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Martian Mindsets

A couple of mindsets caught my attention at the Mars Society conference: a strong science-über-alles bias regarding activities in space, and a curiously holistic perspective regarding settlements.

One clear example of the science-über-alles mindset was NASA Ames’ Bill Clancey discussing his “mobile agents” work at MDRS. He described in great detail the way the mobile agent framework functions in support of simulated EVAs from the MDRS hab, helping the “astronauts” collect and organize survey and science data and share it with a remote science team scattered across several countries and continents. While I could easily see the utility of this technology to scientific expeditions, I found myself wondering what utility it might have in settlement activity, where the users would be less concerned with gathering geological data, finding fossils, etc. than with surveying, building structures, assembling complex systems, etc. I didn’t get called on, but I wanted to ask Clancey how he thought his system might be different or adapted to settlement use rather than scientific data gathering…I would expect the activity planning, location-finding, and communications capabilities would be just as useful in that context, but perhaps there are other capabilities useful to day-to-day settlement operations which are overlooked because of the tight focus on science applications.

(And don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning the value of Clancey’s work…it was truly fascinating material, and well worth learning more about. I’m only using this as an example of what I see as a perhaps too-tight focus on science.)

Likewise, watching the presentations on FMARS and MDRS — where all the simulation activity seems to revolve around science — made me wonder if the Mars Society isn’t missing out on an opportunity. Would it be wise to use MDRS or the planned Iceland base as a place to field test things like, say, ISRU propellant and plastic production hardware, construction methods for more permanent structures beyond the tuna-can habs, metal refining and stock-material production hardware and related fabrication techniques, large scale food production (as opposed to life-science greenhouse experiments), etc.?

While science and exploration were well-covered, none of the presentations I attended had a clear focus on nor demonstrated an understanding of the economics involved in a realistic Martian settlement. There was, for example, no inkling of what an economic development scenario for Mars might look like…while there were references to making a settlement “self-sufficient” or “self-sustaining”, or making a settlement “independent from Earth”, there was no serious talk of how to accomplish such things, or even an acknowledgement that it might take many settlements, trading amongst themselves, to bring about any signficant degree of economic independence. Even the settlement design stuff (excluding some elements of the Mars Homestead project) was predicated on science value rather than establishing a self-sustaining economic base — where to place the settlement for max science return, how many scientists you could put in it, how much science lab space it would provide, etc. Science was assumed to be the ultimate reason-for-being for all activity on Mars in all the presentations I attended.

In addition to this science preoccupation, I also noticed a holistic or “ecosystem” mindset at work, in which those pushing settlement ideas suffered from the conception of a settlement as a planned, integrated whole, comprised of parts each one of which was essential and irreplaceable in the proper functioning of the whole. There was no evidence of constructive chaos, no sign of competition or focus on comparative advantages, no avenues for growth (except by adding identical integrated units, as in the Mars Homestead case). The settlements were assumed to be built complete from the start, with the exact amount of space needed for a given crew size, the exact amount of power needed for whatever they were planning up-front to do at the settlement, the exact amount of food production needed for the planned crew, the exact crew skillset required to operate them, and so on. There seems to be an underlying assumption by each settlement planner that their settlement will be the only one on Mars, and so will have to cover all the bases itself. Flexibility and growth capability did not seem to be part of the settlement planning, which reminded me of the sort of economic planning derided by Hayek and others, nor was there any acknowledgement of the potential for trade among settlements specializing in various commodities or services, something which will be required (and which ought to naturally emerge) in a realistic, organically-developing Martian economy.

5 comments to Martian Mindsets

  • ken anthony

    Exactly right. The impetus to go is not going to be to join some new bureaucracy! Instead, it’s a chance for liberty (for the grandchildren of the pioneers that pay the cost.)

  • Property Rights for Mars Rovers

    One of the main ways of getting out of this mental trap of bureaucratic central planning is to establish property rights on Mars early on. Most radically, one might conceive of property rights granted to individuals and companies on Earth by virtue of remote possession by their rovers on Mars. That is, if you can land a rover in a section of virgin territory on Mars and occupy it with that remote presence for some period of time, you will be granted property rights to that land. Consider this as remote homesteading.

    We know that Mars rovers are likely to be as expensive as communications satellites for the foreseeable future. In order to give individuals and corporations an incentive to engage in this activity (Mars exploration and development), one needs to grant them the possibility that they can benefit in a commercial way. Property rights on Mars do not need to wait for the arrival of humans on the planet.

    I understand that this is part of a larger problem, that of poorly developed law concerning the ownership of any non-terrestrial mass. Who owns an asteroid or that section of lunar terrain near that crater? Furthermore what nation has sovereignty over these lands or bodies? In the case of the Moon and Mars these questions will have a chilling effect on commercial activity until they are resolved in some satisfactory manner.

    I believe that US Space Policy can help define non-terrestrial ownership, and that this will have a positive impact on the flexible and progressive development of off-world outposts and colonies. Let us allow robotic probes and rovers to remotely homestead and claim for their owners property rights on these other worlds.

  • Good idea Cris, the rovers actually control their immediate region physically, the law should reflect that. If we withdraw from the OST that starts a one year countdown to nullity. The next step would be new Organic Law from Congress to establish the rules for property claims in the new U.S. territory.

  • Except that doing so would guarantee that no other country would recognize the claim.

    It would be better to work out a multilateral arrangement to *replace* the OST with something more amenable to markets and private property rights than to unilaterally withdraw from the OST and assert sovereignty over such a claim, especially when there is to my knowledge no precedent for a teleoperated or remote-controlled assertion of territorial claim (aside, perhaps, from the Pope splitting the New World between Spain and Portugal…and look how well that worked out).

    Other countries would be more likely to respect claims if they were party to the process under which it was made, and the same process was open to their own participation. “Multilateral” need not mean “UN-sponsored”, nor would such an arrangement need to involve (and therefore appease) every country in the world like UN-type agreements do — an arrangement among spacefaring nations and those with serious prospects of being such might suffice.

  • >multilateral arrangement

    I might be convinced if all countries that have ratified the theiving _Moon Treaty_ were excluded.

    Simple withdrawl would only take one year and would open the way for U.S. banks to underwrite mining operations based on ore value.