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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Humans need Mars!

by Jamie Lutton

 I was reading another Seattle paper a few days ago,  and saw an article about cannibalism being proved among the colonists at Jamestown colony in the winter of 1609-1610. It seems  80%  of the colonists died from starvation that winter. There were written accounts from the time that mentioned this, and newly found archeological evidence from a 14 year old's skull found that had been  hacked open to eat. A very grisly story, but the darkly amusing part was this article was placed just below  an article about the recent enthusiasm for colonizing Mars.

This was funny, but I think misleading. I think the readers were  being asked to put these two stories together in their minds, and think about the likely mortality rate in a Mars Colony.  This sort of negative thinking has pushed the work on a humans to Mars expedition back, decade by decade. In 1968, when we had just circled the Moon, and were planning to land on it the next year, the expectation at NASA  was that we would send a human expedition to Mars by 1990. 

People need to face that we going to have a high death rate in a Mars colony. Human error, accidents, even catastrophes will happen, even if starvation does not plague the first settlers. 
We may have failures, even with everyone dying off and vanishing, like the Roanoke colony in Virgina.  We even have to worry about comet impacts; there is a 'close call' predicted for 2014 for Mars, the type that killed the dinosaurs off 64 million years ago (though if a comet did hit, it would add a lot of water to the surface of the planet - you might Google the articles about this - Mars-Comet-2014)

But that does not mean we should not go into space, not colonize other planets.  Look at the history of this country. Fortune favors the bold..

Just in passing, I would like to note that another famous early English colony, the Plymouth colony, experienced a 50% die-off the first year. The survivors married each other (and other newcomers) and some 5% of the population of the USA is descended from these colonists, including my business partner, John Watkins.  The name of the Plymouth colony member that was his great many-times- grandfather was John Howland, an indentured servant. John Howland now has hundreds of thousands of descendents alive in the united states today.

As Mars appears to be barren and generally void of life. we will not be displacing or wiping out any native peoples  a' la Avatar or even in our own history through disease or deliberate policies.  There is no good reason not to go; even for the reason Everest was climbed in the 1930's for the first time; 'because it is there'.

I want, then, to recommend the book The Case For Mars, first written back in 1995 and recently revised.  This book is a good introduction to the problems of humans colonizing Mars. and some clever shortcuts that could be made. The author's thesis is that we should plan right from the start to go 'one way', and leave astronauts there to start up a permanent colony.
This is an upbeat book, written by a notorious Mars booster  Dr. Robert Zubrin. It has a lot of useful information, and good hard science in it,  with a lot of the technical answers with original thinking covered on the problems that would be faced. A ''sequel'' to this book, How to live on Mars, a comic SF fictional immigration 'handbook', set in 2095, is filled with practical information.
It is a funny book, a good book,  that is a commentary on life as we know it now, as well ..... but I am biased. I did some editing on this book. It got a review in the Wall Street Journal that was favorable and a 1/4 of a page long, so it can't just be me.

What with the risk of a meteor collision like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,  as well as the comet near-miss that is approaching Mars next year, it would be good for the survival of the human race to live on more than one planet in this solar system.   Even with all the problems the human race faces now, it took economic progress in the West to turn humans into environmentalists, and we are  better stewards of the Earth than we might be otherwise. We do a better job rescuing and reclaiming streams, cleaning the air, sewage,using cleaner technologies,  and saving endangered animals, by using advanced technology applied to the problem.  Humans are far from perfect at this, but the general trend is good,. in my opinion.

On a darker note, I want to recommend two books by Richard Preston, The Hot Zone, and The Demon in the Freezer.  I read the Demon in the Freezer first, and could not put it down, then searched for other books by this author, and found The Hot Zone.

I was brought to the realization  that the human race may be hit by (another) disease outbreak originating in Africa.  Our government chose to ignore the last big epidemic from Africa, until it was too late to contain it; the AIDS epidemic (see the book The Band Played on by Randy Stilts).
There are several other epidemic diseases that could break into  pandemics, lurking to break out in a big way; a good example is the five varieties of Ebola. The worst of these being Ebola Zaire, which has a 90% fatality rate, and no known cure - only palliative measures.  The author says the evidence points to both diseases started out as diseases from monkeys and apes in Africa, that spread into the human population from eating or handling sick monkeys, and the destruction of their habitat...
We nearly had an outbreak into the general human population of Ebola Zaire near one large American city, from a population of monkeys kept in a military facility. Carelessness, and the insane pursuit of making money by quickly  selling groups of imported monkeys to American labs without adequate precautions. This nearly caused an outbreak like those seen in Africa, when whole villages were wiped out by Ebola. Though this book is 20 years old, the risk is nearly as high it was then. Plus, with warfare and economic conditions being far worse than it was 20 years ago, in Africa, the chance of a big outbreak is high. There have been several small outbreaks in the last 20 years.  The author notes that the West did not contain AIDS when it our track record of spending enough money to 'notice' and stop fatal disease outbreaks is abysmal.

The Demon in the Freezer, which I read first. covers first the heroic struggle to destroy smallpox in the world, by dedicated health workers, doctors  and scientists chasing the smallpox outbreaks  around the world and 'encircling' them, vaccinating everyone around an epidemic, to 'contain' it and snuff it out.  in the early 1970's, smallpox was finally eradicated in the entire world. The difficulties in doing this, the resistance of the local governments, is well told. These men and women are heroes, and this story should be better known.

The second half of the book is the history of some of these scientists then turning to fiddling with smallpox in labs, to 'weaponize' it, i.e. making it stronger, and in some cases 100% fatal. The author interviewed Soviet scientists who had defected years earlier, who reported that the Soviets had done this kind of research...and after the fall of of the Soviet government, these scientists had scattered and gotten jobs in many other nations. Right now, up to this date, there has been no success in destroying all the smallpox kept frozen in labs, as all sides want some 'just in case'.  So,the chance of an 'accident' or a deliberate release of this disease is still very high.

For those who want to read a fictional account of how bad this could get, should read the thriller Andromeda Strain or watch the early 1970's film adapted from the book - it is excellent.  Or the more recent film, Contagion.  This last film was carefully made, a realistic account of a natural pandemic flu outbreak killing millions who catch it, with only a 20% fatality rate.

Having a version of smallpox available that has been tweaked to be 100% fatal could be disastrous for the human race.  As this author points out, we live in the age of air travel. One sick person could be 1,000 miles away in a few hours, spreading an air-born illness to everyone she touches. Unlike the days of, say, the Black Death, which spread only a few miles a week. any contagious illness spread by touch or breath, that is highly fatal, could be around the world in a day or so.

When I read The Band Played On 20 years ago,  I went around for six months trying to get my friends and family to read the book. I was shook to the core by the author's proofs that this fatal illness was ignored by our government, as they did not care much about  the  population it first appeared in - the gay population.  Now, even though we are on the verge of a cure, this illness has killed millions, and had decimated some African countries. It is now epidemic among straight youth, esp. minorities, and seniors in this country.  Our abandonment of good public health worldwide, because of ''the cost'', means a pandemic  could happen anywhere, anytime.

We are fairly aware of the bird flu outbreaks that  occur in the Third World and then spread around the world, but most people don't think about what else is out there.

I have to put these two books on my list of great non-fiction of the late 20th and early 21st century, and a must read for everyone. As we as a human race makes plans to colonize Mars, ,these diseases still snap at  at our heels and endanger us all.
Jamie Lutton owns Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill, and her blog with her business partner is Booksellersvsbestsellers.

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