Homesteading the solar system: location, location, location
by John Barber
|The general vision is that people will stuff themselves into minimalist canisters and hunker down for cramped journeys, some of substantial duration, to hostile locales that then require a lot of work to provide livable quarters.|
The concept of a spacefaring civilization implies that substantial numbers of people will stuff themselves into these minimalist canisters for their journeys, and that there will be a lot of building to provide suitable housing for all those folk at their destinations. And that in a difficult environment, far from support from home base: Earth. (The alternative to sending out large numbers of people is to instead send a small number and tell them to breed like crazy. While the breeding part might not be too bad, raising all those kids will be a challenge unto itself; and housing will still need to be provided in the end.)
Difficult journeys into challenging environments are nothing new for humanity, of course. Since the beginnings of our presence on Earth, homo sapiens have been progressively moving into continually more difficult settings, in ever increasing numbers, learning along the way how to adapt and developing the technologies to make it possible. And our forbear species have done similarly, although with not quite our success. So this isn’t necessarily out of character for us, nor necessarily out of the question. It just is going to take a lot more effort than we have had to exert in our previous meanderings.
These concepts all revolve around going to a “place”, or places, and settling down there. That is how we principally have done it in the past, and is pretty much how we seem to collectively think we will do it in the future. There may be an alternative, however, that might provide an easier way to proceed.
Suppose that instead of traveling to a place, we made places near here that then went traveling? In short, suppose we constructed traveling habitats here near Earth, designed to provide comfortable accommodations for large numbers of people (hundreds? thousands?) for the rest of their lives and perhaps for successive generations, loaded them up with inhabitants, and set them off roaming about the solar system? A lot of places around the solar system can potentially provide resources of one kind or another; once they crawl out of Earth’s gravity well the roaming habitats could travel about, stopping off here and there as they saw fit, and gathering or replenishing as needed.
At this point it is hard to say what these roving gypsy habitats would look like, how they would actually be built, and how they would move about, but since this isn’t going to happen anytime soon there is plenty of time to work that out: develop the technologies required and figure out what a spacefaring society really means and what the people will do in the first place. As to what they might look like, the work by Gerard O’Neill and company on orbital habitats might provide a good starting point; they might be just an extension of those concepts with wheels (or rockets or whatever). Or, they might not.
The concept has been explored extensively in science fiction literature: one such was a series of stories concerning terrestrial cities (centering around New York) that had been fitted out for interstellar travel, in order to flee from an uninhabitable Earth, flitting about the galaxy encountering entertaining adventures and mishaps.
The idea of peoples living on the move is as old as people: wandering nomads often had no “place” per se, but roamed over a large territory—with the advent of horses, they could roam even further. Peoples in the past have lived in large part on seagoing vessels. The Polynesians, when crossing the Pacific in search of settlements, came en masse (by the standards of the time) with all their possessions in large canoes and rafts, crossing long distances of water and taking considerable time to do it. Admittedly, they were looking for a piece of land at the end on which to settle down, but the journeys were not dissimilar to what we are talking about here. There are people in present day Asia that live their entire lives on boats: these boats are generally small but they form a virtual community of water-based society. And in the not too distant past, the Chinese had big seagoing junks that could hold large numbers of people on long journeys.
So, the precedent is there for the model of a spacefaring society being a nomadic collection of wandering habitats, roaming about the solar system. But why would that model be any better than the more typical vision of settlements on the planets?
|The idea of peoples living on the move is as old as people: wandering nomads often had no “place” per se, but roamed over a large territory—with the advent of horses, they could roam even further.|
Well, for one, a habitat, whether free-flying or anchored to the ground, is going to require a lot of paraphernalia. It seems likely, at least at first, that Earth will be the source of much of that paraphernalia. Building closer to Earth means all that stuff needn’t be hauled as far. For another, think of all that populace of spacefarers. If their destination habitat starts off closer by, they simply don’t have to travel as far to get there. The transfer trip is easier: rather than travel first and then move in, the procedure is to first move in and then start traveling.
There are a couple of downsides, of course. One is that the means of moving a large habitat around and about the solar system will involve techniques we can today only dimly envision. However, since whatever we do out there will be a long time off, we probably don’t need to be able to fill in all the details today. We shouldn’t deny the future generations the fun of working out some of the details themselves (in other words, it beats the hell out of us now, but maybe they will figure it out later). Besides, none of the propulsion technologies we have at hand now are terribly suitable for supporting any form of a large-scale pattern of settlement about the solar system anyway. About all we could manage now are Antarctica-style limited “missions,” leaving a few footprints behind in the local dirt. Not exactly habitation.
Another downside is the opposite of the paraphernalia argument. The habitat is going to need a lot of inert matter, and that will likely need to come from a planet or other source of “stuff.” Building in proximity to Earth will mean that all that stuff needs to come either long distances through modest gravity wells (such as, perhaps, the Moon) or a shorter distance up the sides of a more challenging gravity well (i.e., Earth). Right now, no definitive tradeoff is possible on that one; the time is simply too far away. We don’t know now what we will have to work with at the time.
Advocates of fixed bases may object that the difficulties of building a sizable orbital habitat are much more severe than building them on solid ground. One answer is that habitats anywhere off of Earth will require large amounts of shielding, protection, sophisticated systems, etc., so it is hard to argue that the overall effort might be much different. Most of the environments around the solar system are going to require something pretty close to constructions that can withstand free space conditions anyway. A habitat built on ground has only one surface that is not facing outwards and is thereby somewhat protected from exposure to space (or conditions pretty close to space): its bottom. Perhaps that is not much of an advantage over a roaming habitat. Besides, with a roaming habitat, there would always be a change of scenery.
Wherever habitats are built, on ground or roaming, they will need to be big enough to provide an environment that will help keep the occupants from going stir crazy. For sizable populations, this implies pretty sizable structures. O’Neill et al devoted considerable effort to addressing this issue with their orbiting habitats. Their work can form a good starting point on this.
What will all those people do inside their roaming habitats? For that matter, what would they do in fixed habitats? Probably the same types of things people do now: make more people, acquire the material accoutrements of success and wealth (or, at least, what we think constitutes material success), and engage in some spectrum of activities to while away their time. One thing that can probably be said for certain is that if the past is any guide, much of the activity required to provide for basic physical needs, such as food and water and breathable atmosphere, will be highly automated. The percentage of human effort going into these functions will likely be small. So most human activity will be directed to other things. But whatever those people do, they will probably need to all be pretty productive in contributing to their setting. In an environment such as that, there won’t be much room for slackers or non-productive types. The image of a habitat full of desperate housewives, with their male equivalents, is probably not a good vision for the future spacefaring society. One possible benefit, though: if the emphasis is on everybody contributing meaningfully, maybe there won’t be much room for lawyers. That in itself might provide a compelling reason to go.
|What will all those people do inside their roaming habitats? Probably the same types of things people do now: make more people, acquire the material accoutrements of success and wealth, and engage in some spectrum of activities to while away their time.|
The habitats might engage amongst themselves on occasion, for trade, transfer, or whatever. Perhaps periodically they will rendezvous for get-togethers, pairing off the kids, etc. Euphemistically speaking, every now and then there might be a DNA transfer fair. They might also provide the transport backbone for a solar system-wide distribution of humanity, some of who may have settled down into ground-based habitats for various reasons. There are those today who are highly focused on traveling to a particular “place” in the solar system. This probably won’t change in the future; there will likely always be fans of inhabiting the Moon or Mars. Such settlements will need physical contact with the rest of the solar system; a community of roving habitats might serve that need.
A previous article in The Space Review emphasized the need to address the human community aspects of life when contemplating space settlements (“Aloha from Mars!”, September 18, 2006). Whether ground-based or roaming, these issues are an inherent part of the makeup of we humans. An enclosed, mobile habitat, where survival and prosperity requires the communal efforts of all, might serve as an effective environment for promoting a cohesive sense of community.
If this comes to pass, it won’t be until some time in the future. So, what to do in the meantime? Well, how about loading the family into the RV and setting off to explore your own countryside? Might be good practice. At least, for as long as we can afford the fuel bill.
In returning to the title of this piece: maybe there doesn’t really need to be a “location” after all.