The real issues with colonizing space

At Nautilus, Phil Torres argues that we should think twice about colonizing space.  His reasoning appears to be that as we spread throughout the universe, we will undoubtedly diversify into different species, and that those species may come to distrust each other, and eventually try to destroy each other.

Now, I’ve argued before that most of the urge to colonize space has problematic assumptions, at least in the short term.  Setting up an independent self sustaining ecosystem in a space colony is going to be far more difficult than most colonization advocates realize.  Any colony in the short term is likely to have a crucial supply lifeline back to Earth for the many vital things unavailable in its small ecosystem.  Such colonies wouldn’t last long if human civilization destroyed itself.

And even if we did figure out how to set up an independent ecosystem, it would be far cheaper and less dangerous to colonize Antarctica, the sea floor, or underground.  Yes, living in those locations would be difficult and expensive, but the difficulty and expense are a fraction of what any conceivable space colony might involve.

Of course, eventually the sun will force us to migrate somewhere else, but “eventually” is hundreds of millions of years from now.  And even then, we might find it easier to alter Earth’s orbit than to relocate to another solar system.

But when we start talking on longer time scales, other possibilities improve the chances that some sort of interstellar colonies might be feasible.  We should eventually be able to modify our biology to make the lifeline with Earth’s ecosystem unnecessary, transform ourselves into machine intelligences, or some combination of the two with machines and biology merging into engineered life.  Which could make space a far less inhospitable place.

But worrying that eventually we might turn on each other?  That does seem inevitable, but it also seems inevitable if we just stay on Earth.  The difference is that a distributed humanity (or post-humanity, or whatever) seems far more resilient to stupid wars or movements than a humanity with all its eggs in one basket.

The issue isn’t that we shouldn’t leave that one basket, it’s finding a way to become independent of it, and taking care of it until we do.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

The problems with ensuring humanity’s survival with space colonies

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cu...
Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stephen Hawking, as he has done before, expresses a common sentiment, that we need to colonize space in order to survive.

Humans should go and live in space within the next 1,000 years, or it will die out, Stephen Hawking has warned.

“We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” Mr Hawking said. “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

…In February, he said that humans should colonise other planets as “life insurance” for the species, and could be the only way of ensuring that humanity lives on.

My first reaction to this is that if we’re looking for space colonies to ensure the survival of the human race, we have a long way to go.  It seems to me that the first goal is simply to create a successful viable long term closed ecological system that can support humans.  As I understand it, every experiment attempting to do this so far has failed.  I think we need to succeed pretty strongly at that before attempting to do it in habitats millions of miles away, like on Mars.  Until we do, any space colony is going to be crucially dependent on a thin and fragile lifeline from Earth’s biosphere.

It’s also worth noting that, once we can create a closed ecological system, we might be better off creating colonies here on Earth.  A closed hardened underground habitat would be a lot easier to build and maintain and would probably do just as much to ensure humanity’s survival.

Anyone who thinks doing off world colonies is a substitute for fixing our environmental and social problems doesn’t understand the obstacles involved in any foreseeable colony.  Mars, the best candidate right now, is cold and desolate in a way that makes Antarctica look like The Garden of Eden.  Add no oxygen, very low air pressure, and we have an environment that humans can’t exist in without spacesuits.  Add radiation exposure from Mar’s lack of a magnetic field, that would force humans to stay underground most of the time, and the idea of consigning humans to live there for the rest of their lives starts to look a bit sadistic.

(None of this is to say that I think we shouldn’t have researchers and scientists on Mars, just as we currently do in Antarctica.  But no one is really tempted to colonize Antarctica.)

Looking at the longer term, people talk about things like terraforming.   But I strongly suspect that, by the time we have the technology and power to actually have a chance at terraforming an environment, we’re going to find that it’s a lot cheaper and easier to modify ourselves for the environment rather than the environment for us.  We will likely colonize other worlds, but doing so will probably force us to give up the evolved forms that are fine tuned for Earth’s biosphere and location.

At the end of the lecture, Hawking encouraged his audience to “look at up at the stars and not down at your feet”.

I’ve written before about the immense difficulties in any foreseeable interstellar travel.  In short, FTL (faster than light) travel, a common plot device in science fiction, would most likely require a new physics.  But before you let that bother you, consider that even getting to an appreciable percentage of the speed of light will require appalling amounts of energy.  (Think in terms of fuel equivalent to the mass of a planet possibly being necessary to accelerate a decent sized manned ship to, say, 10% of the speed of light.)

Our most likely path to the stars will be microscopic probes, with enough intelligence to bootstrap an infrastructure at the destination solar system using local resources, and to transmit their findings back to us.  It’s hard to see human interstellar travel being anything but the most extravagant of vanity projects, unless mind uploading of some type or another becomes possible.

Stephen Hawking has repeatedly warned of the danger that humanity finds itself in, as a result of the rise of artificial intelligence and the dangers of human aggression and barbarity.

I’ve written repeatedly about why I think the dangers of AI, although real to some degree, are vastly overblown.  I won’t reopen that debate here.  The only thing I’ll point out is that if AIs are a danger on Earth, they’d also be a danger in a space colony, or anywhere else we’d go and be tempted to use them.

On the dangers of human aggression and barbarity, if we did solve the problems of closed ecosystems and had colonies around the solar system, and humanity reached a point where it destroyed Earth’s biosphere in a war, it’s not clear to me why such a war would stop there.  It’s extremely difficult to protect yourself from a space based attack.  The attacker can always go further out to accelerate an asteroid or something similar at you, allowing kinetic energy to wrought destruction.  Space colonies might slightly increase the probability that humanity survives such a war, but not nearly as much as people like to think.

None of this is to say that I think humans shouldn’t colonize space, in the long term.  But thinking that we are doing it to preserve the species is misguided, except in the very broadest of terms and time scales.  (Think human intelligence, in one form or another, surviving the evolution and eventual death of the Sun.)

In the mean time, our best chance of survival, it seems to me, is to address the real issues we have here, because we’re a lot more likely to destroy ourselves than to have nature do it to us.  The threats of nuclear war or terrorism, global warming, biological warfare, or overall overpopulation, worry me a lot more than a species ending asteroid strike or other mass extinction event, which only happens once every 50-100 million years.  (Not that we shouldn’t do what we can to protect against asteroid strikes.  Even one that doesn’t endanger the whole world can cause a lot of devastation.)

I think the best way to protect against the threats of us destroying ourselves, indeed the only way over the long term, is to give as much of humanity as possible a stake in the success of human civilization.  This involves fighting poverty worldwide, and promoting women’s rights, which will help with the population problem, which in turn helps with just about every other problem.

If we really want to maximize humanity’s long term survivability, that’s where we should start.  The good news is that, when viewed through the broad sweep of history, things are moving in the right direction.  The only question is whether that movement will be fast enough.

The real goal and challenge of establishing off-world colonies

David Warmflash (a very cool name) has a post up at Discovery looking at the issues with establishing off world colonies: Forget Mars. Here’s Where We Should Build Our First Off-World Colonies.

The collective space vision of all the world’s countries at the moment seems to be Mars, Mars, Mars. The U.S. has two operational rovers on the planet; a NASA probe called MAVEN and an Indian Mars orbiter will both arrive in Mars orbit later this month; and European, Chinese and additional NASA missions are in the works. Meanwhile Mars One is in the process of selecting candidates for the first-ever Martian colony, and NASA’s heavy launch vehicle is being developed specifically to launch human missions into deep space, with Mars as one of the prime potential destinations.

But is the Red Planet really the best target for a human colony, or should we look somewhere else? Should we pick a world closer to Earth, namely the moon? Or a world with a surface gravity close to Earth’s, namely Venus?

Warmflash’s post is interesting and I recommend reading it in full.  He looks at various alternatives to Mars for colonization, such as the Moon, Venus, and free-space colonies.  Mars currently has the imagination of space enthusiasts, so getting them to focus on another location may be challenging, but the discussion is worth having.

But I want to focus on something else that Warmflash notes.

To explore this issue, let’s be clear about why we’d want an off-world colony in the first place. It’s not because it would be cool to have people on multiple worlds (although it would). It’s not because Earth is becoming overpopulated with humans (although it is). It’s because off-world colonies would improve the chances of human civilization surviving in the event of a planetary disaster on Earth. Examining things from this perspective, let’s consider what an off-world colony would need, and see how those requirements mesh with different locations.

I think this is an insightful observation.  We don’t want to create colonies because of the farming opportunities on Mars or anywhere else (we essentially have to create that farmland), but to diversify the location of humanity, to avoid having all of our eggs in one basket.  The idea is that doing so might offer some protection in case of some global catastrophe such as nuclear war or an asteroid strike.

Here’s the problem.  In order for that to be feasible, a colony would have to be a completely independent ecosystem.  It would have to be its own biosphere, or at least part of a collection of colonies that are self sufficient.  And, as of right now, we don’t really know how to do that.  Any colony would be crucially dependent on Earth’s biosphere for its survival, at least for the foreseeable future.

The success of the International Space Station can be misleading here.  After all, don’t we have astronauts living up there for months at a time?  We do, but only with frequent supply runs from Earth.  It’s easy to say that a Mars colony would be self sufficient, but we simply have no evidence yet that it could be.  At best, in preparation for a Mars mission, we’ve done experiments isolating people for a few months, but even in these cases the crews were heavily supplied at the beginning.

To me, this indicates that, if we’re being completely rational about this, the place to have the first colonies is close.  I’m tempted to say we should to it first here on Earth with underground colonies.  If we can’t create a self sufficient colony here on Earth, the possibility of doing so in space seems pretty grim.

Interestingly, such colonies would actually be progress in the direction of the goal of protecting humanity, since underground self sufficient colonies would have a greater chance of survival in case of some global disaster.  Emotionally, of course, no one wants to migrate underground on Earth.  But given that we’re talking about living underground on Mars, we should carefully contemplate the difference in day to day circumstances once the romance of living on another planet fades.

Of course, we could never know for sure that such colonies were actually completely independent, that we hadn’t overlooked some dependency the colonies were benefiting from, that there wasn’t some leak allowing input from Earth’s overall biosphere.  That’s why the next step should be near-space colonies or colonies on the Moon, where help would only be a day or two away if the colony’s self sufficiency proves, well, insufficient.

Is anyone going to heed this line of reasoning?  Probably not.  As I said above, Mars has everyone’s imagination.  I predict we’ll eventually colonize it, with colonies that will have an extended, but crucial, lifeline to Earth’s biosphere.

I also strongly suspect that having real protection from extinction will eventually involve us modifying ourselves rather than creating pockets of our existing biosphere on other planets or in space.  Once we have the technology, it will be much cheaper.