Mars expedition: Symptom of systemic decline
There is nothing truly utopian or universalist in capitalist space programmes, says Yassamine Mather
At a time of economic depression, while the world has yet to address some of the most fundamental issues regarding human survival on this planet, not least in terms of the environment, a millionaire space tourist, Dennis Tito, is working on plans to send a man and woman as tourists for a round trip to Mars. At the same time another private project, Mars One, is in the pipeline, with the ambition of “establishing a human settlement on the planet Mars by 2023”.1
All this follows the relative success of a number of aerospace projects undertaken by the US space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). Its ‘rover’, Curiosity, landed on Mars on August 6 2012 and has since sent reliable information about conditions on the planet, fuelling speculation about the possibility of humans surviving there.
Even before the landing of Nasa’s rover, scientists knew from studying fragments of rocks in the form of meteorites that water had once flown on the red planet, but images transmitted by Curiosity proved beyond doubt that flowing water has shaped the landscape. Mars has an atmosphere allowing a level of protection from sun rays and a day-night rhythm very similar to what we have on Earth: a Mars day lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds. All in all, it is considered to be the most habitable planet in our solar system after Earth.
The two privately funded aerospace projects aim to beat Nasa’s plans to send astronauts to Mars in 2030 by 12 years, both starting in January 2018. The two years were chosen because they coincide with the best alignment of Mars and Earth - in 2018 and 2030 a round trip would take about 18 months, or 501 days, whereas in between it could take up to three years.
There are, of course, many obstacles to such plans. For example, the distance between Earth and Mars is 248 million km, and the $2.5 billion Curiosity took 253 days to reach its destination. Even radio signals from Mars take between four and 20 minutes to reach Earth, depending on how far apart the two planets are at the time.
Equipment on board Curiosity detected high levels of radiation, both during the trip and at the destination, where the absence of a protective atmosphere means astronauts are very exposed. According to Geraint Jones, an academic at University College London, the annual exposure limit for nuclear industry employees in the UK is 20 millisieverts (20mSv), but astronauts could be subjected to 662mSv over the course of a single trip.2 Humans would be kept safe if their spacecraft was encased in lead or concrete, but obviously the weight of such material would rule that out, so the race is now on for the manufacture of more lightweight material resilient to this level of solar radiation.
In addition to radiation, there is another problem, as explained by Gary Marin, director for advanced programmes at Nasa: “Being away from Earth for three years would mean that every cell of your body would be transversed by a galactic ray, and we just don’t know what that would do to people.”3 Furthermore, data gathered from previous missions show that space travel weakens the human immune system, produces gradual bone loss and results in cognitive problems. Also the average temperature on Mars is -50°C.
Despite all this, at the time of writing 80,000 people have applied to Mars One to be selected for a one-way trip to set up a “colony” on the planet. The number of applications is expected to reach 500,000 by the deadline of August 31. Unlike previous space expeditions, applicants need no scientific background. Instead they should show “a deep sense of purpose, willingness to build and maintain healthy relationships, the capacity for self-reflection and ability to trust”.4
Apart from the obvious questions regarding the billions of dollars necessary for the mission, what does all this say about the current state of capitalism?
Until the late 1980s the US and Soviet governments were competing in what was known as the space race. But even after the cold war had ended the competition continued. While today the US is the undisputed superpower, the landing of Curiosity was part and parcel of the strategy to shore up its declining hegemony. Successive administrations until recently refused to cut Nasa’s funding - its 2011 budget of $18.4 billion represented about 0.5% of the $3.4 trillion US federal budget for that year.5 In 2012 it was marginally reduced and the Obama administration’s latest proposal for 2014 allocates a ‘mere’ $17.7 billion to the agency. Despite perceptions about expenditure in the current economic climate, there seems to be few qualms about this particular form of spending.
Given the limits of scientific progress in capitalism, where university funding is driven mainly by military use or for increasing profits, academic authorities have been at pains to extol the considerable benefits derived from the by-products of aerospace research. This is not just self-serving propaganda. For example, instruments essential for studying atmospheric parameters have a use in the development of modern mammography, while breast cancer biopsy uses technology developed by Hubble Space for use in its telescopes - originally deployed to convert light from a distant star into digital images.
What is more, US missions to the moon produced magnetic resonance imaging, used extensively in medicine for locating cancerous and other tumours. Chemotherapy, used to treat cancer patients, began as an attempt to grow plants in space shuttles. Similarly, pacemakers, monitoring equipment used in intensive care units, artificial heart implants and non-intrusive ultrasound are all medical by-products of aerospace research.
While data from satellites provided critical information for understanding the effects of climate change, infra-red cameras, cordless equipment, modern firefighting clothing and equipment were all first put to use in space shuttles. Of course, many of the above benefits were unintentional by-products, but they are real enough. However, the problem now is that the current shift of aerospace research from public to private will undermine and commercialise any future benefits from this area of scientific research.
For all capitalism’s claims that the free market fuels ‘dynamism’ and ‘innovation’, it is ironic that so far space exploration and the numerous revolutionary inventions that are its by-products have all resulted from state funding, driven as it was by inter-state rivalry or as an affirmation of hegemony. It is extremely unlikely that the private enterprises trying to outdo the state will be able to raise the necessary funds. After all, capitalism’s eagerness for quick profits and private property (so far no-one can envisage ownership of colonies on Mars) makes fundraising for such endeavours improbable.
The economic crisis has already dried up research funding. These days, research grants in science and engineering are often for ‘joint industry’ funding with military firms for the purpose of accelerating profits in what remains of the industrial sector. As one aerospace professor used to say, “Getting funding from Nestlé to improve their chocolate-cutting blades might meet universities research assessment exercise6 criteria, but it is hardly rocket science and will not advance humanity’s awareness of the universe.” Even if private funding succeeded, we should expect little ‘innovation’.
What this project represents is an attempt at precipitating escape from Earth (a few centuries ahead of Stephen Hawking’s warnings7) rather than any enthusiasm for space exploration, curiosity about how life began, how the universe started and how our world was created. All these are important issues and space research has demystified aspects of the origins of the universe - subjects that are inevitably unpopular with religious conservatives of many hues.
There is nothing wrong with space exploration and curiosity about big ideas. However, for capitalism this research has been an integral part of imperialism’s military competition and its current demise is also a reflection of contemporary lack of confidence, confusion and systemic decline.
6. RAE aimed to “produce quality profiles for each submission of research activity made by institutions”.