Interview with Mars Society President Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and president of the Mars Society. His work on manned Mars missions include work on In-Situ Resource Utilization technology and the Mars Direct plan, which would bring the costs of manned Mars missions down compared to more complex plans like the Journey to Mars. For context, this interview was recorded shortly after the 2015 Mars Society conference.

HH: Hi. We’re here with Dr. Zubrin of the Mars Society today. How you doing Dr. Zubrin?

Zubrin: Just fine. Glad be on your show.

HH: Thanks for being here. So what did you think of the proceedings at the recent Mars Society conference?

Zubrin: Well, I thought they were pretty interesting and pretty exciting. We had two very lively debates and a lot of good plenary talks. One of the plenaries that I found most interesting was Carol Stokers who did a review of all the evidence of supporting the search for life on Mars from the assortment of recent probes and it amounted to a pretty impressive body of evidence that I’d never seen marshaled quite like that before.

Playlist — 2015 Mars Society Conference Debates

HH: I think that the debates come off rather well this year.

Zubrin: Yes, they did, especially since both sides showed up. In previous years, you know, for instance, trying to debate Franklin Chang-Diaz who runs around making all these statements about how impossible humans to Mars missions are without his technology. He would never show up for the debate even we had it in his hometown, but on this one both Bas Lansdorp and the MIT team showed up, and the lunar advocate Harrison Schmitt showed up and the Planetary Society showed up and of course, I showed up. So this time we had this dialogue and people could sort it out there for themselves. I think that’s absolutely necessary. We’ve had too many decisions made in the space program without adequate discussion. It just comes down. So we got stuck with a space shuttle on the space station and now the asteroid redirect mission which lacks rationality. We’re going to have more debates at our conferences from now on.

The Debate Franklin Chang-Diaz Never Showed Up For

HH: Good. So what are the future plans for the Mars Society?

Zubrin: Well, the next conference is going to be in Washington next September. Between now and then we are holding a contest on the Gemini Mars mission, the two-person Mars flyby mission, and which we call Gemini not just because there’s two people on it but because I think it’s meant to serve the same role for humans to Mars as Gemini served for Apollo. It’s the precursors, it’s the first step.

HH: So what do you think of the current state of private efforts to go to Mars?

Zubrin: Of private initiatives?

HH: Yeah, like Mars One, any other…?

Zubrin: Okay. I mean, look, Mars One’s fundamental problem is that it lacks the resources to do a human Mars mission, and Dennis Tito has kind of fallen by the wayside. That’s why we’re picking up the ball ourselves on this two-person Mars flyby mission. The corporate version is naturally strong and has real hardware and real technical capability and they’re making some pretty impressive progress up till now. They’ve shown that they can develop launch systems and capsules and other space systems for about one-tenth the cost and one-third the time. That has become accepted in the aerospace industry, but they’ve only done things that other people have done, albeit at greater time and cost, but if they can succeed in reusing the first stage when they’re very close to achieving that, they will have done something that no one has done and then we can start talking about heavy-lift boosters with a reusable first stage that greatly reduce the cost of humans to Mars.

HH: So what do you think would be some good sources for funding?

Zubrin: Well, see, I think that if you are going to do something like Mars One, that would be a reality TV show, it’s nowhere near what is needed to fund humans to Mars and furthermore, if you’re going to go to Mars on a one way on a settlement program, you don’t just want the money to fund the first mission. You have to have a funding organization in place to keep funding missions, sending more people, more supplies, more equipment, more of everything. So really what something like Mars One needs, it’s not a reality TV show, but a global Mars settlement support organization which, you know, I mean, look, we’ve got seven billion people on the planet. About a billion live in the advanced sector or people have money that they can spend on, you know, all sorts of things that aren’t directly connected to their survival. And I would say easily one in ten of those people in the advanced sector believe that it’s important for the human future that humans expand into space. So that’s a hundred million people at least. A hundred million people times a hundred dollars a year would be a billion dollars a year so that’s more than enough to fund a Mars colony, but we got to pull that together. The harvest is plentiful, but the gatherers a few. And that’s ultimately what’s needed.

HH: If somebody offered you the money to send manned missions to Mars, how would you do it?

Zubrin: Well, I believe — well, it depends how much money. If I had a very large amounts of money like NASA does I would fund round trip missions first to do exploration before I started a settlement. If I had much more limited money, say, the kind of money that Bas Lansdorp hopes to get, which is six billion to start and a couple of billion more a year after that and one way becomes necessary because it is much cheaper and less technically challenging than the round-trip mission, but what I would do is, you know, I would probably use a launch vehicle like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

And you probably use two launches per mission; one to launch the payload, the other to launch the Trans-Mars Injections mating dock. And you’d want to, you know, every two years there’s a window of launch to Mars, so you’d launch a group of people and a package of convenient supplies and equipments of all sorts every two years. Very early on, you want to build up your greenhouse capability so you have a farm on Mars waiting for people so they can have the ability not to be completely self-sufficient on Mars, but to be self-sufficient on Mars and in heavy industrial capacity by doing later things like iron. Mars is putting up, you know, the raw materials for plastics. And then you just import from Earth very sophisticated stuff; electronics, this kind of thing that takes a much more sophisticated division of labor to build, but which doesn’t weigh very much.

And the key force to the Mars settlement is the ability to pick Martian raw materials and turn them into resources. People are confused on this point. There’s no such thing as a natural resource, there are only natural raw materials. It is humans who are resourceful. Land was not a resource until people invented agriculture and through advances in agriculture over the ages and most especially in the past two centuries, we have greatly multiplied the value of human resource by making it vastly more productive. Last year the state of Iowa grew more corn than the entire United States did in 1947. The United States was already an agricultural giant and people in the 40s grew vastly more than the first agriculturalists. And so we’ve multiplied it. Oil was not a resource until we develop petroleum drilling and refining and things that could use the products. Uranium wasn’t a resource until we developed nuclear power. Terium is not much of a resource now but it will be once we develop fusion power.

So we go to Mars, we have to figure out how to take the stuff that is there and turn it into resources; how to take Martian ground and turn it into agricultural land; how to take Martian subsurface feed (which is there, we know that because there are volcanoes on Mars that are younger than ten percent to the life of the planet) and turn it into geothermal power. You know, how to take all these different things that exist on Mars and turn them into resources and then, once you do that, then they’ll be resources on Mars and people will be able to settle there. So the first people there will explore to assess what is there, the next people there will engineers and agriculturalists to figure out and implement the transformation of these materials into resources. And then after those pioneers we send the settlers on Mars.

Robert Zubrin Speaking Right Before Testifying Before Congress

HH: I see. So you’ve had opportunities to testify before Congress, how receptive do you think they were to your message?

Zubrin: Well, they were fairly receptive actually, and one of the outcomes not just of that hearing, but of stuff that not only I but other people think like me or somewhat like what we‘re doing at that time, which was after the Columbia accident, was making it clear that if you’re going to have a manned space program, if you’re going to take on the risks and costs of a manned spaceflight, you need to have objectives that are worthy of the risks and costs of manned spaceflight and out of that came the Bush vision for space exploration, which unfortunately did not move fast enough and thus, let itself be — made itself vulnerable to cancellation once the political leadership changed.

Now, a humans-to-Mars program, if it’s done by the government, is something like an army on the march through hostile territory subject to ambush at any time. So you don’t want to take your time going through those ambush threatening valleys. You want to move through them quickly, you know, like the children in Israel crossing the Red Sea in the book of Genesis, you just can’t take your time doing that because budget is going to run out, the waters are going to come together on you. So Kennedy did it right; Kennedy said, “We’re going to go to the moon. We’re going to go in this decade.” And as a result, by the time the administration changed we were practically at the moon and it couldn’t be canceled.

Bush got it wrong in 2004 saying we’re going to be on the moon by 2020. He really had to understand that he had till 2009 to get this thing well underway or it was probably not going to happen. And so if this is going to be done by a government program you can’t go to Mars in 30 years, you can’t go to Mars in 20 years, you’ve got to go to Mars in 10 years or less, or more or less guaranteeing that the political constellation that allowed you to launch the program won’t still be in place when it’s time to do it.

HH: Of course, and what do you think of current plans to terraform Mars?

Zubrin: Well, terraforming Mars of course is for the future. We’re not going to terraform Mars in our time. What we can do is establish that first human foothold on Mars, but someday when there is a new branch or perhaps several new branches of human civilization on Mars I think they will terraform Mars. It is the nature of life to take barren environments and transform them into those that are friendly for the development and propagation of life.

That is why life has been a success on earth; life has radically transformed the Earth, you know, oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is an artifact of life. There was no oxygen here before there was life, it’s photosynthetic organisms that created the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and symbiotic communities of plants and animals have transformed the earth, has created the soil, has moved up in colonized lands from the seashores, up the plains, up the hills, up the mountains, as far as life can go, it goes, and no sooner does any desert place appear on the surface of the Earth. You know, think of Hawaii coming out in the Pacific Ocean, “an island is born, a bare sterile basalt.” Birds fly over, they drop seeds, the place becomes lush. Then Polynesians show up and look at the plants for food, so there’s something good to eat. And then European show up and build hotels so there’s a nice place to check in.

This is what we do and it would be unnatural not to and it’s humans as basically the kind of bird that the biosphere has evolved that can take the seeds of light from this planet and transform it from barren Islands out across the oceans of space and transform that ourselves. So we will do that someday, but that is not for ourselves, but for those who will follow us. But what we can do in our time is transform Mars, making it habitable; not so much through a physical transformation, but through an intellectual transformation, that is, by developing the technologies that, through their existence, transform Martian raw materials into resources that can support human settlement in human civilization, which in the fullness of time will grow in size and power to the point where it could terraform Mars.

HH: If we find any evidence of past or present life on Mars what do you think the response should be?

Zubrin: Oh, well, the response should be multifold. First of all, I think it should encourage space exploration and settlement, both to find out more about life on Mars and perhaps life that might be elsewhere: Europa, Ganymede, so forth, under the ice there. But also simply telling us that the universe is alive, that the earth is not the only world. We now know that there are planets going around most stars. The Kepler space telescope has shown us that planets around stars are probably the rule rather than the exception. And since every star has a habitable zone near or far where you have the right temperatures for life and liquid water, if life can evolve wherever it has a decent planet, it means life is everywhere and since the whole history of life on Earth is one of development from simpler forms to more complex forms, manifesting greater capacities for activity and intelligence and ever more rapid evolution. If life is everywhere, it means intelligence is everywhere. It means we’re not alone. This is we’re finding out and I think simply it enlarges the scope of our thinking enormously. I mean, here we are, it’s almost 500 years after Copernicus, and most people still think in geocentric terms, that is, while they may know intellectually that the Earth is a planet, there are other planets and there are stars or suns and so forth, the way they actually think about reality is “this is the world” they call this place “the world”, not the Earth. It’s the world and the stuff that you see when you look up is the sky, and the stars and such are just little points of light to decorate the sky and so if someone asked, “What’s so important about space?” It’s almost an absurd question; it’s like someone in some tiny little village saying, “What’s important about the rest of the world?” But people don’t get that. I think that by going out to Mars and seeing what’s there and perhaps seeing that what is there shows us that we’re living in a living universe it will greatly expand people’s notions of what is important and what is not and probably what is not.

You know, there are people who think — a book was written on this subject about 20 years ago was called The End Of History; we’ve reached the end of history. We had the Stone Age and the Bronze Age and the Iron Age and the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution and even the information age and now we’ve done everything that’s worth doing and so history is over, sorry, you missed it. But I don’t think — and so now there’s nothing left to be done, but you know, go to the mall and see what’s on sale this week.

But I think there are still great things to be done. I think that we are not living at the end of history. I think we’re living at the beginning of history and that the human race is not all, the human race is young. We are living at the dawn of history. So as we looking back, we look at human beings leaving the canyon Rift Valley as sort of the dawn of history of the human race as a global species. So it was, but now we are a global species and we’re at the dawn of the history of the human race as a spacefaring multi-planet species with the universe open to it, a prospect as comparatively rich to our own as our own is to the condition of those first tribes of humans living in our natural habitat, which is the Canyon Rift.

HH: So what do you think a realistic human civilization on Mars would look like a few generations in?

Zubrin: Oh, well, I think the closest analogy in terms of current cultural references is the American frontier; it’s going to be Little House on the Planitia. I think that it’ll be a frontier culture one, therefore, which is extremely pragmatic, looking for practical solutions to new problems, not being bound by bureaucracy and red tape and this is the way we always used to do it. And there’s a great possibilities for human freedom, I don’t just mean political freedom, I mean freedom to do all sorts of things that is inherent in that situation when, you know, there’ll be nothing in shorter supply on the Martian frontier other than human labor power. So you’re not going to want to have artificial impediments to people using their full potential, which we have in our society, you know, every society is almost always completely blind to its most fundamental forms of oppression.

So right now people are looking at the remains of segregation or male privilege or something and they say well we have to, you know, deal with that. But in fact, the largest form of oppression in our society is not the remains of segregation or anything of the kind, it’s the denial of opportunity to the uncertified, that is, a college degree to practice this profession or that profession or the other profession and various other certificates required to do this, that or the other thing. We’ve got piles of them on which we restrict entry into various professions and prevent large numbers of people from doing things that they’re fully capable of doing except they don’t have the paperwork.

So this is exactly the sort of thing that you had in medieval Europe where you couldn’t make a shoe unless you went through the apprenticeship and spent years at the journeymen level and devoted years of your life to getting into the guild, which is something that we broke here in frontier America. You wanted to make a shoe, make a shoe, and if people like your shoe they’ll buy your shoe, period, full stop.

So I think that when you do have a labor shortage, which you certainly will on Mars, that these sorts of limitations will be unacceptable and people will be allowed to do what they can do. I’ll give you one example, if you look today at — well, if you think today about a schoolteacher, who is the schoolteacher? The public image of a schoolteacher is a woman and most school teachers particularly in elementary are women, but that was not always the case. Two hundred years ago large majority of schoolteachers, almost all were ministers, were men. Women became school teachers on the American frontier and then that acceptance propagated eastward during the Civil War when there was a shortage of men to fulfill that role. And so now it’s considered in no way exceptional for a woman to teach public school. So when you have those conditions of labor shortage, that is, in fact, liberating and then furthermore, it’s liberating technologically because just as the labor shortage in America put a premium on labor savings devices and thus, technological innovations, Yankee ingenuity, so you’ll have that on Mars.

So for instance, comparatively speaking, useful agricultural land on Mars will be in much shorter supply than it is on Earth because it will have to be in greenhouses and so they’re going to want to get the maximum yield out of every square meter of farmland that they have and they won’t be able to tolerate people who are putting restrictions on advances in agriculture like we’re seeing right now, people raising all kinds of fits over genetic engineering of plants even though genetic engineering of plants is actually — we’ve been doing genetic engineering a plant since the Stone Age except now we can do it with much greater control and efficiency and achieving our objectives by design instead of by chance, no one’s going to deny it to ourselves, no. You say, hey, you’ve doubled the yield and tripled the nutrition of these crops that’s great.

And in fact, making inventions like that which the Martians will be forced to do to meet their own needs, those inventions will be patentable on Earth and improve life on Earth while generating income for the Mars colony. I think the Mars colony will be an inventors’ colony because you’re going to have a group of technologically adept men and women in a situation where they’re forced to innovate and freely innovate and so they’ll innovate. That’s what I think it’ll be like. And at Mars Society convention a number of years ago someone raise this point, which I strongly disagree with, saying, “But is it really right to have children on Mars? They’ll be living in this little settlement instead of having all the cultural enrichments of the Earth,” and I brought up the example of Lauren growing up on the frontier instead of in Philadelphia or New York or London. Okay, did she have an impoverished childhood? I don’t think so. I think she had a very rich childhood and I think that Martian children will have a very rich childhood too and may well develop in much more healthy ways than their counterparts on Earth who were hanging around in malls with no purpose of what they want to do.

HH: Okay. So what are some of the ways that schools could be improved for a better approach to STEM topics?

Zubrin: Well, okay. So moving back to today I think that’s a very good question. I think that we’re wrecking our schools right now. We’ve had a major initiative bipartisan support to destroy America’s schools through massive standardized testing and massive bureaucratization and massive reportage requirements levied upon the teachers. My girlfriend is a teacher and she’s now working ten-hour days filling out forms, filling out computer inputs to nominally track the progress of each student, creating piles of data that no one will ever read. Huge amounts of class time being wasted on standardized tests. I think, yeah, we should have a standardized test at the end of the year so we know what’s going on, but we don’t need to devote twenty percent of class time to standardized testing. We’re turning our kids into tes takers, you know, out goes the science fair, in comes the preparation for standardized tests. And you’re not creating scientists, you’re creating test takers. You’re not creating creative engineers, you’re creating test takers. And you’re not creating writers, you’re creating test takers.

So what you need for education is not an inquisition, you need inspiration and the humans-to-Mars program would be terrific inspiration and be an invitation to adventure to every young person in the country. Learn your science and you could be an explorer of new worlds and out of that you get kids to teach themselves and out of that you get kids that go in and bury themselves in books at the library and start building robots and rockets and telescopes and everything because they want to do this, because they’ll know that science is the great adventure and because youth loves adventure. You’ve got to make science the great adventure and that’s what the humans-to-Mars program does. We would accomplish so much more for education then while we’re accomplishing nothing for education with the Common Core and the standardized tests blitzkrieg, but we accomplished so much more for education than you could simply spending the money more constructively directly on education with classroom aides and new textbooks and other things that are good things but have nothing like the impact that you have if you can inspire a kid.

HH: So basically, we need to inspire kids to go into exploration. What are some good ways to you think we could do that on Mars?

Zubrin: Well, once again, it’s a question of making science the great adventure, and because that’s what youth is going to want to do. What young people do, they have an instinct, they want to go where people have never gone before, they want to do what no one has done before, they want to build what no one has built before, they want to invent what no one has invented before. That is the healthy spirit of youth and we show them that that is to be done in science rather than sports and entertainment, that this is much more significant that here you have a chance not just to be famous, but to be famous for doing something that matters, something that’s going to matter five hundred years from now. Yes, we need to make science glorious.

HH: And that’s about all I’ve got. Anything you’d like to add, Dr. Zubrin?

Zubrin: Well, nothing, but thanks for having me on your show and let’s work together to make science glorious.

HH: Agreed. Thank you.

Zubrin: Thank you.

Some Books By Robert Zubrin

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