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Martian Chronicle

From: Stig Agermose <stig.agermose@get2net.dk>
Date: Sat, 30 Jan 1999 03:42:19 +0100 (MET)
Fwd Date: Sat, 30 Jan 1999 18:02:30 -0500
Subject: Martian Chronicle

Source: Reason Magazine


John Tierney is a columnist for The New York Times.



REASON * February 1999

Martian Chronicle

Mars may well be the next great frontier. But what kind of world
should we make there?

By John Tierney


A couple of years ago, after hearing an engineer named Robert
Zubrin rhapsodize about his plan for a privately financed
expedition to Mars, I tried out the idea on America's masters
of marketing. I sent an outline of the scheme to Bill Gates,
Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Peter Uberroth, television executives
such as ABC's Roone Arledge and NBC's Don Ohlmeyer, the leaders
of DreamWorks, and a long list of other people whose names tend
to be accompanied by the word visionary. I wasn't asking for
money, just for their thoughts on how humanity's interplanetary
adventure could be packaged profitably, but most of them didn't
even want to think about it. Except for a few enthusiasts, they
couldn't imagine how you could make the trip interesting enough
to pay the bills. How could you hold the audience for such a
long trip to such a desolate place?

"Personally," Barry Diller explained, "I don't care about going
to Mars."

Personally, I did. But I didn't presume to know as much about
the mass audience as Diller and his fellow moguls. They knew
how short the public's attention span could be; they remembered
how quickly people had gotten bored with the Apollo program.
What, really, was the point of going to Mars? If the idea made
any commercial sense, why wasn't someone working on it? I
wondered if Zubrin was hopelessly unrealistic--until this past
summer, when he managed to get 700 people from 40 countries to
travel to Boulder, Colorado.

Officially, it was the founding convention of the Mars Society.
Unofficially, it was the Woodstock of Mars, a horde of
scientists, entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, lawyers, writers,
engineers, college students, musicians, computer geeks, and
assorted hustlers wearing "MARS OR BUST" buttons. They ranged
from space hobbyists to the president of a company working on a
privately financed mission to survey an asteroid. They debated
the cost of spaceships and whether to power the Mars land rover
with a nuclear reactor. They bought Mars trinkets and pictures.
They analyzed details ranging from the proper Martian calendar
(there are dozens of competing systems) to the mechanics of
creating a breathable atmosphere on Mars.

And they cheered Zubrin, who is one of the more riveting
engineer-orators in history. A short man with intense dark eyes
and a passionate speaking style--he can bring to mind
Savonarola--he railed at the stagnation that would afflict
humans without a frontier to conquer. He extolled the Europeans
who crossed the Atlantic 500 years ago to find freedom in the
New World and the Africans who left the comforts of the tropics
50,000 years ago for the cold, harsh regions where they were
forced to develop the tools that made civilization possible.
"Humans did not leave paradise because they ate of the tree of
knowledge," he proclaimed. "They ate of the tree of knowledge
because they left paradise." The audience gave him a two-minute
standing ovation.

In some ways it was reminiscent of the passion for space back
in the 1960s, but not even the moon landings had ever aroused
such a zealous corps of volunteer mission planners. These
people wanted much more than another Apollo program, whose
achievements they dismissed as "flags and footprints." Their
heroes were from earlier eras of exploration: Columbus, the
Pilgrims, Lewis and Clark, the settlers of the American West.
As they put it in their society's founding declaration, "The
settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble
experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old
baggage and begin the world anew."

They were dangerously close to utopianism--which at first
seemed odd, given that Zubrin and a good many of the others are
libertarians. Ordinarily, libertarians are too busy opposing
politicians' utopian schemes to be preaching their own. But as
they fantasized about casting off the chains of earthly
governments, the Mars-libertarian connection began to make
sense. Mars gives libertarians a rare chance to be for
something, to present a grand vision of freedom instead of
merely trying to fend off the latest excesses of big
government. Building the future is a splendid alternative to
the drudgery of deregulating and privatizing the present.
Spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies evoke the sort of
emotions inspired by cathedrals in the Middle Ages--or, to use
a more recent example, by modern architecture in The

Libertarians can appreciate Mars in a way that Barry Diller and
his fellow moguls can't. A desolate planet free of earthly
institutions is more appealing to libertarians than it is to
the corporate elite, just as the New World was more appealing
to the Pilgrims and other contrarians than it was to the
European aristocracy. It will take some doing to settle Mars,
but libertarians have a crucial advantage. They're not
expecting government bureaucrats to do the job. They know
better than to count on NASA.

Four decades after the Lewis and Clark expedition, the American
West had been mapped by trappers and was being rapidly settled
by farmers. It has now been nearly four decades since the first
explorers went into space, and what do we have to show for it?
Chiefly two government programs that have created lots of jobs
and produced massive cost overruns: the space shuttle and the
space station. Rick Tumlinson, the president of the Space
Frontier Foundation, is grateful that NASA did not exist in
Thomas Jefferson's day.

"Suppose," Tumlinson says, "that when Lewis and Clark returned
from their trip, Jefferson had told them, 'Mr. Clark, you
develop a Conestoga shuttle. Mr. Lewis, I want you to build a
national cabin.' And 30 years later they had three or four
Conestoga shuttles, and they were just beginning to build the
national cabin. That's where we are today."

Admittedly, space poses more logistical challenges than the
American West. But NASA has shown a genius for complicating
those challenges. It is burdened not only by bureaucratic
inefficiency and pork barrel politics (every superfluous job
means votes in someone's congressional district) but also by
the public's aversion to risk. Private explorers can afford to
fail and risk lives; NASA's leaders are expected by politicians
and the press to prevent any loss of life or damage to
"national prestige." They're forced to avoid another Challenger
disaster at all costs.

"The cost of space travel ought to be declining with new
technology, but it's not," says Edward L. Hudgins, director of
regulatory studies at the Cato Institute. "About three decades
after the Wright brothers' flight, the commercially viable DC-3
was flying. But today the cost of placing payloads into orbit
on the shuttle is 10 times higher than it was during the Apollo
program. By contrast, in the past 20 years the cost of airline
tickets per passenger mile has dropped by 30 percent, and the
cost of shipping oil has dropped 80 percent."

NASA's profligacy became absurdly obvious in 1989, when the
agency was asked by President Bush to plan a mission to Mars.
It responded with a $400 billion proposal to build a 1,000-ton
interplanetary spaceship the length of a football field, which
would have carried all the fuel for the return voyage. It would
have been assembled in orbit because it was too large to be
launched from Earth--"the battlestar Galactica," as Zubrin
dubbed it. At the time he was an engineer at Martin Marietta
Astronautics and a member of an informal group called the Mars
Underground that met occasionally to dream of interplanetary
travel. He and a colleague at Martin Marietta, Donald Baker,
came up with an alternative to NASA's battlestar Galactica by
adopting the philosophy of Roald Amundsen, the entrepreneurial
Norwegian who explored the polar regions early this century.

Besides winning the race to the South Pole, Amundsen was the
first person to sail the Northwest Passage, which he
accomplished by avoiding the mistakes of the British Navy. As
the NASA of its day, the Royal Navy in the 19th century sent
one lavishly provisioned expedition after another in search of
the Northwest Passage, but the large ships kept getting stuck
in the Arctic ice, and when the food ran out the men had to
return home (or perish, as many of them did). Amundsen, who was
financing his own expedition, bought a small fishing boat and
took a crew of just six. Unable to bring huge stores of food,
he learned to live off the land by hunting caribou as he
maneuvered the small boat through the ice all the way from the
Atlantic to the Pacific.

"Amundsen's expedition was a brilliant example of a small group
of explorers succeeding on a shoestring budget," Zubrin says.
"Lewis and Clark's was another. Before their journey, armies
with big baggage trains had failed to make any significant
penetration in the American West. But Lewis and Clark managed
to cross the continent with just 25 men."

To reach Mars, Zubrin proposed replacing NASA's huge ship with
a vessel small and light enough to be launched directly from
Earth. It would not need to carry fuel for the return trip
because the Martian explorers, like Amundsen, would exploit
local resources: the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere,
which when combined with hydrogen brought from Earth, could be
converted to methane and liquid oxygen to fuel the return
voyage. Zubrin built a machine to demonstrate how easily it
could be done, and eventually NASA adopted his idea. It
redesigned the Mars mission, lowering the cost estimate from
$400 billion to $55 billion, and is contemplating a trip
sometime after 2010.

But Zubrin, who's now the president of his own firm in Boulder,
Pioneer Astronautics, has pared down NASA's plans to come up
with a still cheaper mission. He figures that within a decade a
private entrepreneur could get to Mars and back for a mere $5
billion. He's been promoting this idea in lectures and in a
book, The Case for Mars, that has been translated into half a
dozen languages and attracted letters from thousands of Mars
enthusiasts around the world. (See "Spaceship Enterprise,"
April 1997.)

Other engineers estimate the cost of a private mission might be
more like $10 billion, maybe up to $20 billion, but even at
those prices the trip is not an absurdly extravagant dream.
NASA's budget for a single year is $13 billion. For the
estimated cost of building and operating the space station,
$100 billion, you could send a fleet of Zubrin's ships to Mars.
By NASA standards, the cost of a private Mars mission is chump

But by venture capital standards, it's a lot of money for a
highly speculative endeavor. To pay for the mission, Zubrin and
members of the Mars Society have been analyzing the financing
techniques of pre-NASA explorers and looking for new ideas.
Some possibilities:

The Mars Prize. Zubrin tried selling this idea during a dinner
with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who got so enthusiastic
that the meal lasted for four hours. But Gingrich never
followed through on the proposal, which calls for Congress to
promise $20 billion to the first explorers who reach Mars and
return. In case that prize isn't enough to interest
entrepreneurs in such a risky all-or-nothing venture, Zubrin
also envisions offering smaller bonuses for achieving technical
milestones along the way, like sending the equipment for making
fuel to Mars.

Prizes have been used in the past to spur public-private
ventures in exploration. Fifteenth-century Spanish and
Portuguese rulers offered financial inducements to captains who
ventured down the African coast and across the Atlantic. In the
19th century, the British Parliament offered cash awards for
reaching the North Pole and for venturing westward into the
Arctic ice: a prize of [sterling]5,000 for reaching 110 degrees
west, double that for reaching 130 degrees, and triple that for
150 degrees.

For politicians, the most appealing aspect of the Mars Prize is
that they could reap the publicity of announcing it without
having to pay for it immediately. They could present themselves
as both patrons of exploration and opponents of make-work
government programs. NASA would surely object to the proposal,
and so might libertarian purists, who could argue that there's
no need for the public to finance any kind of Martian
adventure. But to some extent, the knowledge gained from
Martian exploration would be a public good; so would the
national glory, for whatever that's worth. And there's always
the preservation-of-the-species argument: By supporting the
exploration of a potential new home, the public is buying
insurance against Earth's becoming uninhabitable.

The Mars Prize would certainly be more defensible than NASA's
current monopoly on public funds for space exploration. Still,
there's no reason the trip must be financed by the government.
Entrepreneurial explorers have long profited from the fortunes
and egos of...

Rich Patrons. In 1911, William Randolph Hearst offered a
$50,000 prize to the first person to fly across America in less
than 30 days. Calbraith Perry Rodgers immediately set out to
win it in a plane called the Vin Fiz, named after a carbonated
grape drink manufactured by his sponsor, the Armour Meat
Packing Company. He endured 15 accidents on the way from New
York to Los Angeles, one of which landed him in the hospital
for a month. He didn't meet the deadline--it took him 84
days--but he did complete the trip. Other prizes have been
offered for human-powered flight (a $200,000 award claimed in
1978, when the Gossamer Albatross flew a mile) and for the
first manned, completely reusable spaceship (a $10 million
award, announced in 1996 by the X Prize Foundation, that has
yet to be claimed).

The Mars Prize would be an expensive proposition, but
modern-day Hearsts such as Bill Gates could afford to offer it.
Or they could directly finance expeditions, the way wealthy
gentlemen supported polar exploration at the start of the
century. Robert Peary, for instance, was bankrolled by the
Peary Arctic Club, a group of businessmen who paid for the
privilege of basking in his company and achieving geographic
immortality. Peary and other polar explorers named mountains
and glaciers after the American, British, and Norwegian
plutocrats who financed the discoveries. Mars' most prominent
features, like its 18-mile-high volcano and 2,800-mile-long
version of the Grand Canyon, have already been named, but the
first explorers there--and certainly the first settlers--could
exercise their prerogative to assign new names.

The patrons of Arctic expeditions also sometimes paid to tag
along for part of the trip. Peary brought wealthy sponsors on
his ship; Frederick C. Cook was accompanied by a sportsman who
wanted to hunt. The Mars mission--six months traveling there,
two years on the surface, and six months back--might be too
grueling a vacation for the typical billionaire. But plenty of
other people would pay for a chance to go along, and there's a
clever way to get hold of their money.

The Mars Lottery. Perhaps the most promising new idea at the
conference in Boulder came from someone outside the aerospace
industry. Alex Duncan, a local resident with experience in the
commodities business, proposed an international Mars Lottery,
modeled on the lottery based in Lichtenstein that raises funds
internationally for the Red Cross. A Mars Lottery could be
headquartered anywhere and reach a global audience through the

Besides the usual cash prizes, which could be awarded
fortnightly or monthly, the Mars Lottery would have two big
selling points. First, participants would know that a portion
of the proceeds was going to support a private expedition to
Mars. Second, and more important, participants would be buying
a chance to go themselves. Duncan proposed that all the winners
of the regular drawings become eligible for a grand prize: a
berth on the first ship to Mars, assuming that the winner of
this grand drawing met the physical and mental requirements for
the voyage. Duncan figures that the proceeds from this lottery
could pay for the whole Mars mission within three to five

A variation on his scheme would be to give the winner of each
regular drawing the option of trying out for the mission at the
explorers' training camp, which would probably be in the Arctic
(to simulate the frigid conditions on Mars). The leader of the
crew could evaluate dozens, maybe hundreds, of different
winners and choose one or two for the trip. This system would
produce a better crew and also increase the appeal of the
lottery, because each winner would be getting an Arctic
adventure in addition to the cash prize.

Media and Marketing. The Summer Olympics last just three weeks
and generate more than $2 billion in fees from television
networks and corporate sponsors. The three-year Mars mission
has the potential to make much more money, possibly enough to
pay for itself, solely with the revenue from media rights and
corporate tie-ins.

Just as Henry Morton Stanley charged the expenses of his
African journeys to the New York Herald, just as Sir Ernest
Shackleton paid for his Antarctic voyages with best-selling
books and international lecture tours, the Mars explorers could
tap into the global appetite for adventure stories. And just as
Shackleton exploited the new media of his day--at his lectures
in 1910 he showed the first movies from the Antarctic--the Mars
explorers could reach a paying audience through new cable
channels and Web sites. The media coverage of the mission would
attract the same kind of sponsors who pay to be part of the
Olympics. Outdoor gear makers and high-technology firms would
have a special incentive to have their logos and products
associated with the adventure.

Although some sponsors would be reluctant to get involved with
a project that could fail spectacularly and fatally, others
(especially those selling products to young males) would be
attracted by the aura of danger. But the dangers must seem
worthwhile; the mission shouldn't come off as a pointless
stunt. If the trip appeared to be just a longer version of
Apollo 11, another enterprise that left nothing but flags and
footprints, it would be less appealing to the audience--and
therefore to potential sponsors. That's one reason that Zubrin
and his disciples focus on analogies with Columbus instead of
Neil Armstrong. The vision of Mars as the New World lends the
first trip gravitas.

But why would anyone, especially a libertarian devoted to free
markets, believe that a Mars colony would be a good investment?
The first humans on Mars will encounter horrific dust storms,
temperatures of minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and an
unbreathable atmosphere. If they stood on the Martian surface
without a pressurized suit, their blood would expand and burst
out of their veins. Why would it pay to stick around?

At first glance, Mars has none of the commercial opportunities
that drew the first Europeans to America. Columbus, who was
financed by merchants as well as by Queen Isabella, crossed the
Atlantic with the intention of making money. Even after his
first goal, a trade route to the Orient, proved unattainable,
there were other attractions for investors. The Spanish
conquered the natives and took home gold; the French and Dutch
set up trading posts in North America to acquire furs.

Mars offers no such inducements, unless you count the souvenir
value of its rocks. Otherwise the minerals in its crust appear
to be of little value. Science fiction writers like to imagine
humans profitably mining asteroids and other planets, but
there's no looming scarcity of minerals on Earth. The prices of
metals and most other natural resources have been falling for
millennia. Unless the prices here rise dramatically, or the
cost of interplanetary shipping plummets, space miners won't be
able to profitably export Mars' resources in the foreseeable

But Mars does have some resources of local value: water, carbon
dioxide, and real estate. It contains as much dry land as all
the continents on Earth, and the leaders of the Mars Society
have big plans for it. They want to "terraform" Mars by
injecting chlorofluorocarbons into its atmosphere and setting
off a runaway greenhouse effect. As the planet thawed, the
atmosphere would thicken with carbon dioxide released from
melting ice caps and soil. Add some trees and plants to convert
the carbon dioxide into oxygen, and before long humans could be
breathing comfortably as they strolled in shirt sleeves on the
green planet.

This scheme sounds outlandish today, but there was a time when
Europeans couldn't imagine settling the American wilderness
either. The Spanish and French leaders, as well as the
officials of the Dutch West India Company, didn't initially
emphasize permanent settlements of families. They sent mainly
single men--soldiers, traders, and trappers--on temporary
assignments to extract resources. America was a nice place to
exploit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

"From the Spanish point of view," Zubrin says, "the only parts
of the Americas that were valuable were the places with
civilized Indians that could be taxed. They dismissed the rest
as a howling wilderness. The British had a different notion of
where wealth comes from. They created farms and towns in New
England, turning the wilderness into a domain where social
reproduction could occur."

The British settlers, motivated by a yearning for religious
freedom, eventually outnumbered and expelled the Spanish,
French, and Dutch from most of North America. Isolated from
Europe, they created new kinds of communities with new kinds of
liberties. "Humanity needs room to play and experiment with
ideas in human governance," Zubrin says. "In 1776 Thomas Paine
wrote, 'We hold it in our power to begin the world anew.' So
they did, and so do we. People will endure the risk and
hardships of emigrating to Mars if, like the colonists in
America, they can find a higher level of freedom."

Zubrin has come up with 16 new rights he would like to see on
Mars, such as the right "to build, develop natural resources,
and improve nature," and the right to practice an occupation
without a license. "The Martian frontier could be like the
frontier in the American West, where you didn't need a license
to be a doctor," Zubrin says. "If you got good results, you had
a clientele. If you had bad results, you were lynched."

His fellow libertarians have come up with their own bills of
rights for Mars, which are being debated on the Mars Society's
Web site (www.marssociety.org). What kind of property rights
should there be on Mars? Should euthanasia and narcotics be
legal? Do Earthlings even have the right to discuss the rights
of future Martians? There's a certain absurdity to the
debate--and to the very existence of the Mars Law and
Governance Task Group--but also a certain glamour. If you're
going to conduct a theoretical argument about something as
arcane as occupational licensing, you may as well set it in
outer space.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the more mundane question
remains: Who pays for the first trip? At its founding
convention, the Mars Society resolved to raise $1 million to
establish its own training base in the Arctic, on Canada's
Devon Island, and it's also planning to send its own instrument
along on a NASA spacecraft in 2003.

"We might want to send along a balloon that will float above
Mars with a camera attached to it," Zubrin says. "We could
market that for its entertainment value and advertising
revenue. Maybe you couldn't pay for the whole mission with that
revenue, but the Mars Society membership would pay for the
difference. It's the Jacques Cousteau model: You combine
membership dues with commercial revenues from films and
documentaries. As you take one little step after another; you
build up your credibility to raise the $5 billion for the
manned mission."

Already a few entrepreneurs are looking to launch their own
missions into space. Two companies, hoping to tap the adventure
travel market, have announced plans to build space planes that
will take customers for a brief ride just outside the
atmosphere. Another firm, Space Dev, has raised $20 million as
part of its plan to send scientific instruments to survey an
asteroid and sell the data to scientists. But the Mars mission
requires investment of another order of magnitude, and even
enthusiasts like Zubrin aren't sure the private sector will
take the risk anytime soon. As he hopes for a private mission,
he's also lobbying for an old-fashioned NASA program.

"I'm a hard libertarian about rights on Mars, but not about
getting there," he says. "With something as risky as Mars, it
would be useful for the government to absorb some of the
up-front costs. Spanish merchants weren't willing to back
Columbus' first trip without royal involvement. Lewis and Clark
were funded by the U.S. government--and then, as soon as they
came back and said there's beaver there, John Jacob Astor's
people did their own private exploration that ultimately was
much more extensive than the government's. The American
government also stimulated the private sector by setting up
forts in the frontier, which attracted peddlers who established
trade routes in the area. If the government set up a research
base on Mars, it would stimulate private competition to lower
the costs of delivering cargo."

Once the cost of transport to Mars dropped, real estate
speculators might begin to see the planet's potential. One
member of the Mars Society, Richard Allen Brown, has proposed
that a private company divide Mars into a million plots, each
25,000 acres, and sell bonds giving a 100-year option on each
plot. By charging $20,000 for each bond, the company could
raise $20 billion. It would invest this capital conservatively
and use the income, about $1 billion a year, to finance the
exploration and settlement of Mars over the course of a
century. If you bought a bond and the land eventually became
valuable, you (or your heir) could exercise the option to trade
in the bond for a deed to the land. If after 100 years the
option still hadn't been exercised, your heir could redeem the
bond for the original capital investment of $20,000.

Mars bonds would not be for the timid investor. Even if the
land did become valuable, there's no guarantee that your deed
to the land would be recognized, because for now there's no
internationally recognized method of claiming land in outer
space. The vagaries of space property law make a another great
topic of discussion among Mars Society members. (See "A Little
Piece of Heaven," November.) But then, the first investors in
the New World did not have secure property rights either.

"People in England were buying and selling Kentucky back in the
1600s, when it might as well have been Mars," Zubrin says. "No
British citizen had been there, and it wasn't clear that
British law would prevail--the French and Spanish had claims
there too. But the king of England would sell patents to a
nobleman, who would sell pieces to capitalists willing to
speculate on the British. They'd hire someone to survey it, and
then, if there were good prospects, they'd sell the land at a
profit or start developing it by sending in settlers."

It's conceivable that the interplanetary version of the French
and Indian War would be a conflict between rival companies or
countries trying to claim Martian real estate. Perhaps more
likely, the war could pit speculators against those who wanted
to preserve Mars from capitalist development. Already a handful
of countries (not including the United States) have signed a
treaty declaring all extraterrestrial bodies to be "the common
heritage of mankind," as Antarctica is treated today. The
scientists who are now fighting to keep Antarctica
pristine--which generally means excluding every money-making
activity except for their research projects--would probably try
to preserve Mars for themselves too. Environmentalists who now
demand the preservation of malarial swamps and frozen tundras
probably would find reason to preserve Mars in its "natural"

In fact, Zubrin's development plans even provoked some
opposition at the founding convention of the Mars Society.
Environmentalists in the audience rose to object when he
declared it our species' Manifest Destiny to terraform the
Martian environment. But Zubrin managed to quell the
opposition, and get another ovation, by explaining that the Red
Planet would become a green haven for terrestrial species whose
habitat might one day be endangered.

"We must protect billions of our fellow creatures," he said.
"Raccoons and maple trees can't get to Mars on their own. We
have to help them there. Humans have eaten a lot of fish, and
now we're going to repay the favor by taking fish to Mars. It's
our duty to the biosphere."

It was a lovely moment, a developer outgreening
environmentalists by nobly espousing the largest real estate
project in history, and it illustrated why Mars is a no-lose
proposition for libertarians. If colonizing the Red Planet ever
becomes a practical possibility, we should be ready to get
there before anyone else starts writing the rules. And even if
colonization never becomes practical, even if Mars
becomes a free new world, just imagining it is
good for the
libertarian soul.

John Tierney is a columnist for The New York Times.

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