Humans. Clever enough to do anything. Dumb enough to try

mars-arms

What will eventually trip humanity up is not knowing where to stop.

It’ll be throwing money and ideas at every imaginable ‘problem’, regardless of whether there is any potential value in solving it.

Poverty, disease and war all look like problems that could do with the application of more human ingenuity than we’re giving them. Developing self-driving vehicles or living on Mars, not so much.

Yet when you look around, one of the main reasons why poverty, disease and war persist is because humans at the top of the pyramid are more interested in fighting for control of resources so they can pour them into into elite vanity projects like self-driving cars and sending people to Mars than they are in fixing the spreading fissures in the rest of the pyramid.

“Ah, but,” say the people developing a self-driving Mars module. “We have to go to Mars because it’s Mankind’s manifest destiny. Plus, so we’ll need a fresh start too because we’re working so hard to fry the Earth to a crisp in our eagerness to maintain a technological civilisation that’s sufficiently outsized to support a vanity project like putting humans on Mars. Isn’t our circular logic wonderful?”

No it’s not. In a better world you’d sort out the conditions of the 99% before diverting money and brainpower into Chimera-hunts like manned Mars expeditions or building an infallible computerised 3D model of the entire world so that autonomous vehicles can function properly.

It’s not even as if there’s a remotely realistic chance of getting a human colony to survive on Mars even if we can divert the obscene amount of time and energy needed to put it there. There’s no breathable atmosphere. No protection from solar radiation. The surface temperature is mostly below freezing but can shoot up by 170 degrees F.

And then there’s the small matter of highly toxic perchlorate, which carpets the entire planet at concentrations deadly to humans. That’ll require billions of extra dollars to design and deliver filtering and washing equipment just to give the Mars mission peeps a slim chance of not being poisoned on arrival.

But hey, let’s look on the bright side like Doug Archer, a scientist with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Demonstrating a knack for understatement he may not be fully aware of, he told space.com in 2013 that perchlorate’s existence on Mars would have posed an even larger problem had it not been discovered.

“But now that we know it’s there, I am confident we will be able to design around it. I have a lot of co-workers here at Johnson Space Center who work in the human exploration side of things, and none of them seem to think perchlorate is a showstopper,” he concluded.

That’s a pretty-close approximation to Upton Sinclair’s dictum that you can’t get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it. Not that engineers can’t design a way round everywhere outdoors being toxic, simply that everything new we find out about the Red Planet adds to the knowledge that it might as well have the words “YOU’VE GOT BIGGER PROBLEMS THAT NEED SOLVING ON EARTH” etched into its surface in 600-foot-deep letters.

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