Jul 21, 2011

A Mission to Mars: Are You In?

To Infinity And Beyond!

Who knew that infinity stopped at 135? Two weeks ago this Friday, NASA launched the last mission of the undeniably iconic Space Shuttle program. While I'm sure plenty of older folks associate NASA with Apollo, the program that put man on the moon but for us children of the 80s and 90s, the Space Shuttle was our ticket to the stars.

But now it's gone, and with it, the promise of government-sponsored manned spaceflight, at least for the near future. Sure NASA still has interesting programs - the Juno Project, the Cassini-Huygens Mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, even the ARES Rocket - but all of those efforts are about bringing there to us, not taking us to there. As of a fortnight ago, tomorrow's scientists and science fiction authors were relegated to thinking about sitting at home while robotic instruments boldly go where no man has gone before (and probably won't for the foreseeable future).

Between the end of the shuttle program and the budget cuts threatening to hamstring NASA for years, there's no real way to know when humanity will once again set its sights on the final frontier. But while no one's really sure when we'll get there, everyone seems to agree on a destination: Mars.

Sure, we could go to the moon, AGAIN. But what are we really proving  by reaccomplishing what we were succeeded at over 40 years ago (and with much less sophiscated equipment). Or we could try for Venus, if you like 872°F balls of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. It's slight but there is a difference between sending a man to his death and sending a man on a very dangerous mission. Astronauts are crazy, not stupid.

Mars it is, then. But who will be first in line when NASA finally decides to get going?

To answer that question, I went to seven of the genre's best scientific speculators - writers who either specialize in science fiction (both near and far) or who spend their careers inching toward further technological innovation. The type of men and women who spend most of their waking hours thinking about where humanity goes next. And I asked them:

1a. If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?


1b. If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]


1c. Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"?

Find out who answered, and exactly what they said, after the jump.




Charles Stross is a Hugo award winning SF&F author whose work can only be summed up as anything but ordinary. While Stross dabbles in Fantasy and Lovecraftian Horror from time to time, he's most well known for his near-future and post-singularity speculations including the excellent Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. Stross's latest book is the highly ungoogleable Rule 34, a near future techno-thriller written entirely in 2nd Person perspective. You can find out more about Stross at his blog, where he writes about anything he damn well pleases, including an excellent (and very applicable) piece about the future of space colonization.

SoY: If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with the caveat that it was a one way trip with 1 year's worth of supplies (and no guarantee that the mission would be successful, would you take it?

CS: Absolutely not!

I am a risk-averse middle-aged male with health issues. I'm also fairly gregarious; I like company. Finally, I'm in no way qualified to get any use out of that one-way trip -- I'm not a geologist or a planetary scientist of any kind.

Basically you just offered to dump me in the middle of a desert more inhospitable than the Dead Zone on Everest with only enough supplies and air to last one year and no way to come home. No thanks!

You can't breathe (or eat) fame.

SoY:  If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (i.e. a million dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers) except the chance to return to Earth again.

CS: There is no reasonable incentive that would get me aboard that spaceship willingly.

Unreasonable incentives -- a convincing threat to kill me if I refuse to go -- might work.

Implausible incentives (Iain Banks' Culture have set up an embassy on Mars and are taking in immigrants) would help.

But in general, I'm happy where I am. Go pick your pioneer somewhere else.

[Note: Charles Stross declined to answer the third part of the question]



Ian Tregillis writes books, conserves helium, and plays with science. At least most of the time anyway. When he's not writing books that we never get to read, he spends his days as a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While that might sound legit at first, he also blogs about attempts to write his name on the moon with lasers. You be the judge. In the speculative fiction space, Bitter Seeds, Ian's debut novel pitting Nazi Supermen against British Warlocks, was met with rave reviews last year. The next volume of The Milkweek Triptych was unfortunately delayed due to a massive #editorfail at Tor but it remains one of my most anticipated titles, regardless of when it finally surfaces. You can keep an eye on his peculiar website for further updates.

SoY:  If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?

IT: Nope.


Sometimes even Earth can be a terribly lonely place. But at least here there are a few billion people with whom I can attempt to form some human connection. I don't imagine the conversations with fossil bacteria (if they exist) and dead robots would be much of a salve. The vistas would be magnificent, and the thrill of being the first person to see them first-hand would be amazing... but I wouldn't have anybody with whom to share the delight. Just some staticky voices on the radio. And I'd miss the color green. (Assuming we're not talking about a completely terraformed Mars.)


I like to explore the world in my own little ways. But no thrill of discovery would trump, for me, the terror of being irrevocably alone forever. Which is a completely weird thing for me to say, given that I'm such an incurable hermit anyway. I guess I need to know that safety net exists.

SoY: If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]*

IT: I think that entire list would be a good start... I'd want to know that the people I left behind would be forever comfortable and cared for. I'd want to know that I wouldn't starve to death. More than anything I'd want to be part of a community when I arrived. But even then, I just don't know that I'd do it.


But if Earth faced imminent destruction and my choices were either Mars or death, I suppose I'd pick Mars. Unless I was particularly grumpy on the day I had to choose.

SoY: Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "/one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind?

IT: Knowing me, it would probably be, "Ouch," as I tripped down the ladder.


And then maybe some cursing. Or perhaps followed by panic about the damage to my space suit. That would be dignified, wouldn't it?



Ted Kosmatka was the first author ever interviewed here at Stomping on Yeti and he remains one of my favorite short fiction authors in the game. It seems like every time I check to see what he's up to, he's got another story up for another award or reprinted in another "Best Of" book. Assuming his website is up to date, by his count his work has been reprinted in eight Year's Best anthologies, translated into seven languages, and been performed on stage in Indiana and New York. He's also been nominated for both the Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and is co-winner of the 2010 Asimov's Readers' Choice Award. His debut novel, The Helix Game, is due out from Del Rey early next year and I can't wait to read it.

SoY: If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?

TK: Like any sci-fi writer worth his salt, I’ve been contemplating this exact scenario for years and have long had a go-bag packed and sitting by the door while I wait for the phone to ring. I actually think I’m temperamentally inclined toward just such a mission (NASA, if you’re listening?), but I do realize that accepting such a job would be the equivalent of taking a plea deal for life in solitary confinement. From what I’ve read, humans tend to go insane in prolonged solitary. I don’t think I’d prefer to go insane (nor would it benefit the mission), so now that I’m a bit older, certain caveats would be required before I’d actually climb aboard a one-way rocket.

SoY: If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]

TK: If it was truly a one-way trip, I’d need my family to come along. And if I’m thinking ahead, I’d need a certain critical mass of other unrelated families (the more genetically diverse, the better) to come along as well. While the trip may be one-way, I’m not sure that a whole lot is gained by sending and handful of folks to some distant, barren landscape to die off like a space-age reenactment of the Vikings in Greenland. It would be better, I think, to be a part of a colony large enough to have a chance to expand and leave something of itself behind. I’d sign up for that. Though I tremble to think what strange founder effects my presence might create in the future gene pool of Martians.

SoY: Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"?

TK: --Sheesh, that’s pressure. I’d probably say something like, “Please don’t let me screw this up,” or “With this step, Mankind finds a new home,” or “Just try to collect those parking tickets now!”



Jason Stoddard knows nothing about going to Mars. That is, aside from the fact he wrote an entire novel figuring out how to do it (or at least how to pay for it). In his day job, Stoddard is "an evil marketer, slaving away for corporate overlords who want to take over the world, destroy the environment, and eradicate the middle class." With NASA's budget under fire, we're going to need those evil corporations to get where we want to go. Unfortunately, I'm not exactly sure where Winning Mars is in the publishing pipeline. But if you add his blog to your favorite sites, I'm sure he'll let you know.

SoY: If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?

JS: Absolutely. Somebody has to do something, rather than just sitting around whining about the state of the planet. Oh wait, did I say that? Yes, I did. So it might as well be me.

SoY: If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]

JS: All I need is the chance. But if I could specify a very nice option, it would be to have a very high chance of safe arrival. (As in, not 20% or 30%, but 90% or higher.)

SoY: Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"?

JS: Um, serious lack of inspiration here. "What took us so long?" is what comes to mind.



Lauren Beukes most recently won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel Zoo City. But don't let that fool you, she's been awesome for years. Beukes is a South African author, journalist, documentarian, scriptwriter, and a card carrying, dinosaur-riding, ninja warlock assassin. Unfortunately, her next novel isn't on the publishing calendars just yet. I just hope we get to read it before it all comes true again.

SoY: If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?

LB: When I was 25, yes. Now, no. I couldn’t leave my daughter and my husband. Too big a risk and no chance of return? Couldn’t do it.

Parenthood, man, it’s like mind-control alien parasite infestation. It changes you.

SoY: If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]

LB: It would have to be to save all life on Earth, including my daughter’s. Self-sacrifice for the win!

SoY: Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"?

LB: We’re here because we imagined we could be. Because we were curious enough and foolish enough to try.



Daniel Abraham wrote one half of the excellent Leviathan Wakes, a science fiction novel about how humanity finally gets off its ass and out of the solar system. All it takes is a little elbow grease, an imaginary propulsion drive or two, and a hoard of extraterrestrial hybrid space zombies. At this rate, we should be ready to go by 2018 or thereabouts. While his first foray into SF is a thrilling success, Abraham is actually more well known for his fantasy work, particularly the critically acclaimed Long Price Quartet and the recently debuted The Dagger and The Coin. Look for the second book in The Expanse early next year, entitled Caliban's War.

SoY: If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?

DA: Hell no. That's like asking if I'd sign up for a life of solitary confinement.

SoY: If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]

DA: Enough infrastructure for a community, safe travel, and a pleasant day-to-day life when I got there.

SoY: Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"?

DA: "There is no limit to what can be achieved with properly motivated housemonkeys."



Jack Skillingstead is quite possibly the most likely candidate to mention the fact that if something goes wrong en route to Mars you'll be stuck sucking vacuum while your bodily fluids boil away. That is, if you remember to exhale before your lungs explode and you die. Skillingstead's short fiction might be a little darker than the average author's but it's also stranger, funnier, and simply better than the vast majority of what's out there. Skillingstead's first novel, Harbringer, was published in 2009 by Fairwood Press followed shortly thereafter by his first collection, Are You There and Other Stories.

SoY: If you were offered a chance to be the first person on Mars with supplies to set up a one-person self sustaining Marsbase (with the caveat that it was a one way trip and no guarantee that the mission would be successful), would you take it?

JS: It's a romantic idea and might have appealed to me at one time, before I understood the reality of being alone. As a kid, I watched "Robinson Crusoe On Mars" and considered the idea cool -- but even that fantasy was tempered by the knowledge that a rescue mission from Earth would eventually show up, and all the Paul Mantee character had to do was survive during the interim.

SoY: If not, what would need to happen to get you on that spaceship? [It can be anything (a billion dollars for your family, a guarantee of safe arrival, a lifetime's worth of supplies, a colony of a thousand fellow travelers, a comet headed toward Earth) except the chance to return to Earth again.]

JS: Anything? Then, sure, a large self-sustaining colony of interesting people, female companionship, useful work, etc. Also, communication with Earth, if not actual visits home. I might go for that -- but not until I'd done and seen a few more things on the home planet.

SoY: Assuming we get you one planet down the line, what would be your version of "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"?

JS: "Mars is beautiful, but I forgot my toothbrush."



So how about you? Would you be the first one to sign up for a mission to Mars?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...