[Let’s stick a fork in this one. The idea of colonizing other planets is a narcissistic billionaire fantasy. I’d pay money to put Musk and Bezos in a capsule tomorrow, but it ain’t going to happen, not now, not in our kids’ lifetimes, so why waste time and energy on it? Meanwhile, there are wide swaths of America (think Deep South and Midwest) that could handle a little colonization, but you two keep pouring money into outer space. Blast away, boys. Three … two … one !!! SB SM]
Is Elon Musk’s vision for the future a libertarian fantasy or scientific imperative?
Illustration: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian
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 colonizing 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 colonization 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 multi-planet species has been re-validated by the emergence of a worldwide pandemic” borders on misinformation.
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 civilization-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.
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.
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)