Once the Infrastructure's Built,
Where Will We Go?


by Thomas Andrew Olson

The Colony Fund initiative is all about one goal: humanity entering space for adventure, fun, and profit; where they go after liftoff is, for us at least, a secondary consideration.

Settling space – that great human diaspora into the solar system and the stars beyond – is a centuries-old dream that promises to become a 21st century reality. Entering space – for good – will drive new economies, technologies, and the evolution of new political and societal models undreamed of today. It will also serve to ensure humankind's long-term survival as a species. So for the sake of discussion, it is not an issue of whether to settle other worlds, but rather, "where first?" Truly, if we are going to go out and live there, we have to go someplace. And therein, unfortunately, lies the controversy.

A variety of space advocacy groups have all logged in on this topic, recommending everything from the Moon, to Mars, to the Asteroid Belt, to man-made orbiting Habitats. The only downside to all that creative energy is that many groups get caught up in their own press releases, and wind up suffering from the age old "NASA syndrome": that they alone have the "one best way", and that the other advocacies are somehow "in competition" with them for public hearts, minds, and dollars. Arguments - at times bitter and vitriolic - among the key players of the various groups ensue, which leads to a "fissioning" among its various rank and file members.

This, in our view, is very misguided. We don't care why people want to go to space, only that they do, and it is our hope that the Colony Fund initiative will become just one among many "pathways to Unity" that humanity so clearly needs, if we are to actually succeed.

"Moon vs. Mars"?...Why not both?

It seems as though at least once a year, some space advocacy conference will attempt to energize the attendees by sponsoring a "debate" on whether to return to the Moon or pass it by and go directly to Mars. Such "debates" are pointless, and lead only to further division of the space advocacy community into competing camps. The implied assumpion, of course, is that public resources are limited, and therefore, we as a "society" can only "afford" to do one or the other.

Well, last time we checked, while there is a Congressional mandate at present to do these things - NASA, the agency that would presumably be tapped to lead this effort, has to walk a budgetary tighrope to maintain and launch their (shrinking) Shuttle fleet, keep the International Space Station going, and develop new vehicles ans systems to both replace the Shuttle and get us to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. That's quite a lot to chew, and they are already beginning to admit that some sort of private, cost-effective solution to Earth orbit, at minimum, will be required if they are going to succeed.

The good news is that both Mars and lunar colonization could be achieved relatively quickly (i.e., within a generation), utilizing off-the-shelf materials we can bring to bear right now, today. Settling either world will not require exotic new technologies, interim "projects", orbiting platforms, or any show-stopping breakthroughs in any other field of research. The launch capacity has been available for 30 years.

The Moon and Mars offer comparative advantages and disadvantages for potential colonists, with both worlds sharing similar challenges in terms of resource utilization, transportation, communications, radiation protection, and general "quality of life" (for lack of a better term).

The Moon is by far the closest to us, and the easiest target to reach (Hey, we've done it before!). Communications with the homeworld will take 1.5 seconds, as opposed to the minutes to hours it would take anywhere else. Once a low-cost launch infrastructure is in place (a key private investment objective), it will be relatively inexpensive to ferry settlers from Earth, as the need for life support will be much less for a 3-day trip, as opposed to a 6-month voyage. Initial supplies and other equipment will be easy to send as well, with automated landers capable of being teleoperated from Earth, if need be, for lunar orbit and/or final descent.

While the economic base for a lunar settlement is pretty straightforward (mining and light manufacturing), some key lunar materials may be relatively difficult to extract from the lunar regolith, and others – like water – may not exist at all, or only in significant quantities in remote areas (such as the lunar south pole). Colonists may have to import key ingredients for life support at significant expense, at least at first, thus counterbalancing the value of their exports to Earth. More research will have to be made here.

Also, the Moon has a day-night cycle that is two-weeks long. Its lack of atmosphere, while a boon for spacecraft engineers, offers extremes of heat, cold, and ionizing radiation. Colonists would by necessity be forced to live - permanently - an existence "under cover", be it in natural or artificial caves deep in the ground, or above ground in habitats covered with one or two meters of lunar soil. In addition, because of its close proximity to Earth, very little social experimentation will be encouraged. The Moon is, indeed, a "harsh mistress" (to borrow from the 1964 Heinlein title), but there are plenty of intrepid individuals who are more than ready to take on those challenges.

By contrast, Mars offers a 24-hour 37-minute day, low but useful gravity, local resources that can be efficiently and economically extracted for long-term human survival (most notably water, possibly oceans of it, currently frozen under the soil), and just enough distance from mother Earth to allow for social experimentation. Most of the technologies currently in use to get into Earth orbit can, with a little effort, be adapted for use in transporting people and equipment to Mars. The largest expense involved is that of getting material from the Earth's surface to orbit.

The biggest challenge for Mars settlers will be that of isolation. It takes a long time to get there, and it will definitely be a "one-way" trip. A Mars settlement will have to be self-sufficient from the outset, as it is too far away for "rescue missions" to be effective, which means heavier up-front investment in custom equipment enabling colonists to create their own tools and machinery, using local resources. Communciations with earth will take anything from 5 to 20 minutes each way. Despite the advantages of a 24-hr day/night cycle, and a thin atmosphere to alleviate the "sameness" of the landscape, the issue of radiation shielding is much the same as it would be for the Moon. Bottom line is, once you arrive at Mars, you are on your own. Such a land will be a haven, however, for those who mourn the loss of the American style "rugged individualist" who tamed the frontier American west in the 19th century. It will be a place for new social experiments, a place to evolve.

Mars offer a great opportunities for success, both for survival and in economic terms, via "in situ resource utilization" (ISRU). Mars' natural resources can be developed economically, particularly as there is lots of water frozen under the surface. Deuterium could be its first export, as it is estimated there is five times as much of it in Martian water than there is on Earth, and presently sells for US$10,000/kilo. Like the Moon, Mars can also serve as a way station for those who will go on to mine the asteroids and explore the outer solar system, a place to replenish, and perhaps for "R&R".

For the aesthetically-minded, Mars offers vistas in the form of ancient volcanoes and rift valleys like Vallis Marineris that dwarf anything on earth, and one can envision a significant tourist industry established there one day.

Once self-sustaining settlements on the Moon and Mars are established, they would become economically competitive ports of call for asteroid miners and deep-space explorers. Trading schemes would develop whereby asteroid miners ship raw materials to Earth, Earth processes them into refined goods and technologies to export to Moon/Mars (which themselves are also exporting raw materials and technologies to Earth and the Belt), and Moon/Mars acts as the supply and support stations for travelers.

Flying mountains encased in balloons

The asteroid belt offers an abundance of mineral wealth that could be mined and processed economically, once the techniques are developed to do so. Its disadvantages lie in the distances involved, radiation exposure, and no 'gravity source' to keep colonists' bones healthy and strong. For health and safety, settlers would have to create large, shielded, spinning habitats from scratch, which could be very expensive at first. Of course, one good-sized nickle-iron asteroid could pay off the national debt, so it just might be worth the investment. But that investment would have to wait until a certain level of wealth in other endeavors is generated - little steps. L. Neil Smith, in his 1993 novel, "Pallas", envisioned a world wherein one of the largest asteroids was entirely enclosed in a big transparent gasbag, and colonists could live in open air on the surface, where the gravity is 1/20th of Earth's. We still don't know what prolonged exposure to that low a gravity will do to our bones, however, and we may have to wait awhile before the technology required to build the gasbag becomes available.

Recycling "empty vessels"?

At least one company has been promoting the reuse of empty shuttle external tanks to make large space habitats. Although promoters argued this would be a far less-wasteful endeavour than just letting them burn up in the atmosphere after each Shuttle mission, design engineers from the original contractors stated flatly that this wasn't practical. Given the shuttle system faces retirement in less than a decade, this argument may be irrelevant. However, when one considers long-term needs for heavy lift, NASA planners should take into account the potential of "dual-use" for new systems.

We have long supported a "customized" space transportation system, whereas hauling people utilizes a different system than merely hauling freight. The current shuttle stack, in economic terms, would be of far better use for freight, where risk tolerances are higher, and none of the payload, once in orbit, is coming back again. In place of the shuttle, another "empty vessel" would be integrated into the stack, filled with tonnes of "stuff" destined for orbit. Once in orbit, and the canister is emptied, it could also be reused, in addition to the external tank, as available potential living space, paid for by customers wanting to build their own orbiting facility. This would be a cheap, "quick and dirty" way to bootstrap orbiting habitats, the hotels and playgrounds of tomorrow, where adventurous people from all over the world will meet and interact.

So...why should we argue over "where first"? There are plenty of options out there - lets find a way to do them all!

Clearly we need more creative ways to fund and achieve these dreams (that's why we're here!). We're no longer prepared to wait for poorly-performing government space "programs" to carry the ball - we're no longer willing to be simply cheering spectators on the sidelines - we've wasted the promise and creativity of an entire generation on that saw, and we're not willing to waste another. It's time we did it ourselves. It will take longer, but the initial costs will be a fraction of that which government programs spend, and there will be large profits to be made, for tens of thousands - perhaps one day millions - of people.

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