Space Exploration Facts & Fictions

by Lawrence Dritsas

Exploration comprises all kinds of interesting activities and resources, but two are absolutely required: people and money. Every aspect of a successful expedition—relevant technology, supporting institutions, transport logistics, effective methods of observation, and effective communication systems—requires human labor and financial capital. The goals of exploration are equally various, but can be reduced to one thing: knowledge.

Explorers from the past

In the fourth century BCE, Pytheas of Massalia (now Marseilles) sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules and turned north, seeking the northern limits of humanity. He was an explorer, but he was also seeking the sources of tin, amber, and gold that southern Europeans desired and that he could sell at profit.

More than a millennium later, over seven voyages in the early fifteenth century, Zheng He (鄭 和) was sent by the Ming emperors of China to explore the Indian Ocean and solidify their control of established trade routes that stretched from Java, via India, to Kenya.

From 1485 to early 1492 Christopher Columbus visited the courts of Portugal, Genoa, and Venice, proposing his idea to sail west to reach the East before finally convincing the Iberian monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile to fund his audacious voyages across the Atlantic; Columbus spent nearly as much time looking for money as he did exploring the New World during his four voyages from 1492 to 1504.

Vasco da Gama’s voyage to Calcutta in 1498 was motivated by the search for new trade routes, and the subsequent century was marked by repeated clashes between Portuguese and Ottoman explorers in the Indian Ocean seeking new routes and sources of wealth.

Clearly, among the many skills that explorers need to be successful, one of the most important is the ability to persuade others to provide the money necessary to undertake their journeys. There are very few historical cases of intrepid individuals paying their own way to simply “see what’s out there”.

Indeed, the second expedition of the famed Scottish explorer David Livingstone into central Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century cost the British government around £30 million over six years. The purpose of his “Zambesi Expedition” was to identify new supplies of natural resources for British industry. When this outcome proved unlikely, the British government recalled the expedition with the foreign minister, Lord John Russell, noting that, “there is little to show that the results actually obtained can be made presently serviceable … for the interests of British Commerce”.

Even where immediate profit is not the goal, money remains a factor. In Washington, D.C. on 20 July 1989, U.S. President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, with the goal of landing humans on Mars by 2019, 50 years after Apollo 11. But Bush’s bold initiative foundered within months when a potential price tag of $540 billion scared off most supporters. In this second decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is once again on a “Journey to Mars” but the exact details of “how?” and more importantly, “how much?” remain unanswered.

In the United States since 2010, a blend of public and private funding has been used to support outer space travel. Alexander MacDonald argues in his recent book that this phenomenon is not new, but has deep historical roots in the United States, citing private support for observatory building in the nineteenth century and early rocketry. Not everyone agrees with the public-private model for funding exploration, but it has significant precedents beyond MacDonald’s focus on space-related activities.

Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke explored East Africa in the 1850s using largely private money and only minimal support from the British government. Later in the nineteenth century, prospectors scoured the Pacific Northwest, the Yukon, South Australia, and the Zambian Copperbelt looking for minerals with colonial government encouragement but risking the money of private investors.

Robert Falcon Scott led his British Antarctic Expedition to its fatal end in 1913 supported mainly by private donations and commercial sponsorship, only latterly topped up by a government grant. On the ice, Scott and his men ate Huntley & Palmer’s digestive biscuits spread with Beach’s blackcurrant jam with as much “product-placement” gusto as when explorers Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere successfully retraced Scott’s route in 2014, sponsored by Land Rover and Intel. In Britain it has become a tradition to eat Kendal Mint Cake while hillwalking, the same energy-boosting treat that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ate on Everest in 1953. These are just snapshots, but the history of exploration and all its varieties of funding models may teach us a thing or two about how to move forward to Mars.

Science fiction

There is another body of literature that can further inform our thinking about how to explore space and how to pay for it: science fiction. The future of space exploration, and especially the exploration of Mars in the twenty-first century, can be informed, if not inspired, by a study of both the history of exploration and the science fiction of exploration.

We find public-private funding models for exploring space in many novels. Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “The Space Merchants” (1953) is a key example and offers the classic, genre-defining account of the commercialization of space exploration and colonization. Its singeing critique of Libertarian ideology, advertising-driven consumerism, and the exploitation of labor and the environment was remarkably prescient.

The idea of space colonization being dominated by corporations persists also in visions of our future on Mars. Terry Bisson’s “Voyage to the Red Planet” (1990) is an overt science fictional satire of a privatized journey to Mars where NASA has become a subsidiary of Disney. Ben Bova’s “Mars” (1992) and “Return to Mars” (1999) see the protagonist travel to the Red Planet first on an international mission and then on a privately funded expedition. In Jeff Garrity’s novel “Mars Girl” (2008), the first landing on Mars is satirized as an extreme media event where television ratings and product placement matter as much as the explorers’ survival and discoveries […].

If exploration is about people and money, then it must include a concern with people’s bodies, keeping explorers safe. John F. Kennedy spoke to the U.S. Congress in May 1961 of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” This same goal applies now, in fact and fiction, to any crewed mission to Mars, as the surprise popularity of Andy Weir’s rescue novel “The Martian” (2011) and its film adaptation (2015) demonstrate.

The main challenge to keeping the astronauts safe is the problem of coping with extreme, if not lethal, environments; humans are built to live on Earth and nowhere else. Even on Earth, the shared challenge of the explorers of the past was how to make their bodies survive the trip. At times, everything was against them as they pushed the extreme environments of the Earth: heat, cold, altitude, depth, and the lack of food and water. One might wonder, “Is the human body really the best tool to explore other worlds?” Frederik Pohl explored this in “Man Plus” (1976), where the exploration of Mars is undertaken by human cyborgs specifically built to survive the Martian environment—no need for building habitats and spacesuits to keep the explorers in little Earth-like bubbles. But as Pohl illustrates, we cannot ignore the consequences for the altered human who has become “of Mars” and no longer “of Earth.” More recent works such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Blue Mars” (1996 – from the “Mars Trilogy”), James S. A. Corey’s “Leviathan Wakes” (2011), and Ian McDonald’s “Luna: New Moon” (2015) also examine the idea that settling other worlds is, physiologically, a one-way trip. Of all the people involved in exploration, it’s the explorers who embody the risk, who feel the new environments around them. The diaries of explorers such as Humboldt, Livingstone, and Darwin detail the effects the journey is having on their bodies and minds. They want to return safely, but they will not return the same.

At the beginning of the era of European expansion on Earth, the problem of protecting long-term investments in newly explored areas was acute. In response, financial institutions innovated and European states sponsored chartered companies, giving them special, often exclusive, rights over specific types of trade in certain parts of the world. Good examples are the Dutch Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the British South Africa Company. Chartered companies such as these exerted state-like powers in places such as Canada, India, Java, Mozambique, and Rhodesia. They effectively controlled all the resources, and people, in the areas they possessed. Their investments were secure for only as long as the local population collaborated, or was subjugated, and profits could be found. They could protect their exclusive rights and profits by force, if necessary.

Science fiction has often resurrected the chartered company idea in its stories—hegemonic companies operating off-world loom large in films such as “Alien” (1979), “Outland” (1981), “Blade Runner” (1982), and in James S. A. Corey’s ongoing novel series “The Expanse” (from 2011). In his novel “Red Mars” (1993 – from the “Mars Trilogy”), Kim Stanley Robinson imagines the early settlement of Mars as overseen by an authoritarian United Nations Organization Mars Authority (UNOMA) while Earth falls under the control of transnational corporations with state-like powers […].

Space diplomacy

On 25 November 2015, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act was signed by President Obama in order to encourage the private sector to develop outer space resources with the guarantee that their investments would be protected under U.S. law. With the passing of this law, the United States has declared that its citizens are legally entitled to own anything they extract from celestial objects, such as the Moon, asteroids, or Mars, but they cannot claim sovereignty over or ownership of the celestial object itself. Part of the rationale for the new law was to rectify a problem in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which states clearly that celestial bodies are not appropriable, but also acknowledges that private entities can perform space activities.

When such private entrepreneurs become involved in the exploration and exploitation of Mars, the issue of private property arises almost immediately. The proceeds and profits of private investment must benefit the investors. How the eventual resources of space might be exploited commercially, and legally, is a real concern. With the new law, the U.S. is asserting private property rights for its citizens in space. This raises interesting questions about sovereignty in space and some worry the legislation will destabilize the “fragile equilibrium” that has existed since 1967. The act of appropriating land on celestial bodies seems to require that a sovereign authority is endorsing it, or that a “new sovereignty” has been created. We can therefore see why the U.S. was so careful to state that they are only endorsing the rights of U.S. citizens to claim extracted resources, not celestial bodies. Nonetheless, without some sort of guarantee to property in space and on celestial bodies, the private investment that appears necessary for humanity’s next move into space will not occur.

In offering a solution to allow secure investment off-world, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 must be understood as only the first part of a much bigger story. The very geography of economic activity looks set to change, especially when we accept that most space resources will only be useful in space—for example, using lunar water resources to supply Martian exploration. Bringing them back to Earth, or any other steep gravity well, would be a cost-prohibitive process of questionable utility, so we are talking about property rights in material value chains that may never include Earth […]. Outer space and its “astro-politics” are now part of everyone’s daily lives. If pilots can fly drones to wage war over the Middle East from an air-conditioned base in Nevada, and remote-control rovers have been exploring Mars for 20 years, how much more difficult can it be to control construction robots on Mars, once they are there? (A potential) conflict over Martian resources before any humans ever step foot on Mars may be just around the corner.

[…] The exploration and early exploitation of Mars (will require) human effort and financial capital on a global scale, and everyone wants to know what will happen to the investments. We can compare (such dispute) to the Berlin Africa Conference of 1884–85, when the European powers sat down and decided that they all had interests in the last great terra nullius (for them), Africa. In Berlin, they agreed how they would partition and exploit the continent without stepping on one another’s toes and starting a war. The Africans themselves had very little say in the matter, but trading companies, explorers, miners, missionaries, and other European special interests certainly did; the goal (was) to avoid expensive conflicts and secure investments.

The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, was similarly devised to forestall Cold War conflicts over what remains the last “unowned” land on Earth today. In fiction, Robinson’s “Blue Mars”, details a constitutional congress that sets up a government for dealing with conflicts over scant Martian resources. The lessons of history and fiction show us that an agreement concerning the fate of Mars is inevitable. Once we can live on Mars we will need to deal with the consequences. Steam engines and quinine dramatically changed the terms upon which Europeans approached Africa in the late nineteenth century; they partitioned Africa because these innovations allowed them to travel there and not die of malaria […].

There is no doubt that getting humans to Mars will be complicated for all kinds of technical and political reasons. Studying the history of exploration and reading science fiction can help us predict the problems of getting there and the consequences of new discoveries. Reading the fact and fiction of journeys to new lands also reveals that exploration is not a single “project” but rather a nexus, where a wide variety of individuals and institutions come together to think about the future, define goals, make plans, raise money, develop technologies, and attempt to find out things no one has known before.

Science fiction authors have been influenced by true stories of exploration and the visions of science fiction have inspired people to explore yet further. Taken together these literatures are a strong foundation for planning our future on Mars.

About the author

Lawrence Dritsas began his studies in the United States and has interdisciplinary training in the humanities and natural sciences. He volunteered as a secondary school biology teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Malawi in the late 1990s. His PhD thesis (at the University of Edinburgh) focused on David Livingstone’s Zambesi Expedition (1858–64). His research follows multiple paths as he pursues historical geographies of scientific knowledge, museum collections, and science fiction.


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