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space colony illustration
Whether on the surface of a planetary body or in free space, a self-sufficient space colony will need a different set of industrial technologies and systems than in common terrestrial use today. (credit: NASA/Ames)

Diversifying our planetary portfolio

A rather provocative headline appeared in the July 17, 2007 edition of the New York Times: “A Survival Imperative For Space Colonization.” The claim, which could not but concentrate the mind, was that “To ensure our long-term survival, we need to get a colony up and running on Mars within 46 years.”

Such deadlines, of course, are only too familiar from science fiction, where the ecological time bomb of industrial society run amok routinely forces humans to think of other worlds (as in the film version of the Lost in Space television series, or Red Planet, or the background story to Firefly). And, of course, there are a great many observers who think that 46 years might not be all that far off the mark as an estimate of humanity’s remaining years. Sir Martin Rees, in his book Our Final Hour, famously estimated that human beings have just a fifty-fifty chance of making it through the next century. However, seeing the proposition put so starkly in this different context did what its author clearly intended for it to do: keep me reading.

“Species survival” is a strong argument for eventual space colonization—but given the sheer scale and technical demands of the task, a questionable justification for the most probable kinds of near-term investment in space.

As it turned out, the calculation was based on nothing more or less than what astrophysicist J. Richard Gott III terms “the Copernican Principle.” This approach to prediction works with just one bit of data—how long something has already lasted. In brief, going by the assumption that today is nothing special, then it seems most likely that today is the midpoint in the life span of whatever you are looking at. Since human beings have been going into space for 46 years, it would appear most probable that they will keep going there for another 46 years. With human beings presumably confined to one highly vulnerable planet after that, the prospects for their long-term survival shrink by that much.

The idea makes for an interesting conversation piece, but not much else, in part because of its slender consideration of the actualities of space development. “Species survival” is a strong argument for eventual space colonization—but given the sheer scale and technical demands of the task, a questionable justification for the most probable kinds of near-term investment in space. Indeed, it would even be a questionable justification for the most probable sorts of missions to the moon and Mars (which may actually be less attractive locales for colonies than fully-customizable “O’Neill cylinders”).

Species survival, after all, means not the establishment of a tiny, temporary outpost connected by a fragile umbilical cord to Earth in the manner of the space stations of the last four decades, or the sorts of stations most likely to be established off-Earth in the next half-century. Instead, trying to insure humanity’s survival by “diversifying our planetary portfolio” requires settlements capable of self-sustaining—and growing, ideally up to the point at which they too can support a “spacefaring civilization”—under conditions far more extreme than anything found on Earth.

This is by far a greater challenge than anything that the administrators at the national space programs of the major powers, or any of the space entrepreneurs who have grabbed so much recent attention, have in mind. However, the biggest obstacle to its realization may be cultural rather than bureaucratic, and specifically the way we think about industry. Twentieth-century “globalization” has seen the pursuit of greater cost efficiency through an ever more integrated world economy organized by vast corporations that share production among thousands of subsidiaries and partners at sites all around the world. Their sheer size and complexity aside, such arrangements endlessly sacrifice resilience and flexibility. (Plants running on the just-in-time principle very quickly stop running if parts do not arrive just in time.) At the same time, the prevailing understanding of cost efficiency, generally geared toward slashing expenditures on labor, does not always accord with resource efficiency or energy efficiency.

The premium on maximum self-sufficiency requires attempts at a permanent human settlement in space (or even colonies intended just to exploit the solar system’s resources to support Earth’s population) to go in exactly the opposite direction. In practical terms this means the scaling down of industrial operations that on Earth are conducted on a global basis into a relatively compact package, capable of being operated and maintained by a much smaller number of people. Efficiency of any sort can be sacrificed only so much in the process: the “spaceman” economy, unlike the “cowboy” economy, as Kenneth Boulding famously termed it, has far lower tolerance for waste.

The biggest obstacle to its realization may be cultural rather than bureaucratic, and specifically the way we think about industry.

The realities of transportation only underline the point. Today’s global economy assumes easy transport: borders open to trade; air, land and sea lanes which are both secure and accessible to all; and, of course, an abundance of cheap energy to manufacture and power all of the vehicles involved. By contrast, barring a real technological revolution, the economics of space launches create an immense pressure to get more out of each and every kilogram put on a rocket. Consequently, while it has received less attention than the development of launch vehicles, satellite miniaturization has played an important role in broadening the market for space services.

Whether such miniaturization can work as well for industrial processes as they have for the communications and remote sensing functions of satellites is, of course, an open question, but interestingly enough the first glimmerings of such technologies are just appearing. The prospects of renewable energy technologies like windmills and photoelectric cells for providing localized, small-scale energy production have already been widely discussed. Hydrogen fuel, which can be produced from water by electrolysis, also affords such possibilities.

However, energy is not the only area where such advances have been made, and a notable example which has received rather less attention is a variant of rapid prototyping technology, the three-dimensional printer. Just as the 2-D printers that have long been standard computer equipment print a page of text, these convert a three-dimensional model into a physical object (including complex ones with moving parts, or even electronic circuits), typically by building it up layer by layer. A recently demonstrated three-dimensional printer can even replicate itself, producing other 3-D printers. Assuming that the technology was to become as ubiquitous as computer printers (as many hope), “desktop manufacturing” would become as common as desktop publishing.

Additionally, as the creator of the self-replicating 3-D printer, Dr. Adrian Bowyer, suggests, “If the machine can copy itself, it can make its own recycler. When you break something you can just feed it into the recycler and break it down to its raw materials and re-build it.” Accordingly, not only would you be able to meet many of your needs with objects made by a machine in your house, but “Every household would have its own recycling set-up,” not only reducing waste, but promising savings on the transport costs related in getting material into the house, and taking waste out of it.

Nanotechnology enthusiasts predict that this will all be taken a step further by molecular machinery which will make economics a matter of just hauling the needed raw materials to the local nanofactory to get whatever you need, virtually pollution-free—and, perhaps, enable you to get those raw materials nearer to hand, not only through recycling, but by assembling the needed raw materials from the smallest trace quantities. (Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever Peace, both explore the implications of such technology.)

Our ability to effectively scale down high-tech operations currently performed on a multinational scale will be the hurdle to jump on the way to establishing a truly robust, long-term human presence in space.

Of course, neither is ready for prime time just yet. Currently, the big barrier to having a 3-D printer on every desktop is generally said to be cost, such machines being priced at tens of thousands of dollars, rather than the hundreds of dollars they would need to be priced at to make desktop manufacturing ubiquitous. At the same time, nanotechnology’s biggest actual uses to date (as opposed to the potential ones) have been in materials, providing durable, easily-cleaned coatings for clothing, optics and other consumer goods—quite far from Eric Drexler’s “engines of creation.”

When—or if—these technologies will mature is an open question. Personally, I’m jaded enough by “futurehype” to suspect these machines will not become a part of our everyday reality anytime soon, that desktop manufacturing with all its convenience and other attractions will just be one more unrealized piece of “the Future.” However, I strongly suspect that barring some unforeseeable technological revolution, our ability to effectively scale down high-tech operations currently performed on a multinational scale will be the hurdle to jump on the way to establishing a truly robust, long-term human presence in space.


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