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Space Dreams: Reality Check | Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

Space Dreams: Reality Check | Kelly and Zach Weinersmith | 568

Science, Space, and Why It’s Not So Simple to Build a Colony on Mars

A conversation with Kelly and Zach Weinersmith about the reasons, research, and humor that went into writing their book.

In this episode of the Thought Leadership Leverage podcast, host Bill Sherman dives into the realities of space settlement with Kelly Weinersmith, biologist and adjunct assistant professor at Rice University, and Zach Weinersmith, comic artist and author. Known for their book “Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything,” the Weinersmiths have recently released “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?”—a book that raises tough questions about the feasibility and ethics of colonizing new worlds.

The episode uncovers some hard truths behind the idea of settling space. While space exploration seems exciting and full of promise, the Weinersmiths caution that many of the technological, biological, and social challenges remain unsolved. In their book, they explore whether the dream of building new worlds in space is achievable or could lead to unexpected consequences.

Kelly and Zach discuss the evolution of their book’s thesis—from an optimistic view of imminent space settlement to a more nuanced, realistic perspective. They reveal how their research journey influenced this shift, sharing the complexities of dealing with sensitive topics and the mixed reactions they received from the space community. While some experts supported their critical approach, others reacted with resistance and disappointment.

The episode also touches on the importance of humor in science communication. The Weinersmiths explain how humor helps make complex ideas more accessible and engaging. Their book, filled with witty illustrations and anecdotes, balances deep scientific insights with a lighthearted touch, providing a unique take on the question of space colonization.

Bill and his guests explore the broader implications of space settlement, examining potential issues such as the environmental impact, the governance of space colonies, and the psychological effects of living in confined, isolated environments. The conversation also highlights the importance of empirical evidence and the rigorous research methods employed by the Weinersmiths, who sought input from a wide range of experts to build a comprehensive view of space settlement’s challenges and opportunities.

Tune in to this thought-provoking episode for a deep dive into the reality of space exploration, the impact of metaphor on our understanding of complex concepts, and the role of humor in making science accessible. Whether you’re a CEO, leadership coach, entrepreneur, or thought leader, you’ll find valuable insights into why space settlement might be more complicated than it seems—and why a critical perspective is essential as we look to the stars.

Three Key Takeaways:

  • The Challenges of Space Settlement Are Complex and Multidisciplinary Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s book, “A City on Mars,” explores the myriad challenges of space settlement, from technological to biological, psychological, and legal issues. Their extensive research reveals that many unresolved questions make the idea of colonizing Mars or other celestial bodies far more complex than it might seem. They underscore that successful space settlement requires significant advancements in multiple fields, and many assumptions about its feasibility may not hold up under scrutiny.
  • Humor as a Tool for Science Communication The Weinersmiths demonstrate the importance of humor in making complex scientific topics accessible and engaging. They explain how humor can be used to break down barriers and keep audiences interested, even when discussing dense subjects like space law or the psychological effects of isolation. By weaving humor into their work, they make the science approachable while still maintaining accuracy and depth.
  • The Impact of Metaphors on Perception The guests discuss how metaphors can shape our understanding of complex concepts like space exploration. Zach Weinersmith points out that metaphors, like the “wagon train in space” analogy from Star Trek, can both guide and limit our perception of what space settlement entails. This observation underscores the importance of critically examining the stories and metaphors we use to describe emerging technologies and scientific endeavors, as they can influence public opinion and expectations.



Bill Sherman Today, I want to look at helpful leadership challenges, our deeply held assumptions. And to do that, I’m going to ask a simple question when will we have cities on Mars? Science fiction has used cities on Mars, has set dressing and plot points for over a century. Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars series, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Babylon Five, The Expanse for All Mankind. My guests today are Kelly and Zach Weiner Smith, and together they actually stop to ask and research deeply this question how might we actually put a city on Mars? The TLDR answer is it’s not nearly as easy as we might think. Kelly is an adjunct assistant professor in biology at Rice University. Zach writes books and draws comics, including the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and together they are the coauthors of the well-researched and yet delightfully funny book A City on Mars. Kelly and Zach took a multidisciplinary research approach, and this led them not only into questions of biology, space flight resources, celestial geography, but even space lore and its terrestrial equivalents. In this episode, we’ll talk about their research process, how they had to overcome their own assumptions, and then how they made complex ideas approachable and even entertaining for mainstream audience.

Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman, and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Kelly and Zach.

Kelly Weinersmith Thanks for having us.

Bill Sherman So I want to dive in with a question about the premise of your book to begin with, right. And how it popped my bubble a little bit and may pop other people’s bubbles. I mean, I think back to all of the science fiction I watched as a kid, and every show had people traveling to the moon, whether it was SpaceX 1999 or it was Star Trek, and it was just assumed we will go places and that would be easy and there would be colonies and things. Now, your book is telling me that’s not so easy and, you know, pretty strong detail. My first question is along the lines of what does it take to overturn conventional thinking and get people to stop and listen to you?

Zach Weinersmith You know, I could start on that. Maybe you could have a better conclusion. But you guys, you’re talking about the science fiction stuff and the stuff you mentioned in particular. I was thinking about how there’s this great quote we didn’t get ten Years by Patricia Limerick, who was a Western historian, and she said, you know, something that’s effective. Once you pick a metaphor for how you understand something you both like, it controls and constrains your view. I think in the case of like Star Trek. Star Trek was originally pitched as wagon train in space, right? It was deep, right. You’d on a sort of American notion of what the West was like, which was, I would say, broadly incorrect, both in the sense of what the actual American West was like, but also in the sense of whether it would even be applicable to space if it were like the myth. And so I think part of why, you know, we have this incorrect premise in the first place is because we are conflating a mythology, especially we as Americans. Although Europeans often have some other exploration mythology that they go to, we’re completely conflating it with the truth. Right. So and then this myth of the West, and then the way the West actually was, you know, there were things worth getting. There were resources. There were people to trade with in Europe. Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about like, well, what about like the 1600s through like the 1800s, like the age of exploration for us. And what I always want to say is, if there was the equivalent of the Kingdom of China and India, on Mars, we would already have a huge amount of ships to go trade with them. And so I guess the point is, you have to figure out if you’re going to overturn a premise. It’d be nice to understand where it comes from. In the case of SpaceX, I think a lot of those beliefs, sit somewhere at the apex of self mythology for our country and the actual technological developments that occurred, especially in the late 50s through the 60s.

Bill Sherman I think also building on that, we’re also constrained by sort of the technology and the capacity at the time. So I was thinking, George Miller and the trip to the moon where they load the passengers in the cannon and just shoot them out the cannon, and then all of a sudden, the moon has this big, you know, capsule embedded in it, right? Because they didn’t have the visualization of the rocket ship. Right. And so in some ways our, our ability to envision, I mean, we’ve all seen spaceships and designs of, you know, battle stars and whatever things that don’t exist. And reality doesn’t really look like that yet.

Kelly Weinersmith So cost for a long time has stood in the way. So the reason we were able to go to the moon is because that was part of a space race, and our government was willing to dump just huge quantities of money into it that we have not been willing to do again since there was a geopolitical will. And that resulted in the money space between now and, you know, when space sorry, between the Apollo program and when Space-x came along, it remained incredibly expensive to send stuff to space. And, you know, the space shuttle was supposed to reduce those costs by being a reusable way to send mass to space. But then it turned out that refurbishing the space shuttle in between uses was incredibly expensive, even more expensive than if you just threw everything away.

Bill Sherman And cost per pound per kilogram actually went up with the shuttle. Yeah. Yes.

Kelly Weinersmith Right. Yeah. Wasn’t supposed to do that, but it did. And so, you know, SpaceX has been sort of changing the game by dropping the cost of launching stuff to SpaceX and by making these reusable rockets that really do save money so you can get mass up to low-Earth orbit. But in our opinion, there’s a big difference between being able to field satellites, which are very profitable, and being able to start a settlement, which requires that you can create habitats that keep humans happy and alive and that we think we’re not quite ready for yet.

Bill Sherman And I want to get deeper into the thesis. But you talk about sort of the ladder and the scale of accomplishing things. I think we have this myth of the moon landings and even watching what NASA has done on Mars, where they basically send a giant bouncy ball, it rolls a little bit, unfolds, and off it goes with the rover. Or they send a helicopter, right? But if we look at more recent private attempts, it’s hard to even land a spacecraft vertically on the moon without tipping over. Right? There’s a lot of hard engineering just to get something on the surface.

Zach Weinersmith And so then we didn’t get into the book, but I think it’s probably relevant is there’s this famous story. I think it was John Hubble who was a young engineer at NASA, who was the one who really pushed for what’s called lunar orbit rendezvous, which is what everyone knows is what they did on Apollo 11. Like you send this little spaceship to the moon, it lands on the moon and then jumps back up like a piece of rock comes back up and docks. So the earlier and earlier proposal, which was pushed by John Brown, which I think if you went back to the 50s, people would have thought it was more likely was to build out a kind of infrastructure which would have involved first building a giant like an 80 person space station that would have utility, especially back in the 50s before modern microelectronics, you know, for, for surveillance and, and lethal weapon systems. We could debate that, but and then only once you’d mastered that would you have sent ships to the moon, which would have had like something like a dozen scientists or more sort of proper scientific way to do things. And so what’s interesting is among a certain type of the nerd, like an engineer, the story of pushing for lunar orbit rendezvous was a sort of heroic story, because it’s the only way it was possible to get it done. By 1969, it was this version of a moon landing where you start with a skyscraper sized rocket, a single giant rocket, and slowly pieces of it go away until you, like, land on the moon in a canoe. And what I always think of is, though, like it is, it is true that that was probably the only way to do it by 1969, but it set up what John watched and who’s one of the top historians of space. He called it a dead-end technology which produced a 40-year identity crisis for NASA. Because, as you say, it was it wasn’t like with computers where each thing leads to the next step. We like through a huge amount of money at a way to do the moon. That really couldn’t be repeated, not cheaply anyway. And so there wasn’t that ratchet you see, with other technologies, like with something like phones, they get better every year because we’re all willing to like pay 5% more. There is no such ratchet for going to the moon. There is for satellites, as Kelly said. You know, like if you if you slightly improve the efficiency on size of a satellite, you know, you can cram more into a fairing and you make more money, but there’s not something like that for the moon. And I think people think there is or even in some cases think there is so hard that they make up things that are worth doing on the moon that probably aren’t.

Bill Sherman So we’ve explored the premise a little bit. I want to go deeper, but first I have to ask this question. So Kelly, you are trained as a biologist and teach that you write webcomics and novels. My question is, how did the two of you become the obvious people to write this book?

Kelly Weinersmith You know, so first of all, I’ll note that, like for pop sci books, it’s very common for authors to jump into a topic they don’t know anything about and just explore it for a couple years and go for it. But, you know, this topic in particular had so many different fields of research that we tried to combine into one book, that it’s not clear that there’s any expert who would have been the obvious person to write this book because it required knowledge of, you know, space science, physiology, space law, other aspects of international law also. And so I think the obvious person to write the book are the people who have enough time to sit for four years and read textbooks every day. And so we have we literally have 37 shelves on our bookshelves that are just books that Zach and I took turns reading and writing notes on, and then going on walks to describe to the other one what we just learned about. And it was just, you know, it’s just whoever’s willing to do all of that work is the one who can write this book.

Bill Sherman Well, and this is one of the things I want to sort of underline. There’s a type of thought leadership which is going deep on a subject and adding to the conversation in that area. And then there’s also a form of thought leadership, which is synthesis and synchronic, where you look at the problem from a number of perspectives and say, okay, what do we really need to be talking about that isn’t being talked about here? And I’m sure a lot of engineers haven’t really thought about space law, for example. And, you know, the treaty, the and the law of the sea and all of those things where, like you said, there’s no person that you could put out the job application for with the bullet points. And everybody go check, check, check. Yeah, I did that too. Yeah. Right. Yeah. So what interested you to this topic? How did you get here? Because you’ve answered the question of. Well, there was no ideal. But why you.

Zach Weinersmith Why did we get interested? Well, it was it was half by accident. So we had originally planned to write a very different book. There is still on space shuttle, and there was kind of like the thesis was along the lines of, you know, space settlement is coming fairly soon, and there’s maybe not enough thought about what you might call human factors, which is both like the medical physiology stuff, but also psychology, economics, sociology. So we thought we were going to write a text about a kind of how to now that we are doing this thing, and because we’re lucky, we are in a position to ask our editor to give us, you know, multiple years to do research on a single book. We were able to get to the point where about two years in, we you know, the thesis was very different. And in concert with our editor, who was very, very nice about it. I mean, it was time to reorient the book toward a thesis that was more about the problems and less about, you know, the idea that this was an imminent possibility. And so that in addition to that, we already wanted to cover lots of topics once we were going against the zeitgeist. At least among a lot of space people, then we really felt like we had to do an amazing amount of homework. So, you know, one thing that I think differentiates us not from everybody, but from a lot of people who write in this area, is we want to talk about like, parallels between seabed law and space law. We didn’t just reach out to experts, although we did eventually. We first read what the law was before. And that’s, by the way, a whole interesting thing, which is when do you reach out? Right. Because there’s a danger in reaching out too soon, because then you just become the sort of apprentice and.

Bill Sherman Right. And you’re almost doing transcription rather than coming with the sharp question.

Zach Weinersmith Exactly. Which is dangerous because it’s one it’s like maybe a waste of both of your time. But two, you know, there’s a danger that you are just going to pick up the zeitgeist, and the zygote often contains errors. And also, you don’t have the wisdom to know who you’re talking to. Everyone inside a field of study knows who the good people are. Or at least has opinions on it. So if you just find, like the first person who is apparently prominent by, like, citation count or something, you’re putting yourself in real danger, of saying something silly. But then, on the other hand, and Kelly know, I kind of I think we argue about this or we have a difference of opinion, which is I think I think Kelly would like to read like, someone’s entire corpus before contacting them. I’ve like, read a few papers, but this is probably the sweet spot between us.

Kelly Weinersmith Probably.

Bill Sherman And I almost see the creation of almost the grad school approach of start with the lit review and build the annotated bibliography and say, okay, let’s figure out what the significant pieces are and what the conversation to date is in that field. And then you also jumped back and you said, well, there’s these things that were published in the early 20th century that haven’t had a lot of traction. So you really did a deep environmental scan from my take. Oh, yeah.Soonish by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah. And it was, you know, part of why we wanted to write this book is because we did find all the stuff interesting. Like we wrote a book called Soonish Together that had a little bit on space law. And I remember thinking, space law. Oh, I wish I could just, like, dig into textbooks. It blows my mind that this exists. And so we spent half a year digging into textbooks, and it was fun.

Bill Sherman I’ve seen science fiction shows. I’ve seen shows that cover attorneys and that. But I haven’t seen, you know, space lawyers, the television show. I think there’s a hatch there somewhere. But you mentioned something. Zach and I want to turn to the two of you and say you had an initial response from people. It’s like, oh, cool, you’re doing this book, right? And yeah, we’ll be happy to do an interview thinking that the two of you we’re going to be like, and here’s how we charge into the future, right? And it’s some point, the position you switched for the two of you on research. And in the book, you use the term space bastards.

Bill Sherman Talk about that transformation. And if you would define and explain who coined space bastards.

Zach Weinersmith Oh, that’s a good question. Well. Let me say, I, I was talking to a person who works in a related parallel field of research, and he said he had a small group that called themselves the Space Humanists, based on the same concept. And I thought, that’s a much better, thank you call oneself. But, yeah, but that said, the reason we started saying space bastards. And, you know, we joke about it, it was actually quite anxious for both of us, which is, you know, when you start out, you’re going to do the wrong version of it. There’s a big support community who’s like, yeah, you know, you know, like support our in-group, right? We’re the space people of our team space. We love this stuff. You’re going to write a book we love. And they helped us and they became our friends. And then later we kind of moved in a more I don’t want to say necessarily an anti-direction, but more like realistic, which is perhaps a kind of like dream killing direction. And what was interesting is some people were totally cool with that and, and continue to help us and, and would actually be exactly what you want which would be like constructively argue with you. Whereas some people became very angry and that was tough. You know, this was not supposed to be a controversial book. It was supposed to be fun book. And so I think what we discovered about ourselves was that we just are not controversial people. I like I forensic to public speaking. They love arguing, I do not I don’t think Kelly does either. It was just that the only alternative was to lie. And so we would like or say another way, we would rather be sad and anxious than wrong. So. So that’s why we ended up going in this direction. But it was it was not fun. We joke about it. We say space bastards. But honestly, we’re just like waking up at 2 a.m. sweating about, like, fighting with people.

Bill Sherman Yeah, well, it takes a certain amount of discipline or even courage to be able to go, oh, this is going to go against the zeitgeist. Whether you use the framework of the Emperor’s New Clothes or, you know, you go back to Galileo and purportedly but it’s still he says to the Inquisition afterwards, after he’s confessed. Yeah, but the planets still move, right?

Kelly Weinersmith It also takes a really good editor to call you out and be like, you guys, her name Virginia Smith. Yeah. She’s amazing. At some point she was like, guys, you are writing a book that’s like, yay, space settlement! But every fact you have in your book is like, this isn’t going to happen to like, you have to update what is your actual thesis now? And we’re like, yeah, right.

Zach Weinersmith That’s interesting to your point, because it was like the way I remember it is, we had all this interesting stuff, and it kept not sort of congealing into a book. And then once there was a thesis that was like the actual thesis we wanted, it was like a big enough that it was like easy. But everything should have clicked like it was clear where to put everything. It was clear what could be cut and what had to stay. It was clear what could be made very short, what needed to be expanded. So it was almost like magic. I remember having this feeling like we kept doing stuff and it kept not resolving into a book. And then it was like that week where we switched over. Everything was just obvious. It was it was it was kind of magical.

Bill Sherman So was it cathartic in that sort of sense of the oh, yeah, that’s the book we really are writing. Or what was that process? Was there a challenge in letting go of the old hypothesis?

Zach Weinersmith I think by then we were pretty far gone. Oh, Kelly, you want to say so?

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah. I mean, so for me, it was I was really nervous about writing the like, anti-space settlement book. That’s not the book I wanted to write. But there did become a point where I just had to accept that that is the book that we were writing. An anti is overselling it. Just, you know, the critical of the near-term possibility of space settlements. And, and once I accepted that that’s the book we were writing, I slept a little bit better and started steeling myself for the arguments. So it was cathartic. Yeah.

Bill Sherman Well, and I want to underline the importance of having someone who can do sort of the conceptual sparring with you, because when you’re deep in the weeds, it’s very difficult because you’re trying to stitch the pieces together and having an editor who can come back and say, I don’t think you’re writing the book. You think you’re writing. Yes.

Zach Weinersmith Yeah, we went with something like this where, like so like in space research, there’s a lot of really smart people. Like, definitely smarter than we are, like super turbo Einstein types. Right. And so to come into this field and tell them to that they are wrong, that’s hard to do. That’s very uncomfortable. And it makes you very scared. And so one of the things that was ended up being helpful is, is, is actually talking to the people who got very mad at us and reviewing their arguments and being like, no, like there’s this weird thing where it was like sometimes would people would say stuff that was so obviously wrong. It was actually sort of encouraging because it was like, oh, okay, people can be smarter than us, but just believe crazy stuff. And so, like, what matters is who’s got command of the facts, and, and so there’s a certain point at which we, I think we both felt kind of freed, but by those interactions.

Bill Sherman And I want to turn to you, Kelly, as the scientist. Right. I’ll come to the webcomic and humor element in a bit. But there is a strong empirical backbone throughout this book, right? And so coming at that from that approach, where you have an not only a teaching interest, but a desire to pursue truth, right, and to see things more clearly, how does that inform this work, and how does your academic training sort of lean into this?

Kelly Weinersmith Well, so first, I’ll note that Zach has one third of a physics degree. So he also –

Bill Sherman I did not know that.

Kelly Weinersmith That if you said two minutes. Yeah. So he also has, you know, a scientific mind. And so the way we split up the work often was that Zach would read the review papers and the textbooks, and then I would dig into the original papers that were reviewed in the review so that I could see, like, what kind of scientific or what kind of experimental design did they use? What was their sample size? And so, you know, the stuff that I learned in grad school about how to design a good experiment, the stats classes about what kind of sample size you need before you trust the results.

Bill Sherman All the juicy methods sections that most people sort of glaze over, right?

Kelly Weinersmith And that’s one of the important stuff is right. Yeah, yeah. I mean, if that’s bad, you can’t trust anything else. And so you know Zach like Zach what are what are the figures that you joke about that you get us like 80.

Zach Weinersmith Oh yeah. And the jokes say well, the way I remembered it. So like, on our last book, it was just kind of divide and conquer, like one person would read and kind of do the write up. And I think, you know, we were both kind of doing everything. And on this book, it was just so much work. We had to divide labor. And I remember it like it was a single conversation. And I remember which of us proposed. At first it was essentially like we agreed that we would sort of stage how the chapters got written, which was that we would both read. But, you know, with the recognition that, our joke was I read very fast with 80% comprehension, and Kelly reads very slowly, with 100% comprehension. And so meaning that’s where we would kind of read everything. So it’s a little bit muddier than that. But essentially, like I was the one who was like reading 800 future casting books. And Kelly was around reading the, like, NASA, radiation dossier. And then we would kind of pile that into a giant note pile, like we have thousands of pages of Google Docs. And Kelly would convert that, synthesize that into what we did, called the dossier, which was like the if this was for an academic. This is the 30-page nightmare treatment with citations, and that I would convert that down to a proposal for a chapter.

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah. So Zach also thinks very scientifically. So it was like having it felt to me like having two professors doing the reading together, but we just sort of divided who was focusing on what at the end.

Bill Sherman Thank you for that clarification. That was just I didn’t know. So the other thing I think I heard there is you were looking for basically for any claim you were making, what are our citations? And then did you actually send back out to folks that you had spoken with to do sort of the fact check as well, if I remember correctly, to say, hey, are we aligned or misrepresenting here?

Kelly Weinersmith We did. Yeah, yeah. So we sent a bunch of our chapters out to experts afterwards to just be like, does this make sense? So, you know, we had a chapter on whether or not you can make nations in space. So we sent it out to constitutional scholars. And so we did get a lot of input, especially if we were pushing back against people like we wrote to a asgardia who hopes to be the first space nation, and we tried to make sure we weren’t misrepresenting them because we think it’s a far off idea that’s maybe not likely to work. And so we wanted to confirm that we were like giving the nicest version of their pitch. They never wrote us back, but we always made an effort fair.

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So let’s move a little bit forward into details on some of the books, because one of the things that I found really interesting was once she moved from, okay, here’s some of the obvious stuff. The biology, how are we going to handle, you know, reproduction, how are we going to handle defecation and all that stuff? How do you poop in a bag? Right.

Zach Weinersmith Yep, yep.

Bill Sherman So I end up getting into questions of, well, what models do we have on Earth already? Whether they’re from a legal perspective or a rights perspective that are anything like this. You went looking for analogous frameworks. So I want to dig in there a little bit into how you found patterns that could be extrapolated outwards in that regard.

Kelly Weinersmith Well. So we touch on a lot of different topics. And for each topic we tried to find the relevant analog situation. So for law, we felt like Antarctica and the deep seabed were similar because they’re both places that are absolutely miserable. But technology has pretty recently opened up our ability to extract resources from them. So and they’re also areas that are supposed to be common, heritage. So they’re supposed to be owned by just about everybody, or global commons. For psychology, you want to look for isolated and confined environments. So particularly initially in Mars, you’re going to have a lot of people in a tight space. So we studied things like, submarines, life in, research stations in Antarctica, polar exploration, and essentially what we learned from from those places that we’ve already extracted most of what we need to know from those environments. And, and NASA already knows a lot of that stuff and has it already rolled into their mission plans. So, yeah. And then additionally, you know, we’ve had we’ve had space stations orbiting Earth for about 50 years now. So since the 70s, the, you know, the Soviet Union got the first space station up there. There have been people in space almost continuously since then, over something like 650 people have visited them and we’ve collected some data. Those data were not meant to prepare us for settlements which involve having babies in space. They were just meant to help us understand what it’s like orbiting Earth. But, you know, there are lots of places where you can go to collect data and draw some conclusions.

Zach Weinersmith So let me just add to that a little thing, which is, in terms of like trying to, to find the relationship. So like one thing that was really important to us was that stuff about like, if you want to talk about space law to the extent it’s ever talked about among people interested in this stuff, it’s as a kind of isolated thing you can analyze, which is why we came to think a really bad way to do things, because it turns out, you know, spatial is deeply tied to how we regulated Antarctica and how we regulated the seabed. And then they’re also considered like, what happens if one of those zones sets precedent for another potentially. So, like skipping that entire background, that this is how we regulated things in the 20th century really misses the picture. And it was, as Kelly was saying, it’s very similar. One of the nice things is, is Antarctica and the sea are also reasonably good analogs for human psychology. In space. You’ll often see an article. We’ve seen several of these recently say, you know, humans in confined spaces just sort of crack. And you would want to check that against something. You would think. And it turns out we have reasonably good data from Antarctica going back to 1948 and nuclear submarines going back to, I think, like the late 50s. And people don’t crack. I mean, they do occasionally, but that’s true on the mainland. There’s not some sort of enhanced rate of psychosis. I mean, and that’s a little complicated by the fact that it’s a selected group and it’s a self-selected group. But the results are pretty boring. So it’s really valuable to go beyond like, guesses about the specific situation you’re looking at for like related zones. That might help answer the question it makes. It makes for a much deeper understanding.

Kelly Weinersmith One thing that really surprised us when we were doing the research is that often people will recognize that there is an environment that could have some relevant insights for what they’re doing, but they won’t dig into the literature like we say.

Bill Sherman More, please.

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah. Yeah. So we, you know, we I would go to conferences and people would say, oh, SpaceX, the first communities in space are going to be company towns. And you’d be like, oh, well, what we’re company towns like and like, what could we learn from company towns that existed on Earth so that we can avoid, you know, we’ve all heard stories about how company towns go bad, some go wrong. Sometimes we void that. And then people would say, oh, well, we you know, we’re going to want to be communal in space because, you know, you’re not going to be able to afford to have a kitchen for everybody. So you’re going to have to share kitchen space. You’re probably going to have to share your garden. And so you’d be like, okay, well, what? You know, my sense is that communes fail a lot. And of course I’m thinking of like the 60s era communes, like, what do we know about communes and which ones tend to stick around? And they’d be like, I don’t know, it’s going to be like a commune. We’re going to share stuff. And you’re like, Read the letter.

Bill Sherman So what can a thousand years plus of monastic tradition teach us about, you know, living together? Seems like there are communities that have done this that could be studied. Yeah.

Zach Weinersmith And especially to like so we actually wrote a paper on communes was originally part of the book and there wasn’t room for it. But we did write one on company towns, and it’s like, you know, it’s not just that you could say, let’s look at communities where people live together. At this point, a number of setups are very well studied in a quantitative way by economists and sociologists. So meaning, you know, our sort of raiser for what got to stay in the book was if by learning it, you would change something about your design for your mission or society. Right. So it’s something a super interesting, but you wouldn’t actually change anything. It’s not relevant. So some people will say, you know, you look at this or that group from like the 12th century and usually all you could do is think, well, I could get a cool lecture out of this, but I don’t know if I would actually tell, like Elon Musk to change his proposal. But with something like communes or company towns. Once you stated this is the plan, we’re going to run a company town. There’s a huge body of literature there, extremely well studied by economists who are interested in like labor relations. And so, so meaning they’re like knobs you can turn and so, like, why you wouldn’t go into that body of literature. And so there’s a really strong tendency for what people do is that when they go into the literature, they find someone who is a space nerd who also thinks about company towns, rather than going into someone who’s beat is just company towns and saying, what if I gave you these parameters that are true in space? And it was such a more interesting like separate from it being good practice. It’s just way more interesting to take what you know about space and apply it to actual literature.

Bill Sherman Well, and you mentioned something that I love, where pieces that didn’t make the book wound up as publication papers. Right? Yeah. And adding to a conversation in a different way. And so there’s a meta thread here of, as you go through, you’re identifying what overturns conventional thinking and changes planning, what adds to knowledge. And then who needs to hear this conversation? Does it go into the popular science book? Does it get recirculated back to a more academic community? There’s. Sort of multiple levels of conversation concurrently happening and dialog.

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah. And I don’t know that we’re getting to the right people yet. Like, I don’t know if Musk and Bezos are reading our book, for example. There’s only so much you can do. But I know some of the people who have who work at their companies have read the book. So maybe you change culture that way. I don’t know.

Bill Sherman Well, and from a culture change perspective, I mean, there are different models out there, right? Because when you’re trying to overturn the established order of what every everyone knows, the sun goes around the Earth, for example, there’s some pushback, some resistance, and it takes a while and a lot of data and a lot of voices to amplify. And so not just one voice can sort of say, hey, this is now the truth. And everybody jumps in.

Zach Weinersmith Oh, yeah, I was going to say what that we really tried to do because we know we’re arguing against some people’s sacred beliefs here is and I don’t know if everybody agrees we achieve this, but we tried very hard one to not say anything in like a mean way. We like to think of this book. We ever call anyone an idiot? Well, maybe 1 or 2 legal theories be called stupid, but, but even then, like, we, we’ve really laid out and we actually, even though we explicitly said they’re not stupid, they’re, they’re making art, you know, and so we do try to be very, you know, gentle and conversational, and not sort of call out people. We also tried very hard to not, like, inject any politics. So when we try to the extent possible, like when we talk about company towns, obviously that’s a very fraught issue in many directions. We tried as hard as we could just stick to, well, what is what do we know data wise about, like when these things go well or poorly, and or even like when saying, like, here’s our view of like how you might set up a bureaucracy to manage like lunar claims, like, you know, we’re trying to say you just lay out the case. There’s no kind of like and if you don’t agree with us, it’s because you’re one of those crazy so-and-so’s.

Bill Sherman Right? Right. Yeah.

Zach Weinersmith Yeah. So, I think that’s important because like in space for a lot of people, this is very sacred, like the beliefs we’re talking about. And so like, you know, for example, when we say Kennedy was acting politically not for science, which is very well documented, we provided like a lengthy transcript chunk. I don’t think we were like, gloating about it. It was just like, you know, we’re trying to explain to you what seems to have actually been the case.

Kelly Weinersmith If you go through the book, people from the left will be mad at us on some tech people from the right and other chapters. I think every chapter we wrote, we were thinking up. We had like some friends in mind where they were like.

Zach Weinersmith Really making what.

Kelly Weinersmith Enemy are we making of our friends in this chat? Yeah.

Bill Sherman Bit of an equal opportunity offensive.

Zach Weinersmith I guess, right?

Bill Sherman Yeah, yeah. So, I want to turn from data to humor. And let me start with you, Kelly, on that. How academic papers and certainly the methods session sections are known for their jokes and humor. So where do you see the role of humor in making the complex simpler and accessible? And then I want to get into with Zach, how.

Kelly Weinersmith  So, I have to admit that I have submitted scientific papers and had reviewers write back that I that it sounds too simple. I’m not using the jargon I’ve always had a preference for. Just like, just say the thing with as little jargon as possible.

Bill Sherman Rather than gatekeeping.

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah, right. And, you know, and this is, this especially started to be like a thing to me after writing soonish because we had to read papers from so many different fields. That and it was so hard to understand some of them. And then you’d read the next paper, it would be simple. And you’re like, oh, this can be explained clearly if you leave all the jargon out. And so, I’ve always preferred simple explanations when you can get away with it. I always, I enjoy a good joke, and especially if you’re going to be doing five chapters on international law.  And our editor was like, oh, you know, you guys originally pitched one chapter, but you, you think you want five chapters on international law.

Bill Sherman You’re gifting us with five. Yeah.

Kelly Weinersmith So we promised to try to make it as funny as we could. And so, I think that’s a good transition to Zach.

Zach Weinersmith So, you know, hopefully it doesn’t read this way, but actually most of the jokes were added toward the end. And by that, I mean, like the last few months, really, well, I mean, at least for a given chapter, it was always like the last step. I mean, if we thought of something funny, we’d put it in, but it was it was more of a Polish step and the kind of, you know, the kind of the book is just what we think the bare minimum set of information is to give a complete picture. I know it’s like the book is, like, fairly thick, but, you know, we had a lot of stuff. We the book is like, 30% shorter than the draft we wanted to do initially, which our editor saved us from, I would say saved.

Kelly Weinersmith But yeah.

Zach Weinersmith So, you know, our theory is essentially like you were you doing pop science? If you want to hold on to your audience, you can either make it so low level, they can just turn the pages, or you can kind of try to, you know, largely. It up a little. Throw in some stories and jokes to get them through the important stuff because it is, you know, to have a really complete picture. You do need to talk about things like what is geology like on Mars, which maybe isn’t for everyone, the most engaging. And then in the same book, if it’s this book you have to talk about, like, you know, what is the history of war in outer space, which is not always a page turner. Let me tell you, those textbooks. Where were some of the endurance challenges of this research project? And I.

Bill Sherman Can totally believe that.

Zach Weinersmith Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s just, you know, they’re meant to be dry and repetitive, to be clear, but Jesus. And, and, and so, you know, as an example, I remember I happened to be reading. I didn’t end up finishing it because it wasn’t super relevant. But there’s a book called Operation Deep Freeze, which is about Operation Deep Freeze, which was when the US permanently inhabited Antarctica, I think starting in 1948. And I happened to come across the story about Nazis landing on Antarctica, I think, 1943, and literally hiring a penguin. And I it was it was like not relevant to space, obviously, but I was like, this is amazing. How can people not know about this? And we managed to track down like a paper from the 60s that was like a narrative account by a guy who was there. And what was amazing, though, is I remember thinking like, this is going to buy us a lot of Antarctic lore because like learning about the ins and outs of Antarctic law is not the most engaging. But if instead of saying things were a bit tense prior to the creation of the Antarctic Treaty System, you could say, let me tell you, Nazis were trying to claim chunks of Antarctica. And here’s a funny story about that. Now the audience is interested, and so now you can work in all the depth you want, or at least a lot of it, because you’ve kind of bought the attention span. And so it’s like, I feel like you keep lifting people along and by the end they’ve learned more and hopefully you’re still amused.

Kelly Weinersmith I think it’s worth noting that any writing style is going to leave behind some readers. So, you know, if you write a humor book, you’re right. You’re not going to reach the humor list like I did, right? See penguins? I did see somebody write a review about like. And they include stupid stuff like, some Nazi hailed a penguin once. Who cares? And I’m like, why don’t we talk?

Zach Weinersmith And you’re not kidding about that.

Kelly Weinersmith So yeah. So yeah, you know, I mean, I guess every writing style has its fans, but, you know, when you make jokes, you risk losing to people who don’t like your sense of humor. But we hope it worked for a lot of people for us.

Bill Sherman So we’ve sort of abridged the this discussion, our audience by referring to it as pop science. But who did you see as your audience? Because sort of the level of sophistication you write the explain it to me like I’m in fifth grade versus you’re assuming an audience has, you know, an education and is has done some reading outside. Who did you have in your mind in terms of audience for this?

Kelly Weinersmith For me. The audience I eventually had in mind was, I guess people like me five years ago, people who didn’t really know much about space but were sort of interested in would hear Elon Musk saying, we’re going to have a million people on Mars in the next 2 to 3 decades. And, and, you know, I remember hearing was saying stuff like that and, and saying, well, then why aren’t we, like, if it’s that easy, why aren’t we there yet? Like I think doesn’t something’s not making sense here. And so, you know, the people who are sort of interested but want to actually know where we are and then I guess, stretch goal. We’d love to like, convince the people who are already in the community and are trying to make space settlements a reality. We’d like to make sure that they’ve got all the different pieces in their head and they can see like the big picture, and maybe we can all work together on solving, you know, these tough, integrative problems.

Zach Weinersmith Yeah, I think, I think there’s a thing with pop science, like with books. I think it was bad pop science. They often don’t assume they have a curious audience. And so they’re doing a little too much song and dance. Do you know what I mean? So, like, I really think if you’re already someone who’s picked up a book that’s on, you know, something like Space Settlement, you should assume there’s someone who’s willing to go with you a little ways and that you don’t have to like, you know, make it seem like they ought to be interested, even though science is boring. Right? Like, I think at least. Right? Like the pop science books we love, we’re trying to write the kind of book we like, which is, oh my God, I’ve never thought about any of this. And here’s everything about it, you know, which, like, is obviously not for everyone. You know, maybe the, you know, typical book consumer would much I mean, going by sales, they’d much rather have the Britney Spears memoir. But the people who pick this book up are curious people right there. Different sort of feel. So you should write for them.A City on Mars Book

Bill Sherman So let’s talk about the book as a whole and the impact you wanted to make. So, a City on Mars here, whether we’re looking a year out or maybe 3 or 5 years. Kelly, like, what impact would you like to see and how will you know this book has achieved?

Kelly Weinersmith To be honest, I feel really great already because we’ve had a lot of people send us email saying we’re in the community. We’ve felt like this sort of more nuanced view needed to be put out there, but nobody was really doing it. And so we appreciate that you’ve done it. And in fact, you got me to think about a couple angles I hadn’t thought about before. That was exciting. And then we’ve also, Zach pretty regularly like searches Reddit, and looks for space stuff and pretty often underneath a claim that’s a bit extraordinary. About space settlements. Somebody will say, oh, you should read A City on Mars. It’s actually not that simple. And so, to be honest, I feel like we did what we were setting out to do. Like, we’ve got people thinking a little bit more critically about this question and with hopefully without completely squashing enthusiasm for the idea of space settlements one day. And I think we’ve got some discussions going. So I guess I’m going to I’m going to go ahead and get myself on the back and say.

Bill Sherman Mission accomplished.

Kelly Weinersmith We did what we wanted to do.

Zach Weinersmith The banner. It’s done.

Bill Sherman Exactly.

Kelly Weinersmith That’s right. Yeah.

Zach Weinersmith Yeah. I think that’s basically I feel I also think like I mean, there’s stuff you could say, like it’d be neat if tomorrow some important person was like, you know what? We have been saying the wrong thing. We’d better start saying something else. But I mean, it’s almost like I, you know, that sort of thing would be nice, but, I don’t know, part of getting the right pop science is just like, it’s a fun lifestyle. And also, you know, I don’t know if there was a lot of people who thought the sky was green and it was blue. Someone to write the book saying, it’s blue. And, you know, whatever gets achieved after that, you know, the book ought to have been written. So, so like, like Kelly said, we I think we’re becoming like, hopefully something like the book of reference for pushing back on this stuff. And that to me is, is like 100% of what you could ask for. Everything else would be just the nifty bonus.

Bill Sherman Yeah. And with that, there’s a bit of a mic drop with this book, because this is not the field that you are going to continue. The next books are not going to be subsequent. If I understand correctly on this, you’re moving on to next topics on that. So you have to be willing to join the conversation, engage in it, and then put it aside to move to the next question.

Kelly Weinersmith Yeah, it’s like a mic drop and then a cowardly run in the other direction. I mean, you people will ask me like, well, what about SpaceX? Are you going to tackle next? And I’m like, nothing. You guys do like me anymore. I’m out of here.

Zach Weinersmith Yeah, that’s I still feel like part of that is like, this was a four year, but this is about as comprehensive of a book is we could do I don’t know what we would like if we wanted to do it. Like if our publisher was like, we’ll give you a giant pile of gold. If you do another SpaceX book, I would probably we would say, yes, I was going to say we wouldn’t say yes, yes. And but I have no idea what we’d write about. I mean, I can imagine all sorts of technical papers we could work on, but this was like, this really did cover everything. Like, I could even imagine a second edition that’s expanded, but like, but like a totally another topic. I don’t know what it would even be about.

Bill Sherman So as we begin to wrap up, I want to ask a final question here, and I’ll ask it to both of you. I’ll start with Zach. So what advice would you give your younger self? You’ve been practicing thought leadership accidentally or purposefully, but knowing what you know now, what would you say to your younger self to either think or know or be aware of?

Zach Weinersmith Oh wow, that is a really hard one. I don’t know. I, I’m always skeptical of, like, even if it’s me to myself, like older people advising younger people on how to navigate because like I, I as a cartoonist, like so I have a cool job. I get to draw cartoons for a living. I often get asked by, you know, younger people like essentially some form of how do I get your job? And I always try to opt out because, like, I mean, I can say things about the craft of doing comics or I can say things with books. I could talk about the craft of doing books. I do think that’s very important, but the part where you kind of climbed the ladder was very different when I started. And that was only, you know, really 20 years ago. And so and I become more out of touch every year. I don’t know, I know this is kind of a cop out, but I do think it’s like the only piece of advice that I consider standard, for this sort of question is that you ought to meet your peers and know what the market is like. And, you know, hopefully think for yourself and work on getting good at what you’re doing. But that’s all kind of like, you know, hallmark card advice. I don’t know that I want to say anything more particular.

Bill Sherman So to your point, in terms of the world of publishing what it was in 2000 versus what it is today, vastly different. Totally. But I would I would argue as well there are still many different modalities that we’re just starting to begin down on. How you get an idea out and the ability to adapt to those modalities. And like you said, my journey might not be your journey. You’ve got a different set of tools in a different time, and I think that’s entirely fair. Kaelin, what advice would you give your younger self or. What goes through your mind.

Kelly Weinersmith You know, I think that, as I’ve gotten older, part of my writing process involves reading a lot more. And the more that I read, the easier it is to write, and the more confident I am going into arguments. And so I think if I could talk to my younger self, I would say every time you’re staring at that page and you just can’t get words on the page, you probably need to read more. So just sit down. There’s probably something you don’t understand because once it’s all in your head, it comes out much easier. So just read more. I think that’s the only advice I could give younger me that I would feel comfortable will stand the test of time.

Bill Sherman Well, and I think it has for centuries, if you want to advance the conversation, you got to know what’s going on. You’ve got to get a pulse for it before we go. Would either of you like to tell the story of astronaut names?

Zach Weinersmith I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about that. It’s. Gosh, do you want to do it or should I?

Kelly Weinersmith How about I’ll do the Russian one and then. Sorry. I’ll do the first one. The Georgian one. Okay, so. So I became a bit of a Soviet space program fan girl. And I learned a little bit of Russian, and I was reading a bunch of books about the history of the Soviet space program. And I became sort of fascinated with how the Soviet program was willing to lie about everything. Like there’s no facts so trivial that they wouldn’t lie about it. And I think my favorite example of that was, they had this program called, I don’t know what, what was it called?

Zach Weinersmith Cosmos and.

Kelly Weinersmith Cosmos. Thank you. Where they were sending people from different countries up to their space stations. And one of them was a guy from, I think it was Georgia. And his last name was Tackle of. And that sounds the first part of his name sounds like a Russian word for poop, like a funny word for poop, even, like, you know, doo doo or like what you’d call it to a baby or something. And so they changed his name to Ivanov, or even of even though, you know, that’s not his last name. They were like, nope, we’ve got to lie about your last name. Like, needless to say, the Wiener Smiths would not be flying. And so do they. They changed his name because they didn’t want to take any chances. And then Zach, what was, there was one for what, a Mongolian cosmonaut?

Zach Weinersmith Yeah. We’re really. So the cock of love story is, I don’t want to say well known, but it’s in a number of books. We only found one book referring to this, I think. I there’s no way I’m going to try to pronounce the name, but under I think it was under intra cosmos. They had a Mongolian astronaut, and one of the backups had a syllable in his name that was something like Hui, which I guess in Russian means something quite, X-rated. And so, they made him change it, which was kind of funny. So we. But this is just a really short little, like, palate cleanser we put in the book. But we felt bad because, like, you know, this is this is obviously quite juvenile. So we were trying to find, like, an American astronaut who had an equally stupid name, and we just couldn’t. There are some goofy ones, but nothing quite, the level of, of cackle of and so the best we get was someone pointed out to us, I think there was a, a Dutch astronaut named Webo uncles and.

Kelly Weinersmith Webo J uncles.

Zach Weinersmith Well, I’m sorry, J. I was just like a doctor. Seuss name waffle j uncles. So which, you know, everybody knows Dutch isn’t real. It’s a made up language. And, so I’m offending someone now, but, no. So. Yeah. So, you know, okay, so the context for this. So people think the book is the least bit serious is we do sort of bookend sections about things that matter with stupid stories that fit nowhere in the book. But we could not bear to let go of like, Gamergate cat glove.

Bill Sherman So Zach and Kelly Winter Smith, I want to thank you for joining us and talking about the journey towards writing A City on Mars, as well as the process of thought leadership. Thank you very much. This has been a blast of the conversation.

Kelly Weinersmith Thanks so much for having us. Yes, it was a ton of fun.

Bill Sherman Okay, you’ve made it to the end of the episode, and that means you’re probably someone deeply interested in thought leadership. Want to learn even more? Here are three recommendations. First, check out the back catalog of our podcast episodes. There are a lot of great conversations with people at the top of their game and thought leadership, as well as just starting out. Second, subscribe to our newsletter that talks about the business of thought leadership. And finally, feel free to reach out to me. My day job is helping people with big insights. Take them to scale through the practice of thought leadership. Maybe you’re looking for strategy, or maybe you want to polish up your ideas or even create new products and offerings. I’d love to chat with you. Thanks for listening.


Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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