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Mars season 2
What the second season of Mars illustrated was the challenges of making an economic case for human settlement of the Red Planet. (credit: National Geographic Channel)

Mars: Bringer of ennui (part 2)


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Note: Part 1 was published last week.

One of the problems inherent in depicting humans on Mars is that all of our reference points are here on Earth. Certainly, humans will bring many of their same traits and foibles with them to the Red Planet. But Mars is a different place. The reasons people go, the type of people who go, and the challenges they will encounter there, will be unusual and unique. Other dramas about relatively near-term space exploration, like The Expanse, skip over the early years and jump to more fully-developed societies and economies. But in the early years of human missions to Mars, humans will go in small numbers and will not bring their entire society, culture, or economy to Mars.

One of the show’s strengths has been its ability to weave the documentary stories into the dramatic segments, using real-world people and situations as inspiration for the dramatic storylines.

That was certainly an obstacle that the creators of National Geographic Channel’s Mars had to face. But the struggle that the show had with imagining humans on Mars reflects the struggle that many space advocates and enthusiasts have in doing the same today. If entrepreneurs, engineers, and activists cannot figure out how people will live on other planets, let alone make money there, why would we expect a TV show to figure it out?

National Geographic brings you a world

The documentary segments of season two of Mars, unlike the dramatic segments, were solid. When I reviewed the first season in 2016, I noted that these segments could be edited together on their own and form an engaging, fact-based show about space exploration and science. Season one’s documentary segments focused on subjects like long-duration spaceflight and the possibility of life in hostile environments. The episodes included some great scenes with Elon Musk and the first return of a Falcon 9 first stage to the launch site that were exciting, emotional, and educational.

One of the show’s strengths has been its ability to weave the documentary stories into the dramatic segments, using real-world people and situations as inspiration for the dramatic storylines. The problem with season two’s documentary segments was not that they were not good or interesting. They were often—as one expects of National Geographic—beautifully filmed. The primary problem was that they were not really about Mars.

During the first season the show frequently jumped back and forth between dramatic segments, documentary segments that supported the dramatic segments, and expert talking heads, providing mostly soundbite quotes that made key points. Season two repeated this format, but the documentary segments also had a more coherent theme than the first season, focusing on the conflicts between corporations and their power, and Earth’s environment and those trying to protect it.

Season two’s first episode documentary segments focused on an oil worker on a North Sea oil platform, discussing the dangers and his separation from his family. They mirrored somewhat the plights, in the drama segments, of the Lukrum commander as well as the Olympus Town residents, who were far from Earth and everybody they knew. But there is not much that is interesting about watching somebody cash a paycheck. Other than money, there really is no reason to work on a distant oil platform. Nobody does it for adventure and excitement or meeting new people. It’s just a job, and there was no indication that the worker derived any pleasure from doing it.

The second episode’s documentary segments were better, dealing with Greenpeace activists protesting Arctic oil drilling—people who were floating on boats not far from the platform (or one just like it) shown in the first episode. Although they were risking their lives and their freedom, they were doing it for something they believed in and something that was bigger than their own lives. Even if you disagreed with their cause or their tactics, you came away understanding and perhaps even admiring their determination to fight for their beliefs. They also have a point: drilling for oil in the Arctic is difficult and the locations are remote, and major accidents similar to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico—which took five months to cap despite its close proximity to the United States—may be impossible to handle. Mars clearly wants to explore the issues of resource exploitation and the problems it can create, which is an intriguing subject and certainly pertinent at a time when the Gulf of Mexico will take decades to recover from an oil spill that lasted five months.

A theme that emerged from these episodes was the difference between people motivated by curiosity, justice, or empathy, and those motivated primarily by money.

The second episode featured a brief interview with former politician and frequent political philosopher-provocateur Newt Gingrich, who said that throughout history “preservationists” have always lost out to “progress.” Gingrich has always seemed like someone who would provide self-confident and smarmy narration while being eaten by a lion: his belief system is conditional, but he concedes nothing. His comment seemed provocative, but it is essentially a tautology. If you define “progress” as “good,” then you’re always going to favor “progress.” But not everybody agrees on what “progress” is. Furthermore, contrary to his assertion, history is replete with examples of people successfully fighting to preserve things. The National Park Service, the Antarctica Treaty, and maritime preserves are examples of efforts to preserve and protect against exploitation.

The third episode’s documentary segments dealt with scientists conducting field research. Often they put themselves at risk to gather data, working on ice fields or in remote locations in conditions that can kill them. One scientist commented how it was possible to become so focused on getting their data that they don’t realize that they’re putting themselves in dangerous situations. What Mars’ second and third episodes did well was to show how people can be driven by ideals and pursuits rather than money, and willing to risk their lives to achieve their goals.

The fourth episode, which dramatically depicted a disease outbreak on Mars, featured documentary segments focusing on a Russian Greenpeace activist who has been reporting on an anthrax outbreak in Siberia that killed dozens of people as well as thousands of reindeer. The implication was that new oil drilling activity in the Arctic has uncovered previously buried anthrax deposits—so the disease was already there, but it was humans who released it. The Russian government came in and tried to cover it all up, destroying most photos and videos of the outbreak and burning everybody’s cellphones. As the episode made clear, oil companies are developing Siberia, and the Russian government is a major shareholder in these companies, so if the companies want negative information destroyed, the government complies.

Mars’ fourth episode also explained how disease outbreaks are often covered up by governments for economic purposes, resulting in the disease spreading even farther and faster. The best most recent example is the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak in China, where the Chinese government refused to reveal what was happening and by the time they admitted it, SARS had spread beyond China’s borders. The theme of these segments—also echoed in the episode’s dramatic segments—was that there is a very blurry line between corporate and government interests, and corporations will quickly cover up deaths and environmental destruction in the name of money, and governments may help them.

These segments were among the most powerful of the series, in part because they’re so surprising: you assume that governments would want to stop the spread of deadly diseases as quickly as possible and protect their citizens, but the reality is that other interests, primarily economic, prevent that from happening. The first instinct during the outbreak of major disease has often not been to treat the sick, but to cover it up, which only allows the disease to spread further.

A theme that emerged from these episodes was the difference between people motivated by curiosity, justice, or empathy, and those motivated primarily by money. The former—the scientists and activists—had passion. This was a powerful theme for the series. Collectively, it would have made for a fascinating documentary about what is currently happening in Earth’s Arctic regions and how they are changing, and what that may mean for humanity.

But translating these earthly situations to a Mars setting, as the show tried to do, is difficult. The interactions and conflicts that happen on Earth in many cases derive from cultural and political relationships that have existed for decades or even centuries, and exist in highly complex social systems with many actors. If humans do go to Mars, they will go in small numbers. There will not be large populations or economic markets or cultural or political friction in the same way as on Earth. There are few good analogies between humans on Earth right now and those who may first set up camp on Mars. The best example of this is the question of the profit motive and corporate involvement in spaceflight.

A big “if”

Where the first episode and its documentary segments about oil drilling lacked impact was in explaining how the pursuit of profits on Earth were analogous to the human exploration of Mars. Several of the interview segments featured people such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and scientists and policy experts declaring that if there is money to be made in space, people—and companies—will show up to make money. That assertion is meaningless if you cannot explain what the product is and who will buy it. Shrouding illogic in a logical framework doesn’t make it real. It is mythology masquerading as wisdom, like declaring that if unicorns existed, there could be a unicorn-based transportation system. Anybody who has observed the pro-space activist movement for a few decades realizes that this is actually quite common. There is no shortage of people willing to take incomplete data, perform some basic math, and then “prove” the outcome that they prefer. The Space Review has been filled with articles like that over the years, starting with mythical assumptions and ending with space settlements and “profit.”

The producers and writers for Mars could never convincingly explain exactly what the product was and who was the customer. There was nothing on Mars that anybody was selling off Mars. Nothing to bring back to Earth, and no vast solar system economy that was ready to consume it. Over the course of its second season, the show provided several examples of the Lukrum Corporation providing goods on Mars: water from the planet’s subsurface, solar reflecting mirrors provided to the IMSF as part of a barter agreement in return for water and power, and the construction of a Chinese base on Mars. But the only real customers were governments. Lukrum was not really engaging in capitalism so much as government contracting.

Shrouding illogic in a logical framework doesn’t make it real. It is mythology masquerading as wisdom, like declaring that if unicorns existed, there could be a unicorn-based transportation system.

The failure of Mars to explain in its dramatic segments what the planet offers that people will pay to get is not surprising when one considers that this has been the fundamental problem with all arguments about space settlement. If there is a way that humans in space will make money for corporations, nobody has yet come up with a convincing example. This has not been for a lack of trying. Early in the last decade numerous people claimed that suborbital space tourism was about to become a robust business, which never happened. More recent claims that orbital space tourism is a burgeoning market have not progressed to the point where we have space hotels, despite slick graphics of orbital vacation destinations designed by famed architects. More recently there have been vague discussions about turning Mars into a retirement locale, neglecting the reality that retirees do not desire cold spots far away from their grandchildren. There have also been people claiming that vast ice resources at the lunar south pole are waiting to be tapped and turned into fuel—but no explanation of who is going to buy the water (see “Small steps for space settlement”, The Space Review, November 26, 2018). When pressed, advocates resort to some vague claim that the government will be the anchor customer along with amorphous private entities.

Not even Elon Musk is talking about going to Mars to make profits. In fact, he has been seeking profits in other businesses to fund his Mars efforts and has not claimed that there’s money to be made on Mars. His interest isn’t really capitalism; it’s a hobby or, at best, a charity.

As I wrote last year (See: “Kneeling before a sovereign,” The Space Review, April 16, 2018), George Washington University Space Policy Institute Director Henry Hertzfeld has noted that there is a long list of promised future markets for space—not all of them requiring humans—that usually failed to materialize, or at best did not materialize for decades later than envisioned:

  • 1960s and 1970s
    • Factories in space—drugs, gallium-arsenide crystals, materials
  • 1980s
    • Space Power Satellites
    • Direct TV
  • 1990s
    • LEO Telecommunications
    • Remote sensing
  • 2000s
    • Space Tourism (suborbital)
    • Colonization of the Moon; mining of Moon’s resources
  • 2010s
    • Fuel depots
    • Demand from foreign governments
    • Orbital space tourism

To this list we could now add asteroid mining, which gained much attention only a few years ago, but now seems to be in the process of collapsing. Of course, the standard response is to claim that these markets haven’t materialized yet. But after a few decades, these arguments look less like economics and more like religion, like predicting that the Messiah will appear soon, if we just keep our faith. It’s no surprise that the writers of Mars couldn’t provide an answer when one has eluded far more people for decades.

Puzzle planet

It is not difficult to find books and articles from four decades ago arguing that profits were ready to be made in space with human settlements, although their authors primarily claimed that it would be delivering services like electrical power to Earth, not mining resources on the Moon or Mars. And yet here we are, six decades into the space age, with the only viable businesses being telecommunications, and, to a much lesser extent, remote sensing, and the rockets to get them into space. Almost everything else is not commerce but contracting, servicing either telecom or government.

What the show Mars has ultimately, inadvertently, stumbled upon is the reality that the problems, and the answer to all these questions, ultimately lie not on Mars, but within ourselves. On Earth.

Most arguments in favor of capitalism driving human space exploration and space settlement are tautological: companies will exploit space resources to supply a human spaceflight economy. But that spaceflight economy does not exist, and nobody has been able to explain what creates that economy in the first place. If people are not already there in large numbers, then what will put them there to create a market that needs to be served?

Mars is set in 2042, but right now, in 2019, it is impossible to see what on Mars is going to prove profitable enough to draw companies there—at least ones that are not being paid by governments to go there. And if governments do not plan to send humans there, and there is no profit motive, then what will get humanity to Mars? What the show Mars has ultimately, inadvertently, stumbled upon is the reality that the problems, and the answer to all these questions, ultimately lie not on Mars, but within ourselves. On Earth.


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