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NY Post
New York Post
18 Nov 2023

NextImg:New book ‘City on Mars’ explores pitfalls of colonizing the cosmos: ‘Space is terrible’

Space agencies, huge corporations, and media-savvy billionaires — ahem, Elon Musk — have all promised that building colonies on the surface of Mars “will fix just about everything” and give humanity a chance “to try out something completely new and leave all the bad stuff behind,” Kelly and Zach Weinersmith write in their new book, “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?” (Penguin Press).

But, colonizing the red planet and building a new civilization there might be far from possible — and not even desirable.

“The public discourse around space settlement is full of myths, fantasies, and outright misunderstanding of basic facts,” write Kelly, a biologist, and Zach, a cartoonist.

But most of what you know about space science is probably wrong, or at least incomplete.

Even if you’ve read every article and every book, and watched every documentary about the future of space settlements, the vast majority of what’s out there has been “created by advocates for space settlement,” the authors write. They’re biased sources who want to believe as much as they want you to believe.

The new book by the Weinersmiths sets out to debunk the myths about settling on Mars.
Penguin Random House

The Weinersmiths concede that Mars, at the very least, has potential to become a second independent home for humanity. And companies like SpaceX and rival Blue Origin, despite their respective overhyping, are at least on the right track.

They’ve “genuinely revolutionized space launch and every space agency on Earth,” they write. “The evidence is that they actually believe in a space-settlement future.”

But belief does not always translate into results, even for billionaires with endless resources and boundless enthusiasm.

So the Weinersmiths set out to find every way that space settlements could work, and the myriad of ways they couldn’t.

According to the Weinersmiths, most of what is written about future settlements in space comes from biased authors.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

“It turns out, when you just talk about technical things like the size of rockets, or whether Mars has water and carbon, the picture can look pretty solid,” they write. But, “when you get into the more squishy details of human existence, things start to look, well, squishy.”

For instance, we know very little about the long-term effects of space on the human body.

“Literally nobody has been to space for longer than 437 days in a row,” the Weinersmiths write.

Though the Apollo astronauts didn’t suffer any physical consequences from their missions, they were also a very small sample set — exactly twenty-four men, all of them test pilots in peak physical condition who collectively spent less than a month on the lunar surface.

“If there are serious negative effects of life in partial gravity,” the authors write, “they likely take longer to show up.”

In addition to the possibility of developing cancer from the huge doses of extra radiation outside Earth’s magnetosphere, life in zero gravity will invariably lead to the degradation of your spine, resulting in osteoporosis, weak muscles, back problems and other uncomfortable issues.

“All that lost bone calcium can contribute to constipation and renal stones,” the Weinersmiths write.

By relocating to Mars, you’ve “left the cradle of Earth for the nursing home of orbit.”

Basic necessities like food and water would need to be shipped from Earth, at least in the beginning.

If you think food prices are expensive now, just wait until potato salad has to be “boosted out of Earth’s gravity well, flown across the void, then gently deposited outside a Martian airlock,” the authors write. 

While Mars may be the best option for a secondary home, transporting food and supplies could prove difficult.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Other nutrition options could include bioreactors that make meat from cells, bug-protein sources (get ready for insect goulash), and possibly gardening, once we understand how microgravity and space radiation impact plants.

None of it will taste all that good (especially the bugs) because “the environment of space reportedly makes food taste less flavorful,” the Weinersmiths write. “This may be a result of the fluid shift creating sinus pressure similar to a cold, or it may be that in zero gravity smells don’t waft up into your nose, or it may be something about the artificial atmosphere.”

If all else fails, there’s always cannibalism, as Dr. Erik Seedhouse speculated in his 2015 tome “Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration.”

Once the food runs out, Mars settlers will surely notice the “hunks of protein-packed meat living right next to (them),” Seedhouse writes. Compared to waiting for the latest food delivery from Earth, with basic necessities priced at a jaw-dropping markup (assuming it even gets to you before you starve), eating the guy next to you may seem like the most practical solution.

What about sex in space?

“The physics will be a little tricky because every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” the authors write. “There isn’t a meaningful top or bottom in zero gravity, at least in the physical sense.”

Sex in space is tricky considering there’s no top or bottom in zero gravity.
Getty Images

They note that G. Harry Stine, an engineer and well-known rocket science popularizer, has hinted that “clandestine experiments” have been conducted by NASA, confirming beyond a doubt that “it is indeed possible for humans to copulate in weightlessness.” 

Stine also learned from an anonymous source that a “third swimmer” is sometimes necessary during space sex to “push at the right time in the right place.”

The setup is reportedly known as “Three Dolphin Club” and there’s supposedly an unofficial membership pin for those who’ve participated.

“As of 1990,” Stine wrote, there had been “non-scheduled personal activities aboard the space shuttle on seven flights.”

Apparently, some astronauts are in the unofficial Three Dolphin Club, a setup in which a third participant helps push the other two together in zero gravity coitus.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Even if you astronaut manage to pull off the Three Dolphin Club, there are no guarantees of continuing the species.

SpaceLife Origin, a Netherlands startup devoted to sending a pregnant woman to space, fell apart in 2019 after their CEO cited “serious ethical, safety, and medical concerns.” Even if a baby could be delivered safely in space, it still has to grow up in a high-radiation, high-carbon-dioxide atmosphere without gravity — not exactly an ideal situation for a developing human body.

Another potential issue: Extra-terrestial turf battle.

The pro-Mars contingent argues that space settlements will mean less war over territory, as there’s so much room in space to call home.

No so, write the Weinersmiths.

“Nations don’t fight over land, they fight over particular land,” they write. “You can’t solve disputes over Jerusalem or Kashmir or Crimea by promising the parties involved equally large stretches of Antarctica.”

Humans on Mars could end up becoming very territorial, especially where oxygen is in demand.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Plus, not every square inch of Mars is inhabitable, and some parts are much more desirable than others.

If you think worries over immigration are bad on Earth, just wait till you get to Mars.

“However you feel about immigrants coming to your country, one thing you probably don’t fear is the possibility that they’ll breathe too much air,” the Weinersmiths write.

But despite all these pitfalls, the real reason we should probably avoid venturing to Mars to start a new life is summed up by the authors in two words: “Space sucks.”

“Space is terrible,” they write. “All of it.”

The soil on Mars is “laden with toxic chemicals, and it’s thin carbonic atmosphere whips up worldwide dust storms that blot out the Sun for weeks at a time.”

It’s so terrible that even if Earth became almost uninhabitable because of climate change, nuclear war, and zombies, it’d still be a better home than Mars.

The weather on Mars tends towards giant dust clouds of toxic soil.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Staying alive on Earth requires fire and a pointy stick. Staying alive in space will require all sorts of high-tech gadgets we can barely manufacture on Earth.”

This isn’t to say we should be avoiding space altogether. Daniel Deudne, a professor of political science and international relations at Johns Hopkins University, has argued that “the existentially safest move for humanity is just never to create a major human presence in space,” write the authors.

Which is different from no space activity. 

“He just thinks it should be used for non dangerous stuff, like science, environmental monitoring, and communication,” write the Weinersmiths. “It’s not the sprawling space-exploitation regime of many a geek fantasy.”

But it’s also unlikely to result in a colony full of Mars settlers with bad backs, confusing sex lives, and diets rich in bugs (and possibly each other), fighting over limited oxygen with space immigrants in a new world order that nobody’s really sure who controls.

The Weinersmiths don’t think space settlements should never happen. It just might be “a project of centuries, not decades,” they write. “We should take a ‘wait-and-go-big’ approach. Wait for big developments in science, technology, and international law, then move many settlers at once.”

There’s a quote that space enthusiasts love to cite, from rocketry founding father Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot forever live in the cradle,” he wrote in 1911.

That may be true, but, as the Weinersmiths remind us, “What emerges from a cradle is not a full-grown adult, but a toddler — lacking in knowledge, very excited, and prone to self-destruction. If we do plan to leave this place, better to do so as an adult. Let’s spend the awkward years learning and then strike out for new vistas.”