Welcome to episode 205 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
For our topic this week, we’re going to take a look at the mission to Mars, which I find to be a pretty exciting opportunity for technology, science. And it recently was making some headlines related to the federal budget, so we’ll get into that, and the science and technology as well. So to give a little preamble to our discussion, NASA is in the process of developing capabilities for sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. So we all that for about the past 40 years, we’ve spent spacecraft and rovers to the red planet to study it, and to increase our knowledge about Mars, generally speaking. Now NASA has their journey to Mars plan, which they made public in 2015, 2016, something like that. And there are three different stages to that plan. The first stage is called Earth Reliant, and stage two, which we’re approaching right now is called Proving Ground and stage three is Earth Independent, during which the actual man to Mars mission will occur.
So just to quickly cover the Earth Reliant phase, which was the first one which we’re wrapping up, that was all about the International Space Station in orbit around the Earth and all about astronauts living on the station for extended periods of time, to study how low gravity environment, how living in space basically affects the human body. And I think we saw a couple weeks ago, President Trump talking to a woman astronaut who had been on the station for I think it was about two years, which just seems incredible to me that someone could live in space for that long. But nonetheless, that was part of this Earth Reliant phase, during which the technologies are being tested, but it’s still close to the earth. And we can sort of develop these technologies in close proximity to our planet.
So with that information, the question I guess comes up, why do this? Why go to Mars in the first place? So, let’s start with an audio clip we found of Buzz Aldrin from an interview that he gave on the Nat Geo channel a few years ago. And let’s listen to that and then discuss.
Try to explain a little bit more about what you talk about in the book about longterm permanence on Mars. Why would we want to do that as a country? What is it that you feel is the spark plug behind something like that? And how the hard part is you think the American public to be interested in it. These are all very complicated questions, but it’s definitely … Why go to the moon? It’s there. Somebody’s going to go there eventually. Let me talk a little bit about these rovers that are there, just for an example. There were two rovers before Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity, opposite sides of Mars, put there about ten years ago. Supposed to last 90 days. They were a little better than that. One of them kind of pooped out after five years, and the other one’s still going.
Now, the program manager for this, from Burdell, works with JPL. Steve Squires said verbally, but then put it in writing that their two rovers that were working for five years with one day’s instructions. And then they would try to do what the one day’s instructions were. But they were very conservative because they didn’t know whether it was going to tip over the hill or not. When it began to get close, the instructions said, “Stop. Don’t do anything. We’ll figure it out.” Well this is pretty slow activities. So slow that he said what these two rovers had done in five years could have been done in one week, if we had human intelligence in orbit around Mars.
So Dirk, after hearing what astronaut Buzz Aldrin had to say in that Nat Geo interview, what are your takeaways from that route? Why do you think we should or shouldn’t go to Mars in the somewhat near future.
Well, Buzz’s first justification is somebody’s going to go there eventually, which to me seems like a really silly reason for it to be us and for it to be now, right? The fact that someone will eventually do it doesn’t seem like a great compelling reason to do so. But when we talk about Mars, when the media covers Mars, it’s in vague terms, but it’s in vague terms that imply to me at least as a reader, that imply human colonies. That imply extended human life on mars. That colonizing Mars, the Mars project, these things aren’t about science projects. These things are about the first steps to extending off of the planet Earth and habitating other planets.
So I think the first thing that we want to do, and what Buzz is talking about sort of helps to frame, is that these different plans for Mars, whether it be the ideas of Buzz Aldrin, who has written on the topic extensively, whether it be NASA’s plans, whether it be some other country other than the United States or some private enterprise. These are about science projects, these are about little space missions. They’re not about colonization. They’re not about being a real first step to habitating other planets. I mean, yes of course, if we end up habitating other planets hundreds or thousands of years from now, perhaps the things that are happening on Mars will be seen as one of the steps on the breadcrumb trail back. But these are not sexy missions. Like they’re interesting, they’re potentially beneficial, but they’re not maybe what we think about when we hear, some famous person says, “We’re going to be on Mars in 20 years,” or “We’re going to be on Mars in 50 years.” It’s a lot more humble than that.
Yeah. So with that thought, let’s turn then to- we have a clip here of Elon Musk talking about space ex’s future Mars rocketship.
And I think this is really something that appeals to anybody with an exploratory spirit. If you’re an explorer, if you want to be on the frontier and unfortunately down below … And be where things are super exciting, even if it’s dangerous, that’s really who we’re appealing to here. And anything that anyone here could do in that direction would be great. Getting people excited about going, getting the public behind this. And the truth is, right now on Earth you can basically go anywhere in 24 hours. I mean anywhere. You can fly over the Antarctic Pole and parachute out 24 hours from now if you want. You can get parachuted to the top of Mount Everest from the right plane and you can go to the bottom of the ocean. Earth, from a physical standpoint, you can go anywhere. Anywhere. So there is no real physical frontier on Earth anymore, but space is that frontier. And so I think it’s going to appeal to anyone with that exploratory spirit.
So what I get from Elon Musk’s little impromptu speech there, is embedded in that, despite the fact that it’s mostly these vague … some vague generalities about exploration. I do get, from him, this desire to solve what he sees as some larger challenges or problems or however you want to frame it, for humanity. And I think you said earlier Dirk, the idea that humanity could be multi-planetary, could be expanding further into the universe. I see that in Elon Musk’s vision, even if that’s not sort of the immediate steps that are in front of us. The un-sexy, sort of step-by-step necessities for getting from here to Mars. What did you take from the audio clip of Elon Musk?
I thought it was nonsense. I mean it’s a lot of big picture hand waving with no meat on the bone. Look, you have the Prometheus myth over 2,000 years ago. Robots then come a lot later, AI comes a lot later. Thousands of years later. That doesn’t justify or validate the Prometheus myth as the harbinger of artificial intelligence or robotics. It’s sort of a fiction hand waving thought experiment. And then a lot later, for reasons disconnected from the myth, things happen that start to resemble it. What Elon Musk is doing is akin to the Prometheus myth, where, I mean it sounds great. He’s trying to sound inspiring and talking about frontiers and pioneers and oh my god, we all want to be that. God help us if we don’t sign up for that. But there’s no meat on the bone. I mean, we live on planet Earth that we’re … despite the fact that we’re screwing it up in some ways. Even if you take the worst possible estimates of where climate change is going to go, it still is orders of magnitude more habitable than Mars, or than any other planet that we can realistically get to in hundreds or thousands of years.
So why on Earth, no pun intended, are we acting like going to Mars to have somebody go down to plant a flag or have some rovers running around with smarter human intelligence to get science data, which I’m sure is helpful and interesting, why that is like the giant visionary wonderful thing that we should be all hanging our hats on. I mean, we continue to have gross inequality in the world, we continue to have war and genocide and a whole litany of negatives on our own planet, a planet that is designed to continue our lives, to be friendly to humans. Mars isn’t friendly to humans. There isn’t another planet that we can identify and confidently say is friendly to humans. So to me the whole thing is rubbish. It’s total rubbish. Sure, there’s some scientific value to going to mars. Sure, if we have somebody land on another planet, like okay. That’s a meaningful milestone. It’s something interesting that probably should be happening in the world, but to act like that trip, that goal, is this great, giant, visionary, awesome thing, it just isn’t.
Science fiction writers have talked about going Mars and living on Mars for a long time. I mean, Elon Musk talking about it just because he can make a rocket that can go there. A lot of people have the technology now to do that. I just don’t get it Jon, I don’t. It feels like a con game that the media, the people like Buzz and Elon and all of these other people who would fashion themselves as space pioneers are acting like there’s this incredible, amazing future that they’re going to bring into being. And it just isn’t true.
Yeah. I am not nearly as skeptical of the Mars mission technology development, just because I think it’s a good pointer for technological and scientific development. I will say, some of the interesting related news lately has actually been about some of the very mundane but practical realities of executing such a mission, which is in particular … The delay of technology that would be required to launch the next phase in the Mars mission which … Of course, you and I are very familiar with all the problems that can come along with software development. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s an awful lot of software that needs to go into creating this next stage for the Mars mission.
So NASA just recently announced that they’re not sure if the software validation part is going to be ready for phase two in the timeline they thought it would be. Not to mention that the price tag as of 2018 is going to be pretty substantial. 23 billion dollars for this, as of fiscal 2018. So just to frame it in sort of the cost benefit, which I think you touched on the benefit pretty hard. But it also is not cheap and not easy to do. So from that perspective, it could be a little difficult to get there if there’s not the money to fund it. All that being said, I do think that were all sorts of amazing technologies that came out of the earlier space missions, which have been injected back into our economy which have provided benefits. Whether it’s scientific learning or the miniaturization or what have you of various technologies. So I think there’s a halo effect from this sort of giant challenge. But what I’m hearing from you is that maybe the challenge is not the giant challenge that we should be focusing on in the near term.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we have a lot of problems here at home. I mean, the climate of the planet, how we treat each other, how we treat other species. It’s still borderline barbaric. We haven’t come very far, even as we’ve gone from horses to the moon. We haven’t progressed very much in terms of how we sustain ourselves and how we treat ourselves, and nurture what we already have. I mean, taking a barren, desolate planet and then seeing that as some kind of a first step to moving our species to another planet. We need to figure out our species before we figure out moving it to another planet. I’m not against space travel, don’t get me wrong, and there very well may be scientific benefits that are meaningful in the short to medium term. There very well may be meaningful scientific benefits that will lead to interstellar travel in ways that we can’t conceive of in 2017. I get all of that. What I object to is the horrible prioritization of pursuing those things as first order pursuits, even as we simmer away in our goo here on the Earth.
And then additionally, from the media, from folks like Elon Musk who are trumpeting this as this is the visionary thing, this is the big deal. Look, Elon Musk wants to be a great man, all right? He wants to be remembered. He’s highly ambitious. And so his bloating of these activities, frontiers, and pioneers, and acting like it’s the greatest adventure that humans will ever go on, that’s about his legacy. Buzz Aldrin’s interested in Mars. As the second man to the land on the moon and one of the primary benefactors for any future additional space travel that will happen, as an enhancement of his legacy, he too is grossly motivated. And I don’t mean grossly in a negative sense, but largely motivated to want the pursuit of space travel and the continued development of those frontiers. So you have people who are well-known, who I’m sure consciously, they aren’t seeing it as being super selfish and self-interested. But it is kind of selfish and self-interested. And the press sort of breathlessly goes with it. Because look, if you’re talking about space travel and colonizing Mars, people are going to click on that link. I’m going to click on that link, you’re going to click on that link, lots of people are going to click on that link.
So you have all of these parties who are shifting the focus from where it should be to where it shouldn’t be, and doing so in such a deceptive way. There’s interesting adventures on Mars, there’s a purpose. I would even not necessarily object to spending N billion dollars on doing some of that stuff. I don’t know the whole budget. I’d have to look before I could give a smart opinion. But I’m not in its face objecting to that. What I’m objecting to is, we’re treating it like it’s one thing when I think it’s very much a different one.
So listeners, please let us know what you think of the Mars mission and its impact on our future. And remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com – that’s just one L in the Digital Life – and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. And if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. Thats’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for episode 205 of The Digital Life. From Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett. And we’ll see you next time.