Gravity Wells and Homesteading Mars

In all the chatter about NASA’s Moon-landing anniversary there has been some out-there (literally) talk about homesteading other planets, especially Mars. Here is a savvy take on the subject:

Homesteading Mars is based on the assumption that humanity can modify extraterrestrial environments as self-sustaining producers of the means of life. But the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the result of the boundless technological optimism that encouraged the settling of the Great Plains, as explored in the classic work of the environmental historian Donald Worster, whose roots are in the region. First, in the nineteenth century came the idea that human activity would modify natural patterns: "Rain follows the plow." Then the First World War created an agricultural boom that produced a wave of speculative farming in the 1920s.

There’s no truly rational way to budget for Mars exploration. If we knew what we were going to find, it wouldn’t be necessary. Much of the benefit of exploring is surprise, images and data that upset our assumptions. So yes, let’s send people to Mars if that’s the best way to advance knowledge. But remember that the Martian soil turns out to be laced with the oxidizing salt perchlorate, an ingredient of rocket fuel, among other things. Let’s balance Aldrin’s appeal and Hawking’s injunction with a comment that another giant, the Nobel Laureate physicist Edward Purcell, made to me twenty years ago: With the energy it takes to get a person out of the earth’s gravitational well, you can feed them for a lifetime. [Emphasis mine]

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