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Going to Mars anyone?

Published on 02 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

(The Case for Space – Why We Should Keep Reaching for the Stars By Neil deGrasse Tyson – Foreign Affairs III/IV- 2012)

This article by former Astronaut Neil deGrasse Tyson is calling for a concerted effort to go to Mars. Here is the summary of the article:

2010, U.S. President Barack Obama articulated his vision for the future of American space exploration, which included an eventual manned mission to Mars. Such an endeavor would surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars — maybe even $1 trillion. Whatever the amount, it would be an expensive undertaking. In the past, only three motivations have led societies to spend that kind of capital on ambitious, speculative projects: the celebration of a divine or royal power, the search for profit, and war. Examples of praising power at great expense include the pyramids in Egypt, the vast terra-cotta army buried along with the first emperor of China, and the Taj Mahal in India. Seeking riches in the New World, the monarchs of Iberia funded the great voyages of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. And military incentives spurred the building of the Great Wall of China, which helped keep the Mongols at bay, and the Manhattan Project, whose scientists conceived, designed, and built the first atomic bomb.

The author’s first line of argument is that humanity needs “big projects” in order to advance. Big projects are “culturally transformative”. He then goes on to cite such “big projects” like the pyramids of Egypt, the terra-cotta army in the grave of Emperor Qin, and the Taj Mahal. For good measure ha adds the Long Wall of China and the Manhattan Project.

Unfortunately for the author’s point of view, there is no evidence that any of these projects were “transformative”. They mopped up a lot of economic surplus, i.e. they exploited lives and labor of a lot of people – but no technological or cultural change can be traced to them (after all, what’s technological about piling stone on stone, or thamping earth?) The “terra-cotta” army of Emperor Qin is made of standardized pieces put together in thousands of different forms. Arguably, standardization was the hallmark of early China, but for reasons other than creating the underground army for the Emperor’s tomb. Just two examples: in the loss plains of Northern China unpaved roads soon developed grooves: only by standardizing axe-width could transport be kept up. Cross-bows were the weapon of choice of the crafty Chinese against the horse-riding nomads, for the crossbow could throw an arrow farther than a horseman, atop his animal but without stirrups, could respond. Those crossbows were standardized because they were employed far away from the repair shop. Cannibalizing was the only way to repair them under war conditions. Generally speaking, one can argue about the direction of “transformations”: mostly it goes from technique to project, rather than the other way around. “Have gun, will travel” is more likely than “want to travel, invent me a gun”.

The author goes on to argue that there were three reasons (I’d rather say three “ideologies”) that drove big projects: (a) worship of a deity and/or the dead; (b) greed and/or faith; (c) fear/war. In all three cases the “transformative effect” was collateral. The “missile gap” (let’s forget that the missile gap never existed, let alone eventuated) drove the American moon exploration program: President Kennedy famously contrasted the “path of freedom” and the “path of tyranny” – Cold War through peaceful means. Once we got to the moon, so the author, America got technological fallout (and subsequently laid-off space engineers driving taxis around town – be the author forgets that). The horn of Cornucopia poured out its fruits over the hungry and parched land…

The author argues: if we want “revitalization of science” we need a program taking America to Mars, because such ambition will enflame the dreams of the young. Fear of the Chinese may be a practical means to bring together the political will among the older generation. The chain of “if” grows upward from height to height. “Curioser and curoiser” muttered Alice, after eating a cake (labelled “EAT ME”) that has made her “telescope” up to 9 feet tall.

Here is the cartoon on the Foreign Affairs blog:

tyson 411

As a practical man, I’d argue: let the Chinese waste their resources on a trip to Mars and exhaust themselves in so doing. As the author himself admits, it is not a technological feat any longer – it is an engineering task, so one is left to wonder about the expected technological cornucopia. Furthermore, American engineering capability to stand up to the Chinese in war is already at hand – we need not go to Mars to achieve that. The battle for hegemony (should it ever come to that) will hardly be played out on this distant planet (or gaseous Saturn for the matter); if at all it might rather be among spy satellites. Mastering aggressive/defensive technologies (hard/software) or other “near earth” technologies may be a better and more direct path to perceived security.

Also, the argument rests on the hypothesis of an “oversupply” of scientists and engineers: stymied in the desire to join the Mars bandwagon, they’d percolate throughout the industrial tissue. This is a “supply-side” argument as I’ve ever heard one. Alas, supply-side economics won’t create jobs – it’s pushing on a wet noodle (Robert Reich).

Furthermore, committing resources to a “big plan” would retard, rather than speed up, technological change. We choose among currently available technologies today and then engineer around it for more than a decade. Meanwhile new technologies may become available. One of the structural weaknesses of the Shuttle program was that the spaceship was designed in the 70’s and was forced to use technology well past its “scrap by date” (there are limits to the retrofitting).

The inanity of the specific argumentation is amusing to this skeptic. My wife, Sylvie, feels that it is “escapism” – literally and figuratively. We have better things to do that send a few people around the solar system. My difference on this point is only that, even if we could afford it, it would be plain dumb.

And dangerous to boot: the hegemon, who should be resting on its strength, worries about losing its prominence and in so doing will exhaust himself for sure, battling his own phantasms.

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