The Interplanetary Marshmallow Test

On moon landing's anniversary, a call to settle for more in space

Illustration: A 3-D printed example habitat shelters suitable for the moon, Mars, or beyond.
Team SEArch+/Apis Cor won first place in the Phase 3: Level 4 software modeling stage of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a competition to create sustainable shelters suitable for the moon, Mars, or beyond using resources available on-site at these locations. NASA

You can tell Elon Musk was probably the kind of kid who would have aced the marshmallow test. The test goes like this: Put a small child and a marshmallow in a room. Tell the child he can eat the marshmallow now, but if he waits he can have two marshmallows when you get back. Leave the room for 15 minutes. The children who wait — the ones who can forgo one marshmallow now for two later — generally tend to do better in life.

That’s the idea anyway. The test’s conclusions are disputed, but the ability to postpone instant gratification in favor of a long-term goal is certainly an important life skill — for a species as well as an individual.

Leaving Earth and colonizing space — whether that’s orbiting space habitats, the moon, Mars, or elsewhere — is, effectively, an interplanetary marshmallow test. A species that can look past short-term costs to the long-term benefit wins. It wins in the only way the universe cares — by staying alive. There’s no guarantee humans are that sort of species, though.

We’re evolutionarily designed to discount the future, a bird-in-the-hand philosophy baked into our genes. Our main organizational institutions of commerce and government don’t exactly have a good reputation in the long-term planning department. They inevitably focus on the short term — the next election, the next quarter’s results.

That’s not to say the short term isn’t important. You can’t have a grand plan for the future if you’re turfed out of office in six months or bankrupt next year. But even the average couple saving for their newborn’s college are light years beyond the planning horizon of most government or corporate institutions when it comes to forethought.

Whatever Elon Musk’s flaws are — and doubtless they are as great as any man’s — there is one important difference between his SpaceX and, say, Boeing. By “important,” I mean making the difference between extinction and survival for the human race, so I hope you don’t think I’m overselling it. Whereas a company such as Boeing, by its nature, builds rockets to make money, Musk makes money to build rockets. He’s holding out for those interplanetary marshmallows. It’s just as well he is because building rockets — building a future for humanity in space — seems to be something NASA has given up on.

The Sizzle or the Steak

Nearly 100 years before Columbus made it to the Americas, the Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He led a huge exploratory fleet on seven voyages to India and along the coast of Africa for the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor. But emperors, like administrations, change. Further voyages were canceled, the fleet rotted at harbor, and China missed out on the great age of exploration.

Post-Apollo, the U.S. space program seems equally rudderless. It’s descended into a political, vote-garnering speech and photo opportunity where every few years the new guy cancels the old guy’s big space project to make way for his own. Politicians constantly sell the sizzle but never deliver the steak. NASA’s latest rocket, the Space Launch System, is years behind schedule and billions over budget. It replaced the canceled Ares rocket, which was to get us back to the moon by 2020. That, in turn, replaced the canceled single-stage-to-orbit VentureStar space plane, which was supposed to replace the canceled space shuttle.

Marsha is a proposal for a habitat on the surface of Mars built autonomously using local and mission-generated materials.
Marsha is a proposal for a habitat on the surface of Mars built autonomously using local and mission-generated materials. AI SpaceFactory

In the seven years between John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1962 and Neil Armstrong’s one small step, NASA and it’s contracting companies developed, almost from scratch, the most powerful rocket ever made (then or since), an interplanetary spaceship, and a landing vehicle that brought people safely to the surface of another world. In the eight years since the last space shuttle flight, NASA has developed … nothing. Despite a string of remarkable successes with robot probes, there has been only one brief, unmanned test flight of an Orion crew module. Possibly there might be a crewed test launch in a couple of years. Or maybe four. Or maybe never if the Space Launch System is canceled.

You can see how a cynical observer might conclude that without the my-rocket-is-bigger-than-yours Cold War impetus, manned spaceflight development is mainly about big paychecks for the aerospace industry as well as vote-securing aerospace jobs in every state. Any actual working hardware reaching orbit seems almost a liability. Rockets explode; people die. Who needs that sort of bad publicity? Safer to keep selling that sizzle and avoid the potential disappointment of the steak. The thing is, we want the steak.

The Restless Few (Million)

Our most popular works of fiction are about space travel and new worlds. In real life, crowds gathered to watch space shuttle takeoffs. People flocked to the middle-of-nowhere White Sands range 25 years ago just to watch the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper prototype do a vertical takeoff test. Thousands cheered SpaceX’s simultaneous landing of two Falcon Heavy boosters last year. (In April, SpaceX boasted its first triple-rocket landing.)

The DC-X, short for Delta Clipper or Delta Clipper Experimental, was an unmanned prototype of a reusable single stage to orbit launch vehicle built by McDonnell Douglas in conjunction with the DoD's SDIO from 1991 to 1993. After that period it was given to NASA, who upgraded the design for improved performance to create the DC-XA.

According to Napoleon, an army marches on its stomach. Perhaps so, but it dies for its flag. It’s the intangibles that inspire us — love, duty, honor, the hope of a better life. We work for a living, but we strive and sacrifice and bleed for our dreams. Earlier this year, Tesla had a market value equal to General Motors but with only a seventh of its revenue, not because Tesla cars are seven times better but because Musk’s brand — including SpaceX — is selling a vision, a dream of a better future. It’s a dream made flesh, though — or rather, made steel — a dream you can see and touch and even buy. It’s a dream that many people are willing to pay good money to have a slice of. What vision can a Boeing or a General Motors offer other than a fatter bottom line? That’s a laudable goal, but only Scrooge McDuck would call it inspiring.

In a world of discovered countries, we yearn for that high frontier. Not everybody, of course, but enough. The “restless few,” as Carl Sagan phrased it in Pale Blue Dot, “drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.” When Sagan wrote those words a quarter-century ago, genetics was barely in its infancy. Today we have a few clues as to what might be behind at least some of that craving.

It’s the intangibles that inspire us — love, duty, honor, the hope of a better life. We work for a living, but we strive and sacrifice and bleed for our dreams.

In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Stanford biologist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Robert M. Sapolsky speculates about just what makes explorers explore. The DRD4 dopamine receptor gene has 25 variants naturally occurring in humans. The 7R variety is less responsive to dopamine and is associated with novelty-seeking and impulsive behavior, but it has a fascinating correlation with expanding populations. It shows up in 10 to 25 percent of African, European, and Middle Eastern populations. For the early humans who explored farther — Native Americans and the Maya, for example — the incidence is 40 percent. Descendants of the Ticuna, Surui, and Karitian peoples who explored the Amazon basin show a 70 percent incidence of the R7 gene.

Without a frontier the gene manifests itself in negative ways — violence, crime, alcoholism, and all sorts of high-risk behaviors. It might even eventually eliminate itself from pastoral societies entirely. (Who wants to marry an alcoholic with poor impulse control?) On a frontier, though, this dissatisfaction gene pushes us into the unknown with an unstoppable force, across seas and deserts and mountains, through jungle and over ice, with the horizon our only guide. With a new frontier it can take us much, much farther — to the moon and Mars and endless new worlds strewn across the heavens.

Of course, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, and maybe it’s something else that draws us onward and upward, but draw it does. No matter how many disappointments we face, we gather up our failures, sweep away the ashes, and build new dreams in their place. The carrot of new horizons draws us onward, but if the carrot isn’t enough, there’s always the stick.

Evolution in Action

Exploring the moon or Mars and beyond is expensive and dangerous. Colonizing is vastly more so and might take anywhere from decades to millennia with no obvious payoffs. If our robot probes can take the pictures and do the science, why bother sending people? Why not spend the money here on the environment or alleviating poverty or whatever your hobbyhorse is? These are valid arguments but miss the big picture.

Putting humans in space isn’t about exploration or national pride; it isn’t even about science. It’s about survival. To paraphrase sci-fi author Larry Niven: “There are things so terrible that the only defense against them is not to be there when they happen.” If we stay here, just here on this one world, we will become extinct. Killed off by evolution’s dispassionate hand just like every other species lost to the past. Unlike every other species, we have so much more to lose. Every word of Shakespeare, every brick of the Taj Mahal, every brush stroke of the Mona Lisa, every note of the “1812 Overture.” Every sacrifice will have been for nothing. Every lesson so painfully learned, wasted. Every light guttered out.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. If we can see beyond the short-term costs to the long-term gains — holding out for those two marshmallows — we can spread to other worlds and survive. We can take our friends, too, as digitally encoded strings of DNA if we have to. Tigers can stalk the jungles of the Tharsis Rise, whales sing in the ocean habitats of Tau Ceti, and humans, or something better that remembers being human, can thrive as long as the stars shine.

Paul McKinley headshotPaul is a graphic designer, amateur photographer, part-time writer, and lifelong science geek who, as a kid, sat way too close to the TV to watch the moon landings. He writes the “Occasional Book” and “Crazy Idea” columns for the British Mensa magazine and can be contacted through his intermittent blog,
Irish Mensa | Joined 1984