Why should we colonise space?

A post based on my recent reading of some of these books.

That is, of course, a very good question. It seems that at the moment no one has a satisfactory answer. Space travel is expensive, it’s risky, only few people appear to benefit directly, for a questionable gain, and there are more ‘worthy’ causes to spend our money, so why indeed should we go?

In looking at this question, let’s take a step back.

In an earlier post, I outlined that my field of studies is ecology and population dynamics.

In a population of organisms, migration happens when there is population pressure in a species’ current range. The greater the pressure, the stronger the urge a small percentage of individuals feels to leave.

In a purely ecological sense, any species that doesn’t take advantage of opportunities for colonisation is one that may be threatened with extinction. It implies that this species has never built up enough internal population pressure to desire to find greener pastures. A species of plant or animal that only lives in a small area is called vulnerable or endangered. Maybe it hasn’t adapted. Maybe its gene pool is too shallow to allow it to adapt. Maybe it lacks the drive to try new situations. In any case, the species is conservative and not very adventurous.

Humans are not like that. Humans evolved in Africa and spread throughout the world. Humans then evolved different cultures, and some of those cultures developed the ability to re-establish contact with other subcultures. First, humans colonised the world in a biological sense, and then we did it again in a cultural sense. There was great excitement and controversy attached to the great sea voyages of the explorers who put previously unknown continents on the map. Now, with the internet and instant communication, we’ve seen it all; there is no more new frontier.

Or is there?

Well, there’s this lump of rock that orbits us, and there’s this other lump of rock a bit further away from the sun, which we suspect may once have been lush and green. We’ve even discovered ice there. And some of us are starting to smell a new frontier.

On certain levels, the comparison with the ‘discovery’ of and subsequent colonisation of places like America and Australia is strong. Of course we won’t find Martians in the same way as there were native peoples of those continents, and I in no way wish to negate the negative effects on those people, but it’s beside the current point. The expansion/settlement/consolidation cycle into space would look somewhat like this:

1. Exploration
This is the stage we’re at now, where we send unmanned probes and short manned missions. The only place we’ve sent missions, of course, is the Moon, and that was done for political rather than exploration issues.

2. Temporary missions
These would involve semi-permanent habitats with temporary crew, mostly for the benefit of science and exploration. One could argue that the ISS is such a mission. Being in Low Earth Orbit, however, it is really the least far we could go.

3. Permanent habitation
Eventually, we would send people to live and work in these places. They would be leaving just as the colonists of old left England for America or Australia, to set up a new life and not come back. The new colonies would have to be self-sufficient in the basic sense of the word.

4. Autonomy
Just like the new world countries, the newly settled bodies (artificial or natural) would become independent. This requires, more than anything, a self-sufficient habitat, and most likely a degree of income-generating export. Mining of rare elements (for sale to Earth-based businesses), helium (for energy) or water (for space travellers or for terraforming) is often mentioned. All of these cane be made economically sound

But the question remains: why should we go?

As insurance policy in case something happens to Earth?
That’s a really stupid reason. We should look after Earth first, but there is no reason that doing this should preclude us from going to space at the same time. In fact, going to space may relieve some of the population pressure on Earth. Going to space may also help us look after Earth better, through the development of new technology that is cleaner and more efficient (just remember that rocket fuel, essentially is nothing more than liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen: water – no burning of fossil fuels involved).

For research?
Maybe, yet research leaves a lot of people (especially bean counters) cold. Research is one of those airy-fairy things that’s considered property of the community at large, so by its very design doesn’t generate an income. Research can and will certainly play a role in the early stages of colonisation, but it should be a means to an end, not the end in itself.

For profit?
Well, that can be done, but it requires independent, probably autonomous settlements and we’re not that far ahead by a long shot. For the time being, it will require heavy investment by those willing to stick out their necks. But those people exist.

Just because it there?
After all, what other common reason motivated the Spaniards, the English, the Portuguese and the Dutch travel the globe? Because it was there. Because we might find something that’s useful. And that is what a successful species does: it colonises. There is no intrinsic ‘why’.

Let me reverse the question:
If space colonisation can be done with private funding at no cost to the public and the environment, all of which is possible, why should we not do it?

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