In Whose Hands is our Destiny?
written by Jonathan Street on August 11, 2003 | contact me
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Today this drive and determination is lacking. The first probes to land on Mars were the Viking probes which landed in July and September of 1976. 28 years on and a manned mission to Mars is still only a dream. Something is lacking. Technologically, we have been ready to go visit Mars for many years. We are far more prepared to visit Mars today than we were to visit the Moon in 1969. It is not the technology that is holding us back, constraining us to exist solely on one planet, one celestial body. What we are lacking is the drive and determination so crucial and so evident in 1961 that just 8 years later saw a human being set foot on the Moon.
In 1961 the World was a very different place, the Cold War saw the two superpowers of the time, America and the USSR, vying to outdo each other. Neither, fearing the others nuclear capability, dared to directly attack the other. They were left to boast and display at each other. The Apollo programme was one way to do this. It wasnít about getting to the Moon, it was about beating the Russians to the Moon. Today the USSR is just a memory and America seems to be the only superpower left.
America is not without its enemies however. The last few years have borne witness to this fact. The enemies of today however arenít interested in boasts and display. The enemy today is a far less tangible entity and another trip to the Moon will do nothing to dissuade their attacks, or weaken their resolve. The drive and determination of the American government was lost with the end of the Cold War and is unlikely to re-appear until another superpower develops.
The most likely candidate to become the next superpower is China and true to form they have been talking about a mission to Mars. What better way, after all, to demonstrate your countries power than by another audacious propaganda stunt? However, at the moment, Chinaís space program is not nearly ready to head to Mars in the near future and they have far more pressing issues to attend to. With over 1 billion people, China, for the moment at least, is the most populous country in the World. The Three Gorges Dam project has shown they are capable of achieving projects on a scale never before seen on this planet but the SARS epidemic has shown another side to the country. A third world country, with third world health problems. Whether they decide to tackle these problems before or after a mission to Mars will mean a difference of decades, and as has been seen in the changes following the Apollo program, a lot can change in a few decades.
It seems as if we will never make it to Mars, and if we do the price, another Cold War, could be unbearably high. However, the future need not be so disheartening. Governments are only one way via which we can travel to Mars.
Launching and operating satellites has been carried out by corporations and companies for many years now and in this time our understanding has improved immensely. I believe it is conceivable that a private company will launch a mission to Mars and I intend to explain my thinking behind this below.
Firstly we need to break companies down into two groups, the traditional company, set up to make money for its shareholders and a company consisting of like-minded people. Firstly, letís deal with the traditional company. It typically exists to make money for its shareholders. Companies of this fashion are under pressure to make more money for their shareholders than their competitors otherwise the investors will move their money elsewhere where there is a better return on their investment. In order for a company to be able to survive it must be able to make a profit, or at the least maintain the realistic expectation that its shareholders, over the long-term will gain a return on their money equal to other companies, both in the same sector and in others.
The next logical question to ask is; how to make a profit from Mars? Is there anything there that we can bring back to Earth to sell for profit? On a small scale, ordinary rock from Mars will be of very high value. The more we bring back though the less it will be worth. There will only be so many people interested in owning a piece of Mars. Earth is believed to be running out of many resources. Perhaps these then can be found on Mars.
I believe this isnít the case for three reasons. Firstly, because I donít believe Earth is running out of resources as fast as some fear. To illustrate this point lets look at oil and gold. We have been running out of oil since it was discovered it could be used in internal combustion engines. However, if we look at the estimated number of years worth of supply we have left we will find that it has been increasing, not decreasing.
Why? Because there is no money to be made by finding all the oil in the World before it is needed. As reserves begin to run dry we start looking for new supplies and surprise surprise we find these new supplies. Today we use more oil than ever before and yet have more years worth of supplies than ever before. Another way to look at the supply of oil is to look at the price, and this, as the below diagram shows has barely changed since 1880, ignoring the irregular blip (especially in 1980). During this time production has not only increased but increased exponentially.
Gold, like oil is being used faster today than at any time in history. Despite this however, the price of Gold, a reflection of how scarce it is, has been depressingly low recently. This indicates that supply is high and if we look at how many years of supply of gold we have left we would see that this hasnít changed much since 1950 (again ignoring a blip in 1980)
This isnít just the case with high value metals like Gold, ordinary metals show a similar pattern. The below diagram shows the number of years of consumption left for copper, zinc, iron and aluminum. Again since 1950 the number of years consumption has not been decreasing but increasing. The reason for this is as before, economic rules mean finding the oil and metals as they become needed is the most efficient approach.
The conclusion here is that we arenít running out of oil, gold, copper, zinc, iron or aluminum. The situation is the same with many other materials we need. If we wait until we run out of materials on Earth before going to Mars we will never get there.
Secondly, in many cases I believe it to be likely that it will be cheaper to use other, more plentiful though less ideal materials rather than to bring back materials from Mars. Transportation and exploration costs I believe will be prohibitive.
Thirdly, to mine Mars requires that you first find a spot where your product is in a concentration where it is viable for it to be mined. This requires exploration. An investment with no guarantee of a return, and in the case of Mars the investment would need to be large. As mentioned earlier this is not a good combination by which to secure funding. Without the expectation of a reasonable return on the investment the money will not be available.
This only leaves the possibility of sending back information to Earth, and although this will be highly valuable from an academic standpoint it will be relatively worthless from a purely economic standpoint.
This leaves what I believe to be our best hope for a manned mission to Mars, a company comprised of like-minded individuals dedicated to the achievement of this most colossal of goals. A group of people willing to forego a monetary return in the short to medium term; in order to achieve a massive return in the long-term for the human race. The politics and the economics, as discussed above, that currently exist seem to discourage a mission to Mars but personal determination, the kind shown by Kennedy in 1961, can in my opinion prevail.
No one person can get to Mars however, it will take a company, a band of men, to get to Mars. Without the seemingly limitless funds available to the government the odds are, and will continue to be, against us. There are many skills and many people that will need to be assembled. The first obstacle will be to get into space. This still hasnít been achieved by a private venture although the X-prize is driving this forward. Hopefully the progress made in seeking the X-prize will lead to progress in seeking Mars, the greatest prize of all.
I end on this note; reaching Mars will be a long and costly venture, we have many lessons to learn but many have been learnt by other explorers in the past. The lessons learnt by NASA, the Russian space agency and corporate organizations working in space can ease our progress. They have had a head start on the individual and can teach us a lot about our goal and how to achieve it. I believe they will be willing to help a realistic attempt at Mars, whether the attempt be made by a government, a company or a team of individuals.
Time and again we have shown that we can make the impossible happen. Our ingenuity is limitless and is key to our success, we are curious about our world and the universe beyond. This planet can, and will, only hold us for so long.
1) The Sceptical Environmentalist