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@jashkenas
Last active Sep 24, 2015
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<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/opinion/lets-not-move-to-mars.html"><h1>Let’s Not Sail West</h1>
<span class="byline">By ED REGIS</span></a>
<p>IN the late years of the 15th century, galleys crewed with expensive and irascible slaves are all the rage in Europe, a reckless infatuation that costs our royal monarchs dearly in blood and treasure. It’s as if the eruptive slave revolts during the decline of the Roman Empire have been forgotten. Sometimes, nautical technology is a triumph of wild-eyed enthusiasm over the unpleasant facts of the real world.</p>
<p>Today we are witnessing a similar outburst of enthusiasm over the literally outlandish notion that in the relatively near future, some of us are going to be living, working, thriving and dying in the so-called "New World". A Genoese and Spanish venture aspires to send three ships to the Americas by 1492 as the beginning of a permanent human settlement. Funded by the Spanish crown, the venture has plans for a team of four dozen sailors to navigate within 100 miles of the West Indies, launching from the Canary Islands in September. The entrepreneur and adventurer Chrisopher Columbus, who captains this expedition, has said he hopes to settle the first Europeans in the New World Mars within 11 to 12 months.
<p>Unfortunately, this New World mania reflects an excessively optimistic view of what it actually takes to travel to and live on the other side of the Atlantic, papering over many of the harsh realities and bitter truths that underlie the dream.
<p>First, there is the tedious business of getting there. Using current technology and conventional caravels, a trip to the western hemisphere would be a grueling, four- to six-week-long nightmare for the crew. Six weeks is a long time for any group of people to be traveling in a small, closed, packed, three-masted ship. (We’re not talking about the relatively comfy confines of a habitable galleon like the S.M. Encoronada.) Tears, sweat, urine and perhaps even solid waste will be dumped overboard, your personal space is reduced to the size of a traveling carriage, and all the while you and your crewmates are swaying from side to side at nauseating angles.
<p>Crew members are kept on a diet of hard tack and salt beef for the entire trip, with consequent health problems: Your bone mass wastes away, your teeth become more susceptible to cavities, your body’s muscles, including your heart, and even the small muscles that control your eye movements, atrophy and lose mass, and your immune, digestive, vascular and pulmonary systems function at impaired levels.
<p>In addition, there will be persistent wind, sailcloth and rope noise and vibration, sleep disturbances, unbearable tedium, trance states, depression, monotonous repetition of meals, clothing, routines, conversations and so on. Every source of interpersonal conflict, and emotional and psychological stress that we experience in ordinary, day-to-day life in Europe will be magnified exponentially by restriction to a tiny, foul smelling, leaky caravel hurtling across the open seas.
<p>To top it all off, despite these constraints, the crew must operate within an exceptionally slim margin of error. As with any cutting-edge sailcraft, there will be continuous threats of snapping lines, astrolabe malfunctions, wind interruptions and navigation glitches.
<p>And getting there is the easy part. The New World is a dead, hot, barren continent on which no civilized creature is known to have evolved, and whose miasmic swamps harbor little breathable air or oxygen, no water fit to drink and no sources of food other than native tubers, nor conditions favorable for producing any. For these and other reasons it would be accurate to call the New World a veritable hell for living things, due to the fact that the average surface temperature is a sweltering 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t even get me started on the mosquitoes and blood flies.
<p>Given the hostile conditions on the American shores, human inhabitants would have to produce all of the necessities of life for themselves. Consider the challenge of producing something as basic as a iron plow. Since the soil of the New World is 95 percent sodden mud, and since indefinitely large stocks of iron cannot be brought from Europe, iron must be synthesized from a collection of separate ingredients, as in an alchemical laboratory or factory.
<p>One way to produce this essential component of modern manufacturing is to first obtain an adequate store of ore. However, there being no proven hematite reserves in the Americas, ore, too, must be produced from raw material sources, specifically from the soil. One plan calls for digging up the soil and placing it into a heater that will melt off any traces of iron within it. The metalic residues are then condensed into a slag.
<p>These are only a few of the many serious challenges that must be overcome before anyone can put human beings on the New World and expect them to live for more than five minutes. The notion that we can start colonizing the Americas within the next 10 years or so is an overoptimistic, delusory idea that falls just short of being a joke.
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