Settling the final frontier

By Rod Pyle | Issue #2(20) 2019
ROOM Space Journal

This article was originally published in ROOM Space Journal, Issue #2(20) 2019. It is based on an extract from Space 2.0 by Rod Pyle, with a foreword by Buzz Aldrin and published in 2019 by BenBella Books in cooperation with the National Space Society (ISBN-10: 1944648453, ISBN-13: 978-1944648459).

The ‘Final Frontier’, used to describe space, became a staple of science fiction with the introduction of Star Trek in 1966. In relation to space settlement, it applies exquisitely. As the last of the unsettled frontiers, space tantalises us with its potential.

Settling this wilderness will not be easy, of course. As the late Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said in a 2017 essay on lunar settlement, we will need to “arrive, survive, and thrive…”. None of those things will be easy. But space challenges us to expand outward, and we will.

When I say “challenges us”, I use that phrase deliberately. Pursuing our goals in space with current technology is tough, expensive, and sometimes dangerous. But the more we apply ourselves to those challenges, the less of an impediment they will be.

Logical step

The human settlement of space is the logical next step after affordable launch and the establishment of infrastructure for a number of reasons:

  • Exploration: while there are still frontiers on Earth, we have barely begun to explore our own solar system.
  • Commerce: it’s still early in private and commercial spaceflight, but financial analysts see a bright and profitable future in space-based commerce. Off-Earth mining, space tourism, and the vast range of services available from commercial satellites are just a few.
  • Clean, limitless energy: space-based solar power – stations that collect energy from the Sun and transmit it down to locations on Earth, have the potential to provide more than enough power for every person on our planet.
  • Resources: although most resources mined in space, whether from asteroids, the Moon, or elsewhere, are destined to be used in space some, such as precious metals and rare earth elements, may be worth shipping home due to scarcity on Earth.

Let’s look more broadly at space resources. Although our planet has managed to support a population that has now reached 7.5 billion people, we cannot continue to expand indefinitely. Earth’s supply of natural resources is stressed, and the environment is increasingly polluted, despite our incremental efforts to mitigate the impact humans have on the natural world.

This subject is a source of considerable debate and the climate-change conversation is a topic that could fill an entire library. My point here is not to state specific, quantified figures, but to indicate a general trend: in the not too distant future we will outgrow our planet’s current capability to sustain us without some major technological advances. Limitless clean energy, revolutions in food production, and the creation of clean fresh water may be provided via scientific breakthrough, but there will come a time when expansion beyond Earth becomes a more practical or desirable answer.

Even if we can solve all our resource issues, the threat of calamity – man-made or natural – still looms large. Ensuring human survival by settling space is a concept that has been discussed for decades by some of our finest thinkers. It is a key driver of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – they feel that such expansion is imperative to preserve our species.

Physicist Stephen Hawking addressed this topic during a speech at Oxford University in 2016: “Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years… by that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”

Broad scope

It is also important to understand that space settlement is not limited to settlements in space. According to Stan Rosen, a leader of the US National Space Society, career US Air Force officer, and a consultant to government and the space industry, “The settlement of space is far broader than colonies or outposts. It involves everything from the machines in orbit that make our lives better today, to enhanced robotics that will enable the betterment of human life on Earth as well as the expansion of humanity into space. Settlement includes space resource utilisation, space fuel depots, research outposts, and more. It’s about taking the best of our civilization and using new technologies and performing tasks in space that will revolutionise our civilization overall. So, while human settlements may be a big part of it, space settlement is about much more than that. In broad terms, it’s something that is happening today, as we speak.”

But Rosen has one caveat regarding the future: “When you’re talking about the trillion-dollar space economy, it will require more of the new economic model that we are just starting to use. The government is not going to spend a lot more on NASA, on national security, or on agencies like NOAA. Almost every major government organisation benefits somehow from space, but they can’t spend a whole lot more than they already are. These resources will be coming from the private sector, as they have been for some time, and this trend will continue to grow.”

Current space-related economic growth is just the beginning. As the trillion-dollar space economy that Rosen and others predict becomes a reality, it will drive our gradual movement into the solar system. This movement will offer humanity a far better chance for long-term survival. As Elon Musk put it in his 2016 talk at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico: “I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humans]: one path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species, which I hope you agree that is the right way to go.”

This is Musk’s primary motivation for his efforts in spaceflight – he claims that the business model he has pursued, while profitable, exists primarily to support this goal. There are far easier ways to make a fortune in the 21st century than building rockets. Witness the success of Jeff Bezos with Amazon, versus his ongoing investment in Blue Origin. But Bezos himself is bullish on space colonisation for similar reasons. His stated desire is to have millions of people living and working in space.

Speaking at the Smithsonian Institution in 2016, he said: “I wish there were a trillion humans in the solar system. Think how cool that would be. You’d have a thousand Einsteins at any given moment – and more. There would be so much dynamism with all of that human intelligence. But you can’t do that with the resources on Earth or the energy on Earth. So, if you really want to see that kind of dynamic civilization as we expand through the solar system, you have to figure out how to safely move around and use resources that you get in space.”

Both these entrepreneurs are working for the eventual betterment of all. But just because settling space is a good idea does not mean it will come to pass. We have to be able to get people there in numbers, along with the infrastructure that will allow them to stay.

Visions of extended human space settlement vary from person to person, group to group, and nation to nation. To some, it means huge space stations in Earth orbit, housing hundreds or thousands of people. To others, it means cities on the Moon or Mars. To still others, it manifests as vast complexes in space, positioned at gravitationally stable Lagrange points surrounding the Earth and Moon, with populations in the millions. Space settlement can also mean human enclaves on planets circling other stars.

Exploring or settling?

Scott Pace of the US National Space Council thinks that a permanent human presence in space will require a high degree of self-sufficiency.

“Space enthusiasts often assume that space settlement is a matter of manifest destiny,” Pace says. “[But] that future will depend on whether or not we can really live beyond the Earth without resupply and whether or not we can do something that sustains us out there, or whether we are always dependent upon tax dollars from Earth.

“If the answer is we live off the land but we’re always dependent on tax dollars from home, then space is Antarctica. We have a base, and maybe even tourists, but it is not a place that is self-sustaining. If the answer is we can do something economic out there, but we always have to come back to Earth for whatever reason, then it’s like an oil platform. We go out, we work on the platform, do useful things, and then we come back. Those are radically different human futures in space and we actually don’t know which one is right until we go out there and explore…”

In a nutshell, it’s the expeditionary model versus the settlement model. In the former, we make runs out to places like the Moon and Mars to explore, set up small outposts, utilise some local resources, and eventually return home. In the latter, we build bases in space and on other worlds, utilise the resources found there on an industrial scale, find ways to make those processes profitable, and settle the final frontier permanently.

NASA also supports the idea of extended, permanent space settlement, though you don’t hear them talk about it often. In 2005, then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin addressed the topic in a Washington Post article: “[NASA’s] goal isn’t just scientific exploration. It’s also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time.” He summarised his thoughts bluntly: “In the long run a single-planet species will not survive.”

Griffin noted that entire species have been wiped out in mass extinctions on average every 30 million years. “If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we must ultimately populate other planets. Today’s technology is such that this is barely conceivable. We’re in the infancy of it…” He concluded by saying that one day “there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it”.

In 2016 a bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives by Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman from California, that would make space settlement an official priority for NASA. It was called the Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement (SEDS) Act of 2016. The congressional summary states that the bill “requires the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to encourage and support the development of permanent space settlements”.

It continues: “Expanding permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit in a way that enables human settlement and a thriving space economy shall be an objective of US aeronautical and space activities. NASA shall obtain, produce, and provide information related to all issues important for the development of a thriving space economy and the establishment of human space settlements.”

The bill was introduced in Congress but was not enacted. The subject will not fade away, though, as a handful of politicians and groups such as the National Space Society continue to push for its adoption.

Though NASA has been supportive of the notion of permanent space settlements, it has not set creating them as a specific goal. That may surprise you, but it shouldn’t. The agency was created to lead civilian space efforts in 1958, during the Cold War and immediately following the USSR’s success with Sputnik. The settlement of space was not on its radar at the time – matching and surpassing the Russians was the most immediate concern. Science and exploration, but not settlements, were key tenets.

Today, NASA is looking more carefully at enduring plans for space. Research and planning are ongoing for the technologies necessary to sustain humans beyond Earth, both in orbiting stations and on the surfaces of other worlds. Research aimed at enabling extended survival in weightless conditions continues on the International Space Station.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on at least two technologies to extract oxygen, and eventually water, from the Martian atmosphere. One of them, an experimental instrument called MOXIE (for Mars OXygen In-situ utilisation Experiment), will fly aboard the Mars 2020 rover and test the technology shortly after landing. Other experiments at NASA field centres focus on using robots to gather soil on the Moon or Mars, then extruding it as blocks and other construction components. NASA’s robotic probes on the Moon and Mars are cataloguing water supplies in the form of large bodies of ice on and below the surface. NASA is also developing rovers, life support systems, and other technologies to enable long-term survival in harsh environments.

Designs for living

Once scientists and engineers develop the technologies required to support humans in off-world settlements, what might these outposts and colonies in space and on other worlds ultimately look like? Some of the first serious work on colonies in space was done by Gerard O’Neill of Princeton University. His 1977 book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, laid out a daring blueprint for how humanity could inhabit the nearby bodies in the solar system using giant cylinders positioned at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. The cylinders would be constructed out of materials processed from lunar ores and shot from the Moon’s surface with a giant mass-driver gun. His plan was summarised in a paper published in 1974 in Physics Today: “It is important to realise the enormous power of the space-colonisation technique. If we begin to use it soon enough, and if we employ it wisely, at least five of the most serious problems now facing the world can be solved without recourse to repression: bringing every human being up to a living standard now enjoyed only by the most fortunate; protecting the biosphere from damage caused by transportation and industrial pollution; finding high quality living space for a world population that is doubling every 35 years; finding clean, practical energy sources; preventing overload of Earth’s heat balance.”

O’Neill founded the Space Studies Institute to develop his ideas, and the resulting studies represented early contributions to serious thought about the large-scale, permanent settlement of space. His design for the structures at the heart of his plan was vast in scope: each ‘colony’ (he called them ‘islands’ early on) would consist of two cylinders twenty miles in length by five miles in diameter. They would rotate along their long axes to provide artificial gravity. The cylinders would turn in opposing directions to counteract gyroscopic forces that might cause a single unit to drift from its sun-pointing orientation. The hulls would consist of six horizontal strips, alternating between solid metal for the living surfaces within, and transparent materials to allow sunlight to enter. Another, separate ring would be allocated for agriculture, leaving the remaining internal surface areas as residential and open-park zones. An industrial manufacturing region would be located toward the cylinder’s centre, where weightlessness would aid industrial processes taking place there.

The atmospheric pressure inside these structures would be one-third that of sea level on Earth, about the same as is used in most human-rated spacecraft, and would include nitrogen to more closely approximate the air we are used to breathing. It was thought at the time the plans were released that the hull and the cylinder’s atmosphere would provide adequate protection from space radiation, though more recent research suggests more would need to be done on that front to keep the inhabitants safe.

The Space Studies Institute continues to promote these and other ideas about permanent colonies. Many other proposed designs have come and gone since O’Neill first published The High Frontier. The smaller Stanford Torus, about one mile in diameter, was a wheel-shaped, less expensive variation on O’Neill’s design.

At the other extreme is the massive Dyson Sphere, theorized by physicist Freeman Dyson – a metallic globe large enough to hold a star at its centre and contain a human population at a sufficient distance from the star to comfortably support their survival. This is a highly theoretical idea and is more of a thought experiment than a workable design, at least with any foreseeable technology.

Concerns have been raised about what kinds of governments might take hold in space settlements, and what possible risks they might face from ever more powerful economic and military establishments back on Earth.

Today, we are on the eve of some truly inspiring prospects for early outposts in the final frontier, places that could become reality with the next two decades.

This article is based on an extract from Space 2.0 by Rod Pyle, with a foreword by Buzz Aldrin and published in 2019 by BenBella Books in cooperation with the National Space Society (ISBN-10: 1944648453, ISBN-13: 978-1944648459).

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Rod Pyle is a space author and historian who has authored 17 books on space history, exploration and development for major publishers in seven languages. He is the Editor-in-Chief for the National Space Society’s quarterly print magazine Ad Astra, and his frequent articles have appeared in Space.com, LiveScience, Futurity, the International Business Times, Popular Science, Caltech’s E&S magazine, and WIRED. He has written extensively for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech. His books published in 2019 include Interplanetary Robots, Space 2.0, and First on the Moon. Follow him on Twitter at @chryseplanatia.

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