To save humanity, let’s colonize space

A long time ago, I tried to write an essay — hopefully to be published in a magazine — on why humanity should practice space colonization. Not for the usual reasons, either, which was my problem: trying to put what I was thinking into words became more and more difficult the more I thought about it! The actual reason was fine; but defending and explaining that reason was difficult.

After witnessing the incredible changes over the past few weeks, though, I wanted to try and sketch out a basic idea again. I was moved first by the incredible ignorance that was a response to the anti-Confederate flag movement, then by the King v. Burwell decision, which alarmed me, and then the joyous Supreme Court decision that finally allowed same-sex marriage across the nation. In short, I think there are three basic reasons for colonizing space — one obvious, the other two may or may not be so much — and moreover, I think we should be working on colonizing space now.

Reason 1: Avoiding Natural Disasters

Let’s get the lowest hanging fruit out of the way: a primary reason for colonizing space is to have a backup for humanity in case anything happens to the Earth.

I’m not tremendously worried by human induced climate change, nuclear war (despite what Vox says), or human caused existential crises. While we’ve demonstrated our tremendous appetite and capability for destruction, we humans also have an even more tremendous appetite and capability for adaptation, problem-solving, and creation. I am certain that, even if climate change was a problem, we would devise technology to mitigate and perhaps even nullify it, such as completely renewable energy or weather maintenance systems.

I’m also not deeply worried about an asteroid or cometary impact, but at least unlike the human ones, those seem more plausible. Then you add in other possibilities: magnetic field reversal, the Yellowstone caldera exploding, a natural pandemic like an antibiotic resistant superbug wiping out humanity, etc. There are a few. And there are a couple of human caused events that would make me worry, namely creating artificial superintelligence (even though I think that scenario is unlikely), “grey goo”, or a human created superbug.

In any case, should any one of these come to pass on Earth, humanity could be doomed. I don’t know if we’d survive an asteroid impact. Civilization, at the very least, would be utterly gone. In order to ensure humanity would survive these events, we need to begin colonizing space. It’s a pretty straightforward reason. Some may argue why humanity should fight so hard to continue, but to be honest, isn’t that a silly question?

Reason 2: Preserving Liberalism

Here’s where I started to stumble.

On the one hand, I’m actually fairly optimistic for the future of liberty, at least in the Western world (and also the Third World, but it will take longer.) I see the rise of technology as being mostly beneficial. Things like Uber, AirBnB, the Internet of Things, iPhones, Tor, blockchain technology, fusion, advanced computing, etc. are all great at decentralizing society down to the level of the individual, in addition to utilizing capital more efficiently and making things cheaper (as long as government stops manipulating prices and currency.) Looking at the public opinion trends, I think we’re in for a period of dramatic decentralization as people “cut out the middleman”, so to speak. I think this will also lead to a resurgence in individualism and (classical) liberalism, naturally, as people don’t need government or coercive methods in order to get things done.

But on the other hand, I could be very well wrong. I see evidence of this all the time. The NSA spying is one big piece of evidence in favor of this: government will simply harness technology to spy, manipulate, and control us. Then you see the luddite idiocy against Uber and other advancing technologies, such as GMOs (which, I’ll have you know, have saved the lives of tens of millions of people and gone a long way towards ending hunger.) There’s the people who have been victimized by poorly run public education systems, who have no sense of history or how the physical world even works. And after the mythical frontier was more or less closed up a century ago, we’ve seen governments close inward on themselves and become more and more controlling, manipulative, and authoritarian. In the United States, the federal, state, and local governments have wormed their way into nearly every aspect of our lives. Business and government are now tightly interwoven, which makes it difficult to pinpoint problems while simultaneously keeping us down. When you need to ask for permission and navigate a maze of regulations designed to protect big business in order to make your own business, all of society suffers as a result. When you need to ask for permission and comply with regulations to speak, all of our liberty is harmed.

There are two parts to this argument: for starters, I think that opening up an entirely new frontier — a frontier completely devoid of indigenous aliens, so we need not worry about Manifest Destiny causing such horrors — will naturally build an ethos of independence and freedom. It will first attract people who are already like that, but even those who aren’t so deeply independent will become that way, as you must be in order to survive. Colonists will be operating from large distances from government authorities — even if they were just colonizing Lagrange Points and not other star systems — and coercion, while a tool, probably won’t even be needed to get people to work together. We need that sense of a frontier again, I think, in order to rekindle that sense of freedom.

We also need it as an exit valve so people can leave bad institutional designs. This is the more organized part: libertarians and classical liberals can work to colonize the cosmos, while Earth descends into more authoritarianism. Statists have been saying for ages “If you don’t like it, then leave,” and while we’ve always derided that response as meaningless since nobody really has the means to leave…what if we did? And not just leave the country, but the entire planet? As much as I like the beauty of Earth, why not take them up on that offer? If we could create our own island in space, an environment customized to our needs, we could create something close to a technoutopia. And why not? I’m not talking about terraforming; I’m talking about building O’Neill and McKendree cylinders, or even a Bishop Ring (if we could figure that out.)

I really do think the liberal tradition of Locke, Smith, Kant, Bastiat, Emerson, Mill, Hayek, Friedman, Nozick, McCloskey, Powell, Gurri, Kuznicki, Boaz, Zwolinski, and many, many others, is the best way for humanity to thrive and prosper. Respecting each other as individuals and basing society on voluntary transactions not only is right in a moral sense, as it respects our natural rights as sophont beings, but also leads to the best material and social outcomes. Of course, if socialists, greens, corporatists, and what-have-you also want to leave Earth to create new colonies to preserve their political philosophies, they have that option too. I just find it very doubtful they will do that (well, maybe some socialists would.)

I could be wrong here, and I probably have not explained this very well. It’s difficult for me to put into words, but, as simply as I can manage: I think the causes of human freedom, independence, innovation, and liberalism need to be saved, and colonizing space will save them.

Reason 3: Human Transcendence

The last one is also tricky, though for other reasons. While colonizing space to preserve liberalism is hard for me to put into words, colonizing space to make way for human transcendence is hard because I have no idea what that entails.

It may seem odd that I would advocate for something that I don’t know the basic parameters about, but this ties into a core theme of libertarian writers: the freedom to experiment and innovate. One of the best parts of the free market system is the wild experimentation that comes about, finding new ways to fulfill people’s needs. It’s the engine that has driven much of the progress of the last two centuries, giving us electricity and the Internet and modern medicine and holographic technology and even giant piloted robots. However, it’s hard to say what is coming next (except, perhaps, driverless cars and 3D printing organ tissue), because someone has to think it up and try to market it.

In much the same way, I think space colonization would go far in helping humanity overcome it’s physical limitations and reach new heights. No, I’m not saying we’re going to ascend to a higher plane of existence once we’re beyond the Earth’s gravitational field — though, you know, anything is possible. Rather, I think that having colonies in space will provide us with places to experiment and devise new technologies. Who knows what wonders zero-gee manufacturing will bring us? Perhaps in space we’ll start genetic engineering humans to be adapted to space, a sort of homo sapiens cosmoi — and what other technologies will that bring? What sort of social and religious structures would develop and evolve in space? And finally, in space, once we have a sizeable population free of Earth, what will think of the little blue marble from where we came?

It’s not that I think that humanity will become staid and conservative staying on Earth — the recent changes in American society, and the rapid pace of that change — has demonstrated that we can still develop down here at the bottom of the gravity well. But you have to wonder if there isn’t something else we can learn and develop from being in space. I think there is something. I just don’t know what. But I think it would be exciting to find out.

Conclusion: We can and we should

I’m not going into the how of space colonization, but it is clearly not beyond our abilities. And if it is clearly not beyond our abilities, and there are very good reasons to establish human populations beyond Earth’s atmosphere, then why not do it?

I’m not going to pretend I’ve articulated the best argument for this, but I think it’s a good start.I welcome criticism, so I can refine it. But most importantly, I want people to start thinking about this in real life terms, and not science fiction. If we want humanity to advance and develop, and moreover, to just survive, we’re going to have to take the idea seriously. Not just the plaything of science fiction authors or rich billionaries like Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin, we all need to consider it.

Our future depends on it.

For rent: Kennedy Space Center

For rent: Kennedy Space Center facilities, launch pads – Science Fair: Science and Space News – USATODAY.com.

For once, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Straight off the bat, this could be a huge moneymaking opportunity for NASA. Start-up costs are a major consideration in any endeavor, and building the proper launch facilities is quite expensive, I’d imagine. But renting out the KSC from NASA, well, I dunno how much NASA would charge, but it would have to be cheaper than building your launch facilities from scratch, and they’re probably better than most commercial launch sites, at least if you’re intending to send up manned spacecraft (that aren’t Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.)

But secondly, this could also help re-ignite the drive to space. Since the 70’s we’ve been languishing in the space exploration department thanks to politics, which have bogged down any sort of continuation into the final frontier, while not really opening up the field to private organizations that are actually interested in it. See, this is the major problem with putting anything under the thumb of government: the politicians are only going to follow the majority of the public, that 51% (or less, in some cases) of voters that will put them in office, which means that if the majority of the public loses interest in space, we’re not going to do anything with it; and the minority who are interested can’t do anything about it because they would have to go through an indifferent, disinterested government. At least let them use their own resources–waste them, even–on getting into space, but let them do it. What harm could come of it? In fact, their purchasing of materials and labor would probably have given the economy a boost.

But, even if we’re a few decades late on this front, better late than never. I’m quite sure all the “private” spaceflight for the next 20 years will be some sort of public-private partnership, which I am told is the “worst of both worlds,” but I feel it must be better than having a fully public program. At least we’ll be getting people up there, and onto more than just the ISS. Who knows, maybe…the Moon? Mars? Or even the stars? (Okay, I did that just to make a rhyme.)

The Red Planet, ready for its close-up.
We need to get our redstone from somewhere.

I’m going to get lumped with other sci-fi writers out there for saying this, but so be it: it’s vital we get back into space. The last space race was a huge technological leap forward for our entire planet, and with what we have now, think of what could happen if we go to another one. Teflon is so 1980s; tomorrow we’ll have transparisteel! But not only that, there’s also the environment to consider. I’m not exactly the biggest greenie weenie out there, but I still care about Mother Earth, and its clear that we’re poisoning her, no doubt about it. We’re also running low on natural resources, at least those we need to sustain our global society, so we need to start looking for other places to get resources from.

And finally there’s the whole issue of just having an offworld colony as a “backup.” I don’t really think we’re going to have a mass extinction event in the next 100 years, but even so, there’s no harm in having an offworld colony. It might actually be good, stimulating trade, and most importantly, a sense of adventure that I feel has not been nourished very well for the past generation; sure, we feel it, but the only time it gets satiated is in a movie theater or playing a video game. No, I’m talking about really taking care of it. Then there’s the political possibilities; the last time we had a major colonization effort in the “New World,” there was a revolution and the establishment of the first modern representative democracy, with limited government and checks and balances. If we start colonizing Mars–or just space in general if we want to go the orbital habitat route, although that’s more effort-intensive–who knows what sort of political and societal revolutions we’ll engender. It could be the spark to re-ignite a stagnate global civilization. But we won’t know if we don’t go out there.

I look upon this with great interest and great hope. I’m sure something will get botched up, it always does, but hopefully there will be more good than bad coming out of this.