If you don’t know what Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is, you’re missing out on one of the best and most enduring webcomics that isn’t XKCD. Both are hilarious, science and philosophy-based explorations of humanity’s weirdness by clever, curious people. Naturally, once I heard the Wienersmith’s were taking their brilliant, beautiful minds to look at space exploration, I signed right up.
A City on Mars starts with a simple premise: every pop sci book on space exploration was written by an evangelist, and thus hand waves some really important questions and limitations. The purpose of aCoM is to examine those questions and limitations.
From there they look at several supposed methods of near-term space colonization: moon base, Mars base, great big spinning space station. They then examine the cost, the purpose, the risks, and the benefits of each of these, and ask the question is it worth it? The answer is almost ubiquitously no. Each of these problems is engineering on a scale we’ve never before achieved, would be horribly difficult, and mostly just wouldn’t work the way it’s envisioned. For example: the whole idea of glass domes on Mars isn’t going to happen without some emergent technology to make the domes better at blocking UV, or we’ll all be cooked to death. Instead, the first Mars colony will likely be underground, which has its own myriad problems.
The Wienersmiths are not pessimists, nor cynics. They believe in science. They believe in doing things because they will further the cause of science, and they are hopeful for a future as a spacefaring race. What they don’t want is needless waste, haste, and for space to be treated as a solution if it isn’t. They ask these questions to present some pitfalls that suggest we should wait until we are ready to go extremely big with our spacefaring plans, otherwise it will be impossible and doomed to failure.
Elon Musk desperately needs to read this book. He won’t. I recommend it all the same.