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How We’ll Live On Mars: An Interview with Stephen Petranek

Photo credit - Stefan Petranek

Photo credit – Stefan Petranek

Stephen Petranek, in spite of a long and productive career in the world of journalism (senior editor at Life Magazine, editor-in-chief at This Old House magazine, editor-in-chief at Discover Magazine), is perhaps best know for a TED talk from 2002 entitled “10 Ways the World Could End” (you can find it here; it’s less than 30 minutes…we’ll wait). Over a million and a half people have viewed his TED talk.

Once you have viewed that video (or if you already understand the inherent danger of our species inhabiting one single rock in the Universe), you will understand why Stephen’s new TED book How We’ll Live On Mars is less a call to action and more a book that postulates humans will be on Mars sooner than any of us believe, mainly because there are several well placed, wealthy and highly motivated people in the private sector who “get it.” The fact that going to Mars is not only good for the species but could end up being very lucrative doesn’t hurt.

How We’ll Live On Mars goes through several topics including which company(s) will most likely get us there; the major challenges to living on Mars immediately and in the future; and comparisons of  Martian emigration to the emigration of thousands of Europeans to the “new world” in the late 1600s and early 1700s. At 72 pages it is a quick read, but it covers all of these topics logically and thoughtfully.

My Apollo pins

My Apollo pins

Like many, I am a child of the Apollo program. Through the 2nd grade, we lived in Florida, in a small town named Indian Harbor Beach. My dad would go to the South Atlantic before a launch, to a place called Ascension Island, to await whatever was salvageable in the jettisoned rocket stages. My mother would put me, my brother and sister on the roof of our house to watch the launches. Mankind got to the moon when I was eight; I was sure there was more to follow. Like many, my expectations were, to put it mildly, not met.

There had to be a plan for what would come after Apollo. But von Braun’s Mars plan lost out to the space shuttle program – in part because military and intelligence agencies thought the space shuttle could be extremely useful for launching and repairing spy satellites. Although everything NASA does is supposed to be completely transparent and public, in the decade from 1982 to 1992, the agency launched eleven classified shuttle missions. Much of the shuttle’s design was driven by military and intelligence agency requirements. Nixon also decided to kill von Braun’s Saturn V rocket, the largest and best heavy-lift rocket ever conceived. Without that ship to sail on, interplanetary travel was doomed. Had the United States committed to Mars instead of the space shuttle, we likely would have a permanent base there now. Von Braun, seeing that he and NASA were headed in different directions, retired from the agency in 1972. (pg. 13)

Now, a new generation of entrepreneurs are pushing the boundaries of space technology, with their eyes on Mars. How We’ll Live on Mars details this, the challenges of living on Mars, and much more.

Stephen was kind enough to participate in a back and forth email question interview.


Leading the Push to Mars

Larry Ketchersid: One of the main postulates of your book is that the private sector will lead the push to Mars. Besides funding, what roll do you believe NASA will take? What roll will other governments take?

Stephen Petranek: NASA’s SLS/Orion rocket system will prove to have the same flaw as the Space Shuttle—far too expensive to get much use. NASA has gotten really good at creating smart machines like MOXIE to produce rocket fuel (as well as O2 for breathing) and WAVAR for water production. But it has proven lousy at rocketry and its contracting on a cost-plus basis has been disastrous. Once SpaceX perfects reusable rockets it will make no sense to launch with anything else. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see CEO Elon Musk put most of his rocket patents into the common domain as he has done with Tesla’s patents. NASA would be ever so much more amazing and useful if they’d simply contract with SpaceX to build their rockets. Then NASA could control the overall objectives of where they should be pointed and why. NASA could be quite good at big thinking and strategy if released from the mechanics of exploration. But if it doesn’t partner with a promising private company like SpaceX, they’ll quickly find themselves pointless.

LK: The Internet bubble of the 90s and the millionaire/billionaires it created are fueling the space private sector, giving companies enough funding to (eventually) surpass the achievements of the government sector: SpaceX (Musk), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), Planetary Resources (several), even Armadillo Aerospace (which John Carmack winded down). There are also others with non-traditional funding models like Copenhagen Suborbitals (non-profit) and Mars One (non-profit, reality TV funded?). Who besides SpaceX do you think will play a prominent role in getting to Mars?

SP: At this time SpaceX is the only contender that is likely to get to Mars other than NASA with the possible exception of the Chinese government’s space program. No other entity is both interested and has the resources. Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen and Sir Richard Branson have no plans at all for getting farther than Earth orbit. Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and James Cameron plan to mine asteroids, not go to Mars, though they may eventually be tempted by Mars’ weak gravitational field and proximity to the asteroid belt. Mars One would like to go but has no money and will find it far less expensive to buy tickets from SpaceX than build or finance its own rockets and habitats. Dennis Tito isn’t interested in more than a showy flyby.

LK: Musk’s entire corporate strategy seems to be headed for this particular quest. One could make a case that the solar technology from Solar City, battery technology from Tesla and, potentially even the hyperloop solution that he has put forward, all could play a roll in a Mars colonization.

SP: I think you’ve got the wrong take on it. Although battery technology and solar cells and electric motors can help on Mars, the real contribution these companies can make is money. It will take $6 billion just to land the first humans on Mars and at least another $30 billion more to create a viable Mars base of any magnitude. Tesla and Solar City can provide asset value to line Musk’s pockets to pay for colonizing Mars, but they won’t be enough. That’s why he is pushing for his new satellite company to get going. It is scheduled to launch 4,000-plus telecommunications minisats in five years to provide cellular and other services to anyone on the globe at a price much cheaper than anyone pays now. How about TV, cell phone, data and emergency services for less than $10 a month to three billion people? Let’s see, $30 billion cash flow a month. Yup, that ought to do it.

LK: There is already a bit of a new “space race” in the private sector competition. The original space race to get to the moon was between government organizations. Do you see China or India (with their low-cost approach) accelerating their bids as they see more success from SpaceX/Orbital/Blue Origin/etc.? : It would be a great thing if the mission(s) to Mars could be a effort on behalf of all humanity. But it will undoubtedly end up as a race between governments and/or private sectors vying to stake out some claim. India seems to be taking a unique approach with their bare essentials, low-cost approach. If Musk’s concept of “thousands of emigrants” is true, India could certainly buy into that concept and supply those emigrants. There is obviously room for all. But my question was more in the acceleration of the pace, as happened during the space race of our youth. If India sees some successes, would the US and ESA governments change the woefully small NASA budget or provide some help to the private sector to help accelerate?

SP: China just might be willing to pay to get people to Mars for reasons of nationalistic pride, but their space program would be challenged to get someone as far as the Moon at this point (as would NASA’s). The Moon is three days away and Mars is 240 days away. India’s space program is something to be proud of, but the French could probably get to Mars long before India. I don’t think Mars will be seen as a competition. NASA is certainly in no hurry to get there. Only Elon Musk seems to understand the value of an insurance policy for the human species. Think about the fact that that China, India, France, Russia, the Japanese, and the United States could each easily afford to build two different asteroid defense systems for less than $2 billion yet no country has done it. The probability that Earth will once again be hit by an asteroid larger than the one that took out all mammals bigger than a rat 65 million years ago is 100%. The only question is when. No nation on Earth seems willing to step up to the plate to assure the survival of the human species for a measly $2 billion. So why should anyone assume that a nation will pay far more to preserve our species on Mars?

Why Not The Moon?

LK: Concerning the recent NASA study about using public-private partnerships to build a colony on the moon, do you believe this is a stepping-stone or a distraction for a Mars colonization effort? I assume lack of available water (or harder to get to water), lack of an possibility of terraforming, etc. makes the moon a bad choice and a waste of money.

SP: NASA has always been Moon-centric, and it was a fine place to prove we could escape Earth’s gravity, land there, and return. Been there, done that. Practicing on the Moon is a waste of time. Even Werner von Braun, who was almost singlehandedly responsible for getting us to the Moon, thought it was a waste of time. He wanted to go to Mars. There’s nothing we need on the Moon and it doesn’t accomplish the goal of expanding our space faring abilities. The Moon is not an insurance policy for homo sapiens. It is a distraction. We need to focus our limited resources on Mars. It is the only place in our solar system where humans are likely to thrive other than Earth. We will need to move on from Mars too when our Sun begins dying.

LK: My sentiments exactly.

Who Would Go?

For example, it is not widely understood how quickly the American colonies grew. In 1620, the Mayflower carried 102 passengers to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Within ten years Boston had been founded as a city, and by 1640 more than thirty thousand new colonists had arrived, most of them dispersing westward. Jamestown, the first permanent colony in America, started with 104 settlers in 1607, and only 35 remained by the time the first supply ship arrived the following year. But by 1622, shortly after the Mayflower landed, the population of Virginia had grown to 1,400. The Mars settlement may not grow that quickly, although the length of a sea voyage across the Atlantic in the 1600s is comparable to the time it will take people to get to Mars on a spacecraft, and the cost, in relative terms, is not that different. (pg. 73-74)

LK: The preceding passage describes the migration to Mars as akin to the migration to the New World from Europe in the 16 and 1700s. Many of those folks left because they were looking for freedom from persecution; some left for opportunity. I like the parallel, but there will need to be huge specialization for migrants to Mars….versus an exodus of poor people. Wouldn’t the concept of “thousands” migrating versus a few require a certain qualification, or, at a minimum, training?

SP: Basic skills in math and science and comprehension are necessary to get a good job in most societies on Earth. Mars won’t be any different. The early colonists to the Americas were by and large not poor and they were well educated. They were merchants—lousy frontierspeople who could barely build themselves adequate shelter and hardly knew how to plant a garden, much less grow enough food for survival. But they learned quickly. Unless we allow a form of indentured servitude, only relatively wealthy people will be able to afford a ticket to Mars. The skill set necessary for survival in a hostile environment is difficult to measure, but unlikely to be much different than on Earth. Yes, people will be trained and those with both money and qualifications are likely to go first.

LK: I tried to find the mortality rate suffered in the migration from Europe to the New World, but could only find the atrociously high death rates of slave ships. But one can assume the death rate of the trip and in the new settlements was high. Have you seen projections of what the mortality rate of a Mars mission would be?

SP: About 80% of the people who first landed in Jamestown were dead within two years. Starvation and resupply and harsh winters killed many. The Americas were in a mini-ice-age at the time with winter temps about 20 degrees colder than now. Chesapeake Bay froze over most years as did the Hudson River. But once the basics of supply and shelter and sizable habitations were solved, death rates plummeted. We’re far better now at controlling environments so there’s no reason to assume death rates on mars will initially be high, though surprises are always a part of space travel. Other than the extremely low risk of some toxic one-celled critter that suddenly comes alive in the presence of oxygen and heat, the biggest threat to humans on Mars is cosmic radiation. Part of the accepted fact of going to Mars for early settlers will be a shortened lifespan due to radiation exposure. Lifespans might be 10-20 years less on Mars.

LK: There is a series of convergences that should provide a greater motivation for people to look for something new. More and more the economy is moving from manual labor to service or consulting labor, and companies like Uber (as an example) are giving people a way to be employed in a more independent fashion. But the “robots are coming” projects, like self-driving cars, factory automation and other initiatives could put a lot of the new independent contractor types out of a job. A Mars mission and subsequent emigration could provide employment opportunities for a lot of people, but it could also be, because of some of the dangers involved, a place where even more tasks are performed by robots. Mars as another place in the Universe for humanity is certainly the main goal, but what do you believe will be the real role of humans there?

SP: Let’s remember that Uber is part of the problem, not the solution. It is investing in driverless cars to replace the cost of the driver and its CEO can’t wait for the day that happens. The real role of humans on mars will be to survive and to terraform the planet. They will likely become a different species than humans on Earth. They will evolve, or evolve themselves, to breathe more CO2, be less effected by cold, and to not react as much to radiation. Robotics on Mars could be extremely important—even more important than on Earth. But there will be fast-food places, iron factories, movie theaters, and other parts of everyday life that are the same as they are on Earth. We are a long way from robots taking over most human tasks. In fact, we’re far closer to being obliterated by artificial intelligence than we are from robots making human labor obsolete.

Making Mars Front Page News
"SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure" by NASA

“SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure” by NASA

LK: The SpaceX launch at the end of June (CRS-7) and the other recent launch failures show us the “space is hard.” The media pays more attention to failures than to successes. MARS ONE seems to want to utilize the media for financing (aka the “reality show” concept). But any Mars project will be fighting for media attention with other events, and with some crap that the media deems important. Our species migrating to Mars should be the lead story of the century. Do you see the media helping or hindering this effort?

SP: Media is a big word. There are media like sophisticated science magazines that will likely be helpful. Some book authors will present a sophisticated and useful view. Less sophisticated media, especially television, is unlikely to be helpful unless the channel is more specified, like PBS or National Geographic. The book has been optioned for a TV documentary series, which, if produced, could be meaningful and important. But all mass media tends to dumb down meaning and insight and even the basic science involved in favor of hype and drama. The negativity I’ve encountered about our hubris for “colonizing” another planet before we fix Earth is crazy making. This is humanity’s only chance for long-term survival. We could wake up tomorrow and see a headline in The Washington Post that says: “10-mile-wide asteroid sighted near Jupiter on collision course with Earth.” It’s all over for the human species when that happens (and the chance it will happen is 100% over time) because we still refuse to build a few defensive systems as insurance. If people have “moral” problems with going to Mars, now is the time to begin an important discussion about how we should do it, because it’s going to happen far sooner than almost anyone can imagine.

LK: Popular fiction should help get the conversation pushed. I interviewed Andy Weir, author of THE MARTIAN, a quite realistic depiction of a trip to Mars (although it was pursing the single ship approach). Neal Stephenson’s recent SEVENEVES portrays a calamity that makes leaving Earth necessary. These could be the start of a trend of “near-future” fiction and science fiction that had been pushed back in favor of the space opera – long term stories. Somehow, the conversation of humanity’s long-term survival, and how a Mars mission is of vast importance in that regard, needs to trump news of Kardashian’s and other superfluous crap. TED talks and books like yours will help and there are certainly pockets of enthusiasm (the r/space reddit forum, among others); any other avenues? A deeper educational push into the schools?

SP: Sadly, fiction is very limited in its ability to influence human behavior. People always point to the fact that it is, in fact, “fiction,” no matter how good the science is. That said, there’s a lot of fiction in the movie Gravity, yet I think it brought home the incredible accomplishment of just getting humans into orbit. As primitive as the control panel on the Soyuz may be, it looked pretty amazing in Gravity as Sandra Bullock tried to remember which buttons to push. Those images have much more power than fiction. It will be interesting to see how people respond to the movie “The Martian.” It may not make them want to go to Mars.

Practicalities and Technology

LK: The economies of several countries (notably Greece and Puerto Rico) are in trouble. China’s stock market is in a bit of trouble. I’m certainly not a economic forecaster, but the world economy does seem to go in cycles, and we will certainly see some kind of recession in the next decade or two. How do you see this affecting the push to Mars?

pad_abort32SP: I doubt that economic cycles on Earth will slow down how soon we get to Mars and how many people go, unless there is a worldwide depression. If, for example, Elon Musk can launch a 4,000-satellite system that gives everyone on Earth instant wi-fi wherever they are for less than $10 a month, two things happen:

  1. Billions of people will sign up, and
  2. The cash flow will finance an initial colony on Mars.

Making telecommunications far cheaper for everyone on Earth will not be a business much stunted by a downward economic cycle. The economic disruptions we are used to when it comes to space travel are based on government expenditures, which are constricted by recessions. Those days are over. Space exploration is no longer the province of governments.

LK: You list five things that are needed for “living on Mars”: oxygen, water, food, shelter and clothing. Which of the technological solutions to these problems do you see as lagging behind the rest, i.e., what could push the timeline?

SP: The biggest potential problem for life on mars is radiation shielding. A recent article published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience titled “What happens to your brain on the way to Mars,” is disturbing. The authors zapped mice with the sort of high-energy cosmic rays that will be encountered on the way to Mars and once there. The results indicate significant diminishment of cognitive abilities from such radiation. There is no practical shielding to stop cosmic rays. Solar radiation, even solar storms, can be dealt with, but cosmic rays could be a serious problem. One option is to select humans for the trip who are genetically less vulnerable to cosmic rays. Another is to alter our own evolution to create people who are less vulnerable to such radiation, but that takes time.

LK: I’ve read research that says aluminum is 25% effective in protecting against cosmic radiation, and some polyethelene plastics are about 33% effective. Still not enough, obviously. I’ve also heard about utilizing antioxidants (the theory being, in simple terms, that since cosmic radiation is energy elements missing electrons that antioxidants could couple where the electrons are missing).

SP: Antioxidant strategies are promising, but not a solution. We need to study people who are less prone to radiation damage to understand how their genetics are different. Then we need modify ourselves through gene replacement therapy or re-engineer the genetics of our offspring. Or, we need to live in buildings with really thick walls.

LK: You cover either changing Mars through terraforming or changing the humans that go there through genetic engineering. Both of these are long term solutions (several hundred years). Until then, humans will live in shielded habitats/cities, or underground. Is the underground scenario more likely, utilizing the ground for some protection from solar radiation?

SP: We are getting very good at gene replacement therapy. We may see a confluence of time factors in which just as we start sending lots of people to Mars, we master gene editing. Living underground most of the time is the obvious best answer for early settlers.

LK: The obvious next step after Mars is to go after asteroids, for minerals as well as other reasons. You mention in the book that getting to the asteroid belt from Mars and Ceres will be easier than from Earth. Yet the product (minerals) from this mining would certainly benefit an Earth that is running out of some metals. This could have a huge impact on the Martian economy, but can the materials, or manufactured products be eventually exported from Mars to Earth at a reasonable transportation cost? (This is a wonderful concept to contemplate).

SP: Most asteroids are quite literally a gold mine, or a silver mine, or a platinum mine or a rare earth metal mine. But until we invent a really cheap fuel for rocketry, getting those metals back to Earth is likely too expensive. It is conceivable to use exotic Hohmann transfer orbits that could take six or seven years to get a freighter back to Earth at a reasonable cost. Nonetheless, most of what is mined in the asteroid belt from Mars in the early days will stay on Mars.

About Larry Ketchersid (54 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

8 Comments on How We’ll Live On Mars: An Interview with Stephen Petranek

  1. “LK: You cover either changing Mars through terraforming or changing the humans that go their through genetic engineering.”

    “their” should be “there”
    [Ed: Updated — thanks!]

    Good article. Is the 2 billion for an asteroid protection system a one time cost, or would there be yearly cost to maintaining and operating such a system?

  2. Great thought provoking book. On a lighter note, hummm so I pay $500,000 for a one-way trip to Mars that will take 240 days and I will probably kill my companions. If we survive the trip and landing, we have to live in a pressure suit, get blasted by Gamma radiation, shorten our lives by 10 – 20 years, suffer shortages of air, water, food, get to live in a cave, and probably freeze to death. Sign me up!

    Seriously though…as I’m reading the book all my questions are answered and then some. It is plausible for humans to do this. A lot is ifs though. Its my humble opinion our technology is not there yet, but as Mr Patranek says in 300 years we will have technology that will be amazing to our minds now. Genetically engineering humans to breath different air, how cool. As I’m reading I think about life on earth, how it got started and had the idea, as I’m sure thousands of others have had, of introducing life to Mars. Not humans, but microbes, bacteria, etc. Then of course got to the section that discusses Robert Zubrin’s theory. That’s the way to go, but what a long wait that would be, seeding life on Mars, seeing microbes flourish, plants develop, and in a thousand to a million years some sort of suitable habitat. I hope from heaven I can watch all this.

    Excellent book! Hats off to Stephen Petranek. Lets all buy a Tesla car to help the cause…
    Lee M.

  3. I’m of his generation.. and he put it mildly when he stated that the expectations of my generation were NOT met. I was promised the moon, Mars and beyond. With HUMANS exploring.. not some dang motorized computer. But, HUMANS. NASA needs a major overhaul. We MUST get back to the roots of the program. Otherwise we are doomed to extinction as a species.

    • Cherei, watching the SpaceX launches (you can find the streams in the Reddit Space or SpaceX subs) live is starting to bring that excitement and those expectations back for me.

      • My husband and son, both have worked for and with NASA for decades. So, even with all of that.. I am NOT happy that a few selfish people have held back the original program. We need to move forward again. This is NOT about building a bureaucratic stagnant program.. but, one that should be ABOVE politics. Bureaucrats will be our doom as a species.

  4. One more note to my comment above. Dang, I just read Tesla is losing $4,000 per car!

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