What’s our potential for space exploration and colonization?

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³. Learn more about C³ at the end of the post. 

Our work is not meant to serve as an all-inclusive summary on the topic, but instead is meant to serve as a starting point for thinking and learning about it. We outline important factors to consider as you form your own opinion rather than trying to push you in one direction or another


Structuring the topic

Framework for thinking about space exploration

  • Space exploration and colonization is likely to be one of the largest investments we have ever made. It could be valuable to analyze past substantial investments in order to build a guiding framework for thinking about whether or not investments of the needed magnitude will ever be supported by the public. 

History of space exploration

  • Understanding what drove the last 70 years of space exploration is essential to thinking about the future of space travel, exploration and colonization.

Space exploration versus colonization

  • Differentiating these two terms is absolutely vital when thinking about this topic. The need for and implications of exploration versus colonization are entirely different, and for that reason distinguishing the two is vital.

Colonization of our solar system

  • What are the major hurdles to extraterrestrial colonization? How can we overcome these hurdles?
  • If we can overcome these hurdles, should we attempt to colonize our solar system? What are the ethical questions that will need to be grappled with?
  • If we can, and decide we should, how should we go about the colonization process?

The role of private companies in space exploration and colonization

  • The initial space race was between the USA and the USSR. However, it is actually probable that the space race of the 21st century and beyond may include, if not even driven by, private entities such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

Key issues and implications

Timeline of space exploration from the 20th century

  • 1957 – Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into space – Sputnik 1
  • 1958 – First US satellite explorer
  • 1961 – Yuri Gargarin became the first human to orbit the earth – Vostok 1
  • 1961 – Alan shappard became the first American to fly into space
  • 1962 – John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth
  • 1969 – Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon
  • 1998 – Launch of the international space station (ISS). The ISS is still in orbit and is now a permanently occupied research laboratory.

How can we use the past as a framework for thinking about the future of space exploration?

  • “Predicting the future is an exercise in extending what you already know, not about inventing something new” 
    • Often it is new inventions that drive the future which is why most likely we will get everything horribly wrong. When we make predictions, we extend what we currently know, but what we currently know will not be the innovations that shape the world 100 years from now.
    • This is also why we can get it right 10 to 20 years into the future, because that often is about an extension of what we already know. Once you get beyond 50 years from now, predicting the future becomes a hopeless exercise.
  • Secondly, we often misunderstand the capabilities of advances that we do make, leading to severely incorrect predictions in both directions
    • Often after a new discovery or innovation, we make predictions that constrain those advances. An example is the constraints of predictions for the airplane even after the Wright brothers took flight.
    • However, on the contrary, when we are fresh on a good breakthrough, we can suddenly start over predicting. We sometimes assume that what is happening will continue unhindered. This is the case with many predictions expecting moon colonies by the turn of the last century because of the moon landing in 1969. 
    • In a nutshell, making predictions is complicated. It’s important to acknowledge the uncertainty that dominates this discussion. Every prediction is based on a set of assumptions or a series of ‘if’ statements.
  • Lastly, there are historically only 3 drivers that have allowed a nation to commit large sums of money – which is exactly what will be needed for any breakthroughs in space exploration or colonization technology
    •   War and defense
      • Countries or civilizations are happy to spend enormous sums of money not to die
      • Some powerful examples are the Great Wall of China, The Manhattan Project, the interstate system in the USA (aided transport in time of war) and the Apollo program during the Cold War with the USSR.
    • Praise of deity or royalty
      • Countries or civilizations are happy to spend enormous sums of money to praise deities or royal families.
      • Some powerful examples are the Pyramids, the Palace at Versailles, and many cathedrals throughout the world.
    • Promise of economic return
      • Countries or civilizations are happy to spend enormous sums of money if there is a promise of making even more money.
      • Some powerful examples are launching satellites in orbit for countries, and developing stronger internet infrastructure. 
    • Notice that exploration for exploration’s sake does not make it onto the list. 
      • There are several large investments we have made for explorations sake, notably the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US that is used to detect gravitational waves.
      • However, this project only cost US taxpayers $1.1 billion dollars over the 40 year lifetime of the project. This is much much smaller than the investments that would be needed to make space exploration and colonization a reality.
      • The key to understand is that throughout history, exploration for exploration’s sake has only been paid for by taxpayers for relatively smaller investments. There is no precedent here.
  • When we think about whether or not space exploration would/should be funded, there are certainly more questions than answers right now:
    • Will taxpayers ever support substantial investments in space technology well beyond the levels at which they are today? Will this be sold to them as exploration for exploration’s sake? This has never been done before for investments this large.
    • Will taxpayers only support such large investments after fundamental issues are solved here on earth? What if we never reach a point where we consider all issues solved? Do these necessarily have to be mutually exclusive?
    • Will these large investments be sold as necessary for survival? Will taxpayers be interested considering they are very unlikely to see any tangible benefit of these investments in their own lifetime? 
    • Will there be sustainable political competition to replicate the space race of the 20th century?
    • Is there an opportunity for strong coordination between public and private entities for discovering new innovations that may be beneficial here on earth just as it would be in space? 
    • Will the near term space race be driven by the egos of billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson fighting for dominance of the industry of tomorrow?

Distinguishing space colonization from space exploration

  • Exploration refers to having a look around but never truly setting up base. Colonization refers to large groups of individuals having their entire lives on other planets, or the setting up of vast industrial zones for mineral extraction and/or production. 
  • This is important to think about because we would not consider Antarctica colonized even though there are at times in the year more than 5 000 people living there. The people that live there do so for research or adventure purposes. This is not what we think about when we think about long term colonization of other bodies in space.

Does, or will humanity ever, have the capabilities to achieve extraterrestrial colonization?

  • When many people think about living on Mars, they fail to conceive how huge the hurdles are that we would need to overcome to flourish as a civilization. So what are the greatest hurdles that we would need to overcome before being able to colonize Mars?
    • Travel times
      • It currently takes up to 9 months to reach Mars from the earth. Improving spaceflight technology to significantly decrease this time for restocking missions is absolutely essential.
    • Impacts on the human body
      • Temperature 
        • At temperatures substantially colder than the coldest places on earth, it is unlikely that humans would survive any period of time on Mars without significant shelter and protection.
      • Radiation
        • The relatively thin atmosphere on Mars provides minimal protection from radiation which would result in devastating health impacts. Solving this is one of the most important issues to live on Mars.
      • Human gestation and reproduction
        • It is uncertain whether a child can be conceived in the gravitational and pressure environment of Mars. If it was not possible, it would be a huge hurdle, as it would essentially require continuous ‘restocking’ of people and Mars could never operate as an independent colony.
        • Even if a child were able to be conceived, it is likely that there would be several pregnancy complications on Mars. The lower gravity would impact the positioning of the fetus in the mother’s body so that the mother’s diaphragm may be obstructed creating breathing complications.
    • Elements
      • Many elements needed for survival of a colony are not abundantly available on Mars, and would need to be sent from earth, making a self-sustaining colony a greater challenge.
  • These hurdles make climate change seem like a walk in the park, which makes the ‘Mars colonization because of climate change’ argument weak. It is substantially easier to solve any problem here on earth than it would be to overcome these hurdles.
  • Although many of these hurdles are beyond the technology we have today or will foreseeably have soon, it does not make these hurdles insurmountable as technology and our ability to manipulate the human body increases.

Overcoming these hurdles

  • In order to achieve successful and frequent travel to Mars, the most important innovations that we will need are:
    • We need systems to live and breathe on board for a period of months
    • We need to develop improved propulsion in order to decrease travel times
    • Ability to hold off heat during travel
    • Ability for the spaceship and equipment to withstand radiation
    • Improvement of positioning and communication technology to keep constant communication with the spaceships thousands of miles away
  • In order to overcome the impacts on the human body there are several different approaches:
  • Protected zones
    • We can develop protected zones such as domes in which humans can ‘freely’ live. This area will have to be very controlled and will need to replicate the conditions here on earth. 
    • There are several problems with such zones, most notably, the limited size that these zones would be able to cover because of the complexity involved with constructing and maintaining them. They further likely will not be an attractive place to live.
  • Genetic modification 
    • Over time as we understand more about the human genome and how to manipulate it, it is entirely possible that those living on Mars may have their genes altered to withstand potential health implications. Although there are ethical concerns here, ‘Martians’ may live by different standards than those which govern the field of genetic editing here on earth.
    • Merging with machines
    • In addition to genetic editing, bodily enhancements with technology are entirely plausible. Whether it be synthetic skin, a metal heart, or robotic arms for greater strength, it is likely that some mergence with machines would improve our chances for success on Mars.
  • In-situ resource utilization (ISRU)
    • The farther we go into deep space, the more important it will become to generate products with ‘local’ materials. As far as is possible, we should try to use local resources to sustain the colonies because the back and forth for restocking supplies will be time consuming and costly.
    • NASA is currently making investments to advance ISRU technologies as improving our ISRU capabilities can go a long way towards improving our chances for successfully colonizing other planets.
  • Terraformation
    • Terraformation is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying a planet or extraterrestrial body’s characteristics to be similar to the environment of Earth to make it habitable by us. This would be the ultimate achievement for Mars as it would make it  habitable and remove all the health hurdles described above.
    • One very important aspect about terraformation is that it is impossible with today’s technology. Although not possible with today’s technology, if we continue to innovate and make new discoveries, terraformation may one day be possible.

If we have the capabilities for extraterrestrial colonization, does that mean we should do it?

  • When thinking about whether or not we should do it, we must think beyond the questions raised earlier of where the money will come from. We should also think about questions of ethics and choices.
  • It won’t be a collective decision
    • Although the decision to colonize and explore space is probably one that should be a collective decision, in which everyone has a say, the nature of the situation is that it probably will be driven by any nation or company.
    • This has already been demonstrated by the UAE aiming to build a martian city of 600,000 people by 2117. The nature of space exploration and colonization is such that almost any group can build and execute their own plan.
  • Why should we do it?
    • One of the main arguments in favor of becoming a mulit-planetary species is the increased chance of the long run survival of humanity. The foundation of the argument is simple, let’s not put all our eggs in one basket. By living on multiple planets, we substantially decrease the risk of a single event wiping out the entire species.
    • A common lens to view this issue through is that of the Effective altruism movement. Essentially, effective altruism aims to do the most possible good. Now if we consider investments in space colonization potentially saving the species, that is likely to save trillions of lives that would otherwise never even have been, it becomes a very critical field to invest in. Whether to prioritise spending on space exploration or on global hunger is certainly a debate worth having.

If we can, and should, how should we go about it? What are the most important considerations?

  • Should there be laws governing space exploration and colonization?
    • At the moment, the UN through its Office for Outer Space Affairs, is responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space.
    • This UN body also overseas operation of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which provides a framework for governance of space and activities that may take place. Important points within the OST are:
      • Prohibition of nuclear weapons in space
      • Limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only
      • Establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations
      • No nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.
    • It is certainly true that the enforcement of the OTS is a challenge, however, thus far, the treaty has never been violated (yet).
  • How many people should we send to start the colony?
    • Jean-Marc Salotti, a french computer scientist, developed a model for thinking about a minimum number of settlers needed. The model was published in Scientific Reportsbut we found a good article here.
    • His estimate is 110 people will be needed to start a somewhat self-sustaining colony on Mars. This takes account of all the day to day tasks of keeping the civilization alive.
    • More important than the exact numerical estimate, is the framework for thinking about the colonization process – The colony on Mars cannot be made up of average joes but rather individuals who are able to specialize in different functions so as to play a role in sustaining the colony. 
    • Salotti describes a sharing factor “which allows some reduction of time requirements per individual if, for example, the activity concerns the construction of an object that can be shared by several individuals.”
    • It is vital to think about the specialization of tasks and the sharing of the fruits of labor as foundational elements of any colony.
  • What type of colonization should we strive for? Can an argument be made for non-human colonization?
    • Jeff Bezos has argued that we could save earth not by starting a human colony on a new planet, but rather by moving industry to space. This approach would see the earth being preserved and used more for the enjoyment of its inhabitants rather than for production needed for their consumption.
    • Although this argument has merit, this type of colonization does not provide the benefit of increased chances of long run species survival.

What role will private companies play in this new space race?

  • Privatising the routine:
    • The most likely area for private companies to dominate in this industry is any area that involves ‘routine’ tasks. These are tasks that we have done before and need to improve on efficiency. R&D spending in this sub-field is highly targeted and has high likelihood of strong returns.
    • Therefore, in the ‘near term’, private industry is likely to only play a role in:
      • Space tourism
      • Transport of cargo
      • 5G communication and satellites
      • Mineral collection and transport (likely more medium term)
    • Interestingly enough, the next decade may also see the privatization of the ISS. Axiom (founded 2016) is planning to launch a space station of their own which may in time replace the ISS. Their technology is able to replace the ISS for just over 1% of the cost of the ISS.
    • It is vital that private companies are involved in improving efficiency of space flight. Just one or two simple innovations can change everything – think about how the now-ubiquitous shipping container radically transformed international trade.

Argument Nuances

Difference between ‘we may never have the technology’ and ‘we do not have the technology now’

  • Very few say we will never have the technology, simply because that would be a very hard stance and we simply cannot know what the future entails

Human’s will never colonize mars

  • This is nuanced from the above claim. This claim refers to the potential changes, genetic and otherwise, that we will have to go through in order to successfully colonize mars. The claim is ultimately that through enough of these modifications, we may be able to colonize Mars, but then we would no longer be human, hence the claim humans will never colonize mars.

Governments will remain responsible for the biggest innovations

  • Many people think that because SpaceX has now sent astronauts to the ISS and have developed reusable rockets that the entire future of the industry is private. 
  • Due to the ability of governments to take a longer term view, it will be them that need to drive the riskier R&D innovations that drive the biggest changes. Private companies are responsible to their investors on a quarterly or annual basis, hence are likely to focus on smaller, safer incremental innovations.
  • Countries are often forgotten in the debate. The countries that have sent people to space are Russia, China and the USA. However there are now nine countries with the ability to build and launch orbit capable vehicles: Russia, the United States, France, Japan, China, India, Israel, Iran and North Korea. 

We should be focusing on the moon instead of mars because it is easier

  • The assumption that the moon is easier to colonize than mars is grounded in the idea that proximity is one of the biggest hurdles for colonization. The moon is a few days away versus many months for mars. 
  • However, it turns out that there are many more important hurdles that would make the moon even tougher to colonize than mars.
    • For one, the Moon lacks an atmosphere to protect human visitors from radiation and space rock impacts. Mars’ atmosphere may not be as robust as the Earth’s, but it’s more robust than the Moon’s by a long shot. 
    • Additionally, Mars may contain a greater abundance of valuable resources, such as water. That aside, recent discoveries suggest that the Moon contains more traces of permanently-frozen water than initially thought, so there may be valuable resources on the Moon too. 

Potential Solutions

  • The future of space travel may itself be a solution to many problems humanity may face over the coming centuries or millennia. It is not a problem to which we need to find solutions.


C³ – Critical Creative Collaboration

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³.

Who: We are a diverse community based in New York City. 

What: At its simplest form, C³ functions as an idea club. Every month we dig into a curated list of books, journals, articles, podcasts and documentaries focused on a core idea. We come together for a day of fruitful conversation and collect all our most insightful discoveries in a single post that we share here with you.

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