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“The Case Against Mars” by Drexler (1984)

An article by K. Eric Drexler that appeared in the October 1984 issue of the L5 News ("Space Development: The Case Against Mars") is now available on the Foresight webiste. The article argues that Mars is not a good target if the goal is development of a broadly-based human expansion into space. At the time, Drexler was Associate Editor of the L5 News and a member of the Society's Board of Advisors, but the article reflected his views rather than L5 Society policy. He now serves on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, with which the L5 Society merged. Given that humans have made no progress beyond low Earth orbit in the intervening years, the arguments in the article are still valid.

14 Responses to ““The Case Against Mars” by Drexler (1984)”

  1. kds Says:

    Same as it always was…

    This article is even more valid today than in 1984. The L-5 Society is no more and there is the Mars mania based on Zubrin's ideas for going to Mars. This piece should be sent to the Mars Society and to Mr. Zubrin.

    I have always favored the O'niell concept of space colonization. Space colonies that could be built using boring 1970's technology and materials. How can we improve on the idea using developments in biotech and nanotech over the next 20 years? The asteroids (main belt) contain enough resources to build habitats to create usable "real estate" of upto 1000 times that of the Earth. How could Mars compete with this, with a land area of, perhaps, Asia at the most?

    Like Drexler, many of the founding members of L-5 are now wrapped up on nanotech and are in the Foresight group. The O'niell vision is more valid today than it was in 1976 when first presented to the public has The High Frontier. His origonal version of the idea included the notion of the space-based human population potentially becoming larger than the Earth's population, during a 50 year period! This assuming re-investment and increasing economies of scale during this period (again with boring 1970's technology and materials). So much for the "limits of growth" hogwash we still hear today.

    The naysayers who say that we can't have immortality because it will deplete the Earth, blah-blah-blah, go out and buy the latest edition (yes, there is a new, third edition!) of the High Frontier and eat your words! Better yet, help create a nanotech version of The High Frontier, and sell it to the public. Surely, biotech and nanotech advances will make The High Frontier even more doable than it was in the 1970s.

    The Foresight Institute should work with the Space Studies Institute (Freeman Dyson is the current president!) to create an updated version of The High Frontier to include possibilities brought on by developments in biotech and nanotech over the next 20 years or so.

  2. RobVirkus Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    Most people want to see space explored but the concept of colonization is not rational to them. Thus Mars is the logical next step for science and exploration. Only a minority view space itself as a destination in the O' Neill space colony sense. Molecular Manufacturing may mitigate the needs which proponents of O' Neill colonies use to justify space colonization. Under no reasonable scenario can space colonization be justified to the American taxpayer in our lifetime. Energy and resources are cheaper here. The only likely scenario might be a religious group or a group with similar characteristics such as Extropians, organizing a mass movement to build a space based society much like the movement to colonize the New World.

  3. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    kds asks:

    How can we improve on the idea using developments in biotech and nanotech over the next 20 years?

    I've attempted to answer this question with some suggestions regarding why advanced civilizations will always enshroud their stars in this commentary. See the section on O'Neill Habitats in particular.

    kds continues:

    The naysayers who say that we can't have immortality because it will deplete the Earth…

    It is worth noting that sooner or later we will have to match the birth rate with the death rate. However, biotechnology and subsequently nanotechnology will provide a significantly expanded carrying capacity on the Earth. More importantly, they may allow us to lessen the footprint of humanity on the Earth (by building in 3D instead of just 2D) if we balance our population earlier. Ultimately we can leave the Earth entirely — its in a really lousy neighborhood (at the bottom of a gravity well) — lets preserve the biodiversity in habitats with artificial gravity, dismantle it and use the material for better purposes.

    Being a bit more serious — there are two major barriers preventing humanity from migrating to offworld habitats — the adaptation of the human body to gravity and radiation exposure. However, once we understand the physical mechanisms that invoke genetic adaptations resulting in bone strengthening, we should be able to mimic these in habitats. It also seems feasible to apply genome patches to the human genome to make our genomes significantly more radiation tolerant, following in the footsteps of Deinococcus radiodurans. Once biotechnology has enabled those two advances the barriers to migrating off the Earth should be significantly lower.

  4. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    I don't see how you can say the concept of "colonization" is not "rational". It is completely rational for people, particularly those who have been dealt a resource poor hand, to be interested in colonizing any space where the resources may be more abundant. Bottom line (going back to our primate roots) — alpha males get the resources — females are primarily attracted to those with the greatest resources. Yes, you can argue that everything is "different" now, but I haven't seen a cultural system yet that manages to completely delete these genetic behavior patterns.

    Sure, molecular manufacturing will delay the onset of the time when you need to relieve population pressure on the planet — but it will not eliminate it unless humanity achieves zero population growth. The "minority" that views space as a better destination than Mars is the minority that has bothered to examine where the greatest resources are and the minority that realizes having to repeatedly pay the price to reliably transition in and out of gravity wells is a recipe for creating an impoverished society (in relative terms).

    So what if one cannot justify space colonization to the American taxpayer. I know a couple of billionaires who might be convinced to fund space development if there were a reasonable plan on the table for doing so. You also underestimate "our lifetime". Anyone under ~30-40 years old is probably likely to have an "average" lifetime exceeding several thousand years (before anyone responds to this comment I'd strongly suggest a little investigation into my background before doing so).

    Energy is not "cheaper" here. The insolation above the atmosphere is ~1400 watts/sq. m. The insolation on the surface of the earth is between 1/4 and 1/3 of that amount (on average). It isn't the case that "resources" are cheaper here either. If one understands that carbon is the most valuable resource (either for supporting life or supporting nanotechnology), then it is much more abundant (in the form of CO2) in the Kuiper Belt and/or the Oort Cloud.

    I don't disagree that it might take a group like the Extropians to colonize space. But it could also develop out of simple economic demand. There is a small space tourism industry and developments with carbon nanotubes could allow the development of tether technologies that make access relatively inexpensive. Whether things will follow that path remains to be seen.

    There is a very clear path to space development based on self-replicating MEMS-based machines (that eliminate the expensive "human" element). This would involve a process of identifying near earth objects which would require a very low delta-v to put into Earth orbit. You want to start small — with objects guaranteed to burn up in the atmosphere should "accidents" happen. Once you have the material in Earth orbit, you send up a small number of self-replicating MEMS systems that proceed to turn the object into useful materials (pure elements, rocket fuel, etc.). This is done so that most of the energy and matter resources are utilized for constructing additional copies of the NEO-disassemblers that can be used to disassemble additional bodies returned to Earth orbit. Pretty soon you have a large amount of material in Earth orbit to construct space hotels, fuel moon transport ferries, etc. This is a very clear path — it only requires micro-scale manufacturing and robotic assembly capabilities. Nanotech is not required though it could simplify the effort. What is required is the designs for such a system. They need not be terribly complex — if bacteria are good examples of self-replicating systems only a few hundred to a few thousand parts may be required. This is less complex than items we currently design such as automobiles or satellites (thought the parts required for a self-replicating system may need to be more sophisticated). The clever part is that this approach significantly changes the expense equation for space development. Instead of continual repeated costs for every kg of material you want to get into space it sinks those costs into the one-time design for the self-replicating asteroid or comet mining systems. Once our automated design tools and MEMS knowledge base expand sufficiently and our observing capabilities can identify large numbers of small near-Earth objects, I'm moderately certain the space development will occur.

  5. RobVirkus Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    I can see by your response and it's rating that I have expressed some unpopular thoughts.

    I did not say the concept of space colonization is not rational I stated my thought that it was not rational to most people. I was giving my assessment of the situation and you apparently mistook that for my own opinion.

    I do stand by my statement which is my own opinion that energy and resources are cheaper here. For now. Because of the infrastructure required for space based concepts. I also believe that Molecular electronics will make ground based solar energy much much cheaper long before massive solar power stations are built which have always been the primary justification for building O'Neill type space colonies. Drexler's original argument was that, as Richard Terra summarized "Mars is not a good target if the goal is development of a broadly based human expansion into space". My argument is that no such goal exists except in the minds of a small minority. That is a simple fact. Given that, Mars is the logical step in the public mind and it also holds an emotional draw that simple economics cannot argue against. If it comes at all I think human colonization will come after Martian exploration. Perhaps then two things will be accomplished. First, after the initial glory of exploration is over people will think about human settlements. Second, it will be easier to do large space endeavors once Mars is explored. Financially, politically and socially. I suspect by then there will be a healthy divergence of views and goals and human colonization may truly proceed on several fronts. As an aside, I joined the L5 Society shortly before the merger. I was also an SSI Senior Associate for five years. My interests shifted to nanotechnology during that time. It seemed a more reachable goal.

    Regarding my estimate of our lifetimes. I looked at your CV. Impressive. Until the breakthroughs are real I will keep conventional numbers however if you ask me do I think aging may be stopped in my lifetime I would answer quite possibly yes.

    The concept of space colonization has never been considered as serious as it should be.

  6. kds Says:

    To Colonize or Not to Colonize

    I agree most people do not see space colonization as being rational. However, most people are not aware of the O'niell concept, and probably do not care about it. I also agree that space colonization is not justifiable to the American taxpayer, but neither is Mars exploration or whatever else NASA is doing. I have argued for over a decade that NASA (and the FDA, another issue) should be eliminated. My point is if space is not a frontier to be settled by people like you and I, then I don't feel that we should have to pay taxes to support activities there. In other words, if space is not a valid frontier, then it is of no value whatsoever, and no tax money should be spent on it. In the same vein, there would be no problem if I, and some of my friends, were to get a bill through congress that would allow for private ownership claims on celestial bodies (much like the Homestead Act of 1864).

    I, of course, do believe that space colonization is a worthwhile activity and that it would best be done by private industry. I do not favor government-funded space projects. My point is that biotech and nanotech will make the O'niell idea much more doable with smaller amounts of money.

    My other point is that if the limits to growth argument (near term) is not a sufficient argument for space colonization, then it is not a sufficient argument against immortality either. Also, bear in mind that every immortalist that I know (including myself) wants to eventually go into space. Many of us were active in the L-5 Society before we go interested in life-extension and cryonics.

  7. Iron Sun Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    Space colonies that could be built using boring 1970's technology and materials

    I believed that in the 70s, when I was young and credulous. I also believed the hype about the space shuttle. Remember when it was going to provide cheap, reliable access to space, flying once a week? Didn't happen. O'Neill could claim that his plans were built on 70's technology, but none of the engineering was actually done. He was hyping a vision, not presenting a business plan. The amount of work that still needs to be done to make such habitats a reality is considerable. It was nowhere near 'doable' in the 70's, and that will continue to be the case for some time. Bummer, but there you go.

    In spite of my personal desires, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that human spaceflight is currently a waste of scarce financial resources. I really don't think we are going to see any significant off-planet development until a mature MNT can help.

  8. kds Says:

    Doable or not

    Actually, some of the engineering has been done by SSI (Space Studies Institute) which is a non-profit organization similiar to Foresight Institute, but where they do real engineering work. Yeah, alot of engineering remains to be done, especially materials extraction and processing in space (some of this has been done by the Russians). However, none of the work being done by NASA and its contractors is relevant.

    Yeah, I believed the hype about the shuttle too (weekly flights, etc.). However, what you need to realize about NASA and the NASA contractors is that they have the same M.O. as the military and the defense contractors. All work is done by contractors on a "cost-plus" basis, eliminating any incentive for cost control. As long as this remains the case, cost-effective space access will never be developed. A solution can only come from private industry based on real competition.

    My basic argument AGAINST the O'niell scenario is that cities of 10,000 people do not instantly spring into existance. Rather, they grow incrementally starting from small towns consisting of maybe 100 people or so. My guess is that the first space settlements will consist of several dozen people and will be focused on specific economic activity, like materials processing or equipment repair. Overtime, these settlements will grow, as more business activity is needed to service that which is already taking place. This, in turn, will lead to larger and larger space communities. However, all of this requires cheap access to space which, due to its nature, will never be developed by NASA and its contractors. You are correct in that, as long as NASA and the government contracting melieu continues to exist, manned space travel is a waste of time and money. This is the reason why I expect a mature nanotech industry to be developed before any useful activities are done in space. Besides, biotech and nanotech will make certain activities in space much cheaper to do than they are today.

  9. Iron Sun Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    It also seems feasible to apply genome patches to the human genome to make our genomes significantly more radiation tolerant, following in the footsteps of Deinococcus radiodurans.

    Hmm. I have studied less biology than you, Robert, but my first impression is that D. Radiodurans methods may not scale to the human genome. As I understand it, the bug uses single-strand annealing and homologous recombination to rejoin broken strands of DNA, but the crucial bit is that the bug's genome is packaged like a roll of Life Savers so that reference copies of any given chromosome are close at hand. Fine for germs, but maybe not for us multi-chromosomed big bastards. I don't really fancy being pumped full of carotenoid pigments, either. The initial two methods, not unique to D. Radiodurans, may be useful but I doubt humans will be getting a tan in front of a fast breeder reactor anytime soon. We can probably boost human radiation tolerance quite a bit, but just how significantly I'm not sure.

    Please correct me if I've got it arse backwards.

  10. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    Cool! Someone who actually understands my references… (I've actually cultured D. r. so its an organism near and dear to me :-) ). I may have also played a role in getting the genome sequenced since I visited LLNL's genome research group in the early '90's and suggested that understanding its radiation tolerance might eventually contribute to a greater understanding of human aging (assuming that some fraction of human aging is due to mutation accumulation).

    D. r. has an array of protective systems. I had thought that the pigmentation was presumably serving as a UV radiation absorption function. But in double checking for this comment, it would appear that the carotenoids absorb in the range from 460-550 nm (ref). So they either have additional absorption characteristics in the UV or may be unimportant for space-based radation tolerance. (Presumably the outer skin of the space-ship is engineered to block UV photons — or even better harvest them for energy). So I'm not so sure those defenses are "required" features. On the other hand — if carotenoids have anti-aging properties (free radical protection) there may be merits for being orange. It doesn't matter in space because if everyone is orange its the "natural" condition and you can apply a color filters on up-and-down video links so nobody has to know space-citizens are orange and earth-citizens are not. :-)

    Now, getting to the meat of the issue, your information may be somewhat more recent than mine, but I'd generally agree that D. r. is pulling the rabbit out of the hat with multiple genome copies and homology mediated repair (or homologous recombination). The figure I've heard is that it typically has 4 copies of the genome in each cell. (I'll note as an aside that E. coli seems to typically have 3 copies per cell — you can't replicate a 4 MB genome in a 20 minute division cycle — so Deinococcus has to have some tricks not found in other bacteria.) What makes it stand out is the tolerance for double strand breaks due to ionizing radiation (typically gamma rays in papers I've seen). If I recall the figures correctly, it will manage to tolerate and repair on the order of ~300 double strand breaks (i.e. its genome is spaghetti). Human cells in contrast are programmed to commit apoptosis with no more than a few DSB. This makes sense because there are several cancers caused by improper chromosome rejoining after DSB (see HERE). My current impression is that human cells preferentially do DSB repair via nonhomologous rejoining. D. r. on the other hand puts the breaks on cell division until it is sure everything is properly reassembled (presumably using the spare genomes as templates).

    So what one wants to do is reprogram the human genome so it is more clever with regard to its repair strategy. Not simple mind you, but I'm working on the technologies that would allow you to seriously consider that approach. Ultimately one would want to move in the direction of engineering human tissues to be polyploidal (> 2 chromosome copies). There are a number of plants with this characteristic so it isn't inherently impossible, though I imagagine a significant amount of work will need to be done with humans to get the gene dosage levels correct. Since most of the negative impacts of radiation exposure seem to be on rapidly dividing cells (bone marrow, gut, etc.) it would seem to make sense to extract stem-cells from these tissues and protect them in a well shielded freezer. When excessive radiation exposures occur you just pull them out, amplify their numbers and reseed your body with them.

    Ultimately one wants to live on the inside of asteroids or under "ponds" (water is abundant) so you can get the necessary shielding. Its probably going to require real nanobots to do the material harvesting and construction though so it isn't something I expect to see tomorrow.

    When both technologies are in hand — increasing human radiation tolerance by engineering a more robust genome and protecting ourselves from radiation levels by shielding us from radiation sources then I expect both technologies will be used and economic tradeoffs will dictate the application frequency of each technology.

  11. kds Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    Given the rate of development into nanotech and biotech as compared with the rate of space development, I agree that we will get a sophisticated nanotech industry before we get anywhere in space. However, I do think that an update of the O'niell concept utilizing probable biotech and nanotech developments over the next 20-30 years would be a worth-while activity for the Foresight group and SSI to do.

    Since the vast majority of people are not interested in large-scale space colonization, I feel that any manned space activity (paid for by tax money) for any other goal is a complete waste of money and should not be done. Furthuremore, Drexler does make a valid point that any expensive space activities that does not lead to space colonization will be very damaging for the following reason. One, people will come to believe that space activity will always be expensive and that it will never offer any payoff. This is a very powerful argument to oppose any space activity that is not specifically intended for space colonization. This is one of the reasons why I have argued for the elimination of the government-funded manned space program and the restructuring of NASA as a pure research organization, much like Los Alamos.

    It may be possible that most people regard space colonization as irrational because NASA has done nothing useful to convince people that it could be done at reasonable cost. Since the goal of space colonization has only existed in the minds of a small minority, then the majority should have no problem with that minority claiming ownership of the rest of the solar system once technology makes it possible for them to go there.

  12. Iron Sun Says:

    Re:Same as it always was…

    On the other hand — if carotenoids have anti-aging properties (free radical protection) there may be merits for being orange. It doesn't matter in space because if everyone is orange its the "natural" condition and you can apply a color filters on up-and-down video links so nobody has to know space-citizens are orange and earth-citizens are not. :-)

    ROTFL. Beware the space carrots! Bugger finding little green men, we'll be turning ourselves into little orange men :-D

  13. RobVirkus Says:

    Re:Doable or not

    Los Alamos sprang into existence quickly and had a fairly large population. Mining boom towns and the gold rush saw rapid growth. When the need arises the towns form quickly. The original O'Neill vision justified the large colony to house construction workers for large solar power satellites. Presumably that population would be replaced by people willing to live there of which there would be no lack in my view. I would love to move to an O'Neill colony.

  14. kds Says:

    Re:Doable or not

    You're right. However, the origonal economic basis for space colonization, space solar power, does not appear to be feasible in the forseeable future. So, I proposed asteroid mining as a possible replacement. Such mining would be done mostly tele-robotically, requiring relatively few people on hand, mostly to fix things when they break. There would not be the demand for 10,000 people right away that O'niell forsaw. Thus, I think the first settlements will be alot smaller than the Island One that O'niell proposed.

    Also, I wanted to say that large settlements will follow. However, small settlements will grow incrementally into larger ones, which is the historical pattern of city growth on Earth. O'niell forsaw building large habitats right away.

    I'm not sure if I would move to an O'niell right away, if one was allready built and available. I like it too much on Earth (big city life, tropical ocean diving, hiking, etc.). However, I would definitely like to relocate to one in the next 50-100 years (assuming that I make it). In the long run (200-300 years), I do think that the off-world population will out-number the Earth-based population. Nanotech will presummably allow for the construction of habitats far larger than the Island Threes that O'niell forsaw.

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