Let’s (not) go to Mars

Thursday, August 15, 2013

I remember when going to Mars seemed exciting.

When I was a kid, we read books and watched TV shows about a Mars with canals and bikini-clad princesses, or Martians who wanted to invade the Earth in tripods or by controlling cloned humans.

But, even by then, science already knew that most of those stories were false. The earliest Martian flybys told us that the planet was too cold and the atmosphere too thin to support life much beyond primitive plants. Then, not long after, the Viking landers closed even that loophole when they showed the surface to be an arid desert.

Yet, much of the spaceflight community is still following the old script, first humans land on the Moon, then on Mars. The script made sense when those bikini-clad princesses needed to be rescued from Martian tripods, but not now Mars is just a rock. Any useful resources there are likely to be retrieved more easily from asteroids and moons with much lower gravity where you can use propulsion more efficient than chemical rockets.

It just makes no sense as anything other than an Apollo-style flag-waving exercise. We’d do far better to begin by colonising asteroids whose materials can be used to build more optimal habitats in free space.

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