Saturday, June 29, 2024

Catholic Integralists for Trump? Sohrab Ahmari and J. D. Vance

I have a question mark in my title because the Catholic integralists for Trump are often evasive in avoiding the term "integralism."  But if you look at what they say about what they call their "political Catholicism" or "common-good conservatism," it's clear that they are Catholic integralists who want to use Trump's MAGA movement as a step towards establishing America as a Catholic confessional state that would coercively enforce the authority of the Catholic Church and persecute Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, atheists, and generally all non-Catholics.  

Sure, that's preposterous. And that's why they are so hesitant to say openly what they have in mind.  It's so preposterous that even many of the Christian conservative "post-liberals" like Rod Dreher and Patrick Deneen, who should be sympathetic to their cause, have scorned the integralists.  Dreher has said that his "unwillingness to fully surrender liberalism is in large part because we still live in a highly pluralistic and diverse society," and "liberalism arose in the first place to accommodate pluralism."  Consequently, "any non-liberal alternative would probably be tyrannical."  Notice what he is saying:  while claiming to be a "post-liberal," he is still a liberal, because he cannot endorse a truly illiberal alternative like integralism.

Clearly, people like Dreher and Deneen agree with Kevin Vallier's critique of integralism: "You can't go there, you can't stay there, and it's unfair."  You can't go there, because you can't establish a Catholic confessional state in a society like America where Catholics are a minority of less than 20 percent, and where even most Catholics would not want to persecute non-Catholics.  You can't stay there, because even if you could establish a Catholic confessional state, it would be overthrown by rebellion.  It's unfair, because an American Catholic state would have to be an unjust tyranny.

As I said in my previous post, the evasiveness of the integralists makes me suspect that their integralism is only an insincere affectation that disguises the fact that while they want to pose as opponents of liberalism, they are really liberals--like Dreher and Deneen--who cannot openly give up the liberal principles of religious liberty and toleration as necessary for preserving social order in a pluralistic society.

As I have pointed out, the French Far Right has the same problem: they pretend to be Catholic integralists, but even in a historically Catholic country like France, a Catholic state in a pluralistic society is absurd; and so, the fake French integralists remain liberals in accepting the liberal principle of religious liberty.

This raises an obvious question:  if integralism is such an obviously preposterous idea, why have some otherwise intelligent American conservatives tried to embrace it?  One way to answer this question is to examine the personal histories of the integralists to see what motivated them to adopt this idea in the first place.  For example, one could go to Sohrab Ahmari's memoir--From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019).

Ahmari became one of the leaders of American integralism in May of 2019 with the publication of his widely discussed essay "Against David French-Ism" in First Things.  At the time, he was the op-ed editor of the New York Post.  He wrote to explain the reasoning behind a manifesto that had been published the previous March in First Things--"Against the Dead Consensus"--which was signed by mostly Roman Catholic conservatives who had supported Trump in 2016 in opposition to the "Never Trump" conservatives.  "There is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016," they proclaimed.  "Any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right."  The mistake of that earlier Reaganite conservative consensus was its commitment to a liberal conservatism of classical liberalism that "too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did--namely, individual autonomy."  Ahmari's "Against David French-Ism" identified the classical liberal David French as the prototypical liberal conservative whose devotion to individual autonomy blinded him to the wisdom of Trump's common-good conservatism.

The most prominent passage of Ahmari's essay was his insistence that conservatives must "fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good."  "French prefers a different Christian strategy," Ahmari explained, because he has a different "political theology" from that favored by Ahmari and his friends.  A careful reader of Ahmari's essay could see that his political theology was Catholic Political Integralism, in which the "public square" is directed "to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good"--the "Highest Good" being the eternal salvation of the soul in Heaven.

That this required a Catholic confessional state was made clear by the Catholic integralists, particularly those writing for the online blog The Josias.  Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk, summarized integralism on the blog in three sentences: "Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to this final goal.  Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power.  And since man's temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power."  Of course, "the spiritual power" is the Catholic Church and its claim to be the only true religion with the authority to speak for God's Revelation of the Truth and to demand that the "temporal power" of the state be used to coercively enforce obedience to the Church.

Waldstein's statement and many other essays from The Josias were published in a two-volume book--Integralism and the Common Good: Selected Essays from "The Josias" in 2021 and 2022.  Waldstein identified Ahmari in the book as one of the most important proponents of integralism.  And Ahmari wrote a laudatory blurb for the book: "The good, the common good, the highest good--these and other concepts have once more come to permeate political discourse in the West.  While this is a salutary development, there is also much confusion in the air over what they really mean.  No more: this lucid and learned anthology is a fantastic one-stop primer for the perplexed layman."

As he tells his story in his memoir, Ahmari's conversion to Catholicism and Catholic Integralism in December of 2016, just after Trump's election, was the latest of many conversions that he had experienced.  He was born and raised in Iran in the years after the establishment of the Muslim Republic of Iran in 1979.  As a child, he and his family rebelled against the stultifying cultural conformity of fundamentalist Islam.  Then, as a teenager, he became a staunch atheist who looked to modern secular society, particularly in America, as the best way of life.  When he immigrated to the United States, at age 14, he was shocked by the religiosity of many Americans, particularly in Utah where he lived.

Then, just before his senior year in high school, he discovered Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and it took over his mind and heart.  He says that this book "set me off on an intellectual and spiritual road that, years later, would bring me to a most unlikely destination: the Roman Catholic Church" (85).  

If Ahmari had discovered Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human rather than Thus Spoke Zarathustra, this might have set him off on a different road that would not have led him to Catholic Integralism.  I think Lou Salome was right in seeing that after going through his middle period of writing in Human, All Too Human--devoted to evolutionary Darwinian science, Socratic philosophy, and liberal democracy, Nietzsche in his later writings--beginning with Zarathustra-- returned to his earlier fear of science as subversive of life--in The Birth of Tragedy--as he looked to "the eternalizing powers of art and religion" as the only way to restore meaning to life through religious transcendence.  In Salome's book on Nietzsche--the first book on Nietzsche's writings--she explained this history of his writing as showing his struggle with a "religious drive" that he could never shake off. On the one hand, he denied the God in whom he had devotedly believed in his Lutheran household by proclaiming "God is dead." On the other hand, he needed to replace that orthodox religion with a new Dionysian religion of the Superman. She thought that only in his middle writings--during the time of his deep philosophic friendships with Paul Ree and herself--did Nietzsche achieve a position of scientific skepticism and liberalism free of religious longings.

Just as Lutheran piety was instilled in Nietzsche as a boy, which created a life-long religious longing for redemption, Islamic piety had moved Ahmari as a boy in Iran.  In his Islamic education as a schoolboy, he says that he "discovered the Shiite faith's jagged beauty and deep pathos.  Most important, I learned about Hussein ibn Ali, the third Shiite imam and the greatest martyr in a faith of martyrs.  To this day, I hear in Hussein's story an echo of Christ's teaching that 'greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends'" (38).

When Ahmari announced his conversion to Catholicism in 2016 to his friends, who had known him as a classical liberal who was skeptical of religion, they questioned his motivation, implicitly asking "Had I found in the Catholic faith a way to express the reactionary longings of my Persian soul, albeit in a Latin key?" (18).  From my reading of his memoir, my answer would be yes.  Even Ahmari himself says: "that my becoming Catholic had something to do with being Iranian- and Muslim-born but that it was ultimately a response to the universal call of grace."

But before that conversion to Catholicism at age 31 in 2016, Ahmari went through four other conversions over a period of fifteen years--from Nietzscheanism to Marxism, then to postmodernism, and then to neoconservatism.  But none of these enthusiastic conversions satisfied the deepest longing in his soul.  

That deepest longing was manifest one day, when he was 18 years old, and he happened to open the Bible and read the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  As he read the first twenty-five chapters, he was not impressed: "Here we go with the hocus-pocus, blah-blah, Jesus is born, blah-blah, Jesus tells a parable, blah-blah, Jesus performs a miracle, blah-blah, another parable."  

But then when he got to chapter 26, he began reading attentively the story of the crucifixion of Jesus.  "I was an atheist, yes, but I also held onto certain fragments of my Islamic education."  He thought "that the Jesus portrayed by Matthew is an extraordinary figure."  

"When the strong torment the weak, we pity the latter and are outraged by the former.  The martyrdom of Imam Hussein was the quintessential example of this. . . . But the Passion of Christ is radically different.  On the Cross, it is the strong one who condescends to the weak and evil many.  He allows them to persecute him" (109).

Ahmari wonders: "What was it about sacrifice, whether Hussein's or Jesus', that left such a searing imprint on my mind?  Why did I long for sacrifice?"

That spiritual longing was expressed again, five years later, when he was 23, and he happened to walk into a Capuchin monastery in New York City, where a Sunday evening Mass was beginning.  As a friar held up the bread that was the body of Christ and then the golden cup with the blood of Christ, Ahmari choked with sobbing.  "I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force--a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death, the idea that had made my heart tremble ever since I was a boy."  

After the Mass was ended, and he walked out to the vestibule, he happened to see a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI hanging on a wall.  Seeing that image of the Pope, he once again was choking back tears.  Ahmari explains:  "Pope Benedict XVI stood for the principle of continuous, even absolute, authority--the authority of the Catholic Church, in other words, which the pope embodied, and which shone through his portrait.  I longed for stable authority as well as redemption" (147).

From this point, he was no longer an atheist, but he had not yet fully assented to a Christian faith.  That came 13 years later, in 2016, when he was 31 years old, and he converted to Roman Catholicism.  He was in London, where he was an editorial page writer and editor for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal.  He had considered becoming an evangelical Protestant, but he saw a problem: "I couldn't help but detect the problem of authority in the Protestant orbit, which, I came to suspect, lay behind Protestantism's theological shortcomings.  At that point, mind you, I had yet to recognize the authority of the Catholic Church--though, as my weeping over Benedict's photo showed, I was instinctively drawn to Catholic authority.  But in 2016, my attraction to Catholic authority was strong enough that I sensed the fragility and thinness of authority among Protestants" (193-94).

Before he was baptized and confirmed on December 19, 2016, Ahmari underwent six months of instruction in the Catholic Catechism, guided by his reading of Monsignor A. N. Gilbey's book We Believe.  The critical first step was understanding and accepting the authority of the Catholic Church:

"Start with the authority of the Catholic Church.  To believe in God, it sufficed to rely on natural reason alone, as I had done.  But to go further with him, as it were, it was necessary to believe divine revelation on the authority of the Revealer.  And there was nothing wrong with accepting things on authority.  As Gilbey put it, 'We ought not to make heavy weather about doing in our relationship with Almighty God what we do daily in our dealings with other people'--that is, to accept all sorts of propositions solely on authority."

"And the whole of revelation turned on a single proposition: namely, that the Catholic Church was Christ's supreme revelation.  Assent to Jesus Christ thus meant assent to the Church he founded and the powers he granted her, chiefly to forgive sins (Jn 20:23; Mt 16:19) and to teach all nations (Mt 28:19).  Scripture and Tradition confirmed all this, yet the Church didn't need to appeal to these things for her authority.  Before Scripture or Tradition existed, the Catholic Church was there at the Cross and the Resurrection" (201).

Once he had accepted the supreme authority of the Church based on Scripture and Tradition, it was a short step to integralism.  If the Catholic Church is the only church with the authority of Christ's supreme revelation through Scripture and Tradition, and if Scripture and Tradition teach that the Catholic Church has the supreme authority to use the state as its "secular arm" in coercively punishing heretics, apostates, and schismatics, then the Catholic Church has the authority to establish a Catholic confessional state.

But while Ahmari rightly recognizes "the problem of authority" in the Protestant churches, he is silent about how the same problem of authority arises in the history of the Catholic Church.  The authority of divine revelation in Christianity depends on the belief that the Holy Spirit will convey the truth of revelation to all Christians.  But the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has always been too obscure to lead Christians to agreement about revelation.  Protestants believe that revelation comes from reading the Bible, but the Bible is so obscure that Protestant Christians disagree about its meaning.  Catholic Christians believe that while the Bible is sometimes obscure, Biblical revelation is clarified by the Church's tradition in which the Holy Spirit infuses priests with the truth of revelation.  But the history of the Catholic Church shows that this does not work, because even as conveyed through tradition, the Holy Spirit is obscure.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, the history of the Catholic Church's tradition is a history of schisms, in which divinely inspired Christians have disagreed about the truth of revelation.  There have been over two dozen major schisms in the Church--such as the Great Schism of 1054 that separated the Latin Church in the west from the Greek Orthodox Church in the east and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Consider, for example, the case of Jan Hus.  In 1415, Hus, a Catholic priest who sought to reform the Church, was condemned by the Council of Constance to be burned at the stake for heresy.  He sang hymns as he was burned to death.  Hus was a charismatic priest who inspired his followers in Bohemia to defeat five consecutive papal crusades against them from 1420 to 1431--the Hussite Wars.  Hus and the Hussites were intensely pious Christians.  Similarly, Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers were all intensely pious.  Thus does the mystical experience of grace--of being divinely inspired with an experience of the transcendent--often move Christians to dissent from Catholic orthodoxy.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II offered a public apology for the Church's killing of Hus, praised him for his "moral courage," and condemned the Church's policy of killing heretics.  Thus, the Pope had to correct the Church's tradition of killing heretics.  Here the Pope was following the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration of Religious Liberty" that overturned the Church's tradition of Catholic Integralism.

Ahmari says nothing about this.

This shows that John Locke was correct in seeing that "everyone was orthodox to themselves," in that everyone must believe in whatever they decided was necessary for them to believe to be saved, but with the understanding that they might be wrong, and that others must be free to believe other doctrines that seemed orthodox to them.

Now, what does this have to do with Donald Trump and the MAGA populist movement?  In his 2019 essay for First Things, Ahmari suggested that conservatives had to support Trump in order "to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good," with the implication that this would require that America become a Catholic confessional state.

If this is what he was saying, it was just as preposterous as the general argument for Catholic Integralism.  Because it's preposterous to believe that most Americans--including the evangelical Protestants who support Trump--would ever agree to an American Catholic confessional state.  This is why I suspect that Catholic integralists like Ahmari are not really what they say they are because they cannot sincerely deny the American liberal principle of religious liberty.

For the same reason, I doubt the recent claim by Vallier that if Ohio Senator J. D. Vance became vice president in a second Trump administration, that could give an intellectual and political boost to Catholic Integralism.  Vance converted to Catholicism in 2019, just a few months before Ahmari's Catholic baptism.  But it's not clear to me that Vance's Catholicism is integralist.

It is true, however, that during his campaign for the Senate in 2022, Vance spoke at a conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, that was organized by Ahmari that was devoted to the themes of Catholic Integralism.  And yet, as far as I can tell from the reports about the conference, none of the speakers explicitly endorsed the establishment of a Catholic confessional state in America.

Josh Hammer, a Newsweek opinion editor, did say this during one panel discussion: "Overt biblically grounded lawmaking, a concomitantly biblically informed constitutional jurisprudence, and an approach to God in the public square that we might think of as an ecumenical integralism, represents our only hope for recovery at this late hour in our ailing, decadent republic."

Well, there it is--"integralism."  But, strangely, it's "ecumenical integralism."  Isn't that self-contradictory?  If "ecumenical" means cooperation among different churches, that must deny the integralist supremacy of the Catholic Church as the one true church.  

Was Hammer suggesting that Catholics and Protestants should cooperate in reaching agreement about what "biblically grounded lawmaking" means?  If so, that's not Catholic Integralism.  

But maybe he was suggesting a kind of Christian Integralism, in which American Catholics and Protestants would cooperate in coercively enforcing "biblically grounded lawmaking" that would persecute non-Christian believers (like Jews and Muslims) and atheists.  This sounds like what Father Antonio Spadaro has described as the "surprising ecumenism" of evangelical fundamentalism and Catholic integralism in America.

Even if that's a little less preposterous than Catholic Integralism, it's still hard to believe that most Americans would tolerate a government that would persecute those who would resist "biblically grounded lawmaking."

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Will Conservative Catholics Become Trump's Integralists? Or Are They Really Liberals Pretending to be Illiberal Integralists?

I have written about Catholic Integralism, and I have argued that the evolution of religious pluralism refutes integralism and supports Lockean liberal Christianity.

Recently, Kevin Vallier has written about "The Rise and Fall of American Integralism" at The Dispatch.  He says that in the few months after the publication of his book on integralism last year, the integralist movement has been in decline, as indicated by the fact that there has been very little published discussion (online and in print) of integralism over the past months.

Vallier suggests, however, that integralism could have an intellectual and political renewal if Senator J. D. Vance became Vice President in a second Trump Administration.  (There are reports that Vance is on Trump's short list of people he's considering for his vice-presidential running mate.) One indication of Vance's association with Catholic integralism is that during his campaigning for the Senate in 2022, he spoke at a conference on "Restoring a Nation: The Common Good in the American Tradition" at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).  This university is the academic headquarters of Catholic integralism in America.

The primary organizer for this conference was Sohrab Ahmari, who was a fellow at Franciscan University's Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life.  Although he does not use the term "integralism," Ahmari has been one of the leading proponents of a Catholic tradition of social thought that can sound like integralism.

I will show how Ahmari's memoir--From Fire By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (2019)--explains his remarkable conversion to a conservative Catholicism that suggests integralism.  Then, I will indicate how Vance could become the Trumpian leader of a similar revival of conservative Catholic social thought that sounds like integralism.

But I say "sounds like integralism" because while these people want to pose as radically illiberal integralists, it's only a deceptive masquerade that hides the fact that they are really liberals who affirm the fundamental liberal principles of religious liberty and toleration, which deny integralism.  I have made a similar argument about people like Patrick Deneen, who pretend to be illiberal or post-liberal although they are really liberals. 

What Vallier calls "The Fall of American Integralism" is what happens when the integralist poseurs cannot maintain their affectation of illiberalism and reveal their real identity as liberals.  Even as they pretend to show "why liberalism failed," they actually show why liberalism succeeded by their accepting liberal principles.

To be continued in my next post . . .

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Can a City on Mars Secure Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? People Will Decide for Themselves.

If we agree with the Declaration of Independence that human beings have a natural right to consent to a government to secure their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we can foresee that people settling on Mars will want to establish such a government.  But will they succeed in doing that?

Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, Robert Zubrin, and Charles Cockell give us a wide range of answers to that question.  The Weinersmiths say no:  this cannot be done, at least not within the next 100 years, because we don't know how to keep people alive on Mars, and we're not going to be securing their liberty or their pursuit of happiness if they're dead.  That's why Mars sucks.

Cockell agrees with the Weinersmiths that Mars sucks, but he does believe that we can develop the technology for securing at least the minimal conditions for some people to live on Mars.  Since Mars is so awful, however, he foresees that few people will want to live there.  He thinks a few adventurous scientists (like himself) will go there to study Mars in searching for answers about the origins, development, and diversity of life in the universe.  And yet, even these few scientists will not want to stay on Mars for long.

And if eventually a larger number of people go to Mars to establish permanent settlements, Cockell worries that their governments on Mars will tend to be tyrannical because of the "problem of oxygen":  the concentration of power in a centralized government that controls the artificial life support systems that provide oxygen and other resources necessary for life will exercise absolute power over the people, whose obedience will be enforced by the threat of withdrawing their life support.

To overcome this tendency to Martian tyranny, Cockell insists that we will need to design economic, social, and political institutions that limit, divide, and decentralize power to protect liberty; and in doing that, we can draw lessons from the liberal institutions for promoting liberty on Earth, particularly in the history of the United States.

Zubrin insists that the Weinersmiths refuse to take seriously the ways in which the technology of supporting life in space can reduce the risks to human life that come from space travel and living on a planet like Mars.

And just as the Weinersmiths exaggerate the threats to life in space, Zubrin argues, Cockell exaggerates the threats to liberty.  Actually, Zubrin claims, "the case for Mars is liberty."  "Whether they wish to or not, Martian cities will compete for immigrants.  The ones with the best ideas will draw the most people.  This is why dystopian totalitarian space colonies controlled by villains who tyrannize their subjects by threatening to cut off their air will remain mere fictions.  A successful extraterrestrial tyranny is impossible because no one would move there" (Zubrin 2024: 11-12, 187).

On Mars, Zubrin argues, there will be a Darwinian cultural evolution by natural selection that favors liberty.  "The evolution of Martian cities, like that of biological species on Earth, will be governed by natural selection.  The cities that attract the most immigrants will grow" (Zubrin 2024: 12-13, 152).  And those cities that attract the most immigrants will be those that secure liberty--the liberty that fosters the innovative inventiveness in technology necessary for human surviving and thriving on Mars.

Although Zubrin does not cite Locke, he is restating Locke's argument for immigration as cultural group selection that favors free societies.

I don't know how to resolve this debate.  But then perhaps we don't need to.  Ultimately, people will decide this for themselves.

Now that Elon Musk and other space entrepreneurs have shown that it's possible and even likely that privately organized space travel with little or no dependence on governmental space agencies can send a crewed spaceship to land on Mars in ten or twenty years, we can expect that this is going to happen.  Then people will decide whether to go to Mars or not.

If Mars really is as awful as the Weinersmiths and Cockell say it is, then Cockell is probably right in predicting that only a few scientists and professional astronauts will be willing to go.  They will voluntarily agree to face the dangers of space.  And as they spend years in space travel and on the surface of Mars, they will provide the best test of whether life and liberty on Mars is possible.  Over the years, people will learn from their experience and decide whether it's worth going.

As long as this is all voluntary and based on informed consent, I don't see anything wrong with it.

Now, I know that the Weinersmiths have warned that we know very little about the possibility of "space babies": we don't know whether people in space will be able to safely reproduce and rear their young without damaging effects from space on the children.  And surely even if the adults have voluntarily assumed the risks of space travel, the fetuses and the children will not have consented to this.

But don't we rightly allow people a lot of freedom in trying out experimental reproductive technology--in vitro fertilization for example?  This imposes a risk on the offspring to which the offspring cannot consent.  Would this also apply to reproduction in space or on Mars as risky experimentation chosen by the parents?

The Weinersmiths say that before we do this, we should experiment with sending mice, or preferably primate animals, into space to see if they can safely reproduce offspring that can grow to healthy adulthood.

I can see the argument for doing that.  But I can also see that if we allow men and women to voluntarily go to Mars, they will eventually engage in their own sexual and reproductive experiments in space.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Mars Isn't Turner's Frontier. But It Could Become Zubrin's Frontier of Innovation for Abundance.

Zach and Kelly Weinersmith have written an article for Foreign Policy--"Space Isn't the Final Frontier"--ridiculing "Mars fantasists" who "still cling to dreams of the Old West" on Mars.  The target of their ridicule is the American Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner and the metaphorical extension of that thesis by people like Robert Zubrin who claim that space, and particularly Mars, is America's New Frontier.  

The Weinersmiths are partly right and partly wrong.  They are right in criticizing Zubrin's naive acceptance of Turner's frontier thesis and then applying it to Mars.  But they are wrong in not seeing that a revised version of Turner's thesis is defensible and supports Zubrin's anti-Malthusian idea of unlimited abundance created by the human mind and technology, which could be extended to Mars.

In 1893, Turner delivered a lecture to a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."  He began by quoting from a bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890, which announced that there was no longer a clear line of Western frontier settlement because the unsettled area was broken up by isolated bodies of settlement.  Turner observed: "This brief official settlement marks the closing of a great historic movement.  Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.  The existence of an area of free land, its continual recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."

From the time the European immigrants first settled on the Atlantic coast of America, Turner argued, there was always "free land" in the West, which attracted pioneer settlers who reverted to the original primitive conditions of human evolution and then advanced through all the universal stages of human social evolution: from the hunter to the trader to the rancher to the miner to the farmer and finally to the urban factory worker.

In their struggle to overcome the harsh conditions of life on the frontier and to build a new human civilization, the pioneers in the American West developed all the moral and intellectual traits of the uniquely American national character.  Turner explained: "That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom--these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier."

But Turner also suggested that there had been a tragic turn in this epic story of the American frontier.  If the frontier was closed by 1890, that suggested that the vitality of the American character--its individualism, inventiveness, and love of freedom--would fade away if it were no longter nourished by the challenge of settling a frontier.  Surely, then, Americans needed to find a new frontier that would revive the old frontier spirit of the American West.  That would become a recurrent theme of American political rhetoric.

And, indeed, when John Kennedy was nominated as the Democratic candidate for President in 1960, he promised that if elected, he would lead Americans as pioneers into a New Frontier.  Speaking at the Democratic Party Convention at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he declared his new version of Turner's Frontier Thesis:

"I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier.  From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West.  They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags.  They were determined to make the new world strong and free--an example to the world, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without."

"Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier.  But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems asere not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats."

. . .

"The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not."

"Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.  It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric--and those who prefer that course should not vote for me or the Democratic Party."

"But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance.  I'm asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier. . . ."

Early in his presidency, in the spring of 1961, Kennedy explained that the "uncharted areas of science and space" in the New Frontier would include landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth before the end of the decade.  That launched the "race to the Moon" that ended with the first landing of Americans on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

                                             Did the U.S. Go to the Moon to Beat the Soviets?

There have been no human beings on the Moon since the Apollo 17 crewed landing on December 7, 1972.  And the original NASA plan to land humans on Mars was never executed.

But then, in 1996, Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars was published; and it revived interest in landing humans on Mars and even colonizing it.  Inspired by his reading of the book, Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of having a crewed landing on Mars within his lifetime.

Just as Turner had identified "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," Zubrin identified "The Significance of the Martian Frontier" (2019: 271-86; 2021: 323-34).  JFK's New Frontier would have to be extended to Mars: "Free societies are the exception in human history--aside from isolated pockets, they have only existed during the four centuries of frontier expansion of the West.  That history is now over.  The frontier opened by the voyage of Christopher Columbus is now closed.  If the era of Western humanist society is not to be seen by future historians as some kind of transitory golden age, a brief shining moment in an otherwise endless chronicle of human misery, then a new frontier must be opened.  Mars beckons" (2021: 332-33).

Against this, the Weinersmiths argue that the Turner frontier thesis is incorrect, and it's a bad model for space settlement rhetoric.  Professional historians no longer accept the Turner thesis, they insist.  And they quote the American West historian William Cronon who wrote back in 1987: "In the half century since Turner's death, his reputation has been subjected to a devastating series of attacks that have left little of his argument intact."  But the Weinersmiths ignore what Cronon said about the ultimate truth of a revised version of the Turner thesis that is similar to Zubrin's argument about the sources of American abundance in the human mind.

Cronon saw that historians had made two kinds of critiques of Turner's thesis.  The epistemological critiques noted the vagueness in Turner's use of the word "frontier."  It "could mean almost anything: a line, a moving zone, a static region, a kind of society, a process of character formation, an abundance of land" (Cronon 1987: 158).  The empirical critiques argued that the history of frontiers was far more complex--culturally, economically, and politically--than Turner recognized.  The frontier experience of French Canada, the Spanish Southwest, and South America was very different from that of Anglo-American settlements.  Even the Anglo-American frontiers did not conform to Turner's characterization.  For example, the rates of upward mobility in the West were not much different from those in the urban areas of the East.

And yet Cronon's final conclusion is that an improved revision of Turner's thesis is correct.  "Turner's notion of the 'frontier' may be so muddled as to be useless, but if Turner's 'free land' is a special case of Potter's American abundance, then the general direction of Turner's approach remains sound" (Cronin 1987: 175).  "Potter's American abundance" refers to David Potter's People of Plenty.  In that book, particularly in his chapter 7 on "Abundance and the Frontier Hypothesis," Potter argued that Turner had failed to see "that the frontier was only one form in which America offered abundance," and that "other forms of abundance had superseded the frontier even before the supply of free land had been exhausted" (Potter 1954: 156).  If we define "frontier" more broadly as "the edge of the unused," then we can see 

". . . that science has its frontiers, industry its frontiers, technology its frontiers, and that so long as Americans can advance their standards of living and maintain the fluidity of their lives and their capacity for change along these frontiers, the disappearance of the agrarian frontier is not at all critical.  In terms of abundance, Turner was correct in saying, 'Never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves,' but his implication that nature would never again offer such bounty is open to challenge, for the frontiers of industry, of invention, and of engineering have continued to bring into play new resources quite as rich as the unbroken sod of the western frontier" (1954: 157).

This confirms Zubrin's anti-Malthusian thesis about how abundance is created by human beings--by their ideas and their inventiveness in transforming natural raw materials into natural resources that can sustain an ever-growing human population enjoying ever-growing wealth.  This is what some scholars have called "superabundance":  in a free society--with private property, rule of law, and free exchange--there will be incentives for innovative solutions to human problems that will create new wealth, which has allowed the human terraforming of the Earth so that today it can support over 8 billion people.  

According to Thomas Malthus, this was supposed to be impossible, because as the human population grows, it must quickly exhaust the natural resources of the Earth for supporting human life.  But what Malthus failed to see, as Zubrin argues, is that natural resources are not inherently finite, because the capacity of the human mind to invent ways to transform natural raw materials into natural resources is infinite.  For example, for thousands of years, oil was worthless for human beings, until human minds discovered the technology for using oil as a fuel for machines.  And as oil becomes scarce, human beings devise ways to make the search for oil more efficient or to find substitutes for it.

Zubrin quotes this remark from two Malthusians--Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren--writing in 1971:

"When a population of organisms grows in a finite environment, sooner or later it will encounter a resource limit.  This phenomenon, described by ecologists as reaching the 'carrying capacity' of the environment, applies to bacteria on a culture dish, to fruit flies in a jar of agar, and to buffalo on a prairie.  It must also apply to man on this finite planet" (Zubrin 2019: 313).

But when they wrote this, the population of the world was about 3.7 billion.  Now, it has more than doubled.  Isn't this far beyond the "carrying capacity" of a "finite planet"?

Zubrin observes: "so long as humanity is limited to one planet, the arguments of the Malthusians have the appearance of self-evident truth" (2019: 305).  But notice that there is only the "appearance" of truth.  In fact, Zubrin insists, the Earth is "a world of unlimited resources" as long as human beings are free to create those resources (314).

So, for Zubrin, the reason for humans going to Mars is not to escape "this finite planet" of Earth, but to turn Mars into "a world of unlimited resources" like the Earth.  And just as life has terraformed the Earth, we will have to terraform Mars.  

To do that, human beings on Mars will have to be inventive in using technology to turn raw materials into productive resources that generate abundance.  But it's hard to see that this has anything to do with Turner's American frontier.

For example, Zubrin foresees that "Martian frontier farming will need to deal with a shortage of land, water, and labor," and he compares this with how the labor shortage on "the American frontier" created a need for "frontier agricultural technology focused on labor-saving machinery."  He anticipates that Martian agricultural technology will rely on genetically engineered crops to satisfy "humanity's demand for food."  And thus, in combination with other technologies, "Martian civilization will open the way to unlimited material resources for all of humanity, forever" (Zubrin 2024; 220-25).  But the technology of genetically engineered crops emerged in late-twentieth century America, long after the closing of Turner's American frontier in 1890.  So, despite Zubrin's talk about "Martian frontier farming," this example of American inventiveness in using technology to create abundance has nothing to do with the American frontier.

Zubrin's appeal to Turner's frontier thesis is an unnecessary distraction from his fundamental argument for how human innovation can create superabundance--on Earth and perhaps potentially on Mars. 


Cronon, William. 1987.  "Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner."  Western Historical Review 18: 157-186.

Potter, David M.  1954.  People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weinersmith, Zach, and Kelly Weinersmith.  2024.  "Space Isn't the Final Frontier."  Foreign Policy (January 21).

Zubrin, Robert.  2019.  The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Zubrin, Robert.  2021.  The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.  25th anniversary edition.  New York: Free Press.

Zubrin, Robert.  2024.  The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet.  New York: Diversion Books.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Hazards to Human Health in Space: SpaceX's Inspiration4 Mission and Solar Storms on Mars

On Tuesday, the journal Nature released a package of papers studying how only three days in Earth orbit changed the bodies and minds of four people on SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission in 2021.  Kenneth Chang's article for the New York Times is a good brief summary of the findings.  An article by Christopher Mason and his colleagues in Nature is an elaborate survey of the research on space medicine as it has emerged in the "Second Space Age" (Mason et al. 2024).

Inspiration4 was the first space flight with an all-civilian crew--that is, none of them were trained as astronauts.  The four people were private citizens flying on a private spacecraft:  they were in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft launched into orbit by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.  The spacecraft circled the planet every 90 minutes for three days.  Their highest altitude was 364 miles above the Earth.

The four crew members provided extensive medical data both during and after their flight.  This was combined with data from other people who have flown into space.  This includes the comparative data for Scott Kelly, who lived on the International Space Station for 340 days in 2015 and 2016, and his twin brother, Mark, who is now the senior Senator for Arizona.  

All of this data has been collected in an online archive called the Space Omics and Medical Atlas (SOMA).  Omics is a word used by biologists for the disciplines in biology whose names end in the suffix -omics: such as genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics.  These are nouns with the sense "all constituents considered collectively."  The idea of omics is to collect all the knowledge of the structure and functioning of an organism.  So, SOMA is an ambitious effort to collect all the data on what happens to the human organism in space.

Among the four crew members of Inspiration4, there was evidence of cognitive decline, genetic changes, immune impairment, and molecular changes in their kidneys.  But it also seemed that once they were back on Earth, these alterations in their bodies returned to normal.  Surely, however, people travelling longer and deeper into space will suffer enduring or permanent changes in their minds and bodies that could be dangerous and even deadly.

As I have suggested in previous posts, the fundamental question here is whether evolved human nature is so bound to the biosphere of the Earth that human beings cannot survive and thrive in extraterrestrial space.  Or whether it will be possible to artificially create an Earth-like biosphere in space, so that human beings can live and flourish as a multiplanetary species.

To answer this question, we need to understand the two most important factors in spaceflight that induce cellular and molecular changes in the human body--radiation and microgravity.  We know that radiation can increase the future incidence of cancer.  But there is great uncertainty and disagreement about the rates and causes of radiation-induced cancer both on Earth and in space.

Ionizing radiation consists of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that can ionize atoms or molecules by detaching electrons from them.  We are all constantly bombarded by natural background radiation from at least four sources:  terrestrial radiation outside our bodies, radiation in our bodies, solar radiation, and cosmic radiation.  

Terrestrial radiation outside our bodies can come from the geology of the Earth.  For example, the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the Caspian Sea, has some of the highest background radiation in the world because of the radium from radiative rock under the city.  Here the natural background radiation is over 200 times higher than the world average.  And yet, amazingly, there is no clear evidence that the people in Ramsar experience any greater health risk.  This shows how the human body as evolved in adaptation to the range and kinds of radiation on Earth has physiological mechanisms for repairing cells damaged by radiation.

Extraterrestrial radiation comes from the Sun and from other cosmic sources.  On the Earth, we are partially shielded from this radiation by the Earth's thick atmosphere and its magnetosphere (the gravitational field around the Earth).  People living at higher elevations on the Earth or flying in airplanes are exposed to more background radiation.

                                                                      The Northern Lights

The Earth's magnetosphere deflects solar wind particles away from the Earth or directs them to the poles, which creates the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) and the Southern Lights (aurora australis).  Space travelers in low Earth orbit (including those on the Inspiration4 mission and those at the International Space Station) are not protected from radiation by the Earth's atmosphere, but they are protected by the Earth's magnetosphere.

Consequently, we have little experience with the physiological effects of radiation on human beings beyond both the atmosphere and magnetosphere of Earth.  The only experience is from the Apollo missions that went to the Moon and back--24 men.  And the longest was the Apollo 17 mission that lasted a little over twelve days.  So, we have no experience with prolonged space travel in deep space such as the minimum two or three years required for a crewed mission to Mars.

We do know that Mars has a very thin atmosphere (about 1% of the atmospheric pressure at sea level on Earth) and no magnetosphere, and that the gravity on Mars is a little less than 40% of the gravity on Earth.  We do not know much about this Martian environment will affect people on Mars.  But we do know that they will be exposed to many times the level of background radiation faced by people on Earth or in low-Earth orbit.

We also know that the radiation levels on Mars will spike during solar radiation storms--massive energetic particle eruptions from the Sun that spread through the solar system.  In May, we saw one of the strongest solar storms in recent history.  It reached Earth on May 10, causing bright and long-lasting aurorae in North America as far south as the Florida Keys.

It reached Mars on May 20, and NASA's Curiosity rover registered radiation equivalent to 30 chest X-rays.  Although this would not have killed people on the surface of Mars, it might have created some serious health problems (Andrews 2024).

But people like Robert Zubrin who argue "The Case for Mars" say that we should not exaggerate the dangers of radiation on Mars.  After all, NASA scientists can predict solar storms weeks or months in advance, which would give astronauts on Mars plenty of time to protect themselves by hiding behind shielding on the surface or going underground into lava tubes (caves formed by ancient volcanic activity).

Zubrin has estimated that a Mars crew could spend two and a half years in interplanetary space (about a year for a round-trip to Mars and a year and a half on Mars).  During this trip, they would be exposed to about 100 rem of cosmic radiation (rem being the common measurement of radiation in the U.S.), and this would create a 2 percent statistical risk of fatal cancer within 30 years.  By comparison, an average smoker on Earth incurs a 20 percent risk (Zubrin 2019: 134-35; 2021: 126-33).  A Martian living full-time on the surface for 50 years would have an increased risk of 10 percent.  But this could be reduced by living part-time underground (Zubrin 2024: 141-42).  Surely, such a risk from cosmic radiation in space would be bearable for most astronauts.


Andrews, Robin George. 2024. "Mars Got Cooked by a Recent Solar Storm." New York Times (June 13).

Chang, Kenneth. 2024. "3 Days in Space Were Enough to Change 4 Astronauts' Bodies and Minds." New York Times, June 12.

Mason, Christopher E., et al.  2024.  "A Second Space Age Spanning Omics, Platforms, and Medicine Across Orbits." Nature

Zubrin, Robert. 2019. The Case for Space. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Zubrin, Robert. 2021. The Case for Mars. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Free Press.

Zubrin, Robert. 2024.  The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet. New York: Diversion Books.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

SpaceX's Starship Rocket Returns From Space Successfully


                                                 A Replay of SpaceX Starship's 4th Test Flight

The fourth test flight of the SpaceX Starship was a stunning success.  

To see why it was a success, we need to compare this fourth test flight with the third one on March 14.  Early in that flight, the Super Heavy booster was supposed to simulate a landing over the Gulf of Mexico.  But six of the thirteen engines necessary for that maneuver shut down early.  Then, while coasting at the highest point of its trajectory, Starship began rolling out of control, and it disintegrated at an altitude of 40 miles.  This is what aeronautical engineers call a "rapid unscheduled disassembly"--in other words, BOOM!

Based on the data from that flight test, engineers made corrections to both the first-stage Super Heavy booster and the second-stage Starship.  This fourth test today showed that those corrections worked.

32 of the Super Heavy booster's 33 engines ignited.  And it was able to perform the maneuvers that will in the future take it back to the launch site.  In this flight, it simulated a soft landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Starship coasted halfway around the world, survived the heat of re-entry, and made a water landing in the Indian Ocean.  At an altitude of about 30 miles, part of one of the steering flaps started to fall apart.  But even with this damaged flap, Starship did not blow up.

Starship is important for many reasons.  It is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.  It is designed to be completely reusable, so that both the Super Heavy booster and Starship will be able to return to their launch pads to be used again.  This sharply reduces the cost of space rocketry.  Musk has predicted that someday it could be possible to send 100 tons of payload to space for less than $10 million.

NASA will use a version of Starship to take astronauts to the Moon by late 2026 (the Artemis III mission).  Astronauts will be back on the Moon for the first time since 1972.

Then, the next step is to go to Mars, and eventually establish a human settlement on Mars.  Starship could lift as much as 250 tons and accommodate 100 people on a trip to Mars.  That's the goal that Musk has had since his founding of SpaceX in 2002.

But as I have said in previous posts, the greatest challenges for humans going to Mars are not so much in rocket technology but in human biology, psychology, and politics.  Can human beings survive and thrive in space--perhaps by recreating artificially on Mars something like the biological and cultural environment of human evolutionary adaptation on the Earth?

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Mars Is Really Awful. But the Rest of Space Is Worse. So, Should We Plan Our Trip to Mars on Musk's Starship?


                             In Four Minutes, Robert Zubrin Answers the Question "Why Mars?"

Michael Shermer Interviews Robert Zubrin, 1:40

Originally, NASA had planned to extend the Apollo Program, so that after landing on the Moon in 1969, we could go on to land on Mars in the 1980s.  Those plans were thrown out during the Nixon Administration.  

But then, in 1996, Robert Zubrin published his book The Case for Mars.  The book was so successful that it created a popular fascination with Zubrin's plans for travelling to and settling Mars.  Zubrin founded The Mars Society in 1998 to promote his ideas.  

Elon Musk read The Case for Mars, and he was persuaded by Zubrin's argument.  As one of the cofounders of PayPal, Musk was on his way to becoming a multibillionaire; and he was looking for ambitious new projects.  In 2001, he met Zubrin, and he began contributing to the Mars Society.  Following Zubrin's advice, Musk set up SpaceX in 2002, which became the most amazing aerospace company, doing things that NASA thought impossible. 

Today, SpaceX has over 6,000 Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit, providing satellite internet service to over 70 countries.  SpaceX launches hundreds of new satellites into orbit every year. 

Tomorrow, SpaceX has scheduled the fourth test flight of Starship from Starbase in South Texas.  Starship is the biggest and most powerful space rocket ever built.  Musk predicts that an uncrewed Starship will test land on Mars in 3 to 4 years.  Then, Starship will begin taking people to Mars and establishing permanent settlements on the planet within the next two decades.

Is this a good idea?  Let's consider both the case for Mars and the case against Mars.  And then let's consider Zubrin's response to the Weinersmiths' case against Mars.


Although the Moon is often considered the most suitable planetary body for human settlement, mostly because it is so close to the Earth, Mars seems to be the only planetary body in our solar system that has all the raw materials required for human life and for a technologically advanced civilization.  

Unlike the Moon, Mars has carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and water in readily accessible forms, which are the basic elements of life.  Mars has huge stores of water in its ice and permafrost.  The Moon is so dry that water is nowhere accessible, with the possible exception of the perpetually dark craters at the poles, which appear to have some water ice, but even there the amount of water is very small.

Like the Earth, Mars has a history of hydrologic and volcanic processes that probably have left large concentrations of high-grade mineral ore, which could be a source for the metals required for industrial production.  Since the Moon has no geological history of water or volcanic action, it probably has no mineral ores.

The Sun can be a source of power on both the Moon and Mars, but since the Moon has a 28-day light/dark cycle--14 days of sunlight followed by 14 days of darkness--there would be large energy storage requirements.  By contrast, Mars has an Earth-like 24.7-hour day.  Mars also has the large supplies of carbon and hydrogen needed for producing the pure silicon for photovoltaic panels and other electronics.  Mars also has geothermal power resources.  But, eventually, the power-hungry civilization of a Mars settlement will require the power from exploiting the large stores of deuterium fuel for fusion reactors, although as of now no one knows how to build a fusion reactor.

The atmosphere of Mars is 95 percent carbon dioxide.  That makes it toxic for humans.  But, of course, carbon dioxide is crucial for photosynthesis:  plants use photons of sunlight to power the process by which carbon is taken from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and "fixed" into living tissues, a process that requires water and chlorophyll, and which gives off oxygen that is then available for animal respiration.

Also, through the Sabatier process, carbon dioxide and hydrogen can be combined at elevated temperatures and pressures in the presence of a nickel catalyst to produce methane and water.  The water is then available for humans and plants.  The methane can be used to power rovers, habitats, and in liquid form, it's a rocket propellant.  The first uncrewed landings on Mars will be directed to setting up the production and storage of methane, so that when the first astronauts land on Mars, they will have plenty of rocket propellant already on Mars for their return trip to Earth. 


The biggest problem for a Mars settlement is distance.  A trip from Earth to Mars will take at least six months.  And since a Mars orbit around the Sun takes 687 Earth days, once you have landed on Mars, the Earth will have raced ahead of Mars, which is in a slower orbit around the Sun.  Consequently, the first trips to Mars will require at least two to three years away from Earth.

No human being has been to space for longer than 437 days in a row.  So, we don't know anything about the physiological and psychological dangers for people traveling in the vacuum of space for two or three years.

We do know that in space radiation is everywhere, and that radiation causes severe medical risks such as cancer.  On Earth, we are surrounded by radiation.  The Weinersmiths observe: "Some behaviors apt to increase your relative radiation dose include eating Brazil nuts, going to bed with a human next to you, or taking a trip to Denver, Colorado.  Some daredevils may have done all three at once" (52).  But we have evolved in the environment of the Earth so that our bodies can usually cope with certain types of radiation at the range typically found on Earth.  The thin layer of dead skin on our bodies provides some shield from radiation.  Also, our bodies are always working to repair or destroy radiation-damaged cells.  Moreover, the Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere (the magnetic field lines around the Earth) deflect much of the radiation from the Sun and from galactic cosmic sources (such as exploding stars).  But once we leave that protective shell around the Earth, cosmic radiation will be striking every single cell nucleus in our body every few days.  No one knows how harmful that will be.

We also don't know how harmful this is going to be for fetuses and growing children.  The success of any permanent settlement in space, on Mars or elsewhere, will depend on the reproductive success of the settlers: to sustain their populations, they will need to produce healthy babies who grow into healthy adults who then can produce and rear their own babies.  The Weinersmiths emphasize the point that there has been no experience or experiments in producing space babies.  No pregnant women have gone into space.  And we certainly have no experience with multiple generations of human beings in space.  We can be sure that space radiation and microgravity will have some harmful effects on fetuses, children, and their parents (their sperm and eggs).  But we don't know how severe that harm will be.

One first step in investigating this would be to send some monkeys or apes into space--perhaps even to Mars--for prolonged periods to see if they can successfully reproduce and rear healthy offspring.  The need to do this is one of the best arguments for the "wait-and-go-big" approach of the Weinersmiths:  we would need decades of research to determine whether and how human beings can reproduce in space.  The fact that neither NASA nor SpaceX is sponsoring such experiments is clear evidence that they are not really serious about successful human settlement in space.

We do know that on Mars there are many toxic threats to the health of both children and adults.  One of them is the Martian soil, which is poisonous, because it contains perchlorates, and perchlorates are known to harm human health, particularly by causing thyroid problems.  Perchlorates can be taken up by edible plants.  Furthermore, Mars is often covered in massive dust storms, and the sky is blotted out by toxic dirt.

Cleaning this toxic soil for use will require a lot of power.  Indeed, Martians will have massive power needs not only to electrify their cities but also for farming and manufacturing, generating air, and extracting fuel from the atmosphere.  Just to electrify a Martian city of 1 million people would require about 100 square miles of solar panels.  Solar power is unlikely to be enough.  They will need nuclear power as well.  But while some nuclear fission reactors have been launched aboard some satellites, they have never been sent into deep space.  A simpler use of nuclear power is the radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which has been put into deep-space probes (like Voyager 1 and Voyager 2).  But these devices don't produce enough energy per unit of mass to provide for the power needs of a Martian settlement.

NASA has been experimenting with building a compact nuclear reactor--called "Kilopower"--for space projects.  But even the biggest of these units now under way would only provide enough power to run thirty households.

Once again, the Weinersmiths argue, we see here that the technology for supporting a safe and flourishing human settlement on Mars will likely require many decades, or even a century, of research and development.

And so, to propose large human settlements on Mars in ten to twenty years, as Musk and Zubrin have done, is foolish.


Zubrin has written a critique of the Weinershmiths' book for Quillette.  Zubrin makes a least six main arguments, of which some seem persuasive to me and some not.

Here's the first argument: "The Weinersmiths' central thesis is inherently contradictory.  Human settlement of space is pointless and impossible, they argue, but we also need laws to stop it, lest humanity destroy itself fighting over the unprecedented bonanza that space has to offer."

The Weinersmiths don't say this.  What they do say is that it's pointless and impossible to attempt human settlement in space in the very near future, and that we need laws and policies that enforce their "wait-and-then-go-big approach."  Against this, Zubrin needs to defend his approach: "Don't wait.  Go big now!"

Zubrin complains that while the Weinersmiths play up the many risks in space travel and settlement, "they generally downplay or neglect to mention the fact that there are ways of overcoming these challenges--preferring instead to depict would-be space travelers in a variety of comically helpless predicaments."  This is a fair criticism insofar as the Weinersmiths don't say enough about the "ways of overcoming these challenges" suggested by Zubrin and others.  

But still Zubrin evades the critical issue here--are the "ways of overcoming these challenges" achievable in the very near future?  So, for example, while the Weinersmiths agree with Zubrin that the development of thermonuclear fusion power for use in space would satisfy the energy needs of space settlements, they think this is unlikely to happen in the near future, and so, again, we should "wait and then go big" once we have control of nuclear fusion power.

Zubrin's second argument against the Weinersmiths is that while they "ridicule a number of silly and/or morally repugnant arguments" for space exploration, they "simply ignore or dismiss all the more important arguments in support of human space settlement."  

This is not true.  The Weinersmiths begin their book by summarizing and then denying eight "bad arguments" for space settlement, which includes Zubrin's favorite argument--his version of the Frontier Thesis: "Creating Nations in Space Will Reinvigorate Our Homogenized Bureaucratic, and Generally Wussified, Earth Culture" (22-35).  Much of their book attempts to refute that claim.  Zubrin needs to show that their refutation fails.

Zubrin's third argument is a reduction ad absurdum:  if you agree with the Weinersmiths that we should not attempt to settle on any planet in space where there are severe risks to human life, then we would have to conclude that the settlement of Earth is impossible, because there are many risks to human life on Earth, but such an argument against settling Earth is absurd.

This argument fails because the Weinersmiths do not say that a planet suitable for human settlement must be free of any serious risks to human life.  What they do say is that "Earth isn't perfect, but as planets go it's a pretty good one" (383).  So, for them, a good planet for human settlement would not have to be perfect for human life, but at least as good as the Earth.

Zubrin's fourth argument rejects the "crazy ideas" that the Weinersmiths have taken from David Deudney (in his book Dark Skies), "including the notion that, should they become spacefaring, the great powers of the Earth would divert asteroids for use as weapons of mass destruction against one another."

Zubrin explains:

"In the course of my 35 years in aerospace, I have had a fair amount of contact with the military, and I know what they look for in a weapons system.  The key desirable include precision, readiness, security, and stealth.  Firepower is also important--but only when the weapon's effects can be solely directed against the enemy.  That is one reason why nuclear and biological weapons are unpopular among military men.  Furthermore, the last thing you could possibly want would be a weapon of mass destruction that could easily be taken over and controlled by the enemy."

"A diverted asteroid would take decades to strike its target and could be detected years in advance of impact, which would give the target country plenty of time to wipe out the aggressor nation using intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonics, or other Earth-based weapons that take only minute to launch.  It is thus an option completely lacking in both readiness and stealth.  Furthermore, it is doubtful that an asteroid could be directed with sufficient precision to be guaranteed to hit a target country, rather than your own.  And if that were possible, the enemy would have  plenty of time to launch an expedition to nudge its trajectory enough to hit you instead."

"The idea that the major powers would find asteroids attractive weapons is completely off the wall. . . ."

I agree--for the reasons he has indicated.  And I don't see that the Weinersmiths have responded to these objections.

Zubrin's fifth argument is against the Weinersmiths when they say: "If you believe, as we do, that there's no obvious economic case for Moon mining . . . then this new Moon Race is just a pointless escalation towards a crisis, possibly even a conflict" (270).  Zubrin observes: "Why there should be a 'Moon Race' when there is 'no obvious case for Moon mining' is left unexplained."

But, in fact, they do explain this as "costly signaling" (225-28).  The United States, Russia, China, and India could engage in a new Moon Race even though Moon mining has little or no economic utility, because space programs are so costly that nations can show off their power by engaging in a space race that demonstrates their wealth, organization, and technical competence, even though there is no economic benefit to them in doing this.

Rubin's sixth main argument is that the Weinersmiths have ignored the power of his Space as the New Frontier vision:

"This is the true value of space.  It is not a question of obtaining raw materials.  We will probably not get oil from Mars.  We will get inventions that will benefit humanity greatly.  For just as the joyously innovative frontier society that was early America showered the world with inventions from the steamboat and the telegraph to the lightbulb, centrally-generated electric power, recorded sound, motion pictures, airplanes, and much more, so explorers and settlers on Mars will be forced to innovate dramatically in many vital areas, including biotech (to deal with the critical shortage of arable land), robotics and artificial intelligence (to overcome the severe labor shortage), and advanced forms of nuclear power (to provide for the needs of an energy-intensive society completely lacking in fossil fuels).

This fails to answer the claim of the Weinersmiths that this analogy between America and Mars is false because while the American frontier was located in the biosphere of the Earth, Mars is located in what they call the "Necrosphere."  

". . . The Necrosphere is a built structure on Earth.  Inside it, the ground is poison, there is no air, and cascades of radiation are fired at the inhabitants on a perpetual basis."

"Why did we build it?  In the sure knowledge that we can stick engineers inside who, due to the harsh environment combined with their need not to die, will spew forth valuable ideas like a spigot spews forth pressurized water.  If this sort of thing seems implausible to you, you should ask yourself why anyone would expect a Mars base to generate all these supposed benefits" (34-35).

Zubrin's analogy between America and Mars could become a true analogy once we learn how to artificially recreate the Earth's biosphere on Mars--perhaps by terraforming Mars.  The Weinersmiths think that's a possibility that we should strive for, but it will require a century or more of research and development: it would be wise to wait and then go big.  

People like Musk and Zubrin will have to persuade us that waiting is foolish and that it would be wise for us to go now.

Monday, June 03, 2024

The Whole Universe Wants to Kill Us. Or, In Other Words, Space Sucks!


                                      A Five-Minute Video of SpaceX's Starship Mission to Mars

As of today, Elon Musk's SpaceX has scheduled the fourth flight test of its Starship rocket for launch on Thursday, June 6, at around 7:00 am central time.  You can watch a live broadcast of the launch on the SpaceX website.

Musk has said that Starship could have an uncrewed test landing on Mars within three to four years.  After that, Starship could begin taking human beings to Mars and establishing a human settlement on Mars that could reach a population of one million within ten to twenty years.

Previously, I have written about these plans for settling Mars, and I have raised the question of whether there could be Lockean liberty on Mars.

At the end of the video above, you will see an animation of a domed city on Mars.  This is an awesome vision.  But is it a realistic possibility as something that could happen within the next few decades?  I am persuaded that the problems in rocket technology for an uncrewed Starship mission to Mars can probably be solved in the near future.  But I am not persuaded that the biological and political problems in sustaining human life and liberty in space can be solved anytime soon.

The best study of those problems is the new book by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith--A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? (New York: Penguin Press, 2023).  The Weinersmiths are a husband-and-wife team.  Kelly is a biologist.  Zach makes the profoundly witty webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Zach has drawn cartoons for their book, which is part of what makes this one of the funniest books I have ever read.

The Weinersmiths had previously written the popular science book Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything (Penguin Books, 2017).  Section 1 of the book was entitled "The Universe, Soonish," and it had two chapters: "Cheap Access to Space" and "Asteroid Mining."  Once that book was published, they decided that they should write a whole book on what the human settlement of space--particularly, the Moon and Mars--would look like.  They were space nerds who were wildly enthusiastic about the future of humanity in space.

But as they spent four years reading thousands of books and articles and talking with hundreds of experts on the human exploration and settlement of space, they became increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for human beings surviving and thriving in space.  They concluded that the space enthusiasts--people like Musk and Robert Zubrin--were underestimating the awfulness of space and overestimating the human ability to make space livable for human beings.

The Weinersmiths are optimistic about the long-term prospects for human civilization extending into space beyond the Earth.  But "long-term" means not decades but centuries.  There are no good reasons to believe that Musk will be the founder of a new nation on Mars--the Weinersmiths suggest the name "Muskow"--within Musk's lifetime.  But after one or two centuries of space exploration and experimental studies of how space could become livable for human beings, it seems likely that human settlements on Mars could become possible.

That's why the Weinersmiths propose a "wait-and-go-big approach":  don't expect to settle human beings in space anytime soon, but wait until we have a century or more of research on the necessary conditions for sustaining human life in space, and then go big by sending large human populations to Mars and elsewhere with all of the new technology for human life support.  Moreover, that new technology will have to include not just biotechnology but also the knowledge of the psychological, sociological, legal, and political structures necessary to support human life and liberty in space.

The Weinersmiths identify the fundamental problem when they say that the whole Universe wants us dead, which means that space just sucks.  That the Universe is fine-tuned for life, and particularly human life, has become the most common cosmological argument for the existence of God, because God must be the cosmic fine tuner.  But actually the Universe seems to be fine-tuned for death.  The search for extra-terrestrial life has so far failed to find any.  And even if we do someday find evidence for life (perhaps in the water beneath the surface of one of the moons of Saturn), it will probably be only the simplest form of microbial life.

Even the Earth was originally devoid of life.  The evolution of life on Earth took billions of years.  And for over four billion years of Earth's history, there was no human-like life.  When human life finally appeared, it was because the human species had evolved over millions of years in the Pleistocene geological epoch as the environment of evolutionary adaptation. 

Because our evolved human nature is adapted only for the Earth's biosphere as it has existed only in the most recent epochs of the Earth's history, we cannot live beyond the Earth unless we somehow recreate artificially that Earthly biosphere in space.  We don't know how to do that.  And if we ever do learn how to do that, it will take a century or more of innovative research and technology.

In my next post, I will look at the many ways the Universe could kill us if we were to travel on SpaceX's Starship to settle Mars.