Today, July 20th, 2009, is the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. To commemorate this event, the National Space Society has suggested blogging about the topic of space settlement (http://www.nss.org/settlement/blogging.html).
Space settlement relates very closely to my previous posts about intentional communities and federalism. I want a world where there are a wide variety of social systems that people can choose to live under. Unfortunately, societies have a tendency to expand to fill all available area, and then become ossified and resistant to change. This leaves no room for experimentation with new and different ways of doing things. I don’t know if this tendency can be avoided, but there is something that can lessen it’s sting, and that is the existence of a frontier.
Why did the first modern democracy come into existence in North America instead of Europe? Why was women’s sufferage in America first granted in Wyoming instead of some more “liberal” state like New York? In both cases, they were far away from the existing centers of power at the time. Being on the frontier allows much more free experimentation with new social structures. That is the primary reason why humanity should go into outer space. Not scientific discovery or economic profit. Those things are important too, but most important is the sociological benefit of having a place where people fed up with the mainstream can go and try something different.
With that in mind, you’ll understand when I say that the government space program is irrelevant. What good is it to have the government send people into space if the primary goal is to allow people to go to space to get away from the current government? Instead, we should be trying to create a world where any private citizen can live and work in space for their own purposes without being part of a grand, centrally-planned exploration program. That is what is meant by space settlement.
Space settlement will require a lot of bootstrapping. It will be decades at least before families routinely set out for greener pastures in the space age version of conestoga wagons. In the short term, the thing that can make the most progress towards this goal is space tourism. It will create a distributed network of technology providers who are not dependent on political whim for their survival, and cement in our social consciousness the idea that it’s okay to go to space just because you want to.
There is a lot of debate in the space settlement community about the right destination for space settlers. This is kind of a silly debate since we can’t go anywhere right now. But I suppose when a group of people finds they actually agree on something, like space settlement is good, they have to go on and start arguing over the details. And who am I to disparage this tradition so I’ll put in my two cents.
The most important thing is to create settlements that are politically independent of Earth. At the top level, that is what’s important and the location doesn’t matter. However, I think that goal will be easiest to achieve on the planet Mars. In order to be politically independent, it will help if the settlement is physically self sufficient. If the settlers rely on some crucial export from Earth for their survival that could be used for political leverage.
Physical self-sufficiency hinges on the question of environmental closure. Does your settlement leak any important resource, and can that resource be replenished from the environment around you? No settlement will ever achieve 100% closure. Something will leak. So what environment has the greatest variety of physical elements that can be easily accessed to make up the losses? After Earth, the second best place is Mars. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go other places, or that settlement would be impossible other places. I just think that politically independent, physically self sufficient settlements will be easiest on Mars.