Zach Weinersmith joins EconTalk host Russ Roberts for the third time to discuss why ambitions of space exploration are unrealistic and overly optimistic, the danger of all-encompassing utopianism, and why space settlement is not like buying a hot tub.

Weinersmith is a cartoonist and author/co-author of many books, including Bea Wolf, Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, and the topic of this podcast episode, A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? Weinersmith is also the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a daily comic strip.


The podcast revolves around understanding space settlement as an ambition with roadblocks. Weinersmith shuts down the possibility of a settlement on the moon, for example, due to its lack of water, difficulty of extracting resources, and lack of an atmosphere. He says even though Mars is far more promising, it carries its own drawbacks: It is six months travel away from Earth and has planetary-wide dust storms. In general, humans don’t have the technological ability for long-term space settlement. Despite this, Weinersmith sees the literature on space settlement as biased towards advocacy for space exploration, regardless of the resource constraints and trade-offs.

We did try to take an economist perspective, because you will often hear more physics types say, “well we can have Titanium on the moon.” But we never talk about Earth this way. I never say I can have a house because my backyard has silicon for windows and aluminum for metal, and wood is of course made of carbon and hydrogen, so I’m all good. Yet somehow, it’s okay to talk about the moon like this, as if no trade-off exists.

Negative trade-offs have always impacted space missions. Weinersmith’s example is the Apollo program, which he regards as politically unpopular, feasible only once, and far too costly in terms of resources only to briefly go to the moon. But the most concerning drawback comes with the question of whether space settlement is ethical given the negative effects of space on human biology, psychology, and development.

I will shortly rattle off a bunch of bad stuff that space does to you. The longest an individual has ever been consecutively in space is 437 days, so all this bad stuff is in the context of a very short period of time. Space reliably degrades muscle density especially in areas of your body you just don’t use in space like your hips. You can get renal stones because so much calcium is coming out of your system. This is what your body does when you don’t use stuff, it goes away, and that is with a huge amount of exercise and strength training. Jerry Lininger was an astronaut who went aboard Mir, the big Soviet space station, he was very proud that after something like four and a half months aboard he was able to walk when he came out.

Weinersmith outlines how the political showmanship common in space exploration projects, as opposed to earnest scientific curiosity, means we know almost nothing about how space affects pregnant people and newborn children. This would make any future children born in space lab rats. To Weinersmith, all these problems make it incredibly difficult and unethical, for very little upside, prompting the response from Roberts, “What’s the appeal of this?”

Roberts asks Weinersmith if it worries him that his claim of the nearly impossible difficulty of space settlement is overlooking technological innovation. After all, there are many existing technologies that were once seen as impossible, like the airplane. Weinersmith dismisses this argument, as it’s more of a hope than a legitimate retort, and the necessity of remarkable innovation points more to space settlement’s infeasibility.

When you talk to space people, the classic example they’ll bring up is aviation. Of course, you don’t want to fall foul of it, but you have to be careful with this kind of reasoning. It’s very indicative that the aviation comparison in space books about the incoming imminent future of awesome space stuff was being made in the 50’s…The extent to which a particular scenario requires extraordinary developments kind of tells you something about its nature. If it requires 100 Butlers per person to go to Mars then it’s not a libertarian frontier fantasy, it’s a Star Trek fantasy.

As Space X has shown, space travel can be privatized. Should the lack of technology for settlement prevent companies from attempting missions into space? Weinersmith calls this the hot tub argument, as space travel can be as private as the decision of buying a hot tub. But Weinersmith disagrees. He believes that space travel presents a risk to humankind, large enough to the point where some veto power should be given to third parties.

You can imagine the spectrum from going to buy a hot tub, which basically has no third party with any right to say no, and buying a nuclear weapon where essentially everybody should be able to say no. the question becomes, where does space settlement fall on that axis? You might think, why is it not a pure aesthetic choice. Well, try to imagine, as some people have proposed, putting a million tons of metal about 70 miles high in orbit. I think most of us feel like we should have a say whether anyone is allowed to just do that. Because it creates this huge hazard, not dissimilar from detonating nuclear weapons. Our ultimate conclusion is that the hot tub argument clearly won’t do. It’s not a simple personal choice. Even if you imagine fusion drives and whatever else, having a world where private actors can put enormous amounts of high-speed metal in space is a world where humanity is endangered. It seems like there just has to be some kind of regulatory framework.

Though most of the podcast is spent discussing why a city on Mars or the Moon is a fantasy which hasn’t been thought through, Weinersmith acknowledges that the will to expand human civilization into space is an understandable application of the explorer mindset of humans. He lauds the questions prompted by space advocates as fascinating and intriguing. Weinersmith is not telling his audience to stop exploring, innovating, or asking questions. Instead, he is calling for the utopianism surrounding space exploration to slow down, an acknowledgement of the tall barriers and severe risk.

I would say the other thing that should give you pause is that particular fantasy tends to be more libertarian in the American sense, a conservative Frontier fantasy. But I have seen it as a leftist fantasy, like we’ll avoid capitalism when we go to space. It should make you pause when space allows every utopia to exist.

Quite consistently throughout the episode, Roberts says Weinersmith’s ideas are somewhat discouraging. But I don’t think so. Weinersmith’s work acknowledges that there are no panaceas, and the attempt to create one can have disastrous consequences. Given the occasionally depressing state of the world, it is appealing to be able to start anew. Weinersmith is asking the audience to examine the costs of doing that. In my opinion, those costs begin with climate change. Space exploration is a tactic of avoidance, not a genuine solution, as is often the case with utopian ambitions. For instance, socialism is not a solution to economic inequality, social alienation, or worker maltreatment; it is a hypothetical rocket-ship to a world where the faults of capitalism don’t exist, without regard for the ethical or economic constraints of the new system. Utopianism has a high opportunity cost, namely a counter-intuitive diversion of attention away from contemporary problems. The resources which could be devoted to the innovation necessary for planetary settlement over an undetermined length of time could instead be devoted to reducing carbon emissions and expanding green energy. Utopianism isn’t feasible, but it also isn’t preferable.


Related EconTalk Episodes

Zach Weinersmith on Beowulf and Bea Wolf

Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith on Soonish

Matt Ridley on How Innovation Works

Mike Munger on Middlemen

Patri Friedman on Seasteading

Eliezer Yudkowsky on the Dangers of AI