Interview with Dr. Robert Zubrin, American aerospace engineer and co-author of Mars Direct, a strategy envisaging the use of conventional rockets and Mars in-situ resources for human missions on Mars which has been broadly adopted by NASA. Dr. Zubrin holds a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics and a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of Washington. He is the author of several non-fiction books including "The Case for Mars," "Entering Space," "The Case for Space," and "Mars on Earth," and over 200 papers. Dr. Zubrin is a founder and President of the Mars Society. He is also President of Pioneer Astronautics, a Colorado-based aerospace technology research and development company.
In your assessment, when might the first human mission to Mars take place?
I think that the first human mission to Mars will take place about 2030, even though it is not currently on NASA’s schedule or any other space agency. The reason why I believe it is the case is that SpaceX is moving extremely rapidly to developing a technology that would support that human Mars mission. While Elon Musk is always optimistic regarding schedules, you do not associate having Starship flying this year. It may have some tests, but it will certainly be flying to orbit by 2024. And this is a fully usable, heavy-lift launch vehicle. It has a capability equal to the Saturn 5, but one-tenth of the cost because it is reusable.
I believe that there will be a new president elected in 2024 and if starships are regularly flying to orbit by that time, that person will turn to his or her advisors and say, "Look at this! Can we have people on Mars by the end of my second term?" And the answer is going to be "yes"... and "Will the cost be excessive?" And the answer is going to be "no". I believe at that point, a decision to send humans to Mars will be made. NASA will meet SpaceX halfway, developing a number of the other technologies that are needed. For instance, a surface nuclear power reactor, which would be very difficult for SpaceX to develop because it requires access to nuclear materials. I think we will be there before the end of the decade.
How could Russia and the United States work together to prepare for human missions to Mars? Is such cooperation possible?
I think it is possible and extremely desirable. Both of our countries have very proud histories of space programs and belief in the importance of human expansion to space that come from two separate intellectual traditions, nevertheless. When we landed on the Moon, I was in Leningrad as a chess player. And all the Russians I knew — these were not people in government but were either chess players or other ordinary people — said: “Molodets!” (Well done!).
We had excelled in a sport that they appreciated. I think there is a basis for brotherhood here. There is a basis for friendly competition. It is, of course, the fact that space technologies have great national security implications. So I do not think we can share the technologies, but we can go together. Perhaps we can each bring our own ship and be there to help each other and compete for honors, making the most discoveries about Mars. This would be a very friendly and productive form of competition, Olympic-style competition, if you will. I would greatly welcome Russia joining us on this.
Could the Arctic and other Mars-like environments be used as a platform for Russia-US collaboration?
Yes, certainly. In fact, the Mars Society has two analogue research stations. One is in the Arctic, on Devon Island, and the other is in the American desert in Utah. We regularly send crews to these locations, typically crews of six people, and task them with conducting a sustained program of field exploration while operating under as many Mars mission constraints as we can, imposed on them within the limits of our practical resources. In fact, we have had international crews, including Russian Anastasia Stepanova from the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, who has participated in expeditions to both the Mars desert station in Utah and the Arctic station. I believe she has some interest in creating a Russian station in one of your polar deserts, which I think would be a very good idea.
This is an extremely valuable form of research. We need to find out what is likely to work well on Mars and what is not. And I am not just talking about technologies — although those are important — but also how you organize the crew, what the mode of operation is. It is true that these sorts of missions are not the same as a real mission, but, for instance, no competent military would think of not having field exercises, in which they attempt to figure out how to coordinate the infantry, tanks, airplanes and all the rest. Even though those are very different from real war, it is extremely valuable.
Is it possible to create a large camp in the Arctic where an international team could work together to simulate life on Mars?
Yes, it is. At this point, I would not focus on making it a very large camp, but I would focus on making its installation comparable to what we might land on Mars in the first mission, which is a small camp. Yes, we certainly could do this kind of research together and should.
What role will artificial intelligence play in manned missions on Mars?
Industrial progress, particularly in frontier areas where labor is scarce, was certainly one of the great drivers for the development of labor-saving machinery. Now, in this period of time, of course, we will continue to be interested in labor-saving machines and tools. But we can go beyond that to robots and even artificial intelligence. These are all ways of resolving a labor shortage. Machines and robots reduce the total amount of human labor required. But artificial intelligence multiplies the number of skills that a person can have.
What you are going to have are six people in a Mars mission. Are you really going to have all the different skills that are needed within the crew? Well, we want to have one person with medical skills, one who is a biological researcher, one who is a field geologist, one who is good at fixing electronics, and one who is good at fixing the plumbing. But how about a welder? There are thousands of skills that are necessary to make a civilization, and you cannot put them all in six people. With artificial intelligence, a person can have hundreds of skills because artificial intelligence equips him or her to do all sorts of things instead of just a few things. I think this is going to be extremely useful for both Mars explorers and for Mars settlers.
As for Mars exploration, what kind of resources could be the most useful?
There is a couple of things here. If we are just talking science, Mars is the key for us to understand the truth about life, about the potential prevalence of life in the universe, and the potential diversity of it. Does it have to use DNA and RNA for recording genetic information or are there other operating systems available? If so, that could be of enormous value, not just to scientists, but to medicine and to genetic engineering, and so forth. I think the coming century is going to be one in which biotechnology is going to have a huge role. And if enough of an expanded understanding of biological possibilities is gained by discovering life on Mars that could have enormous technological value as well as purely scientific value.
I also think that a humans to Mars program will greatly help the economy of any country that participates because it will help generate intellectual capital. Youth loves adventure and the humans to Mars program would be an invitation to adventure to every young person in every country that is taking part. It would say, learn your science and you can be an explorer of new worlds. The United States doubled its numbers of scientists and engineering graduates in the 1960s because of the Apollo program. In fact, I was one of those young people who got into science because of our Moon program. And the-40-year-old technological entrepreneurs who built Silicon Valley in the 1990s were the 10-year-old little boy scientists making rocket fuel and robots in the basement in the 1960s.
And in this day and age, when the science and engineering professions are open not just to boys but to girls as well, the intellectual impact of the amount of intellectual capital that would be generated would be even greater. Now in terms of resources coming back from Mars in addition to biological discoveries that I have already discussed, there might be unique minerals. For example, deuterium, which is the fuel for fusion reactors, is six times as common on Mars as is on Earth.
The most important thing is that a Mars colony will certainly be a center of invention because you will have a group of technologically adept people in a frontier environment where they are going to be forced to innovate. It is going to be a pressure cooker for inventions, which will help Earth in every way, while also earning income for the Mars colony.
I think the greatest benefit of all is beyond this. People talk about the threat to humanity today, about things like resource exhaustion or climate change. Sure, those are of some interest, but none of those were the cause of the great disasters of the 20th century. The great disasters of the 20th century were not caused by resource exhaustion or global warming. They were caused by bad ideas, and in particular one bad idea in a number of different forms, which is there is not enough to go around and so we need to fight it out. I believe that this fundamental bad idea is the source of both world wars, the Holocaust, the cold war. If you think you are going to have to fight it out with another country, the only question is when, to one side or the other, sooner will be better than later. And there you have it.
But if we can go to Mars together, we can make it clear that it is not true there is only so much to go around, it is not true that there are no many natural resources. In fact, there is no such thing as natural resources. There are only natural raw materials. It is human creativity that creates resources. Resources are created by resourceful people. And if we can go to Mars together, we show that it is not true that there is only so much to go around because Earth comes with an infinite sky and it is wide open. And the true condition of nations is not different nations in a struggle for existence over fixed resources, but it is a family of nations, perhaps a somewhat disorderly family, but nevertheless, a family engaged in a joint effort to expand that human prospect.
There is a campaign against returning samples from Mars due to safety reasons. How to prevent the risk of transporting possible pathogenic viruses and other dangerous organisms to Earth?
You are much more likely to get viruses from Earth. It is impossible to propose a reasonable life cycle for a Martian pathogen because there are no animals or plants on Mars for pathogens to live off. We get diseases from other people, or maybe from relatively closely related species such as bats. But no person has ever gotten Dutch elm disease and trees do not catch colds, and we certainly do not get diseases from rocks. The idea of diseases from Mars is quite fantastical.
We do not stop people from digging in gardens, even though you can bring dirt from the time of the 1918 epidemic. If you dig down six feet, you will bring back dirt from the time of the Black Death of the 1300s. And we do not quarantine farmers, gardeners, palaeontologists or construction workers because they are always bringing back dirt from the world of the past, which we know had diseases in it.
Furthermore, the other thing you should know is that Earth and Mars have not been isolated from each other. There is natural transport of materials between Earth and Mars. We get about 500 kilograms of Martian rocks landing on Earth every year. They have been knocked off of Mars by meteor impacts on Mars, they fly through space, and some of them land here. This has been going on for billions of years, so if we could have gotten diseases from Mars, we would have already got them.
How would you describe the first city of the future built by humans on the Red Planet?
There is a lot of visions for that. In fact, the Mars Society is currently holding an international design contest for people to design such a city. There is a $10,000 prize for the best design, including factors of technology, economics, social system, political system, and aesthetics.
I think that part of the city, but not all of it, will be underground, like a metro system. There will also be domes above the surface, in which sunlight can come in, so there can be gardens, greenhouses, and crops grown, and people can walk around in there. To start with, these domes will not be extremely large. They will be perhaps a hundred meters in diameter, not kilometers in diameter. But then you could have networks of these domes. The reason why they have to be a somewhat limited size is that if they are too big, the pressure in them will blow them apart.
That is how I see such a city, and it will get its power from nuclear power. It will derive most of its bulk materials from Mars as you can make steel on Mars. Mars is red because of iron oxide. We can grow plants on Mars because there are water and carbon dioxide. We can also make fabrics, plastic, glass, and solar panels. Nevertheless, there will probably be a need for technological imports to Mars because, once again, you will not have the division of labor on Mars that you have on Earth. Mars will need to export some things and I think those will be inventions. These Martian colonies will be centers of invention and you can export those patents to Earth and use the income from those patents to pay for imports.
As far as the social system is concerned, it is wide open. Different kinds of people will go to Mars who have different ideas on what the social systems should be, including ideas that people do not currently have. In general, those people will tend not to be popular among most other people. Their ideas will be viewed as strange. They will want to have a place to go where they can give their ideas a try. And some of those ideas will be stupid and they will cause the failure of their colonies. But others will be better ideas than the ones we currently have. Those colonies will succeed and people will want to go there. They will grow and they will become examples to the rest of humanity. That is how we will progress.