Review of The Case for Mars, by Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin was part of NASA, founded the Mars Society, and is president of Pioneer Astro, a company he founded to develop technology that would be useful for colonizing Mars. He also founded Pioneer Energy, which provides technology for managing and exploiting natural gas. In other words, he’s an experienced engineer who knows what he’s talking about. In The Case for Mars, he uses plain language rather than scientific or political jargon to explain why establishing a permanent base on Mars is essential to the United States.

He starts by explaining the reason why a 1990s plan to go to Mars failed. To make a long story short, it was too complicated and too expensive. He’s right that $450 billion is expensive, but that figure is less than the current spending for the military and less than Social Security/Medicare. Follow the money, and you will conclude that war and entitlements have a higher priority in Washington D.C. than creating a new frontier and the new riches that would go with it. Zubrin then goes on to explain in detail how successive missions to Mars could establish a self-sufficient base which could then become a self-sufficient colony for immigrants from Earth – and all for $50 billion rather than $450 billion.

The real meat of the book is when Zubrin goes into detail on why we must go to Mars. Put simply, Zubrin says that the human species needs a frontier. He discusses many problems we see in the United States today: the banality of pop culture, increasing bureaucracy, and an anti-tech ideology. Some might call that last statement strange, given the recent proliferation of smartphones and other smart devices, but his argument is that these are incremental rather than revolutionary. There is also the political polarization chronicled in The Big Sort and in many other articles and books. Zubrin argues that people need a place where they can be free to experiment and to start new societies. In homage to Frederick Turner, who lamented the closing of the American frontier in 1890, he states that Mars can be our new frontier.

I agree with part of this thesis. Certainly, Mars is far away; about 150 days of space travel. Radio, which moves at light speed, takes 20 minutes to arrive; communication with Earth will be a matter of e-mail and pre-recorded audio and/or video statements rather than instant telephone conversations or text messages. No code enforcement, no red tape, no poking, prying, etc. A can-do culture will evolve very quickly, because it must. There will be no sending for supplies or help from Earth on a whim, not when rockets will take at least 150 days to arrive.

On the other hand, Mars is not Earth. The important difference between Mars as a frontier and North America as a frontier is that a settler in North America who didn’t like what was going on in his settlement could just hit the trail. The air was free to breathe, the water was free to drink, the construction materials (wood, dirt, stone) were there for the taking, the animals and fish were free to eat. No high technology was needed for the agrarian society that the United States once was. Law enforcement of that time did not have any high tech such as helicopters, drones, and cellphone tracking to catch suspects. None of this will be true for a Martian colony, which will be an organized high-tech society from the beginning. Dissidents will not be able to saddle up and ride off into the sunset.

There’s also the matter of who does the settling. Canada and the United States ended up as free societies because of who settled these countries: the British. Had France or Spain settled North America, society here would be different. Culture matters, as David Landes and Samuel Huntington described. The Collected What If?, a collection of alternative history scenarios, includes an interesting view of Chinese colonization of North America. Zubrin alluded to the importance of culture when he said that the colonization of Mars could be a grand project to cement the increasingly loose alliance of Western nations. The colonization of Mars by nations hostile to the United States would give these nations a tremendous resource base with which to dictate terms to the United States – and their Martian colonies would not be very free.

So why hasn’t Zubrin’s plan become policy, despite the fact that his plan is much cheaper and very beneficial?

First, there is a general lack of faith in the future. Faith needs victory to be kept alive; in a 24-7 news environment describing political polarization, corruption, and incompetence, as well as a constant drumbeat of terrorism and war, it’s little wonder that the future is a matter for cynicism rather than faith. Ray Bradbury wrote about this in his short story “The Toynbee Convector” (published in an an anthology of the same name).

Second, neither major political party in the United States really believes in going to Mars, or in any other great space enterprises such as orbital solar power. They are too occupied with Earthly affairs. It was a Democratic President, John F. Kennedy, who inspired the nation to land humans on the Moon. Nowadays, the Democratic Party seems much more concerned with identity politics.

The Republican Party, the party which claims to represent free enterprise, is missing in action too. The Republican Party tends to believe in major spending only if there is a direct link to military or law enforcement. The 2016 Republican platform had much to say about coal and other fossil fuels and about reducing regulations in the United States – and very little about space. That’s a shame, because establishing a Martian colony can be done in a free enterprise way.

Instead of everything being done by government agencies, the government can simply announce prizes for going to Mars and for other achievements which would contribute to spaceflight and colonization. Zubrin goes into great detail about this. The late Dr. Jerry Pournelle was also an advocate of prizes to encourage space enterprise. The beauty of prizes is that the government need not spend any money until someone achieves the goal. Anyone attempting to claim the prize would have to raise money from the private sector. And of course, an enhanced space presence would contribute to U.S. national security, which is a traditional Republican concern. The recent attention by Congress and President Trump to creating a U.S. Space Force is encouraging.

Zubrin’s book is well worth reading, both for his explanation of how we can get to Mars, but more importantly, why we must. It’s a shame that our “leaders” haven’t bothered to take his advice.

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Further reading:

Dolman, Everett. Astropolitik. A hard-hitting book detailing why the United States should seize control of Earth orbital space.

Heinlein, Robert: The Rolling Stones. An enjoyable science-fiction story describing the adventures of a family who leave their home on the Moon to seek their fortunes on Mars and in the Asteroid Belt. This could become reality if Zubrin’s plan gets taken more seriously.

Sagan, Carl: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space: Speculation about humanity’s future in space. Sagan takes a much more international view of space travel than Zubrin. The photos are amazing.