December 22, 2023

Review: A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?

A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? by Kelly Weinersmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sobering, thoroughly researched tome that throws quite a bit of cold water on the notion that we will be settling the Moon or Mars anytime soon. Not that it can't eventually be done (the authors think) but the technology will have to advance leaps and bounds beyond what it is at present (with the question of reproduction in space being among the thorniest). It will also be hella expensive no matter the level of technology, and at the end of this book I found myself wondering if the trillions of dollars it would take would be better staying on this planet to deal with the crisis of climate change.

This book tackles quite a few serious challenges to space settlement, with the longest and most unexpected section dealing with space law. This took me by surprise. I'd always thought the obstacles to overcome in terms of sheer survival would be the worst, but the laws and customs governing space settlement on other celestial bodies, and how they would need to be renegotiated as other countries on Earth get launch capability, are in some ways even more daunting. This gets more than a little into the weeds, but it was fascinating.

All these issues are serious, so the authors do a fine job of lightening things up. This book is funny in many places, which is a welcome contrast to the sometimes depressing subject matter. For example, when discussing the requirements of space suits and the dangers of decompression:

So why don't astronauts get bendy, choky, staggery, and deathy when they don space suits? Because they prebreathe pure oxygen before space walks, removing most of the nitrogen from their blood. No nitrogen, no nitrogen bubbles. Movies may have led you to believe heroic astronauts can slip on a space suit and leap to the rescue, but under current designs this would result in Brad Pitt clutching his joints and shambling to a very painful (if handsome) death.

And discussing the possible commercialization of space:

Our perspective in this book is that in the wildly alien environment of space, human nature will remain decidedly earthy. So while we don't know whether your grandchildren's grandchildren will inhabit underground Martian caves or floating cells of kombucha skin in the Venusian skies, we can be certain that wherever they are in the cosmos, Ronald McDonald will find them.

And finally, talking about space food/drink:

And what of Earth's most beloved drinks--wine, beer and liquor? There has been at least one tipple on another world. It happened in 1969, when Buzz Aldrin took Communion in the Eagle lander. That's one small sip for a man, one giant leap for man wined.

The narrative is also leavened by many cute little cartoons from the co-author, Zach. (Although some of them are so tiny it almost takes a magnifying glass to read.) This is not a deeply scientific book but rather a pop-science book, but it is very entertaining and thought-provoking and is worth your time.

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