found myself imagining what life would be like on Mars -- and longing to find out. If I will be too old to go to Mars by the time the transportation costs have fallen sufficiently (Zubrin predicts an eventual fare of $30,000 (235)), there is no good reason in the world why my children should not have that opportunity.

The Means

Whereas the 90-Day Report estimates a price tag of $450 billion, Zubrin thinks his plan can be fully implemented for around $50 billion. That's no small sum, but neither is it insurmountable.

By way of comparison, Paul Armentano notes, "Last year, Congress earmarked nearly $19 billion... to enforce U.S. drug laws" (even though the figure has since dropped due to "cooked books"). And that doesn't even count all the state, county, and city expenditures for the drug war. The March 3 Rocky Mountain News relates, "The administration is preparing to ask Congress for supplemental appropriations - unbudgeted additional spending - of at least $60 billion to fund fighting and reconstruction in Iraq over the next six months. However, that supplemental request may grow to $95 billion..."

Zubrin reviews three possible models for funding a manned Mars mission (277-91). "The J.F.K. Model" involves a program pushed by a strong American president as a matter of national pride. "The Sagan Model" calls for the cooperation of various large governments. Finally, "The Gingrich Approach" calls on Congress to authorize a $20 billion prize to the first private organization to send people to Mars.

This last approach has obvious advantages: "When people have their own money at stake, it's a lot easier to find and settle on practical, no-nonsense solutions to engineering problems than is ever the case in the complex and endless deliberations of a government bureaucracy" (283). Zubrin estimates, "If the Mars Direct [mission] were done on a truly private basis, with the people undertaking the effort being free to buy whatever they want from whomever they want to build whatever they want, I believe that the cost of the effort would be in the $4 to $6 billion range" (285).

While the Gingrich model (yes, it really resulted from Zubrin's meeting with Newt) is obviously the best of the approaches Zubrin considers, it is not "truly private." A fully private endeavor does not rely on government funding at all.

Zubrin obviously has a love-hate relationship with NASA (as do, I think, most libertarians -- see recent editorials by Jeff Wright, Eva Kosinski, and me.) He sees the problem of incentives inherent in any government undertaking, and he shares a lot of libertarian sentiments. However, he's not quite able to escape orbit from NASA and embrace a libertarian trajectory.

A fully libertarian approach must rely solely on private funding. Is this possible? I think so.

One possibility is to find a rich person who wants to go down in history as the person who sent the human race to a new planet. (Zubrin even mentions Bill Gates (286).)

Another possibility is to sell advertising and broadcast rights. While Zubrin spends a great deal of space talking about the economics of Mars, he never mentions the possibility of Mars exporting education and entertainment -- things people pay big bucks to get. Invesco spent $120 million just to have its name put on a football stadium (Invesco Field at Mile High). Yet only part of the American public watches football regularly, and only a small percentage of those people regularly pay attention to one specific stadium. I can just imagine a rocket painted up like a Coca-Cola bottle or plastered with the logos of various funding companies. "Coca-Cola Mars Direct" doesn't sound so bad. Surely a large percentage of the entire human race will watch the first televised manned mission to Mars. Way bigger than the Super Bowl, which also takes in over $100 million.

But basic advertising is only the beginning. Talk about reality TV! Spinoffs may include videos, books, toys, action figures, and so on. It seems to me the only missing ingredient is an entrepreneur able to take advantage of the money-making opportunities.

But I think Zubrin's price estimate is about twice what it should be, for the simple reason that he assumes the people who go to Mars must return to Earth. I'm fairly confident a lot of qualified people could be found willing to go to Mars to live. (People from the Mars Society actually live out in the desert in "tuna can" habs wearing space suits to simulate living on Mars.)

Zubrin's plan involves two major launches per four-person crew: one to take the crew to Mars, and one to provide for the trip home. But if the goal is to settle Mars, he's wasting half his launches. "After all," Zubrin writes, "most of the expense of the base actually lies in moving people back and forth" (215). Of course, it may be just too difficult to send enough supplies per crew to stay on Mars indefinitely. If so, a supply launch can be made whenever needed.

This "Mars One-Way" plan would entail very difficult conditions for the first Mars settlers -- but conditions I think many would gladly accept. After all, about everybody knows the name of Neil Armstrong, and in a thousand years, everybody will know the name of the first person to set foot on Mars and found the Martian civilization. Hell, I'd volunteer in a second. A new world!

"Mars One-Way" would require quite different priorities than what Zubrin has in mind. Zubrin sees the first crew on Mars spending its time looking for fossils and surveying the planet. But a crew that meant to stay on Mars would have to spend its energy developing domed agriculture and looking for natural resources. For a few years, research would have to take a back seat to survival. The payoff is a Mars colony in the near future.

Will Space Save Humanity?

For Zubrin -- and for many of us, I think -- the real motivation to go to Mars is not economics or adventure. It is something much more profound -- the salvation of the human race.

There is the obvious point that, when all of humanity is bunched up in one place, there's a greater risk of catastrophic devastation. Zubrin refers to the "gradual realization that if we don't develop some serious spacefaring capabilities, [an asteroid] is likely to wipe out the human race when it impacts our planet someday" (226).

But Zubrin's argument is much deeper than that. He describes a paper presented by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 about the American frontier. Zubrin asks,

[W]hat if the frontier is gone? What happens to America and all it has stood for? Can a free, egalitarian, innovating society survive in the absence of room to grow? ... Certainly we see around us an ever more apparent loss of vigor of our society; increasing fixity of the power structure and bureaucratization of all levels of life; impotence of political institutions to carry off great projects; the proliferation of regulations affecting all aspects of public, private, and commercial life; the spread of irrationalism; the banalization of pop culture; the loss of willingness by individuals to take risks, to fend for themselves or think for themselves; economic stagnation and decline; the deceleration of the rate of technological innovation... Without a frontier from which to breathe new life, the spirit that gave rise to the progressive humanistic culture that America has represented for the past two centuries is fading... [W]ithout a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die. (296-7)

In other words, what is at stake is the human spirit and the future of human civilization. Zubrin concludes, "Mars will not allow itself to be settled by people from a static society -- those people won't have what it takes. We still do. Mars today waits for the children of the old frontier. But Mars will not wait forever."

This is a bold and perhaps surprising set of statements. Yet it meshes with the views of other libertarians, especially the Objectivists. For instance, Edward Hudgins, the editor of Space: The Free-Market Frontier, wrote following the Columbia tragedy:

Yes, space travel and most other tasks involve risk. But the risks of choosing timidity and apathy are even worse. They would result in material and spiritual stagnation, regression and death. We would be worse than mindless, dull, indifferent cattle, because they have no choice about their state whereas humans do.

This reflects the general Objectivist view of achievement: if we're not moving forward, we're moving backward. Tara Smith writes of personal ethics:

[F]lourishing demands a rising series of achievements because survival requires a rising series of achievements... Because life requires action to fulfill our expanding needs, the failure to improve can be deadly... The charm of life is energized by the new -- by the uncertainty, excitement, and purpose of fresh objectives and fresh challenges. Meeting these, however, calls on us to grow. (Viable Values, 141-2)

Of course, the Objectivists would argue culture is driven more by philosophy than by geography. For instance, social decline in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is solely the result of bad philosophy, not the absence of a new frontier. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond argues the rise of human civilization was radically dependent upon the world's geography. However, it seems clear that, the more advanced people become, the more they are in control of their own destiny. Mars, and practically infinite space beyond that, will become the new frontier if people will it to be so. It is the striving to reach Mars that is as important as the destination itself.

Mars will attract "people self-selected for personal drive," Zubrin notes (236), as well as "strong spirits" who tend to buck the "bureaucratization of daily life" (238). The inventiveness of Mars will benefit and inspire the people of Earth, and the frontier will encourage "every youth in the nation to join in a great adventure by developing their minds..." (279) (This point is also developed by Michael Flynn.)

"The frontier drove the development of democracy in America by creating a self-reliant population that insisted on the right of self-government," Zubrin writes. "It is doubtful that democracy can persist without such people" (302). (He's obviously talking about a Constitutional democracy that values individual rights.)

America was clearly an escape for enterprising people who wanted to flee the oppression and economic stagnation of their homeland. Zubrin sees Mars playing a similar role. This theme has long played out in libertarian science fiction. In his classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein tells the story of a lunar rebellion. In The Probability Broach and related novels, L. Neil Smith creates an alternate libertarian universe, and Pallas takes place on a colonized asteroid. Victor Koman describes a private space race and the development of a market space station in Kings of the High Frontier.

Here on earth, the Free State Project seeks to gather libertarians in one U.S. state to move the culture there closer to freedom. I'm certainly not willing to give up on U.S. politics, and I think cultural renewal is possible even absent space travel. That said, clearly the frontiers of space offer the best long-term hope for the advancement of civilization.

I think the cultural battle Zubrin describes is very real. America is plagued by interest-group warfare, stifling taxes and regulation, and crass materialism. At the same time, the libertarian tradition grows steadily stronger, and technology continues to advance despite state hindrances.

The most infuriating thing about the modern welfare state is that it slows the growth of the economy. In a healthy economy, capital increases at an exponential rate. The enormous burden of the American government greatly decreases the rate of economic growth, and over time the distance between what is and what might have been grows ever larger. The great tragedy is this lost potential.

Space exploration and settlement will dramatically limit the destructive power of the state and finally allow people to pursue their unlimited potential. The difficulty is working within the existing system to get to space. Zubrin has convinced me the door to space is Mars. The resources required to colonize the Red Planet are significant but manageable.

For us, it seems a daunting task. If we fail, the future looks perhaps a little better -- and possibly unimaginably worse -- than the present. If we seize the opportunity, if we settle Mars now, in a thousand years our scattered progeny will look back on this moment in history as the time when human beings took their first baby-steps into space -- and then moved beyond the infancy of civilization.

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