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Moon base illustration
The analogies between settling space and settling the Old West may be flawed, in part because our vision of what the Old West was like doesn’t match reality. (credit: NASA)

Space as frontier

In his book 2081: A Hopeful Vision of the Human Future, Gerard K. O’Neill states that

America is a frontier country lacking a frontier, and I suspect that when space is opened for settlement… individual Americans will move into space with a vigor and drive that will astonish us.

He then goes on to suggest that “By 2081 there may be more Americans in space colonies than there are in the United States.”

Of course, all that seems fairly standard, given the long tendency to equate the “final frontier” of space with the western frontier of American history. Indeed, this is one of the oldest clichés of science fiction, coming up especially blatantly in the television series Firefly (and its cinematic spin-off, Serenity).

However, it is worth remembering that space is not the Old West. Even the Old West wasn’t the “Old West,” given the highly mythologized recollection of it prevailing in American culture, which seems to inform O’Neill’s thinking when he writes about “homesteading the asteroids.” This is certainly the case with regard to the idea of the frontier as a “safety valve” where the vigorous but frustrated could leave the stifling East and have their crack at the American dream; in particular, the working people whose old paths to social mobility and personal independence had been dashed by the progress toward an industrial society. As Jack Beatty notes in his excellent recent history of Gilded Age America, Age of Betrayal, going west and starting a farm required far more capital than frustrated wage-earners were likely to ever have (and in any case, the idea that urban workers would “return to the land” this way may have been excessively romantic).

However, it is worth remembering that space is not the Old West. Even the Old West wasn’t the “Old West,” given the highly mythologized recollection of it prevailing in American culture.

As a result, the very people that the Homestead Act of 1862 was supposed to help proved to be surprisingly rare among the filers of homestead claims, as Frederick Jackson Turner himself—the author of the famous “frontier” thesis—concluded. Of the comparative few who did try to make a go of it as farmers (most of whom had already been farmers back east), two-thirds had failed by 1890, understandably given the sheer severity of the conditions.

Instead, the winning of the west was for the most part a story of railroads and speculators, of logging companies and mining concerns taking hold of massive tracts of land (usually including the most attractive land) via political connections and government subsidies, and it was these that brought the larger population westward after them.

It seems only reasonable to imagine that this will be even more the case with the much more extreme environment of outer space. And it may be a reflection of the hold that the mythology of the frontier still has on us that so little thought is given to what will actually make ordinary men and women leave their home planet and begin a new life in a space station, or on the surface of a planet tens of millions of miles from home. Talk of “species survival” or an innate human need to explore are all well and good, but what about humanity beyond the adventurers and dreamers, a rarity in the final analysis?

That so little attention has been paid to the subject may seem only reasonable, given the slowness with which the necessary technologies have developed, but this side of the issue is important enough to merit broaching at this point nonetheless.

Push and pull

Historically, large movements of population tend to occur not only because of the availability of the means to move people from one place to another (like the oceangoing sailing ships that brought Europeans and Africans to the Americas), but also because large numbers of people are strongly motivated to leave where they are and start over somewhere else: the existence of really compelling “push” and “pull” factors.

Given simple human inertia, the “push” factors are far more likely to compel migration than “pull” ones. The disparities in incomes and living standards between advanced, industrial nations, for instance, while not insubstantial, are not, for instance, making Swedes beat a path to neighboring Norway (where per capita GDP is 50 percent higher). By contrast, the poverty of developing nations is sending large numbers of immigrants to the developed states of North America and Western Europe.

Such miseries as famine, war, and persecution cannot be ruled out in the future, of course, but they are hardly a likely driver of space development. In fact, given the extraordinary economic demands that any space development effort will make, it may be much more practical for a prospering world than one suffering through such disasters to undertake such efforts in any foreseeable future. (The relocation of even millions of people to Mars is simply not comparable to the kinds of refugee exoduses we have seen to date.)

At the same time it is hard to tell what “pull” might possibly compensate for the lack of such “push.” O’Neill envisioned habitats in space that were as comfortable and attractive as anything to be found on Earth, but even these might not suffice. There would have to be something out there that people cannot find down here.

In short, we may be looking at a catch-22: only a prospering planet will be able to colonize space, but will probably not have many willing colonists; while an immiserated planet may contain lots of people willing to go off-world for a better life, but not be able to foot the bill for colonizing space.

Mind children?

Of course, there are those who have hypothesized that human beings may play a comparatively minor role in the colonization of space. Enthusiasts of artificial intelligence and robotics like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil have suggested that machines built using these technologies—humanity’s “mind children”, to use Moravec’s phrase—will instead take the lead, perhaps in just a decade or two.

Only a prospering planet will be able to colonize space, but will probably not have many willing colonists; while an immiserated planet may contain lots of people willing to go off-world for a better life, but not be able to foot the bill for colonizing space.

This may not seem like a very radical claim. The bulk of the actual activity performed in space has been performed by unmanned systems from the very beginnings of the space age, with manned flights a comparative rarity in the half-century history of space launches—something like five percent of them. Indeed, it is worth noting how many space programs never pursued a manned spaceflight capability to the stage of completion (or even seriously initiated one). Forty-three years after France’s first satellite launch, Western Europe has yet to fly even the prototype for such a vehicle. The same goes for Japan, while China only put its first man in space in 2003, thirty-three years after both these states launched their first satellites.

There is no mystery why this has been the case. The low reliability of even the best launch vehicles (a mere ninety-eight percent mission success rate) makes safety and risk very serious issues. The opportunity to dispense with heavy, cumbersome life support systems makes unmanned systems more attractive when every kilogram of payload counts (even though it means that the systems are less flexible).

The promise of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, however, is the prospect of these systems preserving those advantages while enjoying the versatility that until now only human beings have been able to provide. Should it become feasible to mine the asteroids or run orbiting factories in a fully automated way, what call will there really be for orbital roughnecks, what opportunity for asteroid homesteaders? This would eliminate a key source of “pull,” and likely a source of “push” as well, as the productivity those technologies enable on Earth creates much more opportunity for prosperity without anyone (or at least, any human beings) having to leave the planet’s surface.

Of course, that all this will work out as neatly as Moravec, Kurzweil, and others predict remains to be seen. Anyone who remembers the household robotics fad of the 1980s, or Japan’s “fifth generation” computing project during that decade, has already seen instances of such hype. It may simply be that such developments are much further away than Kurzweil and company predict, if they will ever be realized. Nonetheless, especially given that the prospects for downsizing space launch payloads may be stronger than really radical drops in launch costs, the kinds of advances they describe may be inextricable from the hopes for really serious colonization efforts in our lifetimes.


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