Mars One – Thoughts from Twitter

I monitor twitter and other news sources for information and discussion about Mars One, and Mars exploration in general. I find it interesting to see what conversations are going on, to see what people are saying about it, and just listen. Every once and a while I make a comment or try and answer a question. Sometimes I need to write a longer answer than Twitter will allow. This is one of those times. Below is the tweet that started off a conversation.

I understand George’s reluctance to endorse the Mars One project. It looks very, very different from a government program, or business in general. The premise sounded flimsy when I first heard it as well, gathering the funds for a Mars mission through a media event, viewership and sponsors. But it started to make sense the more I thought about it. Entertainment is big money. Globally, we spend $35 billion dollars on movie tickets in 2013. The film Gravity made $270 million on a $100 million dollar investment. India sent a robotic mission to Mars for less that that.

The game is changing. This isn’t your father’s Space Race (Apollo)

Myself, Melissa and George had a few tweets back and forth. Then George tweeted this, between many tweets

Even if I think of #MarsOne as an experiment and not as a colonization project, it’s still ahead of its time. Several other experiments should take place beforehand in order to develop the necessary protocols that would govern the interaction with Mars. For instance, a disaster on the surface would result in a possible uncontrolled “contamination” of the area with microorganisms with unpredictable results, which would be impossible to undo or contain Developing such guidelines and protocols is not the job of an entertainment company, but of an international organization of experts.

This is a point that comes up now and again, that humans will contaminate Mars somehow. If this is true, we already have. We have landed several craft on Mars that would have carried with them bacteria and Earth bits with them. The Viking landers were the only ones that were completely cleaned before launch. There are strict guidelines for sending craft to other plants. There are international people working on this. There are entire schools for Space Law! Many people around the world are thinking about this, protocols are being developed.

On the other side of the coin, biological interaction between Earth life and Mars life is very, very unlikely. Here on Earth, organisms don’t usually interact on a biological level. I can’t get a tree pregnant, fish don’t get the flu, and spider legs can’t be transplanted to a dog. There are some examples where biology does match, and those are very rare. Life on Earth has evolved side by side, and is very different from each other. Life between Earth and Mars has billions of years of separation. Contamination is not likely. And we won’t know for certain until we go.


There are plenty of experiments planned for Mars, Mars One is not the only show in town. Mars One is planning on visiting Mars with robots in 2018 and 2020. There is lots of work to do before people set foot on the planet.



George, I understand your reaction to Mars One, it looks very strange. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. There is lots of science going on around Mars and we learn something every day. It’s time to start preparing a crew for the mission. We’ve had the technology to get to Mars since the 1980s, we just haven’t implemented it. Mars One has a plan to get the funds needed to implement this technology and I support them.

Where We Should Build Our First Off-World Colonies

This post is in response to an article posted on the Discover website. The author claims we should forget Mars as a destination, and that of course gained my attention. He made some assumptions that I don’t agree with, and I’m going to go through the post and point out a few things. This is in the spirit of open discussion of course, and I welcome feedback on my own ideas.

First, lets stop calling it colonization. That world has too much negativity associated with it. I much prefer to talk about human settlements on other planets.

I don’t agree with the authors premise for off-world settlements.

It’s not because it would be cool to have people on multiple worlds (although it would). It’s not because Earth is becoming overpopulated with humans (although it is). It’s because off-world colonies would improve the chances of human civilization surviving in the event of a planetary disaster on Earth.

The fear based reasoning doesn’t work for me. Of course we want to have humans survive a disaster on Earth, but that speaks to our base instincts. We are better than that. We have a whole solar system to explore and live in. I would love to see humanity fly among the stars, but we must first master living in our own backyard, our solar system. We have mastered living on Earth, but we chose to use that power negatively, causing famine, climate change and pollution. These are the consequences of the choices we’ve made. To me, going to Mars is a hopeful journey, not one that should be done in fear. Fear will only lead to more negative outcomes.

Creating a Mars Colony

David jumps right to the conclusion that a settlement would be terraforming from day one. His information is sound, but the conclusion is off on the wrong direction. Neither Mars One, SapceX or NASA has terraforming in any of their plans. It’s so far off that it doesn’t make any sense to talk about. By the time we are in a position to terraform anything positively (Climate change is accidental terraforming) our technology will be vastly different than today. The first settlers will be busy with staying alive, not planetary engineering. The cart is fully in front of the horse here.

The Problem of Distance

He gets ahead of himself here again. He’s using a study of an interstellar generation ship to generalize a Martian settlement. The two are very different. It could take 10,000 – 40,000 people to maintain genetic diversity, I don’t know. I do know that the main driver for population increase of these settlements would be immigration. The population would grow from people leaving Earth as more room became available. He then goes on to see how long SpaceX would need to hit 40,000 people using the immigration model, not realizing you don’t need to hit 40,000 people if they keep immigrating; that’s only for a closed system where no new people are added.

Distance is something you have to deal with when working in deep space. It’s a frontier that humans just don’t understand. The vast distances between objects don’t make sense to what we see and interact with everyday. It will take a new sort of thinking to deal with it. Anyone making the trip to the Moon, Mars or beyond knows it’s dangerous. We’ve gotten quite use to flying anywhere in the world and being able to rent a hotel and buy a lunch. The universe isn’t setup like that and we won’t have these luxuries as we travel beyond Earth. Accepting that is much easier than trying to bring all the comforts of Earth with us.

Close to Home

I don’t think anyone in the space exploration community is suggesting that we pick one spot over the other. If you want to go to the Moon, go for it! Making a space station, have at it! Private companies can do what they like, and I encourage us to go after all the targets. Governments have to chose specific targets, due to budgets and politics. But governments aren’t going to set up a settlement either, NASA has said it will bring all of their astronauts back. At the moment, it’s only private companies talking about settling on Mars. There could be MoonCorp that shows up tomorrow wanting to set up a spa on the Moon, and they are free to do that. The location is a trade off however, and if we want to get to the stars, Mars is the best place to start that journey.

The Problem of Gravity

Here’s a common misconception; that the adaptations of astronauts to micro gravity is negative. There is bone loss and muscle atrophy, yes, and that’s part of the adaptation process. If they never left micro gravity environment, it wouldn’t be a problem. The loss of body mass is a problem if they return to Earth. If future settlers don’t plan on returning to Earth, the adaptation to their new environment is just that, and adaptation. There will be changes that we can’t foresee, but for those of us who want to live on Mars, it’s all part of the process.

A New Home in the Solar System

There are plans for Moon bases and space stations. The great thing about space is that there is room for everyone. Let’s get out there, and let everyone create what they want. There are no limits in space.

Solar Roadways

I’ve made the casual comment on social media that solar roadways are a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea, and I wanted explain a few reasons why. It’s a really cool idea and I understand why people are excited. That’s all well and good, but when you start to look at the problem objectively without the hype, it starts to fall apart. This of course, coming from a guy who is planning to live on Mars.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, there is a mom and pop company that is looking to replace the current road system with solar panels. The idea being that the roads are empty space, and we could have them doing work for us. To get yourself into full hype mode, read 7 REASONS WHY SOLAR ROADWAYS ARE F!#%ING AWESOME and watch the video below.

I want to call bullshit on a few of their features.

  • LED LIGHTS! If you were to make road lines with lights, it would be hard to see in the day and way too bright at night. Try looking at your cellphone in direct sunlight, how well does that work? We don’t change road configurations often enough to make this even remotely useful. One of the only times that lanes change is for traffic control or construction. We can use signs for traffic control like we do now and the panels wouldn’t be hooked up during construction. “But they are solar! They could run on their own during construction!” Live power and construction is a big no-no. That’s not a good idea.
  • NO MORE SNOW! So much bullshit on this one. There is no way, and I mean absolutely no way that the solar panel make enough power to melt ice. Solar panels are taking the energy from the sun, converting it to electricity, then converting it back to heat. The sun is the original source. If the sun can’t melt the ice, there is no way that power from the sun will melt the ice.  Black roads absorb heat more efficiently than a solar panel and a heating element can make it, therefor blacktop should be able to melt ice more efficiently than the Solar Roadway. Sure, you can melt ice with heaters, people do it all the time, but it will take power, the road cannot generate the power needed to melt ice with solar power.
  • UNDERGROUND CABLES! Putting rainwater a runoff channel right next to a power cable channel is a bad, bad idea. We put our high voltage lines in the air for a very good reason; the Earth is the other conductor, and if power cables touch the ground, they short out and things blow up. Solar power is DC, and all our power lines are AC. To convert we need to install step up transformers all along the trench.  They put these behind fences for a reason, they are fucking dangerous.
  • THEY ARE MADE WITH RECYCLED MATERIAL! Asphalt roads are 99% recycled. This is a buzzword argument.

Lets take a rational look at this. For these roads to be worth exchanging for our current system, they will have to perform better or cheaper. To make the solar panels worth the cost of installation they will have to make more energy than it takes to make, install and maintain them. I want these panels to meet these two criteria:

  1. The surface they are planning to use must be better than the surface we are currently using.
  2. We have to be able to use the power these panels produce.

I want to know, why replace our roads with glass that have solar panels under them, instead of just making more solar power plants?

Here is the claim made by Solar Roadways:

Everyone naturally pictures sliding out of control on a smooth piece of wet glass! Actually, one of our many technical specs is that it be textured to the point that it provides at least the traction that current asphalt roads offer – even in the rain. We hesitate to even call it glass, as it is far from a traditional window pane, but glass is what it is, so glass is what we must call it.

We sent samples of textured glass to a university civil engineering lab for traction testing. We started off being able to stop a car going 40 mph on a wet surface in the required distance. We designed a more and more aggressive surface pattern until we got a call form the lab one day: we’d torn the boot off of the British Pendulum Testing apparatus! We backed off a little and ended up with a texture that can stop a vehicle going 80 mph in the required distance.

I’m calling sacks of bullshit on this. If the material was so great, Solar Roadways should be trying to sell the road surface on it’s own merits without solar. Road construction is a complicated engineering effort and a few lab tests does not warrant the replacement of the entire roadway system. The US roadway system cost $425 billion (2006 dollars) and you can bet Solar Roadways will cost a lot more than asphalt.

For that kind of money, why don’t we build an orbital elevator, fusion power plant or travel to another star. Or, why not spend billions of dollars and build solar farms to make electricity?

And that brings me to the second point, We are putting solar panels in the road, at a 0 degree tilt, under dirt, grime and vehicles that block the sun. I can’t think of a worst place to put them. Before we start that, why don’t we put solar power on every roof? For panels to be effective they need to be angled at the sun, clean and have an unobstructed view of the sun. For best results they should track the sun. None of these things are possible if they are flat on the ground with things on top of them. The idea sounds cool, but the benefits of the Solar Roadway can all be met cheaper and better by just building solar power plants where they can be at their most efficient.

Science Fiction

When I talk to people about going to Mars and space travel, their eye’s tend to glaze over a bit. I can almost hear their inner monologue “He’s talking about science fiction” Yes, yes I am. Science fiction is the herald of science fact. Just like you make a shopping list before you can cook a meal or look at a map before a road trip society must try out ideas in fiction before we do it in real life. We’ve gotten use to blockbuster movies showing fantastic aliens and forget that fiction does become fact.

In 1959, the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired about a man training to go to the moon. This was two years almost to the day since Sputnik, and another 10 years before the US landed on the moon. It was still 2 years until Apollo was even announced. The episode seems out dated now, not because of production value but because of what we now know.

The main character is in solitary confinement for 20 days in preparation for the flight to the moon. Apollo 11 lasted 8 days with a crew of 3, and they were in constant communication with Earth. (mostly) We’ve had test crews in solitary for 500 days to study the effects of isolation. In 1959, it was guess work, now we know. 

It’s the same reason the original Star Trek looks campy; we have technology that’s better than what they are using. We have computers that are more advanced than what we could have imagined back then. But we had to imagine it first.

Without the images of Frau Im Mond we would not have the rockets we have today. It’s been said that the 10 second countdown was first used in this movie to launch a rocket. (why not 5 seconds?) It was the first time an audience had seen a multistage rocket, now we have private companies building them and a space station.

Science fiction to engineered reality.

Yes, a Martian colony is currently science fiction, but that’s encouraging, not a limiting factor. Humans are amazing, if we can imagine it, we can do it. We will put people on Mars and the science fiction will seem just as silly as Star Trek communicators do to us today.

Copenhagen Suborbitals

Late this month, Mars One announced that Kristian von Bengtson has joined the company to help build hardware for the mission. This is fantastic news, I can’t think of anyone better for the job. He’s an ISU alumni, spent time in a Mars Analogue and makes rockets in his garage. I’m not talking about model rockets, I’m talking about “get you to space” rockets.


Copenhagen Suborbitals is one of those companies that you can’t ignore once you hear about them. They embody everything about the pioneering and adventurous spirit. Their goal is a familiar one, to put people into space. The thing is they are amateurs doing it in their spare time. During the height of the Apollo missions, NASA spent about 5% of the US budget. These guys are doing the same research on donations and they are just as successful. That’s a hard fact to wrap your mind around; with hard work, smart people and determination anyone can get into space.

Amateur rocket engineers at work.

I can’t find the words to properly explain how awesome this is. Not only to they make their own rockets to carry humans, but they have their own submarine and ocean launch faculty. All this hardware was build on volunteer time by enthusiasts who don’t listen when people say it’s impossible.

The folks at Copenhagen Suborbitals are space travel pioneers. It common for people to think that anything that happens in space is because of NASA. That may have been true in the 60’s, but no longer. The work these guys are doing is creating a future where anyone can buy a rocket to space as easily as we buy cars today. That’s a future I want to live in. Now that Kristian is working with Mars One, I’m ever more confidant the project is attracting the right people.



Grade 6 Science fail

I’ve been going into classrooms talking to elementary students about Mars One, space and engineering. Grade 6 classes in Alberta study Sky Science, so my talk fits well with their curriculum. I thought it would be a good idea to read up on the curriculum so I could better tailor my talk. When I printed off a study guide, I found it was riddled with errors.

Science!Why are we lacking STEM talent in Canada? Could be that the facts we teach our children aren’t correct. The document was written in 1996, but even then we knew about more than 1011 stars, and where we parked the Hubble. Click the picture for full resolution and read it for yourself. It’s embarrassing at best.

There is one very troubling sentence that appears in the official curriculum. I don’t know what to make of it.

Describe the location and movement of individual stars and groups of stars(constellations) as they move through the night sky

This seems to say that individual stars and the constellations move at different rates. Technically, that’s true, but for a 11 year old observer, all the stars in the sky keep the same orientation. The constellations are not grouped by nature, they are grouped by our imagination. That’s how we discovered the planets, they moved and the stars didn’t. It’s this sort of ambiguous teaching that will confuse students and turn them away from STEM.

Remember the taste map we learned in school? There are places on the tongue for sweet, sour, bitter and salt? That’s not true either. Turns out that hypothesis from 1901 was disproved in 1974 when someone checked the data. No one updated the teaching material; thanks for nothing.

How can we avoid teaching myths as facts?

We have a whole body of academics and professionals in this country. They oversee all sorts of regulatory issues across Canada. Why don’t we get the experts in their respected fields to proof read the material we are teaching children? It’s just so simple, it might work.

Mars One in the eyes of Islam

Obviously, I pay attention to news about Mars. It’s usually about missions, funding cuts and new discoveries. This past week I learned that the UAE Islamic watchdog has declared that Muslims must not take part in Mars One, as it is against Islam. According to their site, they issues 337,000 Fatwas last year, so it’s a very common practice. At more than 100 a day, it seems they are a very busy agency. According to Wikipedia, a Fatwa is a legal judgment or learned interpretation based on the the teachings of Islam. As I understand it, when something new in the world shows up, it is judged against Islamic Law and then decided upon if it is a sin or not. Traveling to Mars is apparently a sin in Islamic Law.

That doesn’t make me happy. I’m not a Muslim or a member of any organised religion. I do strongly believe that space exploration is very important, so a decry by anyone that it’s morally wrong doesn’t sit right with me. In this case, the voyage has been likened to suicide, and suicide is a Sin, therefore the voyage is against Islam.

I’m not going to argue against Islam, but exploration is not suicide. Suicide is intentionally killing oneself; there argument is that the trip is so dangerous that death is a certain outcome. Two things about that:

  1. Death is a certain outcome of life
  2. The trip does not mean certain death

Life and death are part of the package. Every living thing will die. The risks we take in life can increase the likelihood of dying sooner, but risks also let us live more richly. Everything we do has a risk. Life itself is a risk. So how do we die on Earth? A good portion of it is from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases. Suicide and accidents are higher in the USA, but cancer and heart are still fantastic killers. Motor vehicle accidents are up there as well, 1 in 84 chance in 2006, but driving isn’t a sin.

The NASA study on radiation says there is about a 5% increase in fatal cancers for every three years you are on Mars. On the flip-side there is no risk of a traffic accident or accidental firearm discharge on Mars. You will be on a strict diet so your chances of heart disease goes down. You can’t drown in the bathtub either on Mars. (1 in 818,015, about the same risk as electrocution.) People die all the time. It’s cliché but not everyone lives a full life. Exploring, pushing boundaries, growing and making new frontiers is how we live our lives to the fullest.

Lets get back to what was said:

Professor Dr. Farooq Hamada, who presides over the fatwa committee, shared the motivation for issuing the fatwa: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever merciful.”

Do not kill yourself or one another, that’s the verse. This year, the UAE is creating a law for mandatory military service. The UAE has a standing military force of 70,000 souls; over 5% of it’s GDP used for it’s upkeep. That’s the 5th highest in the world for 2011. If you have control over a standing army, you are preparing to take lives. FULL STOP. Any one of those 70,000 people can be called in to combat and is expected to fight another human to the death. That’s what war is, that’s what armies do.

Mars One is sending 4 people on a settlement mission. Permanent settlement requires people to be alive. No one on the mission is intentionally dying, therefor no one is committing suicide. The fact that you could die an accidental death during the trip is no more suicide than dying accidentally on Earth. Taking risks to live a better life is how we make tomorrow better.

A peaceful path to a brighter future is not a sin.

Doughnut Rock

No, it’s not a new type of fast food, it’s a rock that mysteriously appeared on the Martian surface right in front of Opportunity. Lucky for me, I have a team of people looking our for me. The folks on the X92.9 morning show left me this voice mail.

This is what the rock looks like.

Mystery Rock


No one knows what it is, or what’s it’s doing there. The current theory is that it was kicked up, and we are seeing the side that’s not been exposed to the Martian atmosphere. That tells me that Mars it much more interesting that what the pictures show us. We won’t know for sure unless we go there and check. Even if it is deadly alien bacteria, it’s still really cool.

Mars Interviews Part 2

The interviews keep coming, and I’m more then happy to keep answering questions. I think I’m getting better. Hopefully there are people out there that hear what I have to say and become interested in science, engineering and planetary exploration.

Here’s a link to my x92.9 interview. It was recorded at 6AM and played back during people’s normal commute time.

Here’s the CBC interview I did in the studio! It was the first time I went somewhere to do the interview. I was in the booth, with the microphones and traffic lady and program directors and all sorts of things. It was a lot of fun, but very nerve racking. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it by the time I make it to Mars.

After the interview, Doug gave away two copies of Mission:Mars that I brought in; hopefully two future Mars colonists are reading up on it now.

Baby it’s cold outside

About once a week, I like to have lunch at the sandwich shop by my work. They make fantastic potato soup and their sandwiches always hit the spot. They have a few newspapers around the shop that I’ll flip though while I wait for my food to be prepared. That’s how I found the editorial article in the Calgary Sun. The Edmonton Sun also ran a similar editorial. This level of scientific literacy published in the Sun is a public health risk.

Here are some examples of what I mean by science illiteracy being a public health risk

  • I know a guy who lived to be 80 and smoked his whole life. Cigarettes are harmless.
  • I heard a story where someone was uninjured in a car crash and wasn’t wearing their seat belt. No one should wear them.
  • There was a study that said my kid could get autism from vaccines. It’s not safe to vaccinate.
  • It’s cold outside today, global warming isn’t real.

These blanket statements use point data and extraordinary circumstances to describe an average. Climate change is an average. That doesn’t mean that every day will be hotter than the next. In fact, some places may get colder. It’s a global average. Mixing opinion and fact is dangerous and irresponsible.

So we hear from the environmentalists (loudly and frequently) when a hurricane blows across the Jersey shore or a typhoon roars through the Philippines, but not when thousands of communities across North America, Asia and Europe set record cold temperatures. How come one sort of weather is an indicator of impending climate disaster while mentioning the other is a sign of simple-mindedness?

That’s the sort of intellectual hypocrisy and arrogance Chu is up against

The problem here, is that science can explain the current weather. No simple-mindedness, no hypocrisy. Here’s a video from last year, explaining what’s going on.

From this source, we find out that some places will be warmer, and others colder. Climate Change. (Imagine me doing jazz hands)

NOAA scientist James Overland explains: “When the Polar Vortex — a ring of winds circling the Arctic — breaks down, this allows cold air to spill south, affecting the eastern United States and other regions.”

“This can result in a warmer-than-average Arctic region and colder temperatures that may include severe winter weather events on the North American and European continents.”

The Sun editorial continues it’s opinionated rampage.

There is no evidence severe weather is increasing in frequency. Indeed that past eight years since Hurricane Katrina has seen the lowest level of tropical storms in 70 years. But, as Chu correctly pointed out, you don’t hear much of that; just as there was very little reporting on the fact that this summer Arctic sea ice melted less than at any time in the past decade – perhaps the past five decades.

No evidence? This year Alberta saw the worse flooding in memory. That’s after we set new records in 2005. Do you have a short memory, or are you willfully ignorant? As for sea ice, your comment is misleading and outright false. You can do that, because it’s written in an editorial column. You endanger the public with popular lies.

I’ve met Sean Chu, he’s a nice guy. I’m glad he’s on the City Council and I think he’s got some really good ideas. Sean, please look at the science before you speak. You have an important position; pandering to the scientific illiterate is dangerous and does not serve the public. Please stop.