Time and time again, people try to solve Mars. They suggest a radical solution, or some neat operating trick, that they claim makes the whole problem of exploration and settlement wildly easier. Many of these people are very smart and many of their ideas are genuinely insightful and unexpected. Unfortunately, in an overwhelming majority of cases, they aren’t helpful. If we could crack Mars open with a clever solution, or design the perfect settlement on paper, we would have done it by now. No – the reason we haven’t solved the problem of Mars yet is that Mars isn’t the kind of problem that has a solution. Yet.
When it comes to measuring the value of things on Mars, it’s hard to find a baseline. You can balance things against import mass (like the slugs of Andy Weir’s Artemis), or the raw dollar cost considering launch and purchase cost. Both start to fall apart as our settlement industrialises and the value of goods is tied more and more to Mars rather than Earth. Enter a new value basis – one with a fixed root in engineering that can scale to any settlement beyond Earth. Enter the hydrogen economy.
Four times out of five, the people I talk to are excited about space settlement (if they aren’t bored out of the conversation before that stage). But one in five asks the Really Sticky Question. Why are we even bothering going to space?
Consider any of the following events. A meteorite has fallen on the expedition outpost, shattering the main battery array beyond hope of repair. A crane line snaps while moving heavy equipment, mangling an astronaut’s leg. A gap in the insulation of a cryogenic tank causes an explosion, destroying the main communication system. There is no hope of a fix, the mission must be aborted and the crew evacuated.