The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Pilgrims at Plymouth illustration
The experience of the Pilgrims, among other colonizers, may prove essential to future efforts to establish settlements on the Moon and Mars.

The greatest game of all time

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat the eleventh grade.
—James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995)

Rome colonized Sicily, then Britain. England colonized Ireland, then America. While we might look at those activities now as ethnic cleansing, there is a fundamental point: to be successful in far colonization, experience is helpful. The brutal history of Roman colonization can be relived in the non-PC PC computer game Rome: Total War (Rome) while we celebrate English colonization of the New World this week.

Us vs. them

In Rome, you are faced with a choice whenever you invade a city: take over the city leaving the inhabitants alive or kill them all and colonize it afresh. Leave the inhabitants alive and the colony may fail. All too often in the ancient world, conquerors such as Alexander the Great chose to kill everyone. We remember the settlers in Plymouth this week who survived their first winter by eating the corn buried by the previous inhabitants who had died from the diseases brought by previous settlers.

Will we view the fact that the Moon and Mars are empty as providence the way the settlers of America did? What if life is found on Mars? Will we take it upon ourselves to have a prime directive to not disturb the environment we find on Mars or the Moon? Failing to colonize Mars may doom our species to be mortal if we are wiped out before we become starfaring. Have we come so far morally that we hold the existing inhabitants of Mars in such high esteem that we would sacrifice trillions in real estate and perhaps our own species for their use of Mars? I think that once it becomes clear that there is money to be made on the Moon and on Mars, there will be little more than lip service paid to exo-environmentalism. We may need to embrace xenocide to make Mars habitable for humans the same way the colonists of Italy, Ireland, and America embraced ethnic cleansing and genocide. We will likely first go through arguments that we are civilizing Mars for the common good and that Martian life can coexist with Earth life. These are the arguments that the English used for coexistence with the local population before the attempted massacre of the English settlers in the Chesapeake in 1622 showed coexistence proved unworkable. Pray it never comes to that.

Near vs. far

In Rome, it is more difficult to administer a far colony than a near one. There are fewer opportunities to trade with the mother country in a far colony. It is difficult to transport governors and personnel to keep the colony humming. The citizens of far colonies are more likely to feel isolated from the center of the empire than the citizens of near colonies. Far colonies as a result have more difficulty keeping order and enforcing laws. There are important benefits to having a near space colony that I detail in “Colonize the Moon before Mars” (The Space Review, September 7, 2004).

We may need to embrace xenocide to make Mars habitable for humans the same way the colonists of Italy, Ireland, and America embraced ethnic cleansing and genocide… Pray it never comes to that.

England colonized Ireland before and during its colonization of the New World. Some of the same colonizers had experience in both locations. Ireland had 100,000 English, Scottish and Welsh settlers by 1640 while the New World had about 14,000 according to The Origins of Empire by Nicholas Canny. Ireland could be administered much easier than North America, surveyed by people who can return to England to report, and in many ways teach the English how to make the later phases of American colonization successful.

Far colonies, though, sometimes have benefits that nearby ones do not. In Rome, a Roman colony in Babylon yields agricultural benefits at home to the colonizing nation. British tea and tobacco may qualify as those sorts of benefits. The United States harvests national prestige, science, adverse environmental operations know-how, and meteorites from its base in Antarctica. We might get some bigger intangible from colonizing Mars. I am in favor of far colonies, just do them after near ones, especially if we only have enough money to do one at a time.

In Rome, a successful strategy is to conquer nearby rebels and create a diverse economic neighborhood based on specialized trade before remote conquest. In Rome the commodities are armor, combined arms troops, and money. In space, it is people, water, energy, food, technical supplies, and money. The Moon may be a source of oxygen, water and energy for Mars, but that case may be marginal.

The most important reason to conquer local rebels in Rome is to gain your leaders experience and a retinue of inventors, scholars, managers, and heroes that will be essential to tackle the difficult problems of far colonization. Something you do not learn in the rules or the strategy guide to Rome, that you need to find in the pages of PC Gamer, is that your retinue is transferable to help new leaders solve the same colonization problems.

In Ireland as in Rome, having a broad base of British settlers helped form a population that was familiar with frontier life and could help develop and defend the frontier in America. Some of these people who helped colonize Ireland were the skilled administrators, craftspeople and merchants that later helped colonize America.

We need to embrace the death that the first colonists faced as a rite of passage to the New World so that it may some day be as safe as the old. Some things are worth dying for.

Something the Mars Society is loathe to admit is that many of the skills learned in colonization of the Moon can also be used to colonize Mars. You can see this directly in Northrup Grumman’s version of the Vision where a Mars station prototype is field-tested on the Moon.

Blood vs. cocoon

It is naive to think that colonization of the Moon will be a less bloody affair than colonization of Italy, Ireland, or America. In 17th century America, colonists went through a period of seasoning that meant suffering through malaria or other diseases that killed off two-thirds of colonists in the first year. We need to embrace the death that the first colonists faced as a rite of passage to the New World so that it may some day be as safe as the old. Some things are worth dying for.

We argue about whether Iraq is worth a thousand dead. We don’t argue about whether Japan and Germany were worth 13 million soldiers who died in that coalition of the willing. If it is worth dying to stop Hitler’s genocides in World War 2, is it worth dying to help learn how to deflect asteroids? If it is worth dying to preserve freedom and capitalism for our children, is it worth dying to help give our children the planets and the stars? Do not wait until spaceships are safer than airplanes to fly them, or the day may never come.

Duty vs. colonial zeal

It is also naive to think that our method of coercing colonists to stay will be any more humane than the indentured servitude that English colonists entered to pay for their passage. Does NASA have a contingency plan if one of its astronauts quits midway through a stint on the ISS? We have already had an astronaut demand representation by casting a ballot in the last election. No doubt, our typical deal with the typical colonist will be fair and reasonable by our standards, but it may need to be as coercive as the contracts that bind reservists to stay on after their stints even if they don’t want to any more. I do not think that society is any more ready to deal in the millions of dollars to bring back an Earthsick loony (not to mention the billions of dollars required to bring back an Earthsick Martian) early than it is to hike military personnel salaries up to the Halliburton scale required to find war-time volunteers.

We may choose to get the settlers to commit in a way we just have not demanded from our astronauts—endure a very high risk. Our obsession with safety has led to low flight rates and ironically less safe craft because they are flown less often.

Does NASA have a contingency plan if one of its astronauts quits midway through a stint on the ISS?

It seems to me that astronauts that want to come back from the Moon or Mars are just phoning in their effort. Is it inhuman to demand a 90% risk of death or certain death from explorers instead of a 10% risk that they might already face with our best efforts? With better crew selection, we could make both our first landing on Mars and our next landing on the Moon permanent emigration. We probably need some moral evolution to say it is OK to leave your heirs a billion dollars rather than take a return trip. I imagine that a finite probability of permanent successful colonization can be sent instead of foodstuffs, propellant, and habitation for a return trip.

America and Ireland suffered from male-dominated colonization. Further, population growth was limited by late marriage caused by couples having to finish their stints as indentured servants before getting married. We could avoid those mistakes by sending a mixed-sex group that would be encouraged to start having children right away. If our approach to Antarctica is any guide, we will send too many men and encourage them not to have children while they are away. I certainly doubt (in a twist on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos) that we will send only women and embryos to maximize the colony’s growth rate in the early years.


Colonization has always been ugly. The United States and Ireland are independent from England and it took a lot of blood to get to that equilibrium. Iraqis may never thank us for colonizing their country. But sometimes tough love leads to salvation. Sometimes the prize is worth more than the steep cost in coin and lives. Do you have enough Mars in you to have what it takes to be Emperor in Rome? How about enough Roman in you to have what it takes to be Emperor of Mars?