Cover photo credit: Space News photo by J. Lee
The interview was conducted in November 2020 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
About Robert Zubrin
Robert Zubrin is an American aerospace engineer with a PhD from the University of Washington. He is the President of the Mars Society as well as a well-recognized advocate for human exploration of Mars. Zubrin is also an innovative entrepreneur with several companies, inventions and patents on his CV. He was awarded his first patent at age 20 for Three Player Chess. Last but not least, he is also the author of several books including The Case for Mars (1996) and The Case for Space (2019).
You were born in 1952. How did you experience the space race back in the 60s and 70s? How did the Apollo program effect you?
– I was thrilled by the space race! I was five when Sputnik flew and that is the first major world event that I can remember. While the adults may have been terrified of Sputnik, I was delighted. Because what Sputnik said to me was that the stories of the space traveling future are going to be true and I wanted to be a part of that. I even had a dog named Laika, like the first dog in space. I currently have a dog named Strelka, which was the first dog to actually come back from space after orbiting,
– I was 17 when we landed on the Moon, and the push leading up to it made me want to be part of it, so I decided to learn all the science I could. But I wasn’t alone. The number of science graduates in the United States doubled during the 1960s, and in some fields even tripled, as a direct result of Apollo. What Apollo actually said was learn your science and you can be an explorer of new worlds., This led to a massively increase of our scientific capital. I ended up actually working with space, but most went into other fields, computers for example. When people ask what the benefit of the human to Mars program would be, that’s what it would be! NASA talks about the technological spin offs, and there have been some, solar energy being one of the most notable. But the real benefit is the intellectual capital! That is what defines the wealth, the strength, the health of a nation.
“I believe that the end goal is the transformation of humanity from a single-planet species into a multi-planet, space-faring species.”
– If you want proof of that, just look at Germany and Japan. They were bombed flat in World War II and by 1960 they had among the highest living standards in the world. Other countries
remained totally impoverished no matter how much foreign aid they received. I’m not saying that it is on the space station that they will find the cure to COVID-19, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the teams that are finding the vaccines include people who became scientists because they were excited about the space program.
Let’s take it to a philosophical level. What is the end goal of exploring space?
– I believe that the end goal is the transformation of humanity from a single-planet species into a multi-planet, space-faring species. You know, humans are not really native to the Earth. We are native to Kenya. We are actually tropical animals and that’s why we have these long thin arms with no fur. Nobody could survive a single winter night here in Colorado without technology, for example clothing, houses and fire. We became a global species by virtue of our technological creativity. Starting in the 1500s, we became able to communicate over global distances – first by long distance sailing ships and eventually by telegraphs, telephones, radios, satellites and now the internet. We have truly become a global species at this point. In the same way, technology can enable us to become a multi-planet species. I believe that if we become space-faring, we’ll create a future that is grand and its possibilities compared to now will be what we have now compared to our origin in Kenya.
Have wars and other existential threats on Earth increased your passion when it comes to colonizing Mars?
– One possible future is where people imagine that resources are limited. This would mean limited possibilities and seeing other people as adversaries. Then the killing starts. In 1914, Europe was by far doing better than it ever had before, The German generals thought that a war with Russia for Eurasia would happen sooner or later, so why not hit before they industrialize? Right now the same is said about the West and China, both with a population of a billion people. There are Western national security professionals who believe that the a war with China is inevitable, and you can bet that in Beijing there are people who look at the chessboard from the other side, thinking the same thing.
“I believe the goal should be humans to Mars, and it should be by 2030 and not 2050.”
– The worst part is that it’s wrong, complete nonsense! The living standard of the world has gone up as the population has increased. This is because the more people, the more inventions. Inventions are what determines what is a resource and what is not. Consequently, this means the more people, the more resources. It may seem totally counterintuitive but it’s facts of history. We’re not going to get oil from Mars, but we will get an understanding. We will understand that the true human condition is not one of nations in a struggle of existence over limited resources. It is one of a family of nations that are engaged in a common project. If we use the diverse creative potentials of the different nations of the Earth, we can open up for new planets. So why fight over provinces?
Has NASA been too lunar-focused in your opinion?
– If we talk about the current administration, one might say that, but I think the bigger problem is that NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program has had no focus since the end of the Apollo program. I’m not a fan of Mr. Trump but I’ll give him that at least they stated that the Human Spaceflight Program should have a goal. Now, they didn’t do what was necessary to achieve that goal, getting to the Moon by 2024. But it is crucial that we have a goal, and that the goal is soon enough to command current activities. Obama said his goal was Mars, but there was nothing being done to reach the goal. I believe the goal should be humans to Mars, and it should be by 2030 and not 2050.
– Kennedy said the goal was to reach the Moon by the end of the decade. The key there is the time limit, because if Kennedy had said that they would do it by the year 2000, then nothing would have been done in his term of office. Actually, by 1990 nothing would have been done. People would probably look at it in 1990 and say we’ll do it by 2040, and so forth. The goal has to be proximate. What was wrong with the plan to go to the Moon by 2024 was that instead of developing a lunar lander, which of course you need if you want to land on the Moon, they had a program to develop a lunar orbiting space station which you don’t need if you want to land on the Moon.
Mars missions have been going on since the mid 1960s. What would you say have been the most significant discoveries about Mars since then?
– The first flybys debunked the very optimistic claim that there were networks of canals on the Martian surface. The images we got at that point were of a Mars with craters of the kind there is on the Moon. But then came Mariner 9 that got into orbit around Mars and first observed water erosion features on the surface, which does not exist on the Moon. Rovers have found salt deposits that are left behind when water evaporates. There’s no question that the early Mars was warm and wet. With the ground penetrating radars of the Mars Express and the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter, we discovered glaciers on the surface and underground lakes. In fact, it seems like the early Mars and the early Earth were very similar to each other. They both had climates suitable for liquid water and they both had carbon dioxide atmospheres.
– To me, it appears that Mars is the Rosetta Stone for testing the hypothesis of whether life evolves naturally in places where there are the right physical and chemical conditions. If Mars did develop life, it would inform us of much more than just the probability of life. It would tell us something about the diversity of life. All Earth-life uses the same information system, RNA and DNA. But there could be more to life than DNA and RNA. There could be different kinds of information systems offering totally different possibilities of creation. Just think of the silicon computers that we’re using right now, and how they’re accomplishing the same things as us but with a different set of principles.
“We’re going to find out if life is a spontaneous phenomenon, if all life has a common origin or if there are diverse origins.”
How likely do you think it is that we find evidence of life on Mars?
– I think it’s very likely. Because the one fact that we know about life on Earth that’s relevant to this discussion is that it appeared virtually as soon as it could. We have fossils of life on Earth that go back 3,5 billion years, and there are actually biomarkers that have been found on Greenland that date back 3,7 billion years. That is immediately after the end of the heavy bombardment, which makes the claim that life appeared on Earth virtually as soon as it could quite believable. There’s no evidence supporting the existence of an Earth that was both habitable and sterile at the same time. It never seems to have happened.
– There are two possibilities. Either life is a highly probable phenomenon that just appears out of chemical complexification as soon as it is possible for it to happen, or life has been floating around in space, and as soon as the place becomes habitable it lands and picks up. Now, if we find life on Mars, is it going to be the same as Earth-life with DNA/RNA, or is it something completely different? We’re going to find out if life is a spontaneous phenomenon, if all life has a common origin or if there are diverse origins.
– There’s also another possibility, which is that life originated from Mars and was transferred to Earth by meteoric travel. We get rocks all the time that we’re knocked off Mars by impact. If microbes originate from Mars, they could have come here. If they originated on Earth they can as well have gone to Mars. There was a great Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, who developed the theory of panspermia – the idea of life being transferred throughout the Universe. The thing that drove Arrhenius’ theory was that we don’t find any evidence of free living organisms on Earth simpler than bacteria. There’s no prior history. You might think bacteria seem simple, but they’re extremely complex. A bacteria is a far more complex than an iPhone for example.
– When we look at the iPhone, we can see a whole history of prior machines like telephones, desktop computers, generators and batteries. You can see the technological evolution. But with life it’s like the iPhone appears out of rock. This suggests that life on Earth could be an immigrant phenomenon. You could try to explain it by saying that maybe all prior, more primitive lifeforms were wiped out by the bacteria. But this is something we don’t generally see. We see simple forms of life coexisting with more advanced forms that evolved from them. We could hope to find the ancestors to Earth-life on Mars.
What would be the biggest challenge trying to colonize Mars? Lack of atmosphere? Lack of magnetic field? Sand storms?
– Lack of atmosphere. The shielding we get here on Earth from cosmic radiation is not due to the Earth’s magnetic field; it’s due to the atmosphere. The magnetic field is blocking out solar flares, but the more penetrating cosmic rays are stopped by the air. It’s of course also the air that let’s you walk around without a pressure suit. So the Martians are going to need air. The initial settlers are going to live in the spacecrafts and walk around in space suits. Later on we can build domes, we can have underground systems, or probably a combination of them. People could spend most of the time sleeping underground where they’re well shielded against cosmic rays, but with domes above them. But eventually I do believe that humans will give Mars an atmosphere, thick enough so you don’t need a spacesuit. We will terraform the planet.
“There’s for sure going to be a Chinese SpaceX, and probably others, that are going to be competing.”
I have to ask what did you think of the movie The Martian (2015)?
– I thought it was a pretty good movie. There are some technical errors that people pointed out with the film, but my real problem is that the principle character played by Matt Damon is not interested in Mars. He is not interested in the search for life on Mars, he is not interested with Mars as a new frontier for humanity. He just wants to get home. He should have stayed home in my opinion! If you think about the first Jurassic Park movie, it doesn’t just tell you about the terror of the dinosaurs but also the wonder of the dinosaurs. We need a similar movie about Mars, that is not only about the adventure of Mars, but the wonder.
You know Elon Musk and you have said he has initiated a revolution. He has contributed in terms of technology, vision, hope, excitement and more. What would you say is his most valuable contribution?
– I would say that his most important contribution is that he has proven that it is possible for a well-led entrepreneurial team to do things in the space field that was previously thought to cost ten times as much and take three times as long. It’s even things that were considered impossible all together. He has completely refuted the myth that everything you do in space has to cost a billion dollars. He has also developed some revolutionary hardware. In the past 10 years he has caused the cost of space launch to drop with a factor of five.
– Elon Musk has inspired an international space race. There’s for sure going to be a Chinese SpaceX, and probably others, that are going to be competing. There will be companies similar to SpaceX for building satellites, spacecrafts and everything you can think of. It has even had effects outside of the space world, for example in the area of controlled fusion. It is an area that has been so stagnant as to inspire a lot of cynicism about its prospects for ever succeeding. Investors looked at SpaceX and thought that maybe the problem with fusion is not fundamentally technological but organizational, Entrepreneurial fusion companies are now getting serious money and they’re looking at developing fusion reactors, not in 30 years but in five. One of them will probably succeed and I think ultimately that is due to Musk.
Let’s do some rapid fire questions! What year will the first human set foot on Mars?
What year will the first human be born that will live his/her whole life on Mars?
– That’s an interesting question… 2038!
Where will we go after Mars?
– After Mars, then the stars!
What is your best book recommendation?
– The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that book, and I think we have to be rational optimists.