Zubrin: Congratulations NASA, You’ve Discovered Greenland



While the results obtained from the LCROSS mission are of some scientific interest, it needs to be understood that the amount of water discovered was extremely small. The 30 m crater ejected by the probe contained 10 million kilograms of regolith. Within this ejecta, an estimated 100 kg of water was detected. That represents a proportion of 10 parts per million, which is a lower water concentration than that found in the soil of the driest deserts of the Earth. In contrast, we have found continent sized regions on Mars, which are 600,000 parts per million, or 60% water by weight.

While going to the Moon may represent a more interesting activity for NASA’s human spaceflight program than flying up and down repeatedly to low Earth orbit, it is nevertheless not the right goal for the space agency. Since the conclusion of the Apollo missions more than 3 decades ago, Mars is the challenge that has been staring NASA in the face. Mars, not the Moon, is the Rosetta Stone that will tell us the truth about the potential prevalence and diversity of life in the universe. And Mars, because of its richness in resources, – containing not only plentiful supplies of water, but carbon, nitrogen, and all the other substances needed for life and industry as well – is the nearest place where humans can settle, and thus is Rosetta Stone that will tell us our fate; whether we shall be restricted to one world or have the prospect before us of an open frontier as a multi-planet species.

For the coming age of space exploration, Mars compares to the Moon as North America compared to Greenland in the previous age of maritime exploration. Greenland was closer to Europe, and Europeans reached it first, but it was too barren to sustain substantial permanent settlement. In contrast, North America was a place where a new branch of human civilization could be born. The Moon is a barren island in the ocean of space; Mars is a New World. Mars is where the challenge is, it is where the science is, it is where the future is. That is why Mars should be our goal.

  • Michael Turner

    Zubrin’s analogy would be much more accurate if, after Greenland, North (and South) America had been about as far away as Japan.

    Columbus got funded on bad science (that the earth was much smaller than scientists knew even in his time) and he was still only able to put together only the most desperate sort of crew (death row inmates.) Zubrin maintains that flying through GCR is no more risky than being a smoker. The U.S. has a little over 3000 death row inmates, and probably most of them smoke. So why not make them this offer: they can work for Zubrin’s Mars mission for free, in exchange for a lottery ticket that could qualify any of them for a crew position. If they get to Mars and back to Earth alive, they get a pardon.

    But also: Zubrin himself has to work on the construction site, and go on the trip, and do the camp set up on Mars, etc., with all those death row inmates. I think that would be only fair, don’t you? “The meek shall inherit the Earth — the rest of us, Mars”. Isn’t that the Mars Society tagline? And isn’t they always castigating us about how timid we’ve become? Let’s see just what sort of cojones they really have. (We could perhaps arrange that Mars Society stalwarts are the only ones on the ship who are armed.)

    Why, I think I have the makings of a satirical novel in all this…. too bad John Sladek is no longer around to write it.

  • Nickolai_the_Russian_Guy

    Are you kidding me? You really think Zubrin would pass up the opportunity to conduct a REAL, CREWED Mars mission just because his crew members are death row inmates? That seems like a small price to pay compared to the years (decades?) of effort it would take to convince congress to go to Mars.

  • kert

    Gosh, what a shocker, Zubrin wants to go to Mars ? So what else is new ?
    If LCROSS would have thrown up a cloud of unicorns and pixies, Zubrin would STILL want to go to mars, so why is this even reported ?

  • The fastest way to get to Mars is to end the Moon vs. Mars debate by finally doing what we should have done back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, establish permanent settlements on the Moon.

    If we had done that, we’d probably already have similar settlements on the surface of Mars by now!

    But Zubrin and others need to realize that once permanent settlements are established on the lunar surface, the Moon is going to become a ‘major Mecca’ for the emerging private commercial space tourism industry.

  • Michael Turner

    I’m happy to one-up Marcel, here. I think he’s got it backwards. Yes, a Mars trip will grow out of lunar settlement. But lunar settlement will grow out of lunar tourism. Lunar tourism will grow out of orbital tourism. And orbital tourism will continue to grow out of the BRIC nations, because of their launch cost advantages, not out of U.S. NewSpace or Apollo on Steroids.

    In more detail: I think the fastest way to get people on Mars is to promote a vibrant, growing orbital tourism industry, circling the Earth, “going nowhere.” That would get a plucky few doubling down for trips to lunar orbit, which would lead to eventual lunar surface jaunts, which would lead to lunar cave tours and longer camp-outs, and to eventual permanent infrastructure to support ever longer and more comfortable and interesting tourist experiences on the Moon. Thence to increasingly ISRU-based infrastructure, providing ever greater degrees of self-sufficiency for recreational facilities, and, by reducing costs, reaching ever larger markets in lower (but undoubtedly still very high) income brackets.

    The first manned Mars mission is likely to be thrown together by fully-vested startup staffers in the lunar tourism industry, still living on the Moon. These “lunar lifers” will buy, beg, and borrow (but I hope not steal) the needed spacecraft and life-support systems. They’ll do it with their own money and corporate sponsorship — but with not a shred of privacy, as their entire lives during the “mission” get beamed back to Earth (and the Moon) for pay-per-view entertainment, with cloyingly intense product placement everywhere the camera pans. It’ll still be expensive, but because an entire industry will have since grown up around cis-lunar space travel and troglodyte existence on an airless world, it’ll be much cheaper to finance a trip through interplanetary space to a nearly-airless world. Maybe by then, there will have been a large number of robotic, Mars-ISRU-based Mars-to-Moon scientific sample return missions, to provide some technology maturity for Mars-ISRU-based Mars-to-Moon *live human* return. Certainly, many Martian caves will have been discovered and mapped as well, providing a base for GCR-shielded habitat.

    Zubrin’s living in a Bonestell illustration. You can almost smell the pulp mouldering in that box of old Analog magazines in the attic. Space is not gonna happen the way it was envisioned in mid-20th-century SF. Nor, would I argue, should it. If what’s happening now is Apollo on Steroids (but with an insufficient diet), what he’s proposing is Apollo with Cancer and Osteoporosis. Maybe literally.

  • It might be a mistake to assume that the first settlements will be in whichever place has the best availability of water. It might be in whichever place there exists an economic opportunity. At the beginning of the process, we have to assume the customer is Earth people because they’re the only other people in existence at square one. So places close to the initial market might be settled first, even if hydrogen (one needn’t ship the entire H2O molecule) needs to be imported from Earth or (better yet) an Earth-approaching asteroid.

    Settlements require exports to balance trade. We never get a straight answer what Martians will sell to Earth people to pay their way. Some possibilities for the moon include raw material for major construction programs in high Earth orbits. Such programs might involve returns to Earth-bound investors.