Depressing Reality of Colonizing Space

Martin Rezny on 2016-08-16

A sober, but still hopeful, perspective from a fan of the future


As Bruce Nappi correctly points out, thinking that we can just pack our stuff and go into space to solve all of our problems is beyond naive. Space is… Hard. Space is also dead. It’s true that our technology is rapidly reaching a point at which we become able to build and maintain sustainable sealed biospheres, but that’s just a single, isolated problem. There are worse ones.

Problem of Scope

Bruce’s back of the envelope calculation is one of them — if or when we start colonizing our solar system, for a very long time, it can only involve a handful of humans. First the astronauts, then the elites, then perhaps town-sized settlements, and that’s assuming we manage to perfect radiation shielding and achieve the aforementioned self-sustaining food and water production.

To be fair, advancements in some technologies already in development may certainly bring down the costs involved, as well as increase Earth’s production capacities. By entire orders of magnitude, even. However, realistically, thousands of humans in space should be a lot for quite a while even with fancy theoretical tech like orbital elevators, fusion reactors, or what have you.

In time, larger populations may grow off-planet and expand using local resources, but that won’t really help more Earthlings leave our crowded planet. Also, just the basic comparison of carrying capacities for human life of Earth to any other body in our solar system should quickly reveal that there likely isn’t enough livable or terraformable space around us for billions more.

Problem of Time

Another major hurdle that futurists often ignore is that of time. Specifically, just how much long-term space can get. Currently, the largest space agencies in the world have their hands full managing projects that only take years or decades to complete. Given the limited human lifespans, and even more limited political office terms, it’s very difficult to get enough funding to start.

Assuming enough funds are raised to get a major space exploration or colonization project launched, most scientists prefer performing experiments and missions that are completed before they die of old age, and that limits the nature of any such project even if the funding was unlimited. Doing anything more than building a small base on the Moon or Mars would take centuries.

Relatively feasible plans, or at least general ideas, already exist for the colonization of Mars (for those who prefer planting flags) and Venus (flying cities for the win). There are kinks to work out, engineering challenges, and one or two steps in the “to be determined later” category, but that are trifles compared to the inability of our consumer culture to think, or care, long-term.

Problem of Humanity

Which brings me to the greatest problem of all — us. Wherever we go, we are bound to invite ourselves, and we are not great company. To play the devil’s advocate of the better angels of our nature against the gloomy Bruce’s perspective, there seems to be a certain expanding effect going into space has on our normal human mindset. There are many ways of looking at it, too.

For instance, the first time we saw our world as a single planet without borders is a cultural milestone that can never fully be erased. There’s also the effect of facing all that adversity and danger in space that have a natural tendency to bring us together, as well as the sheer magnitude of spaceborne projects. With all that being said, it’s unrealistic to expect no wars in space.

While I believe true astronauts may pull it off, at first, when the elites and common folk join them out there, the petty politics and imagined slights will soon follow them there. After all, assuming everything goes well, being in space will one day surely become routine, mundane. It will no longer be a special place offering a special perspective, it will become a damn workplace.

Problem of Hope

Despite all of that, though, I am still hopeful, if maybe not exactly optimistic. If you think about it, we have become so insanely successful as a species that we’ve become pretty much our only serious concern. Barring an apocalypse of truly cosmic proportions, we literally have the power to make or break our future. We’re killing ourselves by driving planetary climate, that’s impressive.

I definitely agree with Bruce that it isn’t the technology that we need to focus on any more than we’re doing already, it’s the human heart that we must strive to perfect. There are many reasons why I’m skeptical of deterministic predictions of doom in general, and specifically those of overpopulation or some sort of failure of adaptation to changing environment. Here are a few.

First of all, we have already survived an ice age and dark ages, plagues and natural distasters, world wars and invention of weapons of mass destruction. At great cost each time, yes, but realistically, human race can bounce back even from being reduced to a few thousand individuals, and had in the past. Determinism means self-fulfilling prophecies based on incomplete models.

We have to believe we’re free to change our minds and actions, and if we do, maybe we will. Maybe we’ll die out, maybe we get to explore infinity for eternity. I don’t know the odds, and I’m reasonably sure there’s too much chaos and complexity to life for them to be truly knowable. You cannot factor in an unmade discovery, original idea, or an unexpected decision. Let’s hope.

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