June 19, 2024

“Unless it is stopped,” tweeted Elon Musk, “the woke mind virus will destroy civilisation and humanity will never reached Mars.” A compelling point, even if it does show that genius boy needs grammar lessons. Would the 18th-century pioneers have managed to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population, exterminate all those buffalo and pave the way for that stupid dome in Las Vegas if they were a bunch of pearl-clutching wuss bags? Think about it.

The basic argument is that the human race is doomed if it doesn’t revive that frontier spirit, and will remain confined to this increasingly useless planet. If we don’t boldly go, then we must surely stagnate. As Carl Sagan wrote: “Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.” We need to chisel our jaws and put on space boots.

Woah! say Kelly and Zach Weinersmith in this romp through the many rooms of a space folly. “Leaving 2C warmer Earth for Mars would be like leaving a messy room so you can live in a toxic waste dump.”

The Weinersmiths – Kelly a biologist specialising in parasitic worms, Zack a cartoonist with a beard – consider that Musk’s dream of populating Mars by 2050 has become plausible essentially because tech costs have fallen in inverse proportion to the man-baby hubris of Musk and his coevals.

Personally, I can imagine only one thing worse than a six-month, 140m-mile one-way trip in a small capsule eating slop and defecating into baggies. And that’s spending the journey with a really annoying co-passenger, namely Musk, showing me blueprints for his new Martian company settlement, which the authors chillingly dub Muskow.

But if that’s the worst I can imagine, then I need to try harder. Unpleasantness will escalate on arrival according to this amusingly literal and impeccably scientific war-gaming of what would actually happen. The average surface temperature is -60C (-76F). There’s no breathable air, but plenty of dust storms that blot out the sun for weeks at a time. On the plus side, radiation is plentiful. There’s no soil, but lots of regolith – gravel, basically – which is so useless for agriculture that, if you’ve seen Matt Damon in The Martian, you’ll know this would mean developing a taste for space potatoes with a faecal tang. It’s like an off-planet Death Valley with fewer services and no coffee shops. Not even a Costa.

What’s more, we have negligible experience of the kind of closed-loop ecosystems that we would need to survive on Mars. Yes there have been experiments, such as Biosphere 2, a 3.14-acre airtight greenhouse in Arizona where half-feral chickens refused to lay eggs and were often eaten by pigs. After a year, the humans, who’d been surviving on half-ripe bananas and unpalatable beans used for growing animal feed, emerged gaunt and starving. And neither Biosphere 2 nor the International Space Station are big enough to tell us enough about how we would live on Mars.

In any case, the most likely Martian settlements will not be glass domes but underground lava tunnels repurposed and supplied with breathable air and drinkable water. Ideal for those who want to pull back the curtains every morning for a view of walls made of volcanic rock.

“Mars,” Elton John told us on Rocket Man, “ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact it’s cold as hell.” What he didn’t say is that it ain’t no place to conceive a kid, neither. As the Weinersmiths explain, producing offspring to settle this toxic hellscape will prove a fascinatingly risky business. Sex on low-gravity Mars seems to be impeded by fluids not flowing in the right direction. On page 76, there’s a cartoon of a “pregnodrome”, a kind of birthing tilt-a-whirl designed to simulate Earth-like gravity. Prospective mothers, like test tubes, will have to be strapped into this cosmic centrifuge if they are to breed successfully. That’s before you even consider how tiny the settler gene pool would be.

Which is what leads us to this chilling quote from a specialist in extraterrestrial ethics: “We assume that the Martian colony environment would favour … liberal abortion policy because the birth of a disabled child would be highly detrimental to the colony.” We haven’t even set foot there and they’re already talking space eugenics.

The book reminds us that exploration is predicated on the suffering of pioneers. The first dog in space, Laika, jetted off with no means to return to Earth, proving once and for all how evil the Soviets were. Astronaut John Glenn spent four hours in orbit on board Friendship 7 in 1962 wearing a probe (depicted in a scale model in the book) placed where the sun doesn’t shine, though whether that was essential to the mission or some kind of pervy quirk is uncertain. Big picture: Laika, we salute you for your sacrifice.

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But, of course, the cold war no longer provides a spur to national space programmes. Instead, a private space “bastardocracy” consisting of Bezos, Musk and Branson will be monopolising Martian real estate long before today’s superpowers set up shop there – and decades after Britain has sourced enough rubber bands to launch its Neasden Explorer.

In another reversal of cold war certainties, even though the Weinersmiths are – there’s no easy way to say this – Americans, they write like communists. They disdain John Locke’s thesis that anyone who mixes their labour with the land then owns it (the basis of centuries of justification for the rapacious acquisition of property) and prefer Elinor Ostrom’s philosophy of the commons. At the moment, after all, space is inspiringly unclaimed. It is one big commons, among the few places in the universe not zoned to become a strip mall or luxury flats.

Sadly, once China and the US get their acts together and join the tech bros on Mars, the authors calculate that the risk of nuclear war in space to settle interplanetary disputes will be non-trivial. That brings a glimmer of good news, though: as far as I understand the science, we remaining Earthlings will be able to kick back over pink gins and enjoy the light show, safe behind our magnetosphere. Which is just one more reason to stay at home.

A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith is published by Penguin Particular (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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