When we look around at the world today, it’s not hard to see that we’re going through a pretty rough period. With globalization, increased carbon emissions, wars, travel, overpopulation, wealth disparity, and a rising climate that seems to make everyone’s blood boil, it’s no surprise that some people have considered leaving this planet behind.
Since the first satellite was ever fired into orbit, and humans realized that we may be able to travel through space, the idea to explore other worlds, and possibly live there, has been at the forefront of some people’s attention. The moon landing, subsequent missions to Mars and other planets, and the technological advances in the modern age have made the prospect of colonizing outer space a fascinating subject.
We’ve depicted it in movies, we’ve dreamt about it for generations, and the fundamental idea sounds wickedly cool, but is that ever going to be a reality? Are humans actually trying to colonize outer space?
Why Take the Trip?
Although some of the best reasons for finding a way to live in outer space were mentioned above, there are dozens of reasons commonly cited for establishing a civilization on another celestial body. First of all, a single-planet species is severely limited in terms of long-term survival, so any planetary event (like an asteroid strike), could potentially eradicate the species. However, a colony on the moon, Mars, or some other planet would act as a backup plan, or a restart protocol for the species, like a reverse colonization of Earth should something catastrophic occur.
Also, our solar system is overflowing with resources, material, and potential colonies.The asteroids in our solar system, for example, are massive sources of valuable minerals in their purest form, which we are running out of on our planet. As our population continues to grow, our planet is simply not sustainable, so if we can find a way to live off-planet in sustainable habitats, then we could spread our species and continue to grow.
The destiny of any species, in theory, is to expand and explore. We have already made some early attempts at the stars, but there is still so much to learn and see. Expanding into space is the logical choice for that!
Energy generation is also a major factor, as the amount of solar energy that could be captured elsewhere in space is much more significant. As our energy demands increase, we’ll need to use any technology that we can, and setting up colonies in outer space to snatch some of that precious sunshine is another great idea. Transportation outside of Earth’s gravitational pull is also difficult – and expensive! Having other colonies in places with less gravitational pull would make traveling between planets much easier.
These are just a few of the many benefits and arguments in support of colonies in space, but the more important question is, can we even do it?
What Are the Options?
Our best options, based on the length of the trip from Earth, would be the Moon, Mars, the moons of Mars, near-Earth asteroids, Venus, Mercury, the asteroid belt, or simply our own planet’s orbit.
Each of those options have a huge host of advantages and disadvantages, which are each fascinating discussions for another article, but a few examples might give you an idea of why this is such a confusing and controversial subject!
The Moon is an obvious choice, as it’s the only thing outside of our planet that a human has stood on. It’s also a rather short journey,and it has a weaker gravitational pull, making it a better launch point for other missions. However, the Moon is also depleted in materials, has temperature extremes, very little protective atmosphere, and would not be feasible for agriculture.
Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system, making it another clear choice, and definitely the most popular subject in the past few years (If you haven’t seen The Martian with Matt Damon, stop reading this article and go watch it immediately). While there is evidence of water on Mars, and its generally calm nature, there are also major arguments against it. There is practically no oxygen, survivability would depend on serious life support systems, and it’s also a much longer trip that a rocket to the moon.
Every option for space colonization has a huge list of pros and cons!
Old Obstacles and New Solutions
When the idea of space colonization first arose, it was in the realm of sci-fi fantasy, and was often the fodder of fiction, television shows, and movies in an impossible “futuristic” sense. Now, however, we are beginning to take the topic more seriously.
Some of the major obstacles to space colonization are the cost, the travel time, life support systems, resource availability, radiation exposure, communication, and psychological factors. While some of those issues will always be a concern to a certain degree, other obstacles are becoming more manageable. For example, the cost to launch one pound of material into space is approximately $250 – making launches “astronomically” expensive.
However, with reusable launch capabilities and improved fuel efficiency (some alternatives are as low as $10 per pound), the high number of launches required to begin work and eventually complete a colony could be done more effectively.
The massive amount of time it takes to travel in space, given our limited-speed technology, means spending 6-7 months in space just to reach Mars, and that would be far longer of a trip for colonies on the moons of Jupiter or some distant asteroids. This could have serious effects (physically and psychologically) on those populations being moved to those colonies, but recent advances in ionization drives are pushing us further and faster in space, making those long trips more manageable.
Research studies are currently testing how human beings react (both individually and in group settings) when kept in a confined space for long periods of time – simulating the experience of a one-year trip through space. The suggestions from these new studies, advancements in technology, and general public interest make it seem like colonizing space could really happen!
The Other Argument….
One of the biggest obstacles is actually the debate on whether we should even do it in the first place! Many scientists, philosophers, and theoreticians have argued that the incredibly high cost in resources, manpower, time, and capital is simply not worth it, given that there are so many issues that could be addressed on our own planet if we want to protect our species. Space programs have largely argued that, “If we can go, then why shouldn’t we?”, but that can easily let us off the hook for Earth’s current problems. The debate rages on, and will probably continue for years to come.
So Are We Going or What?
There are currently no planned space colonies that have been approved, funded, or publicly presented, but there are many proposals and plans in the works around the world, in a number of different countries. Colonizing space in any way would likely require a global effort, so the more minds we have on the problem, the better! Let’s get Neil Degrasse Tyson on the case…
What we do know is that we’re getting closer to being able to colonize space in some capacity, and with privately funded space programs (like Elon Musk’s Space X ambitions…), traveling into space for tourism, exploration, or colonization is beginning to seem like much more of a reality!