Figure 1 – Mars courtesy NASA

We live in housing called “co-operative housing.” Everyone buys a share, so we’re all co-owners, but we are in control (within limits) of our own houses. This is one of the best co-ops in Vancouver. There are several others within walking distance, and a couple that have been turned into condominium-type housing. A couple of years ago, while taking our morning walks, Lynne and I met a man from a neighbouring co-op, Chris Langley, who was walking his dog. Things progressed, and we became friends to the point that every Friday (we alternate) one of us goes over to the other’s house for lunch and a couple of hours’ conversation, which can range wildly. Other than the fact that we’re both men, both tall—okay, he’s 6’3” and I’m only 6’0”—and both reasonably intelligent, we have little in common.

Chris is British/Canadian, and an ex-RAF-type pilot. I’m American/Canadian and an ex-US Navy enlisted man. He has no interest in science fiction, and I’m a bit batty on the subject. He has a dog, and I have a cat. He collects pilots’ wings (you know, those little badges pilots wear on their breasts), and I collect almost anything else. I play pool and darts, and he has no interest in either. I remember song lyrics, trivia, and so much else—he doesn’t. So why are we friends? We’re both, as I said, reasonably intelligent, and we both have enquiring minds. We like to discuss things like science, and can talk about almost anything between ourselves. He goes to a regular Thursday meeting of businessmen (he was also an architect before he retired) where all sorts of things are discussed, and to another meeting at a nearby Community Centre once a month where all sorts of other things are discussed. Which brings us to Mars (Figure 1).

Figure 2 – Peter Talks Mars

These meetings (Figure 2) are called “Peter Talks” after the man who started them, and range all over the map. Chris emailed me the poster seen in Figure 2, and asked if I’d like to come with him; I said, “Sure!” One reason was that I, like most older SF fans, am interested in spaceflight… I grew up in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s when it was of intense interest to every American. The second reason was the poster, which said, “How soon will there be settlements on Mars, or is it just science fiction?” (Emphasis mine.) To quote an old cowboy named Marion Michael Morrison, “Them’s fightin’ words, pilgrim!” To say something was “just” science fiction betrays not only an attitude, but also a profound ignorance of what science fiction was. It’s my assumption, based on things I’ve read, that a very large number of men and women involved in science (especially space science) are or have been regular readers of science fiction; furthermore, that many of those people got into science/space science because their imaginations were spurred by their reading matter.

Figure 3 – Richard Wyllie statement

Besides, it sounded like a very interesting talk; who knows, I might get some information I didn’t know about upcoming Mars missions. Figure 3 promises that the speaker would be pretty comprehensive. So, Chris and I hopped into his SUV and boogied across town to the Kerrisdale Community Centre (Peter Talks hosted by the Kerrisdale Kaffee Klatsch, or 3K) to hear all about Mars from Richard Wyllie (pronounced “Wiley”) who, according to his bio (Figure 2), was a software engineer—in what branch of software, I don’t know—for 35 years, plus has studied “Mathematics and Logic, Astronomy and Cosmology, Mythology and Language, Philosophy and Technology, as well as Archaeoastronomy.” Quite the QV, I’d say. And so, in front of an audience of about 3 women and 15 men (most of retirement age), Richard proceeded to give his talk about whether we’d actually ever have a “thriving” human settlement on Mars.

Figure 4 – RIchard Wyllie and Mars slide

Now, I would have liked to give a bullet-point list of his points, but unfortunately, he didn’t respond to my request for such a list. But I’ll tell you what I can remember. The first half of the talk was a bit unfocused; Richard attempted to give a historical view of the planets and their names; he also talked about their relative sizes and distances from each other and the Sun. (I did learn something during this part of the talk; Mercury and Pluto do not fall within 3 degrees of the ecliptic; something my education seems to have neglected to tell me. Anyway, the relative sizes and distances are part of the problem when sending a manned mission—especially one of possible colonization—to Mars.

Cutting to the chase, Richard’s thesis appeared to be that all space missions were a waste of money. We’d never accomplished anything by spending all those billions—whatever spinoffs the space race spurred would have eventually happened anyway, according to him—and there would be nothing to gain by spending another $500 billion or so to try to land humans on Mars, as there is nothing there worth bringing back. (And even if there were, the cost of ferrying it back here would be prohibitive.)
Some of his points were (not in any particular order, and as I recall them): we could only send people and materiel to Mars during a particular window of a few months each year. We would have to send the support materiel—building materials, fuel, water—none of the water on Mars is drinkable and we’d have no way of making it so—well in advance of the manned mission (I say “manned” as a shortcut—no intention of saying it will only be men), and successive shipments would have to land very close to each other. Fuel/electricity would be a sore point; we wouldn’t be able to use fossil fuels because the cost would be prohibitive and we couldn’t find or refine more on Mars itself; solar power could work if only Mars didn’t have months-long dust storms that cut off the sun from the surface (and thanks to the square-cube law, the solar energy reaching Mars would be 1/4 or less that reaching Earth). We could use nuclear power but—and here he shuddered—without actually saying so, Richard implied that nuclear power was inherently bad. Also, how would we get the astronauts to Mars—a journey that lasted seven or eight months would require a lot of fuel to get there, to land, to take off, and to get back; and due to radiation, the astronauts might not arrive in such good shape.

Those are the points that stuck in my mind. I attempted to refute some of them to Richard’s face, but he was unconvinced. Here’s an exercise for the reader: can you come up with a more cogent reason for, and way to, send astronauts to Mars? First off, NASA themselves, says that we can’t protect the Aresnauts from lethal radiation; we have no way of shielding them. (Here’s an article from the Great Lakes Ledger, click the link.) My thesis is that we could probably use water; according to a different article, it would only take 1m of water, which could also be used for drinking, bathing, etc. (How to keep it liquid would be a different thing; as well as how much it would cost to boost that much weight into orbit.)

As far as using nuclear power—Richard was probably unaware that the U.S. Navy has been running nuclear-powered ships for sixty (60!) years without one single reactor incident! (There have been accidents not involving the reactors, but that doesn’t invalidate my point.) Nuclear power is not inherently bad. Most of the problems have either been of bad design or human error or a combination of both. But Richard thinks it would be a bad thing to pollute another planet. (And as far as moving manufacturing into space? He seemed dead set against it.)

Oh, and as far as space spinoffs? There are many; the link shows a Wikipedia page with some information about them.

All of the points he made can be refuted, I believe. I’d like to hear from any of you readers who would like to cite chapter and verse in support… or the other way around—but be sure, whichever way you fall, to have citations; a vague feeling that “nuclear bad” isn’t gonna cut it with me. I will be happy to provide Richard with any arguments (with citations) pro or con you come up with. My email is still

So what I (and Chris) gathered from Richard’s talk is that he thinks: Mars (huh!) Good God, y’all, what is it good for?Absolutely nothing!” Do you agree? (Spoiler: I don’t!)

I’d appreciate any comments on this column. Please register (if you haven’t already) and comment here, or on Facebook, or wherever you’re reading this. All your comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

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  1. So, I came across your article about Mars and while I agree most of the points you mentioned from the Peter Talk can be refuted… nuclear energy, getting there, logistics… et al… one thing cannot be refuted.

    It always amuses me when people talk about terraforming Mars… it cannot be done, pure and simple. The reason is Mars’ core stopped moving a long long time ago… ergo… no magnetic field to ward off solar winds such as we have on Earth. End of story. Any attempt to push an atmosphere onto the planet will be immediately swept away by solar winds.

    That isn’t to say we couldn’t have habitats on mars but imagine the engineering challenge and logistics involved in constructing anything meaningful. A research station such as we have in the Arctic but colonising Mars… newp! … not going to happen.

    Then think of this… the moon is much more accessible than mars and we now know there are valuable resources on the moon yet in all this time we haven’t returned to the moon nor have we given much of any thought to colonising the moon. Yes, it’s talked about but most of the focus is on Mars… why? … because it is such a popular fantasy. Besides… we’ve been to the moon. The moon thing seems to be passé and boring now.

    The issue of colonising other planet is about as practical as time travel yet both topics make wonderful science fiction. Still, the “idea” of it is enticing and going to Mars, at least… will probably happen but for research only and that’s not to say some interplanetary outposts won’t be somewhat large… maybe 120 or so people at most, all of whom will be specialists.

    Frankly, at the rate we are currently destroying the Earth I’m not thoroughly convinced humankind will survive at all. Like you I grew up in the late 50’s and 60’s and I’ve always been a SF fan. In fact, every night I go to sleep listening to the old SF radio programs. Just love them!

    Unfortunately the world governments are ALL run by idiots who, for all practical purposes are entirely uneducated and haven’t done a real day’s work in their lives yet we allow them to tell us how to live. I remember Walter Cronkite, as I’m sure you do… then, we got real news. Today, all the so called main stream news deals less with any of the issues that matter to our daily lives (certainly not about the future)… and instead have become tabloids for what actress wore the most revealing dress at some event.

    I’m 73 now and I’ve been there and done that… from military flying to software engineering… SCUBA diving wrecks to skydiving… I’ve had successful businesses, lived on a boat for 14 years, lived a monk’s lifestyle one year and did a project for a company in Japan in another year. I’ve lived in almost half the States in the US, lived in Germany, England, Japan and now I live in Ireland… in fact, I now have Irish citizenship.

    What do I see? … a world decaying into absolute madness.

    Surely you can remember two big topics in the late 60’s… Jacques Cousteau’s enlightenment about the environment and how a lot of people took up the banner on that… and the other main topic was over population as a major threat… and let’s not overlook the egalitarian appeal of Star Trek during the same period of time.

    There are a lot of well meaning people who care about the planet and work very hard to make a difference but the one that’s the achilles heel is over population and, not to be politically correct… all the wrong kinds of people. Me-ism has overtaken everyone. The people who unconsciously consume and litter far outweigh those who care. End result… no chance whatsoever. Like over crowded rats we will devour each other.

    We like to think of science fiction as the ultimate evolution of mankind… well, I do… we overcome alien threats and we engage science to improve all our lives and for those of us who are fans we certainly see the incredible transformation of science fiction into science fact. Unfortunately, the dystopian world of so many SF stories is coming to fruition as well. It’s not always the good things in science fiction prophesy that become part of our real world.

    Due to a few industrialists we may get an outpost on Mars or at least a visit but the human race will destroy itself first.

    Unless… and I know it’s an old theme but a very real one as I see it… when we learn how to talk to the human nervous system everything will change and I mean absolutely everything. At first it will be used to make artificial limbs as controllable as real ones… just by thinking as we now do. That, of course will merge with robotics which will continue to evolve with artificial intelligence… then artificial eyes and sensory enhancements. The camera in your mobile phone is far more powerful than the human eye. All this depends on the one thing that has so far been elusive… the language of the nervous system.

    If you extrapolate the thinking it’s not unimaginable we could end up brains in a jar. After all, our entire existence is ultimately in the brain… now, substitute “jar” with robot and yes… we can colonise Mars.

    Of course our sex lives won’t be a lot to talk about… but “discovery” will.

    Just my 2¢

    1. Great comment, Stan. This is the sort of comment I hope to see after every column, but seldom do. You and I are of an age, yet I still feel hopeful about the future. Even if it has to be in a “Marching Morons” scenario, I think we’ll survive. I’m not sure that Mars’ core is completely dead, but I’m no astrophysicist. The solar wind is less a concern here, IMO, than the fact that Mars’ gravity isn’t enough to keep the atmosphere we need. We can possibly drop enough ice chunks on Mars to give it enough water/oxygen for at least a short-term revival, if there’s enough frozen ice either in the asteroid belt or Saturn’s rings that we can access and drop into Mars’ gravity well. But again, I’m no astrophysicist.
      Thanks for commenting!

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