Considering a colony on Mars


I grew up on space colonization stuff and fully expected a Moon base, then a Moon colony, then a Mars base, then a Mars Colony by…well, now. Look at all the space hardware that was expected for 2001, along with a Jupiter probe. None of that movie struck 1969 audiences as implausible, given the previous 32 years of technological development, which spanned the Graf Zepplin to the Concorde, 747, and Apollo 11.

Charlie Stross kind of hammered in the coffin nails for me with his essay about the impossibility of space colonies, which referenced Bruce Sterling’s shorter essay summarized as “Call me about Mars when the Gobi Desert is full”:……

…it’s not about the technological possibility of getting enough mass to Mars to make living space there and solving those problems (I loved The Martian), it’s about whether it would pay anything. You can do exploration at a loss, but colonization has to pay for itself, and it just can’t.

The notion of a whole “backup” home for the race has a very high value, but realistically, that implies utterly self-sufficient colonies. To prove they need no biologicals or anything from Earth, you’d have to build something totally self-contained…and there’s no need to build that somewhere else, we can start right here with “Biosphere II” type experiments, self-contained sealed spaces that at least have the right gravity and emergency support while we make mistakes getting THAT right – for centuries on end; replicating an entire self-sufficient biosphere is bound to take a long time for all the details.

So: suppose you got that working, some kind of sealed space that needs no interaction with the rest of the Earth to support humans for indefinite generations. Yay! We’re ready to build it on Mars, or spinning at L5! Except we could far more cheaply dig a hole a few kilometres deep in bedrock, and put one there. And then do that again a dozen times in mid-continental plates all over the world….still cheaper. Those redoubts would ALSO be safe, collectively, from killer asteroids and comets, pandemics, supervolcanos, Permian Extinction Events, The ludicrous plot of Seveneves, and most other human-extinction scenarios involving impacting bodies smaller than a few hundred km across. Plus, they’d have free power from geothermal, and in most scenarios, could still stick up a periscope to Biosphere I and pull in things like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon that are conspicuously lacking in space or Mars.

Eventually, the “lifeboat colony” would happen, I’m sure…but only after we’ve spent about a thousand years perfecting and building sustainable habitats here, where they are easier and less fatal to debug, and provide about 99% of the extinction risk-avoidance that space habitats would.


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