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Should we colonise space?

Or is the sky really the limit?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Should we colonise space?

Or is the sky really the limit?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

3 min read

If it’s not Day Zero, it’s load shedding, and if it’s not one of those, it’s a three-week lockdown as we all hide away, quiddling in our boots, from a killer virus. Is Earth becoming unliveable, and should we perhaps find a new planet to live on?

Colonisation vs exploitation

There is a huge history of attempted – and successful – commercial exploitation of space ‘real estate’ that used the concept of colonisation as a marketing tool. The surprisingly successful lunar-preneur Dennis Hope, for example, sold plots on the moon on the basis of views and desirability of neighbourhood. The well-publicised Mars One space programme, which raised over US$1 billion through crowd funding to send colonists on a one-way trip to Mars, has declared bankruptcy, and been declared – at worst – a scam, and – at best – a misguided fantasy.

But it’s not just the loony-tuners, geeky sci-fiers and tongue-in-cheek satirical novelists like Ben Elton who come up with space colonisation stories. Space colonisation campaigners include Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson. A 2016 article by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R Hendrix in Scientific American suggested that rather than colonising our own moon, we colonise one of Saturn’s – Titan.

Safety valve

We humans have a good record of destroying ecosystems and then moving on. It is quite authoritatively surmised that the civilisations at Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe died out because of environmental degradation, and we know for a fact that the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850 resulted in widespread starvation culminating in the emigration of more than two million Irish people – mostly to the United States, which was conveniently ‘unpopulated’ (except for the Native Americans). So there is significant precedent for our finding an alternative if we irrevocably stuff up Earth. But, really, is it viable? Is it even possible? Is it a good idea? Well, it’s certainly something we’ve been discussing with various levels of seriousness for a very long time.

The late Stephen Hawking admitted that humanity had so stuffed up the world that we have to colonise space or ‘risk being annihilated’. He suggested starting off with the moon and Mars, but believed that – ultimately – we could leave our solar system and colonise Proxima B in Alpha Centauri, utilising as-yet-undiscovered energy sources.

While Hawking’s theoretical credentials are impeccable, they are backed up by some pretty practical technical gear-heads as well, like SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who has said: ‘You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilisation is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.’

Living vs surviving

You have to admire Musk’s enthusiasm, even if it does make you think of an – admittedly very cute – 11-year-old boy rejoicing at the prospect of hurtling down a steep hill on a go-kart with no brakes. Even if it were technically possible, would living on another planet be desirable? Or socially sustainable?

Countless scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals illustrate how living in cities and in crowded conditions increase our risk of depression, anxiety, psychosis and violent behaviour, and also cite lack of agency as a basis for a range of mental illnesses. This is why candidates for Antarctic expeditions are chosen not only for their academic and technical qualifications but also for their above-average mental and emotional resilience.

So let’s do a thought experiment. How would the lucky ones be chosen? The ‘silver seed’, as Neil Young sang:

‘Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.
There were children crying and colours flying all around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun.
Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun.
Flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home.’

And who would do the choosing? And would that process result in the most emotionally and psychologically resilient people being chosen as the ‘silver seed’? I think not. I think that, as many satirists do, Ben Elton got it right in his dystopian novel Stark, in which the world’s wealthy elite escaped a dying planet only to discover that they were trapped in a bubble with some of the most despicable characters (not) on Earth – themselves.

And, to be fair to Neil Young, the line before the lyrics quoted above is: ‘I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie. Thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie.’

Reality check

If we are incapable of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, incapable of reversing global climate change, incapable of dealing with pollution, accelerated extinction, erosion, overcrowding, homelessness, unemployment, starvation, violence, crime, war and inequality here on Earth, how in the name of all that is logical will we get it right on Mars? Or the moon? Or Titan?

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