Volume 13, Number 3, Summer, 1995

Building the Free Frontier

The Case for Space Colonization

By Daniel Ust

Current space programs, like any other government projects, are run on politics, not economics, making them very inefficient. Since NASA isn't footing the bill, efficiency is not its concern.

Mention “space colonization” to libertarians and other freedom lovers and you are liable to get one of two responses. The first and most prevalent would be for them point out how impractical and “futuristic” the idea is. Budgets for space programs are seen as too big for individuals or private companies to fund. The second response is to wonder whether you are some sort of statist. After all, only governments have space programs. Of course, there is always the small contingent of nerds—people who spend a great deal of time fantasizing about future technology—but who wants to be cheered on by them? Instead of accepting this status quo or joining the lunatic fringe, let’s look at the issue dispassionately.

Space colonization is defined as moving people to space to live there permanently. This seems simple enough, but there’s much debate over what forms space colonization can take, when and how it will be done, who will call the shots and, most importantly, if it will done. Let’s begin with a few of the forms it can take.

First on the list is planetary colonization. This involves finding or making suitable planets for humans to live on or even modifying humans to live on planets very different from Earth, such as Mars, the Moon, Venus and the Galilean moons of Jupiter.

Finding suitable worlds presents a very big problem. In our solar system, there seems to be only one world directly suitable for humans and we’re on it. Any attempt to colonize already existing suitable planets will have to wait for interstellar travel. This is a drawback, but there’s a few ways to overcome it. An obvious solution is to make spacecraft capable of exploring and transporting humans to other planetary systems. As of now, there are a few designs to choose from (including solar sails, nuclear fission and fusion rockets and the Orion thrust) but this would depend largely on major investments, nor have the technologies been field tested.

Another solution is to make the worlds suitable for human life, or “terraforming,” although this connotes turning a planet into something similar to Earth. For our purposes, one suitable for humans could be radically different from Earth. There are at least two candidates for terraforming in our solar system, Mars and Venus.

Terraforming strategies vary. One notion is the slow seeding of the target planet with tailored organisms to make it more and more earth-like. This can take a long time—perhaps thousands of years. Another proposal suggests using “fast and dirty” techniques such as crashing comets or forcing volcanic eruptions with nuclear bombs on Mars to make its atmosphere thicker.

The posthuman alternative is to redesign humans, either through genetic engineering or by a machine-like fix such as artificial lungs that can process Martian air. This demands technology of a higher order than today, though the advantage is that one can take planets as they are. The disadvantage is the need for the high-tech base. Some might believe that this high-tech base only can be brought about by large scale government funding or corporate investment. As the technology becomes more readily available, e.g., home genetics labs, cheaper and better prosthetics and wider man/machine interfaces, the potential for grassroots posthumanism also increases.

A posthuman disadvantage is that people altered to live in certain environments might not be able to live in others. However, any technology capable of altering people to this degree will most likely be capable of altering them further. We can easily imagine someone adapted to a Martian habitat later being adapted to suit a Titanian one and so on. Also, current environment suits, such as space suits, scuba gear, and fire fighting equipment allow people to live in hostile surroundings. There’s good reason to think people adapted, say, to live on Mars, could use such things to get by in other environments.

Next, there’s O’Neill-style colonization. (Named after G. K. O’Neill, author of The High Frontier, a book on space colonization. Colonies in Space by T. A. Heppenheimer also explores this theme.) Why live on planets when they limit movement and environmental options? Why not instead build large space stations the size of conventional cities or bigger where one can live in an environment similar to Earth yet have easy access to all the advantages of space? O’Neill-style colonies would be just that, large cities in space. There are many different types of these colonies on the drawing board, but they all have immense size and earth-like internal conditions in common. All of them seek to simulate Earth by being large enough to house farms, parks and communities with lots of open air. They also rotate to simulate gravity.

Then there’s small station colonization. This differs from O’Neill-style colonization in that it does not rely on huge behemoths to house people. Instead, smaller “ranch-sized” space stations could be built, each housing perhaps a family or a small village. This approach is similar to several successful colonizations on Earth from Polynesia to Plymouth.

This brings us to Lobster-style colonization, so named for Bruce Sterling’s short story “Cicada-Queen” (in The Crystal Express). This is another kind of posthumanism. Instead of living in a space station, whether large or small, the individual is redesigned to live in space by a melding of space suit and organism or, in another scenario, to live in space without a space suit. This demands a higher level of technology, but the roots of it can be seen in our present technology.

When will it be done? This is hard to say. Looking at technological limits can give us a clue. With current technology, small station colonization is possible. Already several space stations have been built and operated, e.g., the US SKYLAB and the Soviet’s MIRs. They were intended for research, not colonization, but they show small scale space colonies are within our grasp.

It’s one thing to show what is possible and another to show when it will happen. One could argue the technology needed for Spain to cross the Atlantic Ocean had been around for years before Columbus, but this in itself did not cause that historic expedition. On the other side of the ledger is economics. We need not only the skill but the money to colonize space. Small scale colonization is not only the most feasible technologically but also economically—at least in the short run. In the long run, other forms of colonization might overtake it because of economics of scale. Still, we should be wary of making too many long-range predictions.

How might it be done? Small scale colonies will probably grow out of existing space stations. Modifications need to be made. Existing and proposed space stations, including NASA’s proposed high-priced “Freedom,” are not designed to be colonies. Of course, there are plans for space colonies, but most of these are for O’Neill-style habitats not the small scale ones I envision for the near future.

Although the novelty and romance of living in space will attract some rich people, I’m sure the average colonist will not be a multi-millionaire. The high cost of space travel and exploration has little to do with the inherent price of fuel or technology. Current space programs, like other government projects, are run on politics not economics, making them very inefficient. To put it bluntly, since NASA isn’t footing the bill, efficiency is not its concern. (David P. Gump’s Space Enterprise: Beyond NASA contains an inventory of what is wrong with NASA along with some rather tame proposals for reform.) To make things cheaper and more efficient, the current space programs should be privatized—or at the very least laws restricting private enterprise in space should be repealed.

Colonization will probably rely on more than just the funds and dreams of would be colonists. There are many reasons to move into space aside from the romance. These include the available resources in terms of both energy (from the sun) and matter (from the asteroids and Earth’s Moon), the lack of gravity, the space available and more. One plan suggests using colonies to build solar power satellite stations (SSPS) and supplying Earth with cheap electric power. SSPSs would gather sunlight, change it into microwaves and then beam these down to collecting antennas on Earth’s surface. The collecting antennas would then convert the microwaves into electricity for consumption. This would eliminate the need for fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric power stations.

Moving manufacturing to space is yet another payoff colonists can give to surface dwellers. This would not only lessen the pollution impact and the land use of factories but could possibly eliminate mining on Earth. The ability to control the environment is much more flexible in space than on Earth. For example, the amount of “gravity” can be changed with current technology. Tailoring germ-free habitats is easier. Bioengineering of risky (on earth) organisms can be carried out with little or no fear of them escaping. The energy available in space from solar radiation is virtually continuous and waste free. These are some things that make space industry attractive in the long run.

Who will call the shots? Most of today’s space activities, from launching communications satellites to planetary exploration, are done by government funded and run space programs. Also, since no government has embarked on a program of colonizing space, it doesn’t look like they’ll use the infrastructure they have to start any colonization. Of course, political forces can change, so these predictions are predicated on the status quo in NASA and other space agencies.

If governments stay out of the picture initially, this is no guarantee that they won’t get involved when things take off. Of course, some people think that big corporations will dominate colonization. Given that the larger corporations tend to operate hand-in-hand with the government—often to curtail competition and to get subsidies—this might be a problem. The solution, for those interested in making sure the high frontier is a free one, is to try to drive government out of space. The less government there is up there, the less favors there are to be handed out.

For those who have a problem conceiving of how space colonization would enhance freedom, look at the following situation on Earth and in space. On Earth, real estate is currently easily accessible, while in space it’s very inaccessible (under the current controls and space programs). However, there’s very little real estate on Earth that isn’t claimed and controlled by some government. In space, there’s very little that is claimed and almost none that is controlled by any government. Also, as one expands out into space—e.g., as better transportation and life support technology becomes available—the harder it is for centralized control. This does not rule out local tyrannies, but it does merit looking into. On Earth, as better transportation technologies become available limited space has enhanced centralized control. Thus, the same technological innovations can lead to a liberating effect in space, while on Earth they have merely upped the ante in fighting the State.

Another thing we can do to keep the high frontier open is to start investing in it ourselves, either by arguing and petitioning against government space programs, regulations, etc., or by banding together with other space enthusiasts to create associations to promote non-governmental uses of space, perhaps by building our own rockets and colonies. As an example of how space can become really cheap, look at all the Cold War ICBMs stockpiled. Currently, there’s talk of destroying them outright, but wouldn’t it be better to sell them as space vehicles? This is not as off-the-wall as it sounds. Modified Titans (an old series of US ICBMs) launched the Viking and Voyager missions. If we are willing to invest our resources to this goal and to convince others to do so or, at least, to let us do so without interference, we may be able to call the shots.

Will humans colonize space? I believe it will be done. Humans already are exploring space and support is quite large. Space colonization is especially worthy of the attention of long-range thinking freedom lovers because it provides a chance to leave some of these governments behind and to expand as rapidly as possible—at the technological limits—away from oppressive governments.

The above ideas can be used to create science fiction, but I hope the reader is more inclined toward real-world applications. As an exercise in imagination, what do you think space colonization will be like? I invite you to write me on the matter.

Daniel Ust is a freelance writer and lives in New Jersey.

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