Living in Space
In a three-part discussion, Norman Sillito, Mark Koerner and Don Webb examine from the viewpoint of both science fiction and reality what it means to live in space.
Space Colonies: the Dark Side
by Don Webb
Thank you, Norman and Mark, for a thought-provoking discussion. Let me play Devil’s Advocate, because I suspect science-fictioneers and Mars-colony dreamers have taken a lot of things for granted. I just want to make sure I’ll be comfortable in my space station or planetary colony or generation ship.
As Norman says, colonies on space stations in an Earth or Solar orbit might be called “habitats.” That seems to be as good a term as any. I’ll use “habitat” for the special case and “space colony” and “colony” as generic terms.
Science fiction has long assumed that sustainable colonies can some day be established on the Moon, on Mars, in space stations or in generation ships. In fact, science fiction has traditionally taken a shortcut by figuratively transporting movie sets — in the large sense — from Earth to outer space and continuing as though the only change is the scenery visible in the windows. And if space explorers land on a planet in a film or in a TV series, it often looks a lot like California or British Columbia or — perhaps at a stretch — the Czech Republic.
A least-effort change of setting is quite economical in terms of literature. For example, in a mystery story, the detective or the suspect may wear fancy clothing, but, unless it’s a clue to the mystery, no one cares where it was bought, who made it, or where the material came from. Likewise, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, no one cares how the space station actually functions, whether it’s sustainable or even why it’s there in the first place. The audience sees it for what it is: a stage prop. Now that the stage is set, the audience thinks, let’s get on with the show.
But when we start talking about real space stations, or real planetary colonies or real generation ships, we enter the realm of engineering. And we can see from reports on the Net or in the news media that science fiction and astronautical engineering are beginning to overlap, that dream and reality are coming into collision.
The prospect of real space colonies raises questions, for example:
- What do they need in order to maintain life?
- What is their purpose?
- What do they mean?
I. What does a space colony need?
Wherever space travelers go, they carry with them a physical memory of Earth, the environment in which they evolved. And that environment is extraordinarily complex.
Let’s reduce the complexity as much as we can. A colony of any type has basic needs, which can be summed up by the classic elements: earth, air, fire and water. Colonists will need air to breathe, water to drink, and earth for growing food. For “fire,” substitute “fuel” or “energy.”
In space, gathering dirt is mostly a chore; it is not an insurmountable problem. Scoop up enough on the Moon or asteroids, and all a space habitat needs is a place to put it. Turning the dirt into arable soil suitable for growing food is another problem, but we can confidently expect it will be manageable. Hydroponics may go a long way, but prudence — especially in a food supply — requires versatility and resilience; in a word, backups.
Any space colony will need air, and it will have to be replenished. Air is going to leak away either gradually under normal conditions or suddenly, in an accident. Lifting supplies of breathable air from Earth to space is possible but expensive. It’s also subject to accidents and political reversals. What if the government supporting a space colony is changed; what if the new government budget-cuts and says to hell with it? The air supply, among other things, will eventually be depleted, and the colony will have to be abandoned.
Depending on Earth for an air supply means that the colony is temporary and unsustainable in the long run. Technologies will have to be developed to extract air from asteroids, comets and, perhaps, moons. And the supply will have to be permanent.
The same is true for water as for air, but water is heavy and incompressible. Best-case scenario: a colony on the Moon mines water ice at the south pole, electrolyses it into hydrogen and oxygen and transports the gases to the colony for recombination.
The process will be very costly in terms of energy, and the ice will eventually be exhausted. Water ice might be captured from comets, in the rings of Saturn, or even at the poles of Mercury, but long-haul transport will have to be added to the cost.
Fuel is the most difficult challenge of all. What is a space colony going to use? Let’s start with the absurd: coal and oil. Even if the Moon or asteroids had any, and they don’t, the supply would be too small. And a belching-smokestack colony would eventually pollute itself into extinction anyway. Why repeat in space what humanity is already doing on Earth?
What next: solar power? That is a possibility: the Moon has a lot of stable, periodically sunlit terrain. Discounting the odd meterorite, solar power might keep a Moon colony running indefinitely. But the solar collectors would have to be enormously larger than the colony itself in order to supply enough electricity for a population of any appreciable size. A space habitat or a colony on Mars would find solar power installations cumbersome at best, unmanageable at worst.
Nuclear power? Nuclear waste would not be a problem for a space habitat; the waste could simply be tossed into the Sun. A planetary colony would find nuclear waste as big a problem as on Earth. The names Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima underscore the fact that nuclear engineering is not yet advanced enough to ensure safety in any economically feasible way. And we’d first have to find out whether the Solar System has enough accessible uranium to maintain an adequate supply.
Fusion power is the only practical source of energy for a space colony. It’s cheap at any cost, because it promises an indefinite supply of energy from an abundant material, namely hydrogen. However, fusion power will require major and unforeseeable technological advances. And it may never prove feasible; it has “too good to be true” written all over it.
Does space hold plentiful resources, enough to support permanent space colonies? No, it doesn’t. It’s a desert. And it’s a desert where even the sand is hard to get at.
II. What shall space colonies do?
Put a colony on the Moon or Mars or in one or more space habitats in orbit around the Earth or Sun. What are these colonies supposed to do? The answer is not obvious.
Suppose King Ferdinand had not made Christopher Columbus wait till the conquest of Granada was complete and had granted Columbus’ first request to finance an expedition into the Atlantic. King Ferdinand could have bought Granada and anything else he fancied.
It’s not the same today. We don’t need the equivalent of a new sea route, one that avoids both Africa and the Ottoman Empire. And what “spice islands” are there in space? Even if the Moon were made of pure mint gold, it would not cover the cost of sending prospectors to collect nuggets and bring them back to Earth. At a stretch, robot collectors might be economical for a while; but human beings, no.
Will the colonists engage in scientific research? What can a permanent space colony do that a temporary one like the International Space Station can’t? Astronomy? Automated space telescopes have already proved efficient and economical.
One justification remains: exploration. Exploring the Moon and Mars might be worthwhile, although we don’t yet have a reason to think it would be. But would it really require permanent colonies rather than expeditions? It might, but an expedition would have to discover something so unusual that it would justify the cost of a permanent colony. We have yet to see any sign of such a thing.
Assuming that all the material and power requirements can be met, a generation ship headed for an Earthlike extrasolar planet might be interesting. That is, it might be interesting to the generation alive when the ship arrives at its destination.
For Earth, a generation ship is “launch and forget.” Aboard the ship, all the passengers have to do is while away the centuries and procreate enough — but not too many — children. In the far future, the last generation of those children will finally get “Yes” in answer to the eternal question “Are we there yet?” By that time, will they be in any condition or position to care?
In any event, no space habitats will undertake — singly or in combination — a generations-long voyage to another star. Even if the trip were feasible, it would be pointless; the habitats would only set up shop again and continue doing whatever they had been doing in the Solar System. Such a long and perilous voyage could be justified — like Columbus’ — only by the prospect of a big payoff.
To sum up: Planetary exploration might provide a motivation for space expeditions. But space flight for its own sake? No. To cite an old children’s song, the bear did not go over the mountain to see what he could see. The bear went over the mountain because he expected to find food.
Exploration is undertaken only for a purpose, not for none at all. We don’t need more gold, we have viable trade routes, and we can leave Granada in peace. What Earth needs is one or more energy sources that can replace fossil fuels. If such a source can be found in space, then a latter-day King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella would be fully justified in hocking all their jewelry and investing in space colonies.
III. What’s it all about?
Mark emphasizes the problem of boredom. What is boredom? It’s a feeling of being trapped, of wanting to go somewhere else or do something else but being unable to.
We all grant that people can feel bored on Earth. How much more likely are they to feel bored when they’re cooped up forever in a space colony? A generation ship would at least be going somewhere. A space habitat would not; it would be the equivalent of a flying prison.
A home is more than a house
Let’s set aside space habitats and generation ships for the moment and take our best shot: a Mars colony. I think you can already see where that may lead.
What advantages would a Mars colony have? Air? No. Arable soil? No. Fuel? No. Water? No, although the colonists might eventually be able to dig some up and purify it somehow. The Mars colonists will have to bring everything with them. The colony’s only advantage is that gravity is somewhat stronger on Mars than on the Moon.
What does Mars have, then, that a space habitat does not? Room to move around in and a planet to explore. A lot of exploration has already been done by robots and satellites, but room to stretch one’s legs is at least something.
The most interesting question facing a Mars colony is what to do with waste. It can be recycled, but only so much. Perhaps bodily organisms could be turned loose on the surface, where, if the organisms can survive the cold in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and hydrogen peroxide, they may evolve into true Martians in some impossibly remote future.
Why go anywhere — let alone to outer space or another planet — when one’s greatest contribution is to take a dump? That is hardly a noble ambition. It brings the very concept of “invaders from outer space” into bad odor.
Why have the Apollo missions been discontinued? Mainly because the Cold War is over and they’ve served their purpose. But set aside international politics: have the missions no other purpose?
Ask not what you can do for Apollo missions, ask what they can do for you. What can future Apollo astronauts expect to accomplish that has not yet been done? Is the expedition worth the exorbitant expense? One takes a shot in the dark only when failure costs little or nothing. Columbus — not to mention Erik the Red — would be the first to tell us that big exploration isn’t done that way.
Why build colonies on the Moon, Mars or anywhere else? The most likely reason is proposed by Robert A. Heinlein in his little-known novel Beyond This Horizon. It’s tourism.
Gamblers who come back from a casino on the Moon can lord it no end over those who’ve been content to stay on Earth and go to Las Vegas. But wait... Take a crap on Mars or crap out on the Moon? Is either one a reason to establish a colony on another planet?
Other explorers have had far more serious purposes. Why did the Thule people leave Siberia for Alaska and eventually become the Inuit in the North American Arctic? Not for the sheer adventure of it; Siberia is a good place for hunters on land and sea. Climate change and, perhaps, conflict with other groups may have impelled them to seek new territory in which to make their living. The Inuit migrated successfully into a region that is considered a desert on Earth. They had a practical answer to the question “Why explore?”
What can we answer to the question “Why explore space?” Why build a colony on a planet or in space or on a generation ship? Simply to exist? To perpetuate humanity in space while those left behind are busy destroying Earth and themselves? That’s like fleeing a burning building and taking shelter elsewhere without having learned anything about fire prevention.
If Earthlings try to colonize space or another planet, they will have to take Earth — or a reasonable facsimile — with them, but the cost is prohibitive. Humanity has been able to run away from itself for a long time; now we’ve come to the end of the line.
If science fiction space colonies have any meaning, it is to show two things:
We have nowhere left to go. Cyrano de Bergerac knew that, more than 350 years ago. That’s why he preferred The Other World as the title for his novel rather than the better-known “Voyage to the Moon.” True, he has a lot of fun recapitulating the history of flight in the 20th century, 300 years in advance, but he repeatedly emphasizes that his “other world” is a dramatic device and a mirror image of Earth.
Industrial-Era science fiction has been playing mind games with us. Space colonies have traditionally been inhabited by spirits who are tastefully clothed and embodied but take it for granted that they can eat, drink, breathe, keep warm and generally act as they would on Earth. That’s more easily said than done.
Space colonies may be possible someday. Will they be desirable or even useful? That remains to be seen. But if we want to go anywhere — be it to a space habitat or a planet or a generation ship — we’ll first have to learn how to survive in our present vehicle, namely Earth. And that means Mom and Pop must be civil and economical in the front seat while the kids learn to keep from killing each other in the back seat.
Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb