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The case against sending humans to the red planet.
Every week I highlight three newsletters.
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1. Why Not Mars?
I’m not even sure how to classify Maciej Cegłowski. He’s a tech guy, sort of. Also an artist. But I’m familiar with him mostly as a guy who every so often writes 10,000 word essays on esoteric subjects that always—without fail—leave me smarter than I was before.
His most recent essay is an argument against going to Mars.
The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun. . . .
Sticking a flag in the Martian dust would cost something north of half a trillion dollars, with no realistic prospect of landing before 2050. To borrow a quote from John Young, keeping such a program funded through fifteen consecutive Congresses would require a series “of continuous miracles, interspersed with acts of God”. Like the Space Shuttle and Space Station before it, the Mars program would exist in a state of permanent redesign by budget committee until any logic or sense in the original proposal had been wrung out of it. . . .
How long such a program could last is anyone’s guess. But if landing on the Moon taught us anything, it’s that taxpayer enthusiasm for rock collecting has hard limits. At ~$100B per mission, and with launch windows to Mars one election cycle apart, NASA would be playing a form of programmatic Russian roulette. It’s hard to imagine landings going past the single digits before cost or an accident shut the program down. And once the rockets had retired to their museums, humanity would have nothing to show for its Mars adventure except some rocks and a bunch of unspeakably angry astrobiologists. It would in every way be the opposite of exploration.
Does Cegłowski have your attention now? Because he certainly got mine—I’ve always been a romantic about space and exploration. But he’s just getting started. He contends that there is nothing humans could achieve on Mars that could not be done both better and more cost-effectively by robots. And also that the recent discovery of Earth’s deep biosphere makes our home planet infinitely more interesting:
[W]hen new sequencing technology became available at the turn of the century, it showed the number of [microbe] species might be as high as one trillion. In the genomic gold rush that followed, researchers discovered not just dozens of unsuspected microbial phyla, but two entire new branches of life.
These new techniques confirmed that earth’s crust is inhabited to a depth of kilometers by a ‘deep biosphere’ of slow-living microbes nourished by geochemical processes and radioactive decay. One group of microbes was discovered still living their best lives 100 million years after being sealed in sedimentary rock. Another was found enjoying a rewarding, long-term relationship with fungal partners deep beneath the seafloor. This underground ecology, which we have barely started to explore, might account for a third of the biomass on earth.
At this point, it is hard to not find life on Earth. Microbes have been discovered living in cloud tops, inside nuclear reactor cores, and in aerosols high in the stratosphere. Bacteria not only stay viable for years on the space station hull, but sometimes do better out there than inside the spacecraft. Environments long thought to be sterile, like anoxic brines at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, are in fact as rich in microbial life as a gas station hot dog. Even microbes trapped for millions of years in salt crystals or Antarctic ice have shown they can wake up and get back to metabolizing without so much as a cup of coffee.
And because we don’t understand microbes especially well, Cegłowski thinks we ought to be really worried about dropping them off on an alien planet.
But all of that pales next to the opportunity cost:
NASA spent more on their Moon and Mars programs in 2022 than the total budget of the National Science Foundation. And in 2024, they plan to start launching pieces of a new space station, the Gateway, which by the laws of orbital bureaucracy will lock us in to decades of having to invent reasons to go visit the thing.
Somehow we’ve embarked on the biggest project in history even though it has no articulable purpose, offers no benefits, and will cost taxpayers more than a good-sized war. . . . And yet this project has sailed through an otherwise gridlocked system with the effortlessness of a Pentagon budget. Presidents of both parties now make landing on Mars an official goal of US space policy. Even billionaires who made their fortune automating labor on Earth agree that Mars must be artisanally explored by hand.
The whole thing is getting weird.
Cegłowski thinks that this weirdness stems from the reality that our Mars obsession has become a form of religion. It is—this man is a deeply funny writer—a “faith-based initiative.”
It is part of a transhumanist worldview that holds mankind must either spread to the stars or die. Elon Musk, the Martian spiritual leader, has talked about the need to “preserve the light of consciousness” by making us a multiplanetary species. As he sees it, Mars is our only way off of a planet crawling with existential risk. And it's not just enough to explore mars; we have make it a backup for all civilization. Failing to stock it with subsistence farming incels would be tantamount to humanity lying down in its open grave.
Print the whole thing out and give yourself a spell to read it this weekend. I’m not sure he convinced me; but he sure a case.
Cegłowski doesn’t have a newsletter, per se. But you should bookmark his website and check in from time to time. You’ll thank me for it.
2. BTW, Trump Could Win
There is a rough consensus between many Republicans and Democrats that Donald Trump cannot win the presidency in 2024.
This view is warped.
Let’s start with the preconditions: In order to win the presidency, you have to win the nomination of a major party. Trump is, depending on how you judge it, either the most-likely or second-most likely nominee for one of our two major parties.
And because we live in a closely divided country, whoever holds that nomination will have a fair chance to win the presidency. That’s just math.
Look at how well Trump performs in the early polling against Biden:
[A] quick scan of most recent polls seems to provide one obvious outlier — the Susquehanna University survey that has Biden up 13 points on Trump. (NO ONE — including the entire White House staff — thinks Biden would beat Trump by 13 points.)
Re-average the polls without the Susquehanna result and Trump actually leads on average.
There’s other data out there that suggests Biden is decidedly vulnerable. A new Associated Press/ NORC poll shows the president’s approval rating at just 38% — very close to the lowest ebb of presidency. . . .
It’s also worth noting that the AP/NORC poll showed that a meager 31% approve of how Biden has handled the economy, regularly the most important voting issue for a majority of voters.
So, the incumbent president of the United States has a job approval rating in the low 40s (at best) and, on the issue likely to be the biggest decider for voters, his numbers are even worse than that.
Not so good!
If you were bullish on Trump, you’d say that if he’s the nominee he’d have a slightly better than 50-50 shot to beat Biden. If you were bearish on Trump you’d say that if he’s the nominee he’d have—what?—a 1-in-3 chance to beat Biden? Certainly no worse than 1-in-4.
And 1-in-4 events come to pass all day, every day, my friends.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. Cillizza is great.
3. Kareem on Drag Shows
If you had told the 12-year-old me that one day Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be one of my favorite writers I would . . . not have believed you.1
But here we are and Kareem’s riff of Ron DeSantis’s drag show obsession is gold:
A quick review of priorities: The GOP rejects President Biden’s national budget which could lead to the U.S. defaulting thereby triggering a catastrophic economic crisis, yet they refuse his requests for a budget proposal of their own to even begin discussions. Instead, Republican states across the country busy themselves by banning stuff: books, art, education, abortion pills, voting access—and, of course, the most deadly of all: drag shows.
Males impersonating females have a long tradition in our popular culture (remember from high school, all Shakespeare’s female characters were played by male actors). Milton Berle delighted America in the 1950s with his drag routines on Texaco Star Theater. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were comedy hits in the smart and subversive Some Like It Hot. Benny Hill did drag for international audiences. More recently, RuPaul made drag more sophisticated, witty, and accessible.
So why are Republicans sharpening their pitchforks now? Because this isn’t about drag shows. No reasonable human being actually thinks that watching a man on a stage dressed as a woman will affect anyone’s orientation who wasn’t already predisposed to be affected. This is about the process of intimidation and suppression. It’s about maximizing publicity because, as every promoter knows, sex sells, and they are selling an entire agenda of restrictive laws based on something that seems inconsequential to mainstream America. Most people don’t attend drag shows so they don’t see it as a great loss if they disappear. That is how it always works: take something small, destroy it with lies and bad logic, then move on to the next, bigger group—absorbing each like a fundamentalist Borg.
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Twelve-year-old me was much more heavily invested in Tolkien stuff and science fiction than current events.