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space colony illustration
A classic illustration of a space settlement. Despite criticism in a recent essay, settlement remains the only viable long-term rationale for humans to be in space at all. (credit: Rick Guidice/NASA)

Settling space is the only sustainable reason for humans to be in space


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As robotic and artificial intelligence technologies improve and enable increasingly robust exploration without a human presence, eventually there will be only one sustainable reason for humans to be in space: settlement. Research into the recycling technology required for long-term off-Earth settlements will directly benefit terrestrial sustainability. Actively working toward developing and settling space will make available mineral and energy resources for use on Earth on a vast scale. Finally, space settlement offers the hope of long-term species survival that remaining on Earth does not.

There are more than seven billion people on the Earth today. No rational space settlement advocate suggests that any significant portion of that population, or even of those who are rich, will be moving to Mars or anywhere else in space.

However, a recent essay by Astro Teller, head of Google X Labs, and his wife Danielle, a physician and researcher takes the bold position that “It’s completely ridiculous to think that humans could live on Mars.” This essay, published by Quartz, repeats with little examination some of the hoariest arguments against space settlement. To support this view, the Tellers quote their 12-year-old daughter: “I can’t stand that people think we’re all going to live on Mars after we destroy our own planet.” This quote contains two mischaracterizations that demand refutation: that “we are all” going to live in space and that we are going to live in space after we destroy Earth. Another canard that has long floated about was given form by the recent film Elysium starring Matt Damon: the rich will leave the poor on the Earth and escape to space settlements. Upon examination, all three of these ideas are strawmen.

There are more than seven billion people on the Earth today. No rational space settlement advocate suggests that any significant portion of that population, or even of those who are rich, will be moving to Mars or anywhere else in space. Instead, we expect that relatively small numbers of highly qualified individuals, or those who are deeply dedicated to living in space, would form the first settlements. Over a significant period of time, thousands more from the Earth would join those settlements as they become increasingly self-sufficient. Over more time, various possible niches for settlement (Moon, Mars, asteroids, free space, etc.) will be occupied, and eventually the population in space will total many millions, most of whom will have been born in space.

So why then do Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and many others, including organizations like the National Space Society (NSS) and Alliance for Space Development, believe strongly that space settlement is essential to human survival? Although this may seem surprising, the Earth is not a “safe space.” The destiny of virtually all species on Earth is extinction in a relatively short span of geologic time. The Tellers claim that “we live on a planet that is perfect for us.” This statement is both completely true and total nonsense. We fit well on the Earth because we have evolved over millions of years to become creatures that are both adapted to live here and to like living here. It is truer to say that we are perfect for the Earth than the reverse.

In fact, the Earth is not such a commodious place. It is subject to periodic calamities of various sorts, ranging from massive asteroid and comet impacts to titanic volcanic eruptions, and from periodic ice ages to disastrous solar flares. In the short run, the Earth seems balmy and comfortable. Viewed from the perspective of deep time, it starts to look more like a death trap, bedeviled by regular mass extinctions.

However, things are actually quite a bit worse. Although there are many potentially bad things that might happen to the human race on the Earth from natural sources, there are many more from unnatural sources. We have been dancing with nuclear disaster for a long time. An apocalyptic atomic war is not inevitable, but it is possible. Add to this scenario the genetically engineered killer virus, “gray goo,” a robot revolt, and other horrors as yet undreamt, and the odds against human survival get longer.

Hence, the need to abandon the fiction of Earth as our eternal and unchanging perfect home and to appreciate both the need for, and promise of, space settlement. Not so the rich can escape to an Elysium in the sky, or so we can all leave behind a polluted and overheated Earth, but simply so that the human species and human culture has a chance at surviving and flourishing in the long term.

The Tellers believe that sustainability on the Earth has no relationship to what we do in space, but the same technologies that enable deep space settlement will have a profound impact on terrestrial sustainability.

The Tellers write, “We haven’t even colonized the Sahara desert, the bottom of the oceans… because it makes no economic sense.” This may be true, but it also makes no sense to settle the Sahara desert, the bottom of the oceans, or Antarctica since these locations are on the Earth, and humans living there will not increase the probability of species survival.

Near-Earth free space settlements and lunar bases are just stepping stones to ones much further out that are quarantined from Earth by millions of kilometers of vacuum. Once the motivation of species survival is put front and center, it becomes clear that a settlement in low Earth orbit, on the Moon, at L5, or on the Martian surface is not nearly sufficient. What is needed is a large set of thriving communities distributed throughout the solar system, and even ultimately in the Oort Cloud surrounding the solar system proper. This vision is not a small thing. It will be the work of many generations, just as was the settling of the New World or, even earlier in history, the human diaspora out of Africa along the Asian coast to Australia and beyond.

The Tellers believe that sustainability on the Earth has no relationship to what we do in space, but the same technologies that enable deep space settlement will have a profound impact on terrestrial sustainability. Space settlements, of necessity, push the limits of food production per square meter and per liter of water. Space settlement agricultural methods can also be applied to growing food in parched California or in vertical farms in crowded urban areas.

Space settlements require humans and technology to co-exist in close proximity. This implies an absolute minimization of pollution and sustained recycling of all waste. Such technologies seem highly applicable to sustainability on Earth as well. We will need to provide the best possible medical care for remote space settlements, which will be far from hospitals on Earth. The technologies that make such medicine effective—“tricorders”, telemedicine, and so on—can also bring medical care to underdeveloped and underserved areas of the Earth.

The Tellers raise the specter of “winter-over syndrome” in the Antarctic, writing that “living on Mars would be way, way more miserable than living in Antarctica,” and concluding, “Nobody wants to live there.” Although it is clear that the Tellers will not be going, the large numbers who signed up for Mars One’s sketchy settlement plans suggest that a lot of people do want to live on Mars. There are real challenges to constructing space settlements, but current Antarctic bases are not true settlements. Nobody lives there with their families, with the exception of the coastal Esperanza Base, where about ten families routinely winter over. No real effort is made to create any kind of human environment that is comfortable over a long period of time. Conditions in Antarctica might be better compared to living in a campground than a self-sustaining settlement. Additionally, the current Antarctic Treaty essentially prevents any extraction or use of the natural resources found there, thus making economically independent settlements infeasible.

The Tellers think that, from an economic perspective, “Mars has nothing to offer in return.” Here, at least in the short run, they have a point.

Let us not shy from the truth. Conditions in the early settlements in the New World were difficult at best, and the casualty rate was high. We should expect the same to hold true for early space settlements. However, Jamestown and Plymouth gave rise to vast cities and a tamed landscape on a scale of hundreds of years. We now bring to the table technological means that would seem magical to the Jamestown settlers. Even as difficult an environment as the Moon can be developed and settled using technology that either exists currently or is an engineering project, as one book suggests.

The Tellers think that, from an economic perspective, “Mars has nothing to offer in return.” Here, at least in the short run, they have a point. Although Mars may have more of the natural resources a settlement will need than, say, the Moon, it is at the bottom of a fairly steep gravity well and, for the time being, it is not likely that there will be many Mars-to-Earth exports. However, this is like looking at the resources of the New World via a keyhole, seeing a swamp, and reporting back that there is no point in going there. It is worth keeping in mind the example of “Seward’s Folly.” The purchase of Alaska from Russia was mocked as “Seward’s icebox” and a “polar bear garden.” At the time, the oil and mineral riches of Alaska were undiscovered and undreamt of.

Space itself teems with valuable resources, including continuous and abundant solar energy and mineral wealth on a scale beyond imagination just in the near Earth asteroids. Just as the Tellers were dismissing space resources as irrelevant, the US Congress was laying the legal groundwork for asteroid and lunar mining with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed by President Obama on November 23, 2015. The Tellers also seem unaware that their leadership at Google, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, are investors in the asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources.

The Tellers say that “we won’t survive [on Earth] unless we learn to live in a resource neutral way.” This statement assumes that that Earth is a closed system, which it is not. The Earth is flooded daily with vast amounts of solar energy that, if exploited, could power just about any civilization we wish to maintain. There is no technical limitation to providing continuous, carbon-free power from space solar power satellites beaming power back to the surface of the Earth anywhere it might be needed. The main opposition to this idea derives from an unwillingness to consider centralized power systems on ideological grounds, combined with the unexpected reality of very cheap natural gas today. Even the most conservative consideration of near-Earth asteroid resources suggests that there is no reason to view the Earth as a closed system to which nothing can be added.

The time for the settlement of Mars will come, but first we need to build on our success in developing the resources of Earth orbit, in the form of navigation, Earth observation, communication, and weather satellites, by fully developing the economic potential of the Earth-Moon system. Space settlements must flow out of the development of the economic resources of space if they are to be sustainable in the long term. The NSS has developed a complete description of milestones toward the development of space settlements.

In view of the above, Astro Teller was probably right to turn down the “space cadet” who wanted Google X to spend money on Mars settlement. But wait—Google is doing exactly that.

A key first step toward space settlement is ensuring a gapless transition from the existing International Space Station to commercially owned and operated LEO space stations as described in the NSS position paper “Next Generation Space Stations.” Next will come the development of the resources of the Moon and neaby asteroids leading to the creation of a self-sustaining Earth-Moon economy. Once we have established an asteroid-Earth-Moon economy that makes the resources found in this region fully available for projects ranging from the construction of solar power satellites to fueling future Mars missions, trips to Mars will be far less of a reach than they are today.

In view of the above, Astro Teller was probably right to turn down the “space cadet” who wanted Google X to spend money on Mars settlement. Currently Google’s money would be better spent in low Earth orbit, among the asteroids, and on the Moon, joining forces with the growing number of entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes in space. But wait—Google is doing exactly that by sponsoring the Google Lunar X PRIZE to encourage private groups to send landers to the Moon, and investing $900 million in Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Given that corporate Google (now Alphabet) has just made a massive investment in a company founded to settle Mars, the Tellers’ essay sounds a bit like sour grapes. In any case, the Tellers are completely wrong in their disregard of the potential economic benefits of space development and the underlying motivation for space settlement.


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