The big idea: should we colonise other planets?

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Aug 21, 2023, 9:46:56 PMAug 21
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The big idea: should we colonise other planets?
Is Elon Musk’s vision for the future a libertarian fantasy or scientific
imperative?

Philip Ball
Philip Ball
Mon 21 Aug 2023 07.30 EDT
The question of human settlement on Mars is, for many people, not “if”
but “when”. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company began speaking of the Mars
Colonial Transporter around 2012. Its latest incarnation, the prototype
for a massive spaceship called Starship that can house up to 100
passengers and crew, took off from Texas in April but exploded before
reaching Earth’s orbit. Whether that counts as a success or not depends
on who you ask, but it testifies to Musk’s determination to see a human
presence on Mars in the next decade.

His view that colonising the cosmos is humankind’s ultimate and
inevitable destiny is widely shared. The moon, lacking an atmosphere,
short on water, and with weak gravity, is not a very attractive stepping
stone, but Mars has none of those drawbacks and is considered a much
more viable place to build the first off-world settlement. “Once the
exclusive province of science fiction stories and films,” according to
Nasa, “the subject of space colonisation has rapidly moved several steps
closer to becoming a reality thanks to major advances in rocket
propulsion and design, astronautics and astrophysics, robotics and
medicine.”

Why, though, should we wish to dwell on a world that lacks what we need
to survive? There’s a dismaying irrationality in the answers. Stephen
Hawking claimed that “spreading out [into space] may be the only thing
that saves us from ourselves” – from the threat of human-made
catastrophes such as the climate crisis or nuclear war. Well, lord knows
the world has problems, but supposing they can be solved anywhere other
than Earth is an escapist fantasy; Nasa’s claim that “the urgency to
establish humanity as a multiplanet species has been re-validated by the
emergence of a worldwide pandemic” borders on misinformation.

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The timescales just don’t add up. Climate change either will or won’t
become an existential risk well before it’s realistic to imagine a
self-sustaining Martian settlement of millions: we’re talking a century
or more. Speculating about nuclear war post-2123 is science fiction. So
the old environmentalist cliche is right: there is no Planet B, and to
suggest otherwise risks lessening the urgency of preserving Planet A. As
for the threat of a civilisation-ending meteorite impact: one that big
is expected only every several million years, so it’s safe to say there
are more urgent worries. The sun going out? Sure, in 5bn years, and if
you think there will still be humans then, you don’t understand evolution.

For some, the justification for planetary settlement is not existential
fear but our innate drive to explore. “The settlement of North America
and other continents was a prelude to humanity’s greater challenge: the
space frontier,” reads a 1986 document by the Reagan-appointed US
National Commission of Space, rather clumsily letting slip who it was
and was not speaking for. But at least “Because it would be cool” is an
honest answer to the question: “Why go?”

So let’s go with that, and assume something like Musk’s big fat rocket
can get us there. What might life in Mars City be like? Advocates for
off-world colonies love to show images like those in the physicist and
space activist Gerard O’Neill’s 1977 book The High Frontier: Human
Colonies in Space – an orderly, utopian American suburbia of chic
apartments and parks, simply transplanted elsewhere in the solar system.
Science fiction, on the other hand, is full of grim outposts on bleak,
frozen planets, and savage prison or mining colonies. If history is any
guide, frontier settlements are no picnic, and certainly not the kind of
places that nurture harmonious, tolerant societies. If you want to know
what to expect from colonies established by “billionauts” such as Musk
or Jeff Bezos, perhaps ask their employees in Amazon warehouses or the
Twitter offices. Many advocates for space settlement are “neoliberal
techno-utopians”, says the astrophysicist Erika Nesvold, who sell it on
a libertarian ticket as an escape from the pesky regulation of governments.

The space industry doesn’t talk much about such things. As Nesvold
discovered when she began quizzing commercial space companies in 2016,
ethical questions such as human rights or environmental protection in
space typically meet with a response of “we’ll worry about that later”.
The idea is to get there first.

If the notion of a “colonial transporter” gave you a twinge of unease,
you’re not alone. Associations of space exploration with colonialism
have existed ever since it was first mooted in the 17th century. Some
advocates ridicule the comparison: there are surely no indigenous people
to witness the arrival of the first crewed spaceships on Mars. But the
analogy gets stronger when thinking about how commercial incentives
might distort rights afforded to the settlers (Musk has floated the idea
of loans to get to Mars City being paid off by work on arrival), or how
colonial powers waged proxy wars in far-off lands. And if the argument
is that these settlements would exist to save us from catastrophe on
Earth, the question of who gets to go becomes more acute. So far it has
been the rich and famous.

Space is harsh beyond any earthly comparison, and it will be constantly
trying to kill you
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the “Columbus” comparison,
however, is that it encourages us to believe that space is just another
ocean to sail, with the lure of virgin lands to draw us. But other
worlds are not the New World; space is harsh beyond any earthly
comparison, and it will be constantly trying to kill you. Quite aside
from the cold and airlessness, the biggest danger is the radiation:
streams of charged, high-energy particles, from which we are shielded by
the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, a crewed mission to Mars would be
prohibited by the permitted radiation limits for astronauts. We don’t
have any solutions to that problem.

Planetary scientists are often among the least enthusiastic about space
settlements. It’s not surprising really – you may as well ask ecologists
if we should build cities in the Amazon. But whether you think we should
preserve Mars for scientific study or try to “terraform” it to give it a
breathable atmosphere and a warmer climate, it would be best to have
that debate before we arrive.

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Further reading
Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space by
Erika Nesvold (MIT, £26)

Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race by
Mary-Jane Rubenstein (Chicago, £18.33)

Turning Dust to Gold: Building a Future on the Moon and Mars by Haym
Benaroya (Springer Praxis, £44.99)

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