Mars Now is a weekly column by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

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Mars Now 1.2 Queen Elizabeth’s Hab

“Opportunity, not necessity, is the mother of invention,” says urban
planning philosopher Jane Jacobs. This epigram should be tattooed onto
every garage inventor, technological utopianist 96 and space advocate.
For decades, we’ve been discussing the virtues of the High Frontier and
making the case for Mars, but a genuine calculation of opportunity has
yet to be convincingly made. There are profound reasons why we don’t
have cheap access to space and settlements on Mars. If we don’t
understand those reasons, we’ll never overcome them. As in so many
things Martian, there’s an Arctic analog to our shortcomings in space.

We know that for many centuries, the New World was just barely within
the technological reach of northern Europeans, and that the Norse
established settlements there. But at the dawn of the modern Age of
Exploration in the late 15th century, Europeans had vastly less
knowledge of that new world than we do of Mars. Following up on legend
and rumor, John Cabot discovered “New Found Land” in 1497. Cabot was
the very bleeding edge of exploration technology: when a recreation of
his ship sailed on the 500th anniversary of his voyage, replete with
added modern conveniences, the crew found conditions and handling
unendurable. Today no lands and titles await a transatlantic sailor,
and we would demand a steady deck, a warm, dry cabin and vermin-free
food as necessities. But opportunity – in the form of royal rewards for
imperial expansion 96 made the cramped, unhealthful, dangerous trip

A lifetime after Cabot, in 1576, Martin Frobisher returned from a search
for the Northwest Passage to China with a black stone. Various members
of the Queen’s court had the stone assayed until one opportunist
whispered the word they most wanted to hear – gold! A speculative
frenzy of expedition finance and industrial development – refineries for
the tons of gold sure to return – began. Frobisher’s next expedition
was vastly different: rather than trade goods and ambassadors for
China, he brought with him England’s best guess at settlement
technology. He was charged with building a mining camp at the ore’s
site near the south end of Baffin Island.

Frobisher was a type we find again and again in the history of private
exploration: a monomaniac, with a fanatic’s belief in his goal coupled
with a narcissist’s incapacity for self-doubt, and the fire and bluster
to subdue raw Nature herself. Yet even the ruthless Frobisher, at the
end of the brief Arctic summer, knew that the would-be settlement,
though possible to establish, was unsustainable. After the following
season, when no gold was found in the tons of ore, the site was
abandoned. And while the European-descended population of the New World
exceeds half a billion, to this day the closest thing to Frobisher’s
descendants in the Canadian Arctic are the summer scientists of NASA’s
Haughton Mars Project.

There are several lessons in Frobisher’s failure. First, that
inadequate technology can in fact be pushed to spectacular extremes.
Elizabethan ships were not designed for transatlantic crossings, but
they could make it, given reason enough to risk the attempt.
Correspondingly, we can get to Mars by pushing current technology.
Those who claim we need deep space cyclers, nuclear-thermal or VASI
rockets, forget the dictum I began with: opportunity, not need, defines
the possible.

Second, sustainable settlement is a different beast entirely from
exploration. At their very best, the technologies of exploration and
settlement are much the same, requiring a minimum of external inputs.
Inefficiencies are much more tolerable in the short term, of course, so
an import-dependent team might survive through an expedition lasting a
year or three, but would be doomed over a generation. To ensure the
success of an expedition, we build in redundancy. For a settlement to
prosper, we design in flexibility.

It follows that an aversion to risk is a crippling obstacle to
settlement. At least as great as risk of failure is risk of cultural
change the death of a way of life. Frobisher sailed before England
became a great power, before it had a reputation to maintain. Elizabeth
and her kingdom were upstarts, willing to risk much to become a great
power. She was willing to see Frobisher staked a fortune that he would
lose when the ore was found to be worthless. Centuries later,
Victoria’s Franklin expedition faced a much different calculus: the
nation had great-power status to maintain, and risking failure from a
shortage of resources or an excess of social tinkering – such as
adapting the behaviors and technologies of the indigenous culture – was
not possible.

Since America has been a great power, the same constraints have
applied. Our way of warfare has us burying opponents under materiel and
the highest of technology: procurement, not strategy, is fundamental.
That same approach carried over to the Pentagon’s little sibling, NASA.
When the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative fixed a price tag of half a
trillion dollars on a mission to Mars, it was following the mindset of a
government that needed 16 aircraft carrier battle groups to cover the
globe against any possible threat. The risk of damage to reputation had
to be reduced as close to zero as money could buy. Efficiency and
opportunity were irrelevant.

So why aren’t Americans on Mars? For the same reason we no longer have
16 carrier battle groups: at this blessed moment in history we can have
our empire without paying for it. There are no lean and hungry
challengers around today. And why haven’t we been beaten to Mars by
upstarts willing to dare risk in the name of opportunity? Because
neither element risk or opportunity has been adequately quantified.
Over time, this column will attempt inroads on both.

Frobisher failed to settle the Arctic because he lacked even the most
basic accurate data about the risks and opportunities. The Arctic
winter was an unknown; the black rock not recognized for worthless
hornblende; the peas planted in the Arctic regolith couldn’t possibly
grow; and in every human factor issue from housing to diet to
toolmaking, he was unprepared for the environment. He’d rushed in,
blind to the unknowns, contemptuous of environmental factors, counting
on will to triumph over adversity. Three hundred years would pass
before Frobisher’s landfall would be visited by a non-indigene: Charles
Francis Hall, who meticulously studied and adapted to local conditions,
presaging the successful polar explorers 96 from backgrounds public or
private other than those of status-quo powers 96 who chose flexibility
over iron demonstrations of will. Mars mission planners take note.


Next week: “From Viking to Vegas” This past July 20 was a moment
poised between two eras: in Washington, D.C., the 25th anniversary of
the Viking 1 landing was commemorated, while in Las Vegas a group of
lunar base developers saw the future in full bloom.