Some thinking on starting an off-world colony (space, the moon, Mars, etc.)

The essentials: Air, water, and food. The typical model is a terrarium, where a closed cycle of water, breathable gases, and biomass can be maintained. In free space, you can expect no significant additions to materials to be converted into biomass. On the moon, I see no reason to expect that the mineral resources there would be significantly different from untouched volcanic soil on earth. Mars’ soils could be a bit more problematic, but could be refined, possibly even via a biological process, to remove metallic taints. Extremophile bacteriological processes currently being studied should point the way. In the cases of the moon and Mars, it may be useful to build underground for the purposes of maintaining proper temperature insulation. Electrical power may be generated easily on the surface from materials that are photoreactive or undergo physical changes with cyclic changes in temperature, or thermocouple devices with conductive probes located in different temperature environments. Generators that run on biomass conversions may also be added to the equation as long as they are affordable ecologically speaking and fit into the terrarium model.

The people. Make sure you’ve selected people with relevant fields of expertise. Also, make sure there is plenty of overlap among the fields covered. At least coarsely, make sure each person has a primary field of expertise at which they are an authority, has a secondary field at which they can function with assistance, and a third field in which they can provide assistance if necessary if provided direction. Make sure every critical field is represented at every level so that there is sufficient redundancy in case of accidental incapacitation or death.

The fields of expertise. The concept here is microcosm. The colony should be as self-supporting as possible, including not only engineering and agricultural support, but also low-level maintenance and social support, including religious counseling and entertainment. Gentle leadership and conflict resolution must be emphasized.

Governance. A colony must be self-governing, at least at the operational level. A charter delineating operating policies should be provided that emphasizes primarily the survival, health, and rights of the colonists and the survival of the colony itself, and then the operating goals of the colony, which may require periodic modification to prevent sapping energy and resources for the colony’s survival and/or to maximize the returns on investment. Justice, rewards, and punishments may need to be modeled on various examples of encapsulated systems, like those used on board ships, due to increase in risks of negligence and greater need for efficiency in terms of expertise and labor.

The goals. A colony must export some resource that’s needed elsewhere, though “export” can be a pretty flexible term. Exports can, of course, include raw mineral resources and, as manufacturing capabilities increase, manufactured goods. An orbital colony could, for instance, export vacuum. In sufficiently sealed and correctly constructed containers, enough vacuum could supply lift for lighter-than-air vehicles and platforms and reduce the weight of load-bearing foamed materials, including metals and ceramics. The moon could, for instance, export orbital crafts, probes, and satellites once sufficient manufacturing facilities are in place. The escape velocity for the moon requires a good deal less energy to put objects into earth orbit or to send farther out into space, meaning cost savings also in hardening delicate systems to survive the trip. There may also be added benefits to producing agricultural products in one-sixth of earth-gravity that may be worth exploring. Mars is at one-quarter of earth’s gravity and could also provide plant an animal life that could be more efficient in terms of ratios of nutritious material to inedible structure. Any or all colonies could provide for a tourism and/or education industry, or a medical industry to provide long-term or short term therapies that would benefit from various levels of reduced gravity.

The funding. Startup for a colony off the surface of earth would be enormously expensive, and thus largely dependent on the agencies and organizations with the largest amount of disposable funds. Usually this involves governments, but it doesn’t have to. And, in fact, probably shouldn’t. The purposes of a government include collecting funds as fairly as possible and using those funds to provide resources, infrastructure, and services for the public benefit. A colony, however, is almost certainly a for-profit venture (unless the “exports” are entirely military, scientific, health-related, or educational) and should be funded by investors or trade agencies that are comfortable with high-risk ventures that may not reap benefits for decades. Colonization of the western hemisphere was enacted by governments at first, and then by companies that were interested in discovering new wealth and founding bases for launching future exploration. Currently the only potential investors are governments that could, in ten to twenty years’s time, use some dividends to pay back huge debts that have been incurred, certain corporate concerns in the energy sector, a number of hedge funds that made out like bandits over the most recent economic collapse, and maybe Monsanto. Certainly a new corporation could be formed that would consolidate investments and put them to cooperative use.


April 12, 2010 · by xalieri · Posted in Everything Else  


4 Responses to “Some thinking on starting an off-world colony (space, the moon, Mars, etc.)”

  1. Dave on April 18th, 2010 3:41 pm

    Terraforming of Mars and Venus could start now, on the cheap. Govt could even do it using basic scientific research funds. Of course, there is already talk against such “interference,” because we shouldn’t “pollute” other worlds like that.

  2. vidicon on April 18th, 2010 4:12 pm

    One of the biggest reasons not to start yet, for Mars in particular, is that we haven’t completely ruled out native life yet. And possibly never will, frankly, because we haven’t even found all the different kinds of life we have on earth yet. Many feel that trampling this new stuff before we even get a chance to see it could set back the advances we could make on studying how life works already where we’d be trying to live.

    But that’s only the intellectual issue.

    The financial issue, which is the same for everywhere we might want to do some terraforming, is how to make sure the companies and/or organizations that start the process get an appreciable return on the financial investment they’d be committing. It’s why we’re not using Tesla’s broadcast electricity. How do you bill for usage? How would you bill for every breath drawn by the colonists when they get there?

    Until the concept of “public good” transfers to the variously politically aligned colonies of our future homes, no one’s going to just start a process that our potential enemies may be the ones to benefit the most from. And that’s just the sad truth.

    Colonies are going to have to start in little terrariums that we’re going to force to have some kind of loyalty, possibly even financial, until the investors get the profits they were looking for. Then we can let them out of their little boxes.

  3. Dave on April 20th, 2010 11:31 pm

    Mars, in particular, should be easy to get started… dessicated lichens, powdered… enough to fill a shoebox. Air dispersal over any area found to have ice. Fast? No. Cheap? Yes. Effective? Who can say, but it’s worth a try!

  4. vidicon on April 20th, 2010 11:44 pm

    I’m all for it. What would we have to do to smuggle a shoebox to Mars? Can we throw in a few tardigrades for good measure? Just to see if they can handle the place?

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