When Ray Bradbury, the author of "The Martian Chronicles", was asked why Mars had not yet been colonized, he replied: “People are idiots. They made a lot of stupid things: costumes for dogs, marketing managers and stuff like the iPhone, getting nothing but a sour aftertaste. If we'd worked to develop science, explore the Moon, Mars and Venus... who knows what the world would have been like? Humanity would be able to travel through space, but it chose consuming instead – drinking beer and watching soap operas”.
We talked to an American aerospace engineer, Robert Zubrin, more about why we need the colonization of Mars, and why this problem is now the main engineering challenge facing humanity.
Robert Zubrin is the world's leading expert in the field of research and exploration of Mars, an aerospace engineer, founder of the "Mars Society", which has more than 10,000 participants from 50 countries. He is also the author of the Mars exploration program «Mars Direct“, involving manned missions to the Red Planet and its colonization.
Robert is the author of hundreds of technical and popular articles, several books aimed at popularizing the ideas of colonization of other planets and their terraforming.
He has worked for Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin, and then he founded his own company, Pioneer Astronautics, which is involved in engineering research and development for the aerospace industry. Robert Zubrin is also an inventor and he has been awarded twelve patents.
His grandfather moved to the U.S. from Russia, and he bequeathed his sonorous Russian surname to his grandson.
– Research and development of Mars is not a cheap indulgence. What do we expect to get in return?
There are two aspects of Mars exploration – scientific and social. Of course, we want to get an answer to the fundamental question – whether there was life on Mars? This question concerns not only Mars, but also the entire nature of our universe – whether there is something out there capable of creating life? Is life based on a natural development from chemistry, or was there once some highly improbable almost miraculous event that gave rise to life on Earth?
90 years ago the Russian scientist Alexander Oparin, author of "The Origin of Life", outlined a possible scheme for the development of life from chemicals that may have existed on our planet in the early period of its development. The most important thing in his work is the concept of progressive complexity of the chemical structure from simple to more complex substances, to self-reproducing systems, to life. Scientists have already diverged from his particular scheme, but the idea remains a matter of great interest. We still do not know whether the appearance of life was something natural and almost inevitable, that would have surely happened in such a context, or its appearance was an incredible coincidence, the result of a random interaction of a whole set of chemicals that led to the formation of an unusually structured DNA molecules. If everything was inevitable, it means that other planets inhabited by living beings are rotating around most stars of our spectral type, and some of those living beings are rational. Because you know the history of life on Earth is the story of the development, the transition of life from simple to more complex forms that have greater ability to function, a more developed intelligence and an ability to evolve even faster. This is one concept of the universe.
The essence of the other concept is that the universe is dead. Life somehow managed to appear here on Earth, but the rest of space is empty of life.
People have been trying to find an answer to these questions for thousands of years and now we are close to the answer if we make a flight to Mars. After all, if it turns out that both planets we have studied have or have once had life forms on them, then the existence of living creatures in the rest of the universe is highly probable.
Imagine that you live in an apartment, you never go out or leave it, and you do not even have a TV. You will be in complete ignorance of the rest of the world. And suddenly you receive a letter stating that you have won the lottery. You cannot say whether you are the only person ever to receive such a letter, or that it is a general occurrence. But if you could go out into the corridor, go up to your neighbor and say, "Look, I have won the lottery!", and she answers, "I have also won the lottery", and then you would understand that this is likely to happen quite often. So it is with life in the universe.
But there are other questions. Will we be able to live somewhere else? What is the future of mankind? Will we be tied to the Earth or be able to change our habitat? If we succeed on Mars will we be able to repeat it somewhere else? The answer to these questions not only affects the future, but also the present. The way people think about the future determines their actions in the present. This is an extremely important point. For example, we can ask ourselves whether resources are finite or infinite. If you believe that they are finite, you will then perceive every person and every nation as an enemy, you will have to start a new war to subdue them. Adolf Hitler said: "The laws of existence require continuous killing to let the best people live". He uttered the phrase in October 1941, in the same month when he issued the order to kill all the inhabitants of Leningrad. The Germans said that they needed space to live, so they must kill all those people. But it was a lie – not just evil, but also a lie because this idea corresponded to reality only in their minds. Germany did not need the additional space to live. Today Germany occupies a smaller area than in the days of the Nazis, while its population and living standards have risen markedly. They did not need to do what they did; such a need existed only in their heads. If people think that the planet's resources which are available to mankind are limited, this will result in failure for everyone. Then everyone will start wanting inhabitants of other countries to die because they all use the same resources. This is similar to insanity, isn’t it?
– Does this mean that there is no lack of territory, food and other resources, and that it won’t occur in the near future, that the problem is only in the people’s minds?
The danger is not the lack of food. The danger comes from people who think that there is not enough food for everyone. And the danger is not that we supposedly have little land. The danger comes from people who believe that there is not enough earth for everyone. Do you know why the people in this room do not kill each other in order to get all the air? If we run out of air, we will die, so why don’t we fight for it? Because we’re quite sure that there is enough air for everyone, and there is no need to fight for it. We can’t live longer than a couple of minutes without air, but we won’t fight for it, because its reserves are not limited. Although the amount of air in this room is finite, we know that there is plenty of air outside. You can simply open the door and go outside. But if we thought that the air in the room is all that we had, and other people breathed it, and therefore pose a threat to our own lives, we would have attacked them and force them to stop breathing. Is that not right? This is the crux of the problem. The risk of running out of air doesn’t exist, but there is always the danger that someone will turn up one day and suddenly decide that we're running out of air. We'll have to show them that you can always open the door.
Therefore, there are two concepts of the future: one leads to war and destruction, the other leads to peace and prosperity. It all depends on which one we might accept. The notion that the Earth and humanity have a limited supply of resources still has many supporters. It is shared by lots of people; it is promoted by various organizations, which poses a great danger. But people can be shown that our horizons are constantly expanding, that the entire universe is available to us, not just the Earth. This makes the concept of the finiteness of resources incorrect, undermining its foundation, and proves the correctness of the second concept. Other people and other nations don't take from us, they create and invent for us. The more people there are, and the better off they are, the more inventors and inventions there will be. Mankind appeared in the universe not to destroy but to build. This is a struggle between two ideas, and the concept that people are able to explore space, colonize other planets and gain access to new resources has the greatest creative potential. We have endless possibilities, and our future is limited only by our creativity, rather than any physical boundaries.
– In addition to Mars exploration, in your opinion are there any other global engineering problems which now face humanity?
Of course, we have to find solutions to new problems, for example, with regard to finding sources of energy. Locally we solve this problem every time we find a new oil field. But a more serious response to this challenge will be the invention of a new energy technology and the creation of new energy resources. Uranium didn’t become an energy resource until we discovered nuclear energy. Right now we are developing the technology of nuclear fusion, and it will turn deuterium into an energy resource. Deuterium is a heavy hydrogen, which is currently not included in the number of energy resources. We must learn to use this resource for when all the oil fields are depleted. The mission of humanity is to create or discover new resources with the help of our creative ability. Mankind has not survived by sitting idly back, but due to the creation of new resources – that is what we need to do. Helium -3 may become a promising energy resource in the future, which is the ideal fuel for a nuclear fusion reactor in the outer solar system. But it will be available to us only when we become fully-fledged space explorers as the nearest supply of it is on the moon.
We must understand that people are not native inhabitants of the whole of planet Earth – they are native inhabitants of Kenya. It is where we all come from. We were not born to live in Russia or North America. We are tropical animals with long, thin arms without fur. Is that not right? People can live in all parts of the world only because of the technical ingenuity of our ancestors. In some parts of Russia, or in my native Colorado, we would be unable to live a single winter day without appropriate technology, such as houses, clothing, fire, etc. If we stayed in the environment to which we were adapted by nature for too long, we would never have gone beyond the Kenyan Rift Valley. We would only have used the resources available in this valley; we would have hunted the local animals and gathered the native plants. Our plans for the future would have been very modest. It’s not too tempting a prospect, especially from the position of what we have today, right? But in improving technology, we managed to become a global type, including hundreds of nations, cultures, languages, types of social organization with a large variety of technical inventions. Some people create something that will then be used by many others. But our prospects and opportunities will be much greater if we can explore space. Then our descendants will consider our present state to be as primitive as the Stone Age seems to us.
Space is huge. Mars is not our destination, but our direction. This is an important step that we have to take. But it’s just the next step, not the last one.
Robert Zubrin: schoolchild and engineer.
– There is a point of view that the desire for expansion is inherent to man and human nature. It happens when a person just comes out of their cave, heads towards the river, moves to the other side and continues to expand their territory...
In general I agree with this opinion. But I do not believe that such a development is inevitable. It is a matter of choice. Not everyone crosses the river. Some of them remain on one river bank and continue to exist; some of them die because of limited opportunities. In the past, our ancestors were fish that inhabited the oceans. Now the oceans are still full of fish, but only on land can you see the stars, only here it was possible to invent fire and other technologies. If we stayed in a confined space, we would not have created civilization and would not dream of space travel.
So not everyone swims across the river, and the only question is whether we'll meet other civilizations on the other bank of the river. We've seen the death of many civilizations. In the 20th century our Western civilization almost died too. But in 1914 people lived better than they ever had before. If you look at how the world changed from 1815 to 1914, you will see many amazing things: we invented steam engines, railways, telegraphs, electricity, record players, movies, airplanes. Quality of life rose dramatically; we found cures for many diseases, which previously had seemed to be incurable, and many more free people occupied the world. Everything was getting better and better, but the great leaders suddenly began to argue for some reason about the boundaries of small Balkan countries, and everything went to pieces. Everything exploded. The First World War was a colossal disaster, which would be followed by other even more devastating wars. Great nations need ways to express their greatness. But that is no reason to exert political influence on other countries to impose your policies, as it was in the Balkans, the Middle East or other regions. I'm certain of it. Europe would have been much better off in 1914 if it had thought more about Mars, and less about Serbia and the murder of the Archduke. If we become open in a new way, if we can turn into space-faring people, it will free us from our apparent limits. People will no longer need to fight for geographic power. We won't need to fixate on such issues as a squabble over Syria. Do you understand what I mean? We need to look up. Mars can free us and unite us.
Being an American, I'm certainly very proud of the fact that in the United States there exists four percent of the world population, but we have created half of all recent inventions. People around the world use our inventions. China cannot boast a large number of inventions made these days, but this country is growing, and the children of peasants are becoming university students, and then scientists and engineers. Maybe soon China will invent many things that everyone will use. But China's development won’t do any harm to America; on the contrary, it will help it! If Russia makes a number of inventions on a world scale, they will help to all inhabitants of the planet. This will help to everyone to progress.
I am an inventor myself. Many of my inventions are related to space flight, but some have applications on Earth. One of them will soon be put into production. We are talking about a portable system for producing liquids from natural gas that is now being flared. Throughout the world, including Russia, huge amounts of natural gas is being burned. But natural gas contains components such as propane and butane, which can be converted into a liquid and then transported and used. I invented a portable system that lets this happen. The first field device is ready and is already being tested. The invention will be used in the United States, and then, I'm sure, in Russia as well. People in Russia have already shown some interest in it.
Portable system for producing liquids from natural gas, developed by Robert Zubrin.
– The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States led to a huge leap in the development of mankind. And even if Gagarin didn’t fly into space and Armstrong didn’t step onto the lunar surface, it would still be of great importance today as advanced space technology was transferred to everyday life and is now widely used in various spheres of life. How can the Mars exploration program affect our lives even without actual colonization?
Yes, even if we did not fly to the moon, we would still have made some progress. But as a result of the "Apollo" program the number of graduates with majors in science in the U.S. had doubled. It refers to all levels of education: schools, colleges and graduate schools. We got millions of new scientists, engineers, inventors, doctors, researchers, businessmen operating in the technical fields. In the 1960s all these people were little boys and their favorite toys were space rockets. Therefore, the effect of landing on the moon was very significant for the United States. It is not so much about technology, developed by NASA or contractors, although some of them were very important – it is much more about the intellectual assets that our society has acquired. People trying to get funding for the space program sometimes claim that they will be able to discover a cure for cancer or something like that in the space station. Well, that's possible, though it’s unlikely to happen. But it’s very likely that a team of scientists who could invent such a cure might well include a large number of people who were inspired to become scientists by the space program.
– How should we deal with the formation of the future generation – those people who will explore Mars?
I think the most important thing in education and whether a teacher will prove to be successful in their profession or not, is the interest of students in the process of learning. You need to present your subject so that the children become interested in it, to explain why they should study science, and instill a love of learning at an early age. Before becoming an engineer, I worked as a teacher for several years. I taught in both good and bad schools, and I understood these things: anyone can teach those kids who want to learn, and no one is able to teach those who do not want to. Desire to learn is much more important than any equipment which a school has and much more important than the textbooks used. Children need something to get inspiration from, and I think the Mars Exploration Program is suitable for this role. Thanks to it, we'll have more boys and girls who really want to learn, so that they can be explorers of new worlds.
– What are the obstacles to the Mars development? Is there no needed technology? Or it’s just a lack of money?
There’s never enough money, but that’s not the only problem. What matters is where you spend the money. The United States spends more money on other things. Even if they say that we are in a budget crisis and they need to cut expenses, the budget of the U.S. government still is about $ 3.6 trillion. But NASA's budget is $ 16 billion. It turns out that the budget of the U.S. government is 200 times greater than NASA's budget, and only 0.5 % of the total budget is spent on space exploration. If we add one tenth to it, other sectors won’t lose significant funding. So it's not that we have no money, it’s about whether we are ready to act. In fact we can afford much more expenses: NASA’s budget could be increased two or three times, but we don’t need this right now. I think that we can implement our programs in the current budget if we have proper focus and proper prioritization. Russia is not as rich as the United States. I do not know the exact numbers, but I'm sure that in Russia, space research receives also only a small portion of the state budget. I think Russia can afford space exploration, and it’s not necessary to say what enormous benefits it will bring. It will increase the intellectual capital; attract young people to science and technology, which in turn will benefit the economy, national defense, health care and everything else. Putin wants Russia to once again become a great nation, and great nations do great things.
Of course, there are a number of technological problems on the way to Mars, but none of them is insurmountable. For example, we need to build a heavy launch vehicle. But we have already had a rocket, "Saturn 5", and Russia has had "Energia". There are many things to be done by engineers, and they need to be done right. But all of them are within the technical capabilities of our era. There is nothing that needs to be done that we can not do.
Modern technology allows us to reach Mars in six months. Of course, it would be better if we could reduce the time of the journey, but there is no urgent need for this. The time taken to travel from England to Australia in the 19th century was also six months. The first colonists will take six months get to Mars in a spacecraft. When our civilization settles on Mars, we will have an incentive to develop better spaceships and a fusion engine that will allow us to reach the Red Planet in just one month. Moreover, it will allow us to go to the outer solar system and then beyond. Now a mission to Saturn would take at least six years, but with the help of new technology we will reduce the length of the journey to six months. Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a ship that, even fifty years later, no one would have attempted to cross the ocean in. Until we started crossing the ocean, there was no need for transoceanic ships. But after European civilization became transatlantic, we moved forward, building three-masted sailing ships, then steam ships, then ocean liners and in the end created a Boeing-747. Something similar will be the case in space exploration. The first colonists will fly to Mars on such ships, that when their grandchildren hear stories about the technical equipment of their ancestors, they won’t believe that anyone could have traveled anywhere in such ships because they will seem to have been so primitive.
Therefore, the main obstacles to the colonization of Mars today are political in nature. We have to convince politicians that it is necessary for them to embrace this challenge, that there are a number of problems they can solve this way. Some things are obvious: it is necessary to mobilize the national economy, technology, resources, research, to improve education, to create work and so on. Finally, we need to improve public morale, to create intellectual capital, the spirit of cooperation which will allow countries to act together. Some politicians are able to understand it, but why do we need to do it now? One reason is to improve international relations. Hostile international relations can lead to disaster for which there is no other prerequisite. Consequently it is important to diffuse the tension, which may now be increasing. This is a dangerous thing. A joint mission to Mars is one of the ways of creating trust and friendship.
– How did you get the idea to create Mars society?
In 1996 I published the first edition of my book "The Case for Mars", and then I received 4,000 letters from around the world. Some of them were written by astronauts, others by engineers from the NASA laboratory, school teachers, firefighters, police officers, military widows, New York Opera managers and Paris bankers, 12-year-old Polish children and other people. It was incredible. Looking at the huge pile of letters I said to myself: what if we could unite all those people, then we would have the strength to fulfill our plan. We announced the founding congress of the Martian Society in Boulder, Colorado, and 700 people came there from all over the world. Of course, most of them were from the U.S., but many Europeans also came to the congress. There were a few Russians, but very few, even fewer than Poles. Even Cypriots and representatives of Mozambique came.
The Mars Society then included representatives from 40 countries. There were a few Russian citizens, but the chapter was not large and eventually became inactive. Now there is renewed interest in forming a Mars Society Russia. A Facebook group has been formed and hundreds of people have joined. We plan to hold a founding convention in Moscow in April.
In America the mission of the Mars Society is to promote the idea in society, to help compatriots broaden their horizons. We want to convince politicians to take our ideas seriously. We have already achieved some success – for example we have helped to get the U.S. budget for Mars robot exploration increased.
Mars Society organized two "Martian stations" on earth.
– What projects have you started within the Mars Society?
We have two "Martian stations" on earth. One of them is located in the Arctic, on Devon Island (Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station), and the other is in the American desert in Utah (Mars Desert Research Station).
In Utah, we do a lot of research. We have had over 130 crews. Each group spends about two weeks at the station. Then it is replaced by another group. A group from Russia also came here last spring. We do not study the psychology of long duration space flights. Instead we focus on another problem. We conduct simulations to understand what research methods and techniques are suitable for Mars, and what aren’t.
For example, how much water does a team need? Physiological needs can be found in a medical textbook. But this is only a small volume of the water that you use. Much more water is used for washing up, cooking and other needs. Some people like to have a long shower, but on Mars you won’t be able to do it. You just step into the shower stall, turn on the water for a couple of seconds to wet the body, then turn off the water, soap yourself and turn on the water for a few more seconds to rinse the soap. We can save even more water if we wipe the body with a wet sponge. But why should we do it every day? How about once every two or three days? How far can you go in being economical? It is a trade between mass and morale. According to a NASA assessment, water consumption is 30 liters per day, per person. We managed to reduce this number to 12 liters during the experiments, without affecting the spirit of the crew. Even if we consider that most of the water will be recycled, this would result in a significant reduction in mission mass.
Another question is how effective is the use of space rovers on Mars. Once concept for such rovers would be pressurized vehicles the size of an SUV car. You can drive it on the planet's surface and sometimes wear a spacesuit to go outside for research. We have shown that the use of smaller cars is much more effective. We are talking about ATVs in which you can ride wearing a spacesuit. So your research becomes more informal this way. Seeing an interesting stone, you can bend down and pick it up. You do not need to go through depressurization. And if the ATV gets stuck, one or two people are enough to pull it out. Currently my Mars field exploration model has one rule: do not take what you cannot lift. Given the shortage of special tools it is the right decision.
Here is another example. NASA is interested in remotely controlled robots, and some people have supported them, making the argument that we should take these robots to Mars with us, because when part of the team is not exploring the planet on an ATV or doing anything special, driving robots can give them something to do. Our experience has shown that the crew doesn’t need other people to come up with new tasks for them. They have a lot to do, and even if you deploy the robots only during rare free moments, their effectiveness will be a thousand times lower than that of living researchers. Therefore, only small remote control robots may have an advantage if they can climb a cliff, or go into a small cave that is too small for humans. In other words, these robots can access places where we can’t otherwise reach, and they can therefore serve the crew as useful tools. But large independent space rovers, like Curiosity or MER, will become obsolete once humans are on Mars.
As for the station in the Arctic, we have longer exploratory missions here. Expeditions have shown what psychological difficulties are faced by researchers. Some motivated individuals, who have waited for ages to be able to conduct research in such an environment, joined the expedition, and their dream came true: they are at the station in an exotic setting. They have limited time, and they go out of their way to make the most of it. They work themselves in to a state of exhaustion. When I was with my team in the Arctic, I had to constantly order them not to work after nine o’clock in the evening. Otherwise, they would just become burned out.
Now we are organizing an expedition to the Arctic station, which will last one year. We called it "Mars Arctic 365". Now we are recruiting volunteers. I hope the mission will begin next year, but first we need to gather a good team and get funding.
– What are your requirements for volunteers?
Volunteers must be in good physical shape and between 22 and 65 years old. We need two types of technical knowledge and skills: these people should either be scientists, for example, geologists and microbiologists, or be good at repairing things. Thirdly, we need someone with the skills of a doctor. At the desert station the presence of such people wasn’t very important because nobody stays there for more than two weeks and could go to the city for medical care. But we can’t do without doctors in the Arctic.
– What do you think about other initiatives, especially private ones, relating to Mars exploration, and what role do you play in them?
As regards the role of the Mars Society in all these projects, first of all, we have helped inspire people like Elon Musk and Bas Lansdorp do something that will bring Mars exploration closer. Elon founded the SpaceX Company, and Bas launched a Mars One project. There are other people who are doing something similar, drawing inspiration from us too. I became a consultant for the Mars One project and now I’m working on the possible ways to cooperate. In turn, we invited Mars One to participate in the Mars Arctic 365 mission.
– What does Mars exploration mean for you personally? Why do you devote all your energy to it?
We live only once, and for me the measure of human life is what a man has done. We are looking for opportunities, looking for a place where we will be most useful. If I can do something to achieve this common goal, my life becomes more meaningful. That's why I do it.
Robert Zubrin near the model of the automatic station "Mars-1" in Moscow Memorial Museum of Astronautics.
– Are you training a group of like-minded people who are willing to follow in your footsteps and pass your ideas to future generations?
I hope that the number of young people sharing these ideas will only increase, and that some people will want to devote their life to them. I also hope to convey my thoughts through books and activities within the Mars Society. In 2011 my book "The Case for Mars" was published with updates. In the United States they have sold 100,000 copies of it, even in Poland we have sold 10,000 copies. I also found a publisher in Russia and they will publish my book in Russian too.
– Would you like our distant descendants to talk about you as a person who helped our civilization to survive?
Of course, I would be happy to be the man who helped people to get to Mars. But I would also be happy just to do something important to achieve this goal, and I will make every effort for it.