Jan 22 2024

Is Mars the New Frontier?

In the excellent sci fi show, The Expanse, which takes place a couple hundred years in the future, Mars has been settled and is an independent self-sustaining society. In fact, Mars is presented as the most scientifically and technologically advanced society of humans in the solar system. This is presented as being due to the fact that Martians have had to struggle to survive and build their world, and that lead to a culture of innovation and dynamism.

This is a  version of the Turner thesis, which has been invoked as one justification for the extreme expense and difficulty of settling locations off Earth. I was recently pointed to this article discussing the Turner thesis in the context of space settlement, which I found interesting. The Turner thesis is that the frontier mindset of the old West created a culture of individualism, dynamism, and democracy that is a critical part of the success of America in general. This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but fell out of academic favor in the second half of the 20th century. Recent papers trying to revive some version of it are less than compelling, showing that frontier exposure correlates only very softly with certain political and social features, and that those features are a mixed bag rather than an unalloyed good.

The article is generally critical of the notion that some version of the Turner thesis should be used to justify settling Mars – that humanity would benefit from a new frontier. But I basically agree with the article, that the Turner thesis is rather weak and complex, and that analogies between the American Western frontier and Mars (or other space locations) is highly problematic. In every material sense, it’s a poor analogy. On the frontier there was already air, food, soil, water, and other people living there. None of those things (as far as we know) exists on Mars.

But I do think that something closer to The Expanse hypothesis is not unreasonable. Just as the Apollo program spawned a lot of innovation and technology, solving the problems of getting to and settling Mars would likely have some positive technological fallout. However, I would not put this forward as a major reason to explore and settle Mars. We could likely dream up many other technological projects here on Earth that would be better investments with a much higher ROI.

I do support space exploration, including human space exploration, however. I largely agree with those who argue that robots are much better adapted to space, and sending our robotic avatars into space is much cheaper and safer than trying to keep fragile biological organisms alive in the harsh environment of space. For this reason I think that most of our space exploration and development should be robotic.

I also think we should continue to develop our ability to send people into space. Yes, this is expensive and dangerous, but I think it would be worth it. One reason is that I think humanity should become a multi-world spacefaring species. This will be really hard in the early days (now) but there is every reason to believe that technological advancements will make it easier, cheaper, and safer. This is not just as a hedge against extinction, but also opens up new possibilities for humanity. It is also part of the human psyche to be explorers, and this is one activity that can have unifying effect on shared human culture (depending, of course, on how it’s done).

There is still debate about the effectiveness of sending humans into space for scientific activity. Sure, our robots are capable and getting more capable, but for the time-being they are no substitute for having people on site actively carrying out scientific exploration. Landers and rovers are great, but imagine if we had a team of scientists stationed on Mars able to guide scientific investigations, react to findings, and take research in new directions without having to wait 20 years for the next mission to be designed and executed.

There are also romantic reasons which I don’t think can be dismissed. Being a species that explores and lives in space can have a profound effect on our collective psyche. If nothing else it can inspire generations of scientists and engineers, as the Apollo program did. Sometimes we just need to do big and great things. It gives us purpose and perspective and can inspire further greatness.

In terms of cost the raw numbers are huge, but then anything the government does on that scale has huge dollar figures. But comparatively, the amount of money we spend on space exploration is tiny compared to other activity of dubious or even whimsical value. NASAs annual budget is around $23 billion, but Americans spend over $12 billion on Halloween each year. I’m not throwing shade on Halloween, but it’s hard to complain about the cost of NASA when we so blithely spend similar amounts on things of no practical value. NASA is only 0.48% of our annual budget. It’s almost a round off error. I know all spending counts and it all adds up, but this does put things into perspective.

Americans also spent $108 billion on lottery tickets in 2022. Those have, statistically speaking, almost no value. People are essentially buying the extremely unlikely dream of winning, which most will not. I would much rather buy the dream of space exploration. In fact, that may be a good way to supplement NASA’s funding. Sell the equivalent of NASA lottery tickets for a chance to take an orbital flight, or go to the ISS, or perhaps name a new feature or base on Mars. People spend more for less.

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