Space Colonies Probably Won’t Happen
By Taylor Marvin
At The Economist’s blog Democracy in America, N.L. takes a dim view of Gingrich’s beloved moon colony:
“Money can be made without creating a lunar colony, but it seems colonisation in and of itself is Mr Gingrich’s goal. And that presents a problem. We already know that short periods of near-zero gravity are extremely unhealthy for adults. They suffer significant losses in bone density and muscle atrophy after only six months on the space station. How about a lifetime on the low-gravity moon? And what about the children?! The human developmental process is designed for Earth’s gravity, meaning a moon pregnancy would involve serious risks. Any child that survived would be crushed by gravity if they tried to return to the Earth.
At this point one could mutter something about developments in technology that could overcome basic human biology, but even humanity’s mastery of technology cannot overcome the facts. The moon is a cold, airless, lifeless lump of rock a long way away. Only a lunatic would want to raise kids there.”
Daniel Larison piles on:
“On top of that, there is no need for any of this. Setting up such a colony, besides being bad for the colonists and a massive waste of resources, would serve no real purpose except to serve as a monument to our willingness to embark on useless, costly projects.”
Scientific space exploration is important, and it’s likely that an increasingly affluent and populous world population will drive resource extraction in the inner solar system sometime this century. But living off-world is a different story, and I don’t see any motivation for leaving Earth that could offset the incredible cost and dangers of doing so:
“Humans probably will have the propulsion and robotic technologies necessary to create asteroid habitats this century, and it’s probably safe to bet on the emergence of the types of fusion propulsion systems necessary for reasonably quick travel throughout the solar system in the next two hundred years. However, living outside the familiar environment of the Earth will always be enormously expensive. Even on Mars, whose terrestrial environment is relatively similar to Earth’s and possesses the space and atmospheric pressure to permit reasonably cheap agriculture and habitation, it will always be hugely expensive to house, feed, and protect settlers. The cost on low gravity, vacuum environments like moons or asteroids will be even greater, though somewhat reduced by the ease of escaping small bodies’ gravity well. Ultimately people won’t be willing to bear these enormous costs of settling the solar system unless there is a pressing reason to do so. Science fiction writer have always assumed that the specter of an unbearably crowded Earth would be this motivation. Fortunately, this future looks unlikely. Sure, a planet inhabited by 10 billion increasingly affluent consumers will represent enormous social and environmental challenges, some that may be extremely difficult to overcome. However it is unlikely that the costs of a 10 billion strong terrestrial population will ever be enough to offset the challenges of a significant portion of the human species living off the Earth. If today’s favorable demographic forecasts hold true there simply won’t be enough humans to ever justify investment in significant off-world settlement activity.”
Of course, the off-world settler’s motivations to leave Earth don’t have to be economic. Many libertarian and like-minded groups have fantasized about establishing societies at sea, beyond the reach of government inference. It’s possible that future malcontent idealists will feel a the desire to leave Earth behind completely. But that doesn’t change the fact that even in the medium-term establishing permanent colonies in space will be enormously expensive. Modern prospective “seasteaders” have floundered due to lack of funds — there’s no reason to suspect that this constraint will be easier to overcome in the future. Ultimately space is cold, dangerous, and lonely. If the Earth remains habitable, I don’t see very many people wanting to leave it.