Space colonization in three histories of the futureS

Could we be colonizing Mars in your lifetime? Three different non-fiction books offered different scenarios — including bombarding Mars with "greenhouse gases" and using it as a kind of quasi-penal colony. John Hickman, author of Reopening the Space Frontier, explains.

Popular science writers have been colonizing space via descriptions of the near future akin to science fiction at least since the 1920s. Retrospective story telling is attractive not only because of the overlap in the audiences for popular science and hard science fiction but also it lends a measure of pleasing inevitability to the promise of space colonization. For writers intent on sneaking past the messy problems of financing and populating their future space colony, there is nothing quite so effective as the sense of inevitability for giving readers permission to engage in wishful thinking. Crucial to the perpetration of this literary deception is analogy to some incorrectly conceived historical episode of frontier opening on Earth. Consider the following three examples.

Space colonization in three histories of the futureS

1) Britons James Lovelock and Michael Allaby described the colonization of Mars in their 1984 book The Greening of Mars in a scenario that involved terraforming using contemporary stockpiles of banned ozone-layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbon aerosols as greenhouse gases, transported by the thousands of American and Soviet ballistic missiles that would made redundant by the anticipated end of the Cold War.

Utterly unworkable in every particular, their scheme was remarkable because they offered suggestions for solving the two most daunting problems in space colonization: financing the project, and populating the colony. Some of the cost of establishing the colony would come from the ballyhooed "peace dividend," an economic windfall that some believed would come from dramatically reduced government spending for national security and the revenues from the sale of decommissioned military bases. Colonists would finance their own way passages to Mars by liquidating all of their assets on Earth and then investing the proceeds in Martian real estate before their departure. Selling real estate on the fourth planet also would be used to help finance the colony.

Completing the difficult task of terraforming Mars and making the colony economically viable would be the responsibility of the colonists. This is how Lovelock and Allaby describe that process:

The new idea was to combine the reformation of Mars with old-style colonies living in bunker-like protection, so that the new inhabitants could superintend the transformation, accelerate it dramatically, and, because they were on the spot, take advantage of new ideas and opportunities as they presented themselves... I doubt whether anyone thought of the scheme in such cruel terms, but it amounted to recruiting human volunteers and slave non-humans, transporting them to Mars, putting them in an enclosed, almost penal setting, and leaving it largely to them to work out how to escape.

The phrase "almost penal setting" identifies the historical analogy. Without being explicit, Lovelock and Allaby proposed opening the Martian frontier in much the same way that Britain initially attempted to colonize Botany Bay in New South Wales. London used its colonies as dumping grounds for the irresponsible, intractable, and impoverished for several centuries. Among the most tragic chapters was the suffering experienced by the unprepared colonists who were stranded at Botany Bay. Penal colonization worked elsewhere because indentured servants, debtors, prisoners of war, and convicts arrived in already established colonies like Barbados, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. However, in the brand new colony of Botany Bay, the colonists experienced hunger and violence. They were saved because supplies and soldiers were sent from Britain. That Australia became a successful British colony and future trading partner and military ally for Britain was not the product of abandoning colonists to their own devices but instead by building the population with government subsidies for the passage of free settlers, free or cheap land for those settlers, and government investment in public works for economic development.

Space colonization in three histories of the futureS

2) Americans Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagner updated the Lovelock and Allaby scheme to colonize Mars with self-financed colonists and greenhouse-gas terraforming in their 1996 book The Case for Mars. In 2008, Zubrin elaborated on that vision with a faux emigrant's guidebook: How to Live on Mars. In this latter work, humans move to Mars because the labor shortage characteristic of frontiers means no unemployment and economic liberty meant fewer constraints on ingenuity. Some of that ingenuity takes the form of mining claim fraud, which is endorsed as both victimless and wealth creating. Unfortunately, the actual history of such fraud here on Earth reveals not wealth creation but wealth redistribution, from large numbers of unhappy victims to small number of dishonest promoters. Unfortunately, there is nothing inevitable about the human occupation of other celestial bodies.

How to Live on Mars is loosely modeled on the dozens of guidebooks published for prospective emigrants to the mid-19th century interior American West. The perhaps unintentional irony is that it shares some of their worst flaws. Typically the products of journalistic imagination rather than direct experience on the frontier, those old guidebooks usually promoted the economic interests of particular railroad lines and particular towns. If Zubrin had nothing so concrete to promote, he nonetheless uses the book as an opportunity to grind his libertarian ideological axe: in 197 pages of text there are no less than 45 anti-statist comments. The bureaucrats of his future NASA and Mars Authority are cast as arrogant, corrupt, hidebound, impractical, incompetent, interfering, irresponsible, stodgy, stupid, wasteful, and hostile to the family. What little verisimilitude remains is destroyed by the swipes that he takes at environmentalism, vegetarianism, and feminism. The unfortunate result is that is settlers on Mars seem less like the emigrants who settled the American West in the mid-19th century than the crusading suburban culture warriors of Reagan-era America. While some of the mid-19th century emigrants were burdened with impressively cranky ideas, nearly all of them wished for more rather than less government in their lives. The economic opportunities that they hoped to exploit required the sort of law and order that only the state could provide.

Space colonization in three histories of the futureS

3) Space tourism and mining — but not mining claim fraud, thankfully — are to be the economic engines for the colonization of the Moon and Mars in Haym Benaroya's 2010 Turning Dust to Gold. In his vision of the future, the state is to play but a limited role. NASA is assigned responsibility for constructing the infrastructure of a lunar base before entrepreneurs and engineers perform magic by making colonization economically viable. For the most part, it is engineers who perform the magic. When Benaroya begins to stumble across the dangerous ground of political economy, he beats a fast retreat into the happy place of potential engineering. Still, he makes an attempt at solving the problem of financing and peopling his lunar colony by dissolving the problem: "The settlement of the Moon was very expensive when viewed as one large project."

His proposed solution is to achieve colonization in segments, with each business enterprise profitable in itself and the sum of such enterprises being larger than its parts. He projects that thousands on Earth will pay millions of dollars to spend a few weeks on the Moon, a market attractive enough to justify the construction of multiple lunar hotels. Exotic vistas combined with low gravity sports and sex will make a vacation on the Moon de rigeur for the super-rich. Helium-3 mining, an industry to supply fuel for a fusion industry that after decades of research is still notional, will attract miners to join the bellhops, maids, trainers, and escorts who have taken up residence on Earth's natural satellite. Over the next century a population of 250,000 will accumulate to provide services for those in the hotel and helium-3 mining industries, as well as taking in one another's laundry. Beyond the optimistic projections that the demand for space tourism among the rich will be large and that fusion reactor technology will become a practical way to generate electricity, there are two other obvious wrinkles in the tissue of expectation. The first is that investors in space businesses will act like normal investors rather than visionaries, and refuse to risk their capital in any venture that is unprofitable but likely to contribute to colonization. The second is that the cost advantage of using robots over humans to perform any task on the Moon, or anywhere else in space, will only increase in the future. Thus the flaw in Benaroya's scheme is that the whole will not be larger than the sum of its parts.

Space colonization in three histories of the futureS

Rather than the penal colonization of Botany Bay or the settling of the interior American West, the explicit historical analogy in Turning Dust to Gold is to the Dutch and British East Indies Companies. Had he known more of their histories, the analogy would made a better model. The two entities actually achieved success not as commercial firms but as colonial governments for countries that were already densely populated. Thus the Dutch entity ruled what is today Indonesia, while the British East India Company ruled what is today India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Where they might provide a more useful — if incomplete — model for extraterrestrial settlement is their roles in establishing, respectively, Cape Town and Singapore. Both colonies emerged as transit points for ships moving between well-established markets in Europe and Asia. Colonial populations accreted to provide services to passing ships. Now if only the Moon were only en route to someplace already populated.

Benaroya also has a political axe to grind, but it is rather more partisan Republican than ideologically libertarian. John F. Kennedy is criticized for not really being interested in space. George W. Bush, on the other hand, is lauded for his space policy leadership because his January 14, 2004, speech put humanity "on track for the return to the Moon, this time to stay and settle." That beginning point in Benaroya's timeline probably needs to be rewritten.

Unfortunately, there is nothing inevitable about the human occupation of other celestial bodies. If the daunting political economic obstacles to the human settlement of space, of financing and peopling a space colony, are to be overcome, then the ideological and partisan blinders will have to be removed and wishful thinking abandoned. No matter how many different ways a free lunch is advertised, there still ain't no such thing.

Top image via NASA.

John Hickman teaches political science at Berry College in Mt. Berry, Georgia, and is the author of the forthcoming book Reopening the Space Frontier from Common Ground Publishing. This post originally appeared at The Space Review.