Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Goin' West, Martian-Style

The scene: America, circa 1820.

Abel: I'm gonna go west, to the frontier to set up a settlement.
Nahum: Why? There ain't nothin' out there.
Abel: There might be. If no one's gone out to look, then how do we know?
Nahum: But we sent out those probers, Lewis and Clark. They didn't find anything.
Abel: Sure they did! They found all sorts of animals and plants and new lands.
Nahum: But you can't make a living off of those.
Abel: [Gives Nahum a disbelieving stare.]
Nahum: What I mean is, you can't build a settlement just with those things. You need iron, and copper. Some silver and gold wouldn't hurt, neither. And Lewis and Clark didn't find that stuff.
Abel: First off, that expedition was only 11 people. Second, they were instructed to stick mainly to water routes, so their observation area was long but narrow. Thirdly, they didn't do any mining because that wasn't their mission and they didn't have tools for that.
Nahum: Well, you don't have a good way to get out west.
Abel: Sure I do. I got me a sturdy wagon. People've been usin' them for decades.
Nahum: That'll take too long. You should take a steam train out west.
Abel: But we ain't got steam trains. They haven't been invented yet.
Nahum: But folks is workin' on 'em. They should be ready to go out west in about 30 years.
Abel: But I don't have to have a steam train. I can get out west in a few months usin' my wagon.
Nahum: But the Injuns kill every person that goes out there!
Abel: Not true. Lewis and Clark made it back. And they were gone two solid years.
Nahum: Aha! But they came back! They didn't settle out there. The Injuns or weather or critters or disease would have killed 'em if they hadn't come back.
Abel: Probably true, but weather or critters or disease or old age is gonna kill you even if you stay right here in Pennsylvania.

Monday, February 8, 2016

New Mars One candidate video

Mars One is starting a new video series on its astronaut-settler candidates. Obviously working on the principle of "age before beauty", they kick off the series with my 3-minute profile. All kudos go to Glenn Slaughter: director, cameraman, soundman, video editor, and sound editor all rolled into one complete package.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Martian Values

Recently, I passed someone with a sports team t-shirt that said, "No Mercy! No Wimps!" Merely winning wasn't enough; they want their favorite sportsball team to beat the stuffing out of their opponents and dance in the scattered viscera.

To the best of my memory, the tough-guy, win-at-any-cost shirts and slogans started with actual athletic apparel and associated commercials. Then that "Fear This", trash-talking attitude spread to marketing for sports teams, cars, gyms, and energy drinks. (BTW, the person wearing the "No Wimps" shirt didn't look as if they could even jog half a block without inviting a coronary event.) Worse than that, though, is that this sneering has crept into and corroded politics, entertainment, and our whole cultural landscape. I've seen the poison of that no-compromises attitude sever friendships and render civil discussion nearly impossible.

On Mars, we won't be able to sustain ourselves with any sort of lingering divisions. A with-me-or-against me attitude will literally raise the risk of getting the settlers killed. Each person's contribution will be critical. Via the oft-derided planned TV show, audiences on Earth will see the Mars One colonists valuing trust, mutual support, and collaboration above self-glorification and trumped-up antagonism. I hope and believe that seeing Martian values in action will encourage folks on Earth to stop and assess the way they treat one another, and to turn away from pointless division and aggressive sloganeering as a substitute for substantive accomplishment.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mars? Why not colonize the Moon first?

When I first talk about Mars One's settlement plans with people for the first time, almost invariably the question will be asked, "Why not settle on the Moon first? It's so much closer?" It's a question that also pops up on Twitter, Facebook, and blog comments all the time.

And they're right: the Moon is closer. But that is about the only thing to recommend it as a permanent settlement prospect for humans.

So let's take a quick 'n' dirty look at the two sites, from a permanent-settlement persective...

Water. Mars has it in the soil pretty much everywhere, to varying degrees of concentration. Mars One is looking at low-elevation areas about half-way between the equator and the north pole, on the hunch (and Viking 2 data) that the water concentrations will be highest there (but without getting into the permanently frozen polar caps which lots of water, but not so much sunlight). In these areas, evidence leads to the conclusion that the soil holds water concentrations of 3% to 18%.
Luna has been shown to have 0.1% water by mass in its soil. Some permanently darkened craters near the Moon's north pole which are hypothesized to contain significant amounts of frozen water-ice. But mining this would put a settlement in inconvenient spots. And those permanently shadowed craters are among the coldest places in the solar system. Working there would not be easy.

Energy. Because Mars has a day-night cycle that almost exactly matches that of Earth, Mars One plans to rely solely on solar cells to power its habitats. The only plausible alternative is to use nuclear power. There is no existing portable nuclear power plant that is light and small enough to be landed on Mars. And the Mars One people are smart enough to know that talking about launching a large nuclear power source would cause a huge outcry on Earth and face all sorts of regulatory hurdles. Both the engineering and the litigation would drive up costs considerably. Luna's day-night cycle is 28 Earth days long: each lunar day is 14 Earth days long, as is each lunar night. This makes relying solely on solar power impractical for a lunar settlement. To try to do so would require building, launching, and landing huge, heavy batteries to store sufficient power to carry the settlement through the two-week long night. So that leaves the launching and landing of a nuclear power source as the lunar settlement's only option. Good luck with that.

Food. Okay, having the Earth close by does make it easier to ship food to the moon. But just ask the ISS astronauts: how satisfying is it to live on pre-packaged meals for months (or in the lunar colony's case, years)? It sure would be nice to grow most of your own food. Last year, results were published from an experiment to grow plants in simulated Martian, Lunar, and Terran soils. (Okay, the Terran soil wasn't simulated.) In a single sentence: Mars soil does pretty good (better than some of the Terran soil types); moon dirt sucks. So on the moon, you'd have to pay a lot of money just to get some good dirt. Surely there won't be a PR problem with that.

Temperatures. Everyone talks about how cold Mars is. And it is cold: ranging from -180°F to -65°F in the mid-latitude, non-polar regions Mars One is looking to settle in. But that's nothing compared to Luna, where temperatures swing from -387°F at night up to 253°F during the day.

Radiation. Neither the moon nor Mars have a magnetic field to ward off most of the solar and cosmic radiation coming their way. But Mars does have an atmosphere that helps reduce the radiation a bit. And being further from the sun than the moon is, the density of radiation Mars gets is less than what Luna does. Building on either place, your best bet is build or bury your habitat beneath a lot of dirt.

Location, Location, Location. The moon's proximity offers only one real feature that Mars does not: the possibility of returning to Earth. A settlement on Luna would allow people to do 6- or 12-month stints there, and then return to their regular lives. Such relatively short stays on Luna should allow their hearts, muscles, and bones to return to normal after some recuperation period, just as the ISS astronauts' do.
However, in my experience most people think about the (relative) closeness of the Moon in terms of being able to rescue people in the event of some emergency. But retrieving people quickly is not a realistic prospect because that requires having a very large, very expensive rocket sitting in a very large, very expensive building being maintained for months or years by a host of very expensive (but not necessarily large) technicians, just on the off chance that something goes wrong at the Lunar settlement. Even getting emergency supplies or equipment to the Moon on short notice requires having a stand-by rocket available and maintained. This sort of costly expenditure is one that neither governments nor private companies will sustain for any protracted length of time, even with human lives at risk. With Mars One, the settlers and those on Earth know from the get-go that returning or emergency supplies are impossible. No one is misled or given false hope. And the Mars One settlers are okay with that. The folks on Earth should be, too.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

And then THIS happened... Making the Mars 100

Receiving the email itself was not a surprise. We had been told when it would come: a few days before the official announcement. Sitting in the kabob shop, I even distracted myself for almost three full minutes after the appointed moment before checking my Inbox. I fully anticipated something like the usual job rejection letter: "Thank you for applying, but your skills do not meet our present needs..."

But I got something else, altogether.

Honestly, upon seeing the word "Congratulations", my first thought was an expletive. I really had not expected to advance to Round 3. Hell, I had never expected to advance into Round 2, either. But back then, just over a year ago, I was one of 1,058. Cool to make it in, but still strong odds against advancing.

I felt like a stone had suddenly appeared in my stomach. Lunch lost all its appeal.

Don't get me wrong: I want to go to Mars, even on a one-way mission. But so many things not under my control have to occur correctly and in a timely fashion for that to happen. But even before those out-of-my-control items can occur, I may have to take decisions that throw my life and the lives of my family into disarray. There are things I need to know that Mars One cannot (understandably) tell me at this time: If selected, how much will I be paid? Will I have to move, and if so, to where? What's their dental plan like?

These questions may seem prosaic, given that I may be asked to blast off the planet, go where no one has ever been before, and try to stay alive indefinitely in a human-made bubble. But all that really dangerous stuff is years down the road. In the meantime, I have a family to support.

And there remains the real question that I have been wrestling with for over a year: can I undertake something that ultimately means leaving my wife behind? Or which could drive her from me?

All that and more flashed through my head as I mechanically ate my chickpeas and naan.


Still... The chance of my being selected to go to Mars had risen. One in twenty-four.


Thursday, November 27, 2014


I rise this morning to celebrate THINKSgiving.

I offer my thoughts (my “thinks”) to the agricultural scientists and transportation engineers who have made food so abundant and available that, as a percentage, fewer people now go hungry than at any time in history.

I offer my thinks to the medical researchers, medical technologists, and chemical engineers who create new medicines and techniques to make our lives longer, our pain less, and our babies less likely to die in infancy.

I give thinks to the construction engineers, textile engineers, and manufacturing engineers who make it possible for us to be housed and clothed in a fashion that would make kings of only a hundred years ago weep with envy.

I offer my thinks to the computer scientists and telecommunications engineers enable us to keep in touch with friends and family around the globe.

I encourage all of you today to take a moment and give your thinks to the rational thinkers who have used their thinks to make your lives richer, longer, more comfortable.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

"I grew up in the future"

I just recently finished listening to the audiobook of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. (I highly recommend both the novel series and the audiobook series, BTW). And I have just started listening to the audiobook of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

In the latter, the main character is relating his autobiography, and the book invokes the image of The Chronicler setting out a blank piece of paper to begin capturing the narration. This image sent my mind off on a tangent of how I would choose to start narrating my biography (if there were ever reason to bother capturing it at all).

In the former, a society of rather sociopathic mages have a "grey name" (or an image or sigil) that they can and do use commonly because it gives other mages no power over them, and they have a "red name" which is kept secret. One of the mages is called Seamstress (with an accompanying mental sigil of a painfully pricking needle). What, I wondered, would my grey name be?

These two questions make a nice confluence with one another. When I think about my self, the mental image I had of myself from my earliest remembering, I was always yearning to travel in space and visit other planets. From my youngest years in the Gemini and Apollo eras, through the 70s when I was captivated by Gerard K. O'Niell's visions of orbiting space colonies and waited eagerly for the launching of the Space Shuttle, I imagined myself going "out there", beyond Earth. Even in my mature adult years, when it was clear I would probably never escape Earth's gravity, my inner mental image abjured that defeat and clung tenaciously to being clad in a pressure suit and floating in the black. So I imagine my grey name would be something evoking that space-travelling adventurer. Nothing so ostentatious as Peter Quill's "Star Lord" in Guardians of the Galaxy. Just something simple, like "Spaceman".

And my autobiography would begin with, "I grew up in the future."