Mars

A publicist recently emailed me: 

We are inviting select science and technology related press to view an early screening of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s MARS Season 2. The series premieres on November 12, however, we could email a screener to you then follow up with top interviews from the season. We’d just ask that you hold coverage until the week of Nov 7.

MARS is scripted, however, during each episodes, there are cut-aways to documentary style discussion by real scientists and thinkers who describe the reality of our endeavor to the red planet. The scripted aspect rigorously follows science and the latest in space travel technology.

Though I hadn’t heard of the show, I was flattered enough to accept this invitation. I have now watched both seasons, and today am allowed to give you my reactions. 

The branding by National Geographic, and the interleaving of fictional story with documentary interviews, both suggest a realistic story. Their “making of” episode also brags of realism. But while it is surely more realistic than most science fiction (alas, a low bar), it seemed to me substantially less realistic, and less entertaining, than the obvious comparison, the movie The Martian. The supposedly “rigorous” documentary parts don’t actually go into technical details (except in their extra “making of” episode); they just have big “Mars” names talking abstractly about emotional issues related to Mars colonization.  

As you might expect, the story contains way too many implausibly close calls. And others have pointed out technical inaccuracies. But let me focus on the economics.

First, they say near the end of the second season’s story that they have completed 22% of an orbiting mirror array, designed to melt the polar ice caps. From Wikipedia:

An estimated 120 MW-years of electrical energy would be required in order to produce mirrors large enough to vaporize the ice caps. … If all of this CO2 were put into the atmosphere, it would only double the current atmospheric pressure from 6 mbar to 12 mbar, amounting to about 1.2% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure. The amount of warming that could be produced today by putting even 100 mbar of CO2 into the atmosphere is small, roughly of order 10 K. (more)

From a recent NASA report:

There is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the COgas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology. (more)

These mirrors are supposedly made on Mars out of materials dug up there, and then launched into orbit. Yet we only seem to see a few dozen people living on Mars, they’ve only been there ten years, and we never meet anyone actually working on making and launching mirrors. Yet such a project would be enormous, requiring vast resources and personnel. I can’t see how this small group could have fielded so many mirrors so fast, nor can I see the cost being worth such modest and slow increases in pressure and temperature, especially during the early colonization period.  

There is almost no discussion of the basic economics of this crazy expensive colonization effort. The first launches are paid for by an International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), initially run by a very rich guy said to have put 90% of his wealth into it. Is this all charity, or does he get a return if things go well? Later we see mostly nations around a governing table, and public opinion seems very important, as if nations were paying, mainly to gain prestige. But the scale of all this seems huge compared to other things nations do together for prestige. 

The second season starts with the arrival on Mars of a for-profit firm, Lukrum, run by greedy men on Mars and Earth, while good-hearted women now run the IMSF on Mars and Earth. Lukrum consistently breaks agreements, grabs anything it can, takes unjustified risks with everyone’s lives, and otherwise acts badly. Yet, strangely, IMSF as a customer is the only plausible source of future revenue for Lukrum. So how do they expect to get a return on their huge investment if they treat their only possible customer badly? Apparently their plan is to just lobby the governments behind IMSF to have IMSF pay them off. As if lobbying was typically a great general investment strategy (it isn’t). 

Thus the entire second season is mostly a morality play on the evils of greedy firms. The documentary parts make it clear that this is to be taken as a lesson for today on global warming and the environment; for-profit firms are just not to be trusted and must be firmly under the control of scientists or governments who cannot possibly be lobbied by the for-profit firms. Scientists and governments can be trusted, unless they are influenced by for-profit firms. The only reason to include firms in any venture is if they’ve used their money to buy political power that you can’t ignore, or if a project needs more resources than dumb voters are willing to pay for. (Obviously, they think, the best solution is to nationalize everything, but often dumb voters won’t approve that either.)

All this in a story that brags about its scientific accuracy, and that breaks for interviews with “experts. But these are “experts” in Mars and environmental activism, not economics or political economy.  

For the record, as an economist let me say that a plausible reason to include for-profit firms on Mars, and elsewhere, is that they often have better incentives to actually satisfy customers. Yes, that’s a problem on Mars, because other than governments seeking prestige, there are not likely to be enough customers on Mars to satisfy anytime soon, as almost anything desired is much cheaper to make here on Earth. This includes not just exotic places to visit or move, but protection against human extinction.

Yes, things can go badly when corruptible governments subcontract to for-profit firms who lobby them. But that’s hardly a good general reason to dislike for-profit firms. Governments who can be corrupted by lobbying are also generally corruptible and inept in many other ways. Having such governments spend vast sums on prestige projects to impress ignorant voters and foreigners is not generally a good way to get useful stuff done. 

By the way, I’ve also watched the first season of The First, another TV series on Mars colonization. So far the show doesn’t seem much interested in Mars or its related politics, econ, or tech, compared to the personal relation dramas of its main characters. They have not at all explained why anyone is funding this Mars mission. I like its theme music though.

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