Europe’s space agency director (2015-), ESA’s Johann-Dietrich Wörner, in 2016 created a vision called MOON VILLAGE. The idea is that all agencies and private enterprises could add pieces, within their own budget and capabilities, to help build up this first settlement on the Moon, be it for science or economic activities.
Both the flexibility and the unique challenge of this concept are of course appealing.
We have written about it in our earlier blog posts: Moon Village 2.0: a more precise program you can join, and the article The ESA Moon Village: Is it a vision, a project or a mirage? And made a suggestion that would use tunnel boring machines in an alternative manner: Creating surface tunnels on the Moon the lazy way (think bacteria and a baking pan).
But the Moon, compared to other destinations in the solar system, is a harsh mistress. And while engineers can have nightmares thinking about the varied ways the space environment will kill you, the argument will always be put forth that humans are better of taking little steps closer at home before going to Mars. Also, there is not a single mission funded, nor is an exact location on the Moon defined, where this village should take root.
But looking at the way these ambitions are framed and cautiously voiced, it also soon becomes clear that to most, not the Moon, but MARS is the main prize.
To many in the public a MARS VILLAGE should be our goal instead. Much of the speech of ESA’s director can even remain the same.
A MARS VILLAGE 1.0
Not only is MARS the best and closest place to once have had life comparable to early Earth, but data returning from our probes and rovers paints an even rosier picture. The chances are growing that there is extent (microbiological) life, if not at the surface and fed by perchlorates or living in a very briny pool, then thriving under ground protected from the sterilizing UV rays at the surface, benefiting from lenses of plain liquid water.
Next to that, Mars is the easiest place for humans to settle, due to its abundance of Earth like resources that are easy to access in large volumes and even to industrialize. Usually someone will fret about dust, power and the toxicity of the soil. None of them are problems. With Falcon Heavy having flown, SLS and New Glenn coming online shortly, the rockets adequate for the job are here.
DUST, POWER, Toxicity
MARS dust is much more benign than the glassy jagged dust on the Moon and does not shred space suits. The NASA Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, active on Mars for over a decade, did not fail due to dust covering the panels, even during the dust storm season. The dust and atmosphere of Mars offer easily accessible resources from which rocket propellant, water and O2, feed stock for fertilizer and plastics can be readily made using basic chemistry set ups with small foot prints. Martian dust being comparable to cigarette smoke, we know that commercial industrial HEPA filters suffice to keep all human critical equipment running. We know how to fabricate, use, clean and replace HEPA filters.
Solar Power is less efficient, but you still have a quarter of the power you would get at Earth. That is hardly a problem because it is the same insolation as in Norway. Norwegians use solar power. You simply have to triple the amount of panels you would use at home. Wind power also works, the lesser gravity allows for large wind mills, which compensates for the more tenuous atmosphere. The result is that low tech wind power setups (VAWTS) and solar power can both provide power. Having gravity as a helping hand makes house and dome construction on Mars much easier, than was the case in the build out of the ISS. Agricultural colonies on MARS are feasible and do not need to be restricted to underground caves. There are plenty of ways to protect settlers from radiation with active and passive systems that do not require living in a bunker. One of them are domes made from transparent bullet proof metals (e.g. spinel) others are domes made of ice or even pressurized bladders of air and plastics.
Perchlorates, when ingested, could cause problems e.g. in the thyroid and hormonal system, but do not stay in the body for long. As long as you give astronauts occasional rests between intensive prolonged periods of surface walks, their bodies can always recover quickly, if they get exposed at all. Perchlorates, as oxides, can also be neutralised or reduced by adding water or through a variety of other methods. While it is not feasible to do this for the entire Martian surface, there are quick and easy ways to reduce perchlorate rich soil and safely bring it into your habitation module for agricultural purposes. Strictly speaking, you do not need Martian soil to grow plants, as this can be done with aeroponics and hydroponics; but soils are better environments for a diversity of bacterial ecosystems and Earth fungi webs to thrive in, and keep plants happy and resistant to disease. When not being able to return home quickly, creating food webs that are as diverse and resilient as possible is your best opinion.
The need for advocacy
But if we want to do all this, we must voice what the real goal is of our space programs.
The goal is not to dip our toes in the cold waters of space, take pretty pictures, and return to the comfort of our homes. The end goal is settlement.
Not settlement as in a short stay. Permanent settlement. And we have the technologies to do it today. Demonstrably. All uncertainties or reliability concerns you might have can be resolved by one mere rocket flight. But the goal is to have the equivalent of a regular rail road to our MARS destination. Give private investors a destination where money can be made providing services, in a place that inspires many into action, and they will come. A MARS VILLAGE that desires your innovation, is that place.
Permanent settlement on MARS
Our space programs being in the hands of senates and bureaucrats, this goal however does not get voiced. They are happy if enough programs survive a funding round, so they can feed their local industry.
But if we voice loudly that the end-goal and intermediate goal and short-term goal is permanent human settlement in space, than all discord will be resolved.
Setting a clear goal was what made the Apollo program in the sixties incredibly successful. The publicly unspoken goal was to take a picture of the first, not MAN, but AMERICAN on the moon, so the United states of America could prove that it was superior to the then Soviet Union. The occasion being historic for mankind was a collateral… benefit. After that picture was taken, there was no need for a continuation of the Apollo program. Unbeknown to most, it was defunded by congress, years before Nixon gave the speech that he would not continue the program.
And so it happened. But because a program was put in place that was located all over the USA -so it could not be terminated -, it also was hungry for new money and new programs -so it could not be terminated-. The result of this undead program, was Shuttle and Space Station. Both are examples of programs that had no clear goal, other than keeping an industrial ecosystem alive indefinitely and repeating what was already done better and quicker in leaner earlier programs. The space industry in Europe mainly is a jobs program. The ambitions are framed in terms of not falling behind too much. That is hardly an inspiring goal. These programs for a long time only paid lip service to the idea that they would create further progress in the human exploration of space and often it was said that what we would learn on ISS or with Space Shuttle would be useful, eventually, for Mars. The truth is they were not. Simply because they were not designed for that purpose.
For the same effort, we can set achievable goals that will create economies, are much more inspiring and actually go beyond lip service. In that case, it would not be a problem that this space industry goes on indefinitely. It would be part of a fully commercial and viable industry, generating taxes instead of absorbing subsidies.
Both in NASA and in private space industry across the globe, but mainly driven by events in the USA, more hopeful and thoughtful activity has been going on for the better part of a decade, thanks to killing the Shuttle program and freeing that money for better commercially driven systems. The fruits will be seen in rapid succession to the end of this decade and the beginning of the next.
But since the US program is the best funded civilian and military program on Earth, the rest of the world is in reactionary mode and follows their lead.
Unfortunately, the current political arena is not one of lack of political will, but one of political confusion. Regularly, plans are set in motion that do not demonstrate vision or a clear end goal. Bureaucrats are tasked to setting goals, and, unsurprisingly, they come up with plans that perpetuate bureaucracy. Plans are made from year to year and then changed again. They are made flexible enough to catch the political wind, which means they point in all directions pleasing all. Budding programs run for a while and get killed because a new director and new political balance lends the baton. So Confusion will continue if you let politics decide upon the agenda.
The result is that this time, the clear voicing of a policy with clear end goals must come , not from bureaucratic decision-making, but from advocacy.
Benefiting from the ongoing trend of confusion, the larger public has a golden opportunity to force the agenda.
Putting a MARS VILLAGE as the main agenda point
As Robert Zubrin says: “If you want to go to Mars, you go to Mars; you don’t go to the Moon”. Reaching your goals requires you to focus on that goal.
The technologies we need for Mars cannot be had by creating technologies designed for the Moon. The environments are too different. Moon equipment designed for the Moon cannot be converted to function on MARS. It would be under-engineered and would need a completely separate R&D cycle, since you cannot test equipment for the MARS environment by using equipment that only works on the Moon.
Analogy simply will not do. Only equipment designed for Mars can be used on the Moon, being over-engineered for the MOON, but not the other way round. So the Moon can have a role to play in a MARS architecture, but mainly to see if our MARS equipment also works on the MOON.
Also, the way the Planetary Protection debate is allowed to be framed, endangers the settlement of humans of Mars. Instead of creating legislation that is able to be used in a human settlement environment, it currently even forbids unmanned rovers to go to zones where ‘extant life has a chance to be found. Reading their literature you come to a very strange conclusion: They are actively sabotaging their own science by not explaining how life on Mars CAN or COULD be investigated. And the way they formulate their recommendations, they actively oppose humans being present on MARS.
But the members of COSPAR are officials who work under a mandate. Mandates are creatures of legislation. Legislation can be changed. The people are what changes legislation by setting the agenda. There are ways to have both human settling and the search for life go hand in hand, at the same time.
MARS VILLAGE 1.0, a moral obligation
Therefore it is necessary that when you dream of venturing out of space, you are also aware that space offers an inexhaustible supply of resources that can eliminate poverty throughout Earth, while offering substantial benefits for the environmental protection of Earth, by barring mining, expanding nature reserves, allowing humanity to grow into space. In that case settlement of humans in the solar system not only is a beautiful thought. If you suffer from Malthusianism, or do not believe in restricting other people’s rights to resources and development, it even is a moral obligation.
But if you want to do bring this about, you have to set the right and clear end-goal for policy.
You have to tell your legislators that all documents, all laws, all policy should enact and execute a goal that has as its prime stated goal, not science, not a certain return on investment for local high-tech industry, not a total number of graduating engineers, but the expansion of human settlement into a specific place within the solar system, at prices that are manageable for small businesses, where there are the resources for settlers to become independent.
That place is Mars, not the Moon. MARS VILLAGE is the best possible place for all international agencies, and private investors to set up shop.
If one does this, not only will humanity venture into an era of abundance beyond belief, but we will stop building over expensive rockets and systems to nowhere that do nothing else than keep a small number of businesses happy, while forgetting that the grand prize of hope for humanity is within our grasp. Good science and a competitive ecosystem will follow from it.
On MARS we can build in the environment most suited to keep the settlers inhabiting it alive. From there, we can build and expand to other places around the solar system benefiting from all the advantages MARS has to offer, compared to other destinations.
If you agree this vision is worth while, and want to help building it, do not hesitate to contact the author and make it real.
If you want to read more about the Moon Village idea: We have written about it in our earlier blog posts:
- Moon Village 2.0: a more precise program you can join, and
- the article The ESA Moon Village: Is it a vision, a project or a mirage? , And made
- a suggestion that would use tunnel boring machines in an alternative manner: Creating surface tunnels on the Moon the lazy way (think bacteria and a baking pan).