The Corner

Debating The Red (Planet)

A couple weeks ago, I attended a fascinating debate on the exploration of space. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, and one of the foremost advocates of the exploration and colonization of Mars, was pitted against Robert Park, a leading critic of manned space flight, famous for debunking bad science. I’d call the debate a tie. The quirky, brilliant, and charismatic Zubrin had powerful arguments, detailed information, and articulated an inspiring (but too thinly supported) vision. Park was a smart, taciturn, curmudgeon whose hammer blows of skepticism frequently hit home.

At one point in the Mars debate, host and organizer Adam Keiper (see Keiper’s, “A New Vision for NASA“) put the question to Zubrin that I raised in, “Mission Worth It?” Is Mars like Everest (a place too hostile for anything but exploration), or like California (a place we could colonize in significant numbers). Zubrin’s answer was unsatisfactory. He drew an analogy to the colonization of America that begged every question about cost, practicality, and timing. Zubrin’s five hundred year colonization time line turns his vision into a de facto fantasy.

I came away from the Mars debate still seeing colonization as a sort of libertarian heaven. I used to think libertarians, while giving short shrift to the social preconditions of liberty, were at least a hard headed lot. But the libertarian fascination with Mars increasingly strikes me as a quirky (if harmless) utopian fantasy. If anything, the radical precariousness of a Martian colony would necessitate a high degree of human interdependence. The Mars fantasy strikes me as a way of pretending that, if we could just wipe the slate clean, the necessities of social life which continually emerge to frustrate libertarian hopes would somehow disappear. Isn’t this just Marx in reverse? In any case, judge for yourself. Here’s a description of the participants, and here’s a link to the debate.

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