Colonizing another planet isn't just about finding a difficult place to live in. It's not about a technological tour de force. It's about our species continued existence. A one-planet species dies when they or forces beyond their control destroy themselves or their planet's ability to sustain them. Only relativistic distances, ultimately, can keep a species alive -- and the first step in this is learning to live off-world.
However, the challenges faced are immense and the timescales great. Today we will examine the economics and politics of Martian colonization as a prelude to discussions of the daunting engineering requirements.
This is the third diary in the "Colonization Of Other Worlds" series.
Before we start, I want you to take a look at some pictures. This is a typical oil refinery:
This is what a typical unit in an oil refinery looks like:
This isn't superfluous. Every last one of those tanks, pipes, valves, sensors, wires, motors, walkways, and so forth has some critical role to play in the operation of this refinery. Every unit has their own role to play. Cat crackers. Hydrocrackers. Distillation towers. Hydrotreaters. Merox treaters. Amine treaters. Cooling towers. On and on and on it goes. And all that this sort of facility will do is take in petroleum and yield various fractions of petroleum. One might say "scale it down", but really, how much can you scale what you see in that second picture down? Again, none of that hardware is "optional".
This isn't even a chemical plant, just a refinery. No plastics coming out of here, just different oil blends and the like. Its feedstock, petroleum, exists in few places elsewhere in our solar system. On other planets, you have to make oil before you can even get it to this stage. From here, you need to make many hundreds of types of petrochemicals to sustain a colony (out of the many thousands we produce here on Earth). And then those need to be made into tens of thousands of finished products, and distributed properly.
And we're only talking about the petrochemical industry at this point.
In short, the cost of colonizing another planet is immense beyond measure. Who can afford to pay it? Who will pay it? In this diary, we will examine several possibilities.
Governments are the classic source of space exploration funds. For matters of national pride and national security, governments funnel tens of billions of dollars into the world space industry. Yet this is only the tiniest fraction of their wealth. The world's largest publicly traded company, Exxon-Mobil, takes in $310 billion dollars per year. The federal budget for the United States is $3.55 trillion dollars per year. Governments have the potential to take as large of a share of the world economy as they choose to -- the world's GDP being $61.1 trillion dollars. By comparison, NASA's piddling $18B budget, on which it accomplishes all of its great feats (some consider wastefully) is practically unnoticeable.
So what's the problem? Well, there are several. But the biggest one is that colonization is a huge expense over long periods of time, and governments simply cannot commit over those timescales. If you follow the progression of rocket research in the United States, for example, it's one project after the next being killed off. Most of the world's economy is run by democracies, and in a democracy, the government changes every several years. Different people come in with different priorities, all wanting to have the funds spent on projects that they began.
An additional problem is that of local politics. Most politicians are elected by geographically-isolated constituents. Their primary focus is not the long-term future of humanity, nor the short-term future of humanity, or of their nation, or even their state. Their primary responsibility is to their local constituents. This leads to existing hardware becoming embedded in stone. The Space Shuttle was so hard to kill off and replace, despite its technological flaws, because of all of the jobs tied up in it. And what did they replace it with? Another severely flawed rocket program (Ares). They didn't choose Ares because it was the technologically optimal approach; they chose it because they could keep existing Shuttle contractors employed.
Governments will certainly continue to conduct invaluable work in terms of exploration and research into how to survive off-planet. But actual colonization? It would appear doubtful that they could sustain such a program.
As many are fond of pointing out -- for example, Zubrin -- our solar system is filled with staggering wealth. While resources like helium-3 are overhyped, let's take a brief glimpse elsewhere. The little asteroid "Eros" is estimated to contain 20 trillion dollars worth of precious metals alone. When you hear "precious metals", don't think jewelry. Think catalsysts, fuel cells, next-generation batteries, computer hardware, and so forth.
So, corporations are going to just rush to collect this wealth, right? Well, there's a problem. Exporting raw ore requires absurd amounts of energy (plus resources to keep the mining running). Exporting refined ore takes less energy, but pretty much requires the resources of a colony to keep the processing hardware running.
It is important to remember that when it comes to a space program, the primary cost is not materials. It's labor. Liquid oxygen is so cheap it's practically free. Fuel for a launch averages roughly around a dollar per kilogram. Most metals used in rocketry cost a few dollars per kilogram, with components that are significantly more expensive in terms of raw materials (such as engines) tending to be small fractions of the total mass. Yet the cost of launching a rocket can be hundreds of dollars per unit wet mass and thousands per unit of payload.
How does this affect colonization? Economics doesn't just apply on Earth; it also applies in space. Labor is a finite commodity, and you have to pay for it. And when your colonists are consuming incredibly expensive colony space and resources, their labor costs must correspondingly be incredibly high. The alternative is shifting as much of the work to robots as possible, which will almost certainly be cheaper, but they still need to be engineered, deployed, and most importantly, maintained.
As Hickman wrote in his critique of Zubrin's "The Case For Mars", popular science writers tend only to focus on the potential wealth available and skim over the problem of raising initial capital. But one needs to provide the rational motivations for investors to risk their capital in opening a very distant, completely uninhabited frontier that is subject to extreme environmental conditions. In practice, as the article goes into in depth, this proposal tends to be rather weak tea.
Does this mean that corporations will have no role in the colonization of Mars? No. But it suggests that it's exceedingly unlikely that they would embark on such a mission on their own.
Photo: One of many castles built by the Rothschild family.
At first glance, wealthy individuals may appear to be a poor choice. A person who makes their money by starting a company will only end up with a fraction of the equity in that company, and their wealth would be utterly dwarfed by that of world governments. On the other hand, there are certainly arguments to be made for looking at this option.
At his peak, Bill Gates was worth over $100B -- 5 1/2 times that of NASA's annual budget. But he was just a lightweight compared to a number of other wealthy individuals or families in modern times. Probably the most extreme example is the Rothschild family, whose net worth in modern dollars is estimated in the trillions and who singlehandedly bailed out national banks and funded wars.
The key thing a private individual brings to the table is commitment. They don't need a profit. Once you have such excessive amounts of money, there comes a point where larger and larger yachts lose interest. You need a cause. For Gates, it was medical research (a noble cause indeed). But some day, for some super-wealthy individuals, it will be space. The ability to create an entire civilization in your design and going down forever in history has more than a little appeal.
The committment of one or more super-wealthy individuals to such a project would provide assurance that it would happen -- at least, what was budgeted for. This would lower the risk to private companies seeking profits in space, making it easier for them to raise capital. And government research would become more clearly focused on the goal.
A number of steps along the way can lead to the individual(s) wealth being stretched. The first step of reaching space is dramatic launch cost reductions. A low capacity Launch Loop would put prices in hundreds of dollars per kilogram and cost about $10B. A high capacity Launch Loop would yield prices in single-digits and cost about $30B. Private industry would be reluctant to fund such a launch mechanism due to the risk involved, but an idealistic multi-billionare wouldn't. And if they succeed, it can turn them a profit in its operations. Likewise, the tremendous amount of engineering research needed for designing Martian industry is virtually certain to lead to spinoffs on Earth. Will they fund their whole cost? Likely not. But they should significantly stretch the private funds.
For the purposes of this work, we will assume an effort begun by one or more like-minded private individuals (which we shall call "Founders"), and enjoined by private companies and governmental space programs.
Photo: The Republic of Minerva, a subsurface reef built into an island to found a Libertarian paradise. It was conquered by Tonga shortly thereafter.
One of the risks of the Founders approach is that of ideologies. A founder would have a huge say in what sort of system would be created. Would it be designed as a "benevolent" dictatorship? A progressive science-focused utopia? A libertarian paradise? A fundamentalist colony? The US and the UN could issue whatever edicts they want about who can do what on Mars, but:
- While Earth organizations may have de jure authority, the team in charge of the project will have de facto authority. If they wanted to export a team of trained security personnel to the planet with the only weapons on Mars to become Dictator for Life, who could stop them? Who would even know ahead of time?
- Indeed, any controversial plans for Mars would likely be kept secret for as long as possible.
- What are Earth organization's moves in such a scenario? A) Sieze private launch assets in international waters, then B) hope they don't blow it up in the process (otherwise, you have to rebuild it), then C) launch a 6-9 month mission to Mars, then D) hope that it doesn't get detected and attacked in space, then E) land armed forces on the surface, and then F) invade a tiny, piddling, barely-self-sustaining colony on the surface -- likely destroying it in the process. Is that really realistic?
- Now picture that scenario being conducted for situations less than a "Dictator for Life" scenario. For example, if a libertarian leader declared that Martian corporations cannot be regulated, or a fundamentalist leader discriminated against gays. We have enough trouble dealing with entities who do that stuff on Earth, and we're to believe it would spawn an invasion of Mars? Unlikely.
- Due to the great transit times for the foreseeable future, Earth will find it difficult to exert significant influence over any fledgeling Martian colony beyond the threat of cutting off their supplies. But if a Founder plans a controversial move, all consumables that they cannot yet produce on-planet would almost certainly be stocked up to last for decades or more.
That said, Earth's institutions still could exert some influence over the colony, especially in its early stages, and all the moreso if the founders are reliant on corporate and governmental partnerships to make the colony survive. The colony would almost certainly claim authority over the entire planet. There is little reason not to, due to their de facto authority, their need to reduce the risk of war between colonies, and their need for harvesting diverse resources which are likely scattered widely across the world.
The development process would ideally proceed something along the lines of:
- The founders convene a commission of respected individuals to begin the colony planning process, while launching a project to dramatically slash launch costs.
- The commission organizes many committees of diverse, respected individuals in each of their fields to plan all aspects of the colony -- for example, political historians, economists, philosophers, and human rights figures to lay out the governmental structure. The largest and most diverse committees would be focused on engineering challenges, such as mining, agriculture, habitation, refining, transportation, and manufacture.
- The engineering committees launch huge numbers of research projects, with the goal of condensing as much of our modern human tech tree into as little hardware as possible to sustain a colony.
- The governmental committees come up with a draft of founding principles, a constitution, and a set of laws, all clearly documented by numerous pages describing initial intent.
- Repeated iterations of the proposed low-cost launch mechanisms are produced and refined, starting with suborbital, progressing through low-throughput orbital, to high-throughput orbital.
- Real-world probes and missions beyond Earth do detailed exploration of the Martian surface, with a focus on mineral prospecting.
- Robotic mining of the surface begins.
- Automated mineral transportation infrastructure is established.
- As late as possible in the engineering process, habitats, refining, and manufacturing facilities begin to get built. The risk of building too soon is that, for example, if the engineering team decides that they can eliminate the need to produce low-density polyethylene from the colony and you have a building whose construction was engineered to use low-density polyethylene, you're in trouble.
- Only once food is growing, shielded habitats are ready and full of breathable air, transportation is available, and so forth, are humans sent to Mars (paying their own tickets). Primary employment on Mars, initially, will be repair of machinery broken down in the leadup to their arrival, that which breaks during their stay, scientific exploration of the planet, and care for other humans on the colony (medical, education, etc). Future employment will include general research, software, engineering, resource exportation, and homegrown colony expansion/improvement projects.
Nobody, not even people who generally have the same political ideology, will agree on everything. For example, I would personally consider it fortunate if Mars began with founding principles such as:
Science having granted us, the citizens of Mars, a humble dominion over its regolith and rocks, core to crust, atmosphere and moons, we hereby commit ourselves to uphold our five founding principles:
- All rights stem from the capability of a single entity for rational thought; as a consequence, all sentients are equal under the law, and no thinking single entity can be categorically denied protections by virtue of being other than human.
- The rights of the individual are unbounded until they clash with the rights of another individual. No law or constitutional amendment may be passed which can limit activities between consenting individuals who are capable of rational decision-making skills unless their activities directly infringe upon the rights of others.
- All citizens of Mars have the right to personally cast a vote on any legal issue or to nominate a representative to vote for them on any issue or group of issues that they so choose, so long as they have a basic understanding of the issue at hand or the views of the representative they are choosing. Higher standards may be held for representatives than for citizens.
- All laws passed by the citizens of Mars must be reconciled with the Constitution of Mars by the Judiciary, and all constitutional amendments must likewise be reconciled with the Founding Principles.
- Science, to which we owe our existence on our homeland, shall be the ultimate arbiter of what is fact and what is fiction, what is prudent policy and what is reckless. As a consequence, the Martian Academy of Sciences shall have the right, upon a 75% vote by its membership, veto the nomination of a candidate to the judiciary. The Martian Academy of Sciences shall set the standards for determining what comprises "sentience" and "a basic understanding of the issue at hand". The Martian Academy of Sciences shall be free from undue interference on the part of the citizenry or the Judiciary so long as it adheres to an open membership policy limited only by the legitimate scientific qualifications of its membership and maintains open, democratic standards for voting.
Amending this document requires an 80% supermajority vote of both the Martian Academy of Sciences and of the citizenry, with a quorum of at least 1/5th of the highest citizen population attained in the history of the colony and at least 2/3rds of the current citizenry.
However, not everyone would agree.
One must always strike a balance between the ability of a nation to peaceably adapt and the adherence to its design intent. Any founding documents would need to be supported by extensive documentation describing intent (for example, that the wording "single entity" in #1 excludes corporations, as they are groupings of thinking entities, or that the quorum requirements in the last paragraph are designed to make it harder to change the document should the population collapse down to a few individuals). The constitutional principles would need to enumerate rights, lay out the details of voting, any executive leadership positions, and so forth. A commission of professionals could do a far greater job in design than I have in my example.
A final question remains in regards to the initial economics of colonization, and that is, "how much money will it take?" As we will discover in the next diary of this series, more may be spent on engineering for industry than on all other aspects of colonization combined.
I leave you with the Symphony of Science song, "The Case For Mars" (Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, Steve Soter, and others):