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.