Kim Stanley Robinson says Elon Musk's Mars plan is a "1920s science-fiction cliché"


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I’ve noticed the people who seem most confident that we’ll soon have the know-how to build that permanent Mars colony tend to think of it as an engineering problem rather than a biology problem.


The grand vision of the 70’s was wrapped up in enormous LaGrange point communities, to support the machine shops and mining operations to bootstrap the next phase of human expansion… Completely missing the revolution in robotics and computing that would make all that investment pointless. The next wave of futurism imagined terraforming an entire planet, be it Venus or Luna or Mars, it seemed there was no project too big to imagine. But all the most realistic grand thinking about this planet, shows that we are unable to come together as a species to keep our own envirnoment from becoming unlivable. All that important diplomatic work in Kyoto and Paris? Has no teeth. It’s activity meant to convince the people that their leadership is managing the problem. (it’s the public perception that’s the only problem being managed.)

That earlier scheme to get people to sign up for a one way trip to mars was obviously a scam, just as messed up as those companies who’ll name a star after you for a fee. I haven’t actually sat down to read Elon Musk’s ideas about Mars, he is a battery salesman AFAIK, not a space expert.

KSR has got this one exactly right. Humanity may or may not make it to the outer system, but only after we’ve proven WE CAN SURVIVE ON THIS PLANET. I don’t know why people seem to think this isn’t an interesting challenge?


They also tend to ignore that barring a earth shattering kaboom, even after the worst possible outcomes of climate change come true, even after we’re hit by a dinosaur killer, Earth is still more hospitable than Mars. Antarctica is more hospitable than Mars. In other words its value is primarily scientific, and if you’re really, really desperate for space you can live in tunnels under the surface (well, there’s no water table to worry about :slight_smile: )


I think of it as being a necessary sequence. Not enough is know about the difficulties in biology at this stage, which is why the current engineering problems interest me. I see it as an effort in forced speciation, and I am not even certain if humans living on Mars in 100 years will be comprised of biology as we now know it.


“What do you mean they’re ‘squishy’? How squishy?”


We send probes to Mars and go through processes to make sure they are sterile so we can accurately determine whether Mars has life of its own, but now we’re thinking of sending humans there, who are covered with a teeming biome of bacteria?


Well, biology doesn’t mean a damned thing if engineering knowhow to get there doesn’t exist, so Mr. Robinson’s argument ends here.

I can’t stand the ecological argument against space travel - the referenced article by the guy pisses me off even more, especially this line:

Biological problems are harder for humans to solve than physical problems, because biology concerns life, which is extraordinarly [sic] complex, and includes emergent properties and other poorly understood behaviors. Ultimately biology is still physics, but it constitutes a more complex set of physical problems, and includes areas we can’t explain.

As a former biologist who still plays part in chipping away this complexity, this type of attitude is really perplexing. Seriously, biology SUCKS from engineering aspect. Pretty much the only reason we should be working on this shitty legacy system is because we just happen to be part of the crap. Call for preserving the “good old ecology” because it’s oh so complicated and we shouldn’t do anything about it smacks of vitalism, which is not much better than superstition.

It’s really ironic that Robinson, who wrote Mars series, to be calling Musk to lack “real” imagination. Besides the really weak (and horribly pessimistic) argument, we are talking about 1) some english major who wrote some book putting down 2) a physics major and engineer that is making spaceflight and electric cars economically viable through innovation.

I read Red Mars. Nothing groundbreaking in the book, with the terribly researched biology part. Denying someone with a real track record to lead the way just because he can’t come up with a better plan? I chalk that up to intellectual cowardice and jealousy. I definitely don’t like this guy now.


No sooner than Elon Musk sends human crew on a stationwise test voyage, China will have a larger exoplanet, tackily inserted on a gregarious orbital insertion path and a YCombinator gig will string together asteroids into minimal viable products.


This “We first need to solve our problems on Earth” attitude is premised on the idea that there is such thing as a solution to problems of humanity. I seriously doubt it. There is no endpoint at which we will be able to say “Ok people, done, no more problems!” (Maybe apart from some reversal to pre-civillization state - which is tantamount to giving up the game entirely.)

I feel the Mars mission is, at the very least, something greater humanity can finally strive for. Also, some of the specific problems might be a lot easier to solve without all the inevitable legacy baggage accompanying any revolutionary social arrangements here on Earth.


And it’s people like her that would have kept us from establishing agriculture, the scientific method, and going to the moon. Just a bunch of ecofreak pessimists who don’t want change and would prefer to return to running around in loin clothes worshiping trees and rocks. Luddites, good grief.


Exactly. I am not against eco-friendly technologies, but I don’t think we need to stop scientific endeavours and become single minded idiots either.


Exactly, why does she think that people bought her books in the first place. Because people are adventurous and explorers by nature.


Maybe because they liked “her” photo on the dust jacket?


Do you really think that’s why NASA sent people to the moon? A grand spirit of adventure? Senator Proxmire would have allowed that? The only real reason for Apollo was to one-up Sputnik. Having won a propaganda coup, the program dried up for good.

There is nothing on Mars that’s not available on Earth. There is nothing on the Moon that’s not available on Earth. Space travel costs millions of dollars, and any actual colony would require many many trips. So who’s going to spend billions on a project that will almost certainly yield nothing at all? Certainly not a government that’s obsessed with cutting budgets. A few entitled billionaires have taken a run at it, but aside from their vanity, will there be any payoff at all?

Trekkies take it as an article of faith that the Warp Drive will probably be perfected in the next decade or so, but Einstein disagrees, and so far one hundred percent of the data backs up Einstein. We probably won’t be jetting off to Zeta Reticuli any time soon. We probably won’t go there ever. And if we did, we would probably find nothing there that’s not available on Earth.

So we’d better stop fouling the nest. It may be all we have.


I’m down with leaving this rock, but at the same time not trashing it either.


From scientific perspective, finding life on another planet will be a great discovery, which will undoubtedly have a profound implication of our philosophy, and will shape the direction of humanity’s future.

Or does it?

Unless we find anything absolutely extraordinary that we haven’t found on earth (which we have plenty of), I doubt that it will have too much impact from utilitarian standpoint. Besides ending some argument at the bar, it probably won’t quell stupid people to keep denying the existence of extraterrestrial life (if you think moon landing conspiracy is bad…). Just look at anti-vaxxers and creationists. You definitely won’t be converting them, and even then, they won’t be of much use to the rest of humanity.

On the other hand, having someone land on Mars WILL do something to humanity, and likely to increase the odds of our continued survival and prosperity. I think biological contamination of Mars is a fair price to pay than to tip-toe ourselves into oblivion, neck-deep in the stupidity of humanity just to keep Mars pristine.


Well, we won’t find out if we didn’t try, would we? We don’t need the stinking warp drive to get to Mars.

There may well be nothing on Mars that’s not available on Earth. BUT we will have shitloads more of it. Asteroids also have craptons of rare minerals that we can’t dig out in abundance because it’s sunk into magma. Earth is expensive place to fly off of because it’s heavier. No, Earth isn’t Mars nor Moon - it offers plenty that Earth alone cannot provide.

The perverse nature of humanity is that the very fact that earth may be our ONLY nest, we will take it as a zero-sum game and fight over resources. Yes, we’d better stop crapping in our back yard, but space exploration and sustainability are not mutually exclusive, and KSR is just trying to grab attention because he wrote a book about Mars long time ago and wants some sales.


I loved the Mars Trilogy, so was surprised and appalled to read Aurora - I finished the book with an exclamation of “WTF!!!”. Its message: “Lets not strive for too much because there are difficulties and dangers ahead. Lets just wait on earth and surf the waves because that’s where we belong”. From this article I understand KSR was conveying his own ideology.

KSR: best sit back and not rock the boat, because the night is dark and full of terrors…
Elon Musk: the night is dark and full of terrors, so lets build a flashlight, do great and exciting things and it will inevitably save humanity.

Its a tough call, but I vote Musk.

The difficulties of colonising Mars are enormous. Nobody in their right mind would contradict that. But to take that and say “then we should not try”??? What a horrible attitude. To say we should fix our problems on earth first? We don’t even agree on the problems let alone the solutions??? Should we all sing Kumbaya and hold hands while we wait for a solution to manifest?

Going to Mars will probably do more to fix problems on earth than any other action available (education, enthusiasm, challenge, excitement, social development, common global goal, heros, science, technology, new frontier and on and on on). $30B for that is a bargain (I tippled Elons estimate, because lets face it, nobody ever comes in on budget). I think if you actually looked at what better things you could do with that money (not being blinded by the number of zeros in the sum), you will find that doesn’t go very far. The world is big and its challenges are big - throwing money at a problem doesn’t always work. Spending it on a Mars mission is the best use of that money to solve many of our problems on our home planet.


I don’t actually believe that Elon Musk is going to pay his way to Mars. He is building systems which he hopes to sell to NASA. So in that sense, Robinson is right. But Aurora is still a pretty awful book.