Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 5: Settlement

“Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.”
–Robert A. Heinlein

In Parts 1 through 4, I covered Nationalism, Commerce, Science, and Saving the Earth as value propositions for human spaceflight, and pointed out the challenges for each that must be addressed to make each an enduring VP.  Today I continue the examination on value propositions for human spaceflight in Part 5: Settlement.


Reason 5: Settlement. The pioneering spirit is deeply rooted in American culture.  Whether it is the European colonization of America, manifest destiny, or the call of the West, as Americans we’re long acquainted with the expansion of our frontiers.  In that context, space has been called “the last frontier” with good reason. One of the earliest books I recall reading is Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg, involving the revolt by the people inhabiting the fourth planet around the star Alpha Centauri A.  From there, I read numerous other science fiction authors, ranging from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles to Issac Asimov’s Foundation series.  All of them had a common theme: humanity inhabiting other locations beyond Earth (and the entire galaxy in Asimov’s case).

Establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere calls into question a number of questions.  For example, what would it take to solve the problems of living off earth permanently?  Why would anyone want to go there?  And finally, would those pioneers be humans anymore?  The technical, philosophical, and moral questions reach deeply into the well of humanity.

The first location for settlement is low Earth orbit.  Imagine something like the International Space Station, yet tended permanently.  This brings forth images in my mind of the rotating circular space station of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The next logical locations for permanent settlements are the moon, then Mars.  Imagine extending the concept all the way to the Ringworld of Larry Niven’s creative mind.  Each of these has its host of challenges, ranging from artificial or reduced gravity, the need for radiation protection, water, food, and so on.

In looking at the reasons for settlement, I can think of several off the top of my head (and there are likely others, yet these are the ones that occur to me): to seek new opportunities, to provide support services for those who are engaged in one of the other endeavors I discussed previously – commerce and science in particular; to alleviate population overcrowding on Earth; or to seek religious freedom.

Human spaceflight’s role in settlement would revolve around infrastructure development and logistics: laying the foundation for developing and deploying the support infrastructure, getting the settlers to the desired destination, and keeping them supplied until they can become self-sufficient.  This calls for the need for reliable and highly available space transport for people, raw supplies, and cargo.  This touches upon access from supply locations – the surface of the moon, or Earth, or asteroids mined for raw materials – as well as the safe transportation of people.  Perhaps this calls for investing in alternative methods of transportation, such as space elevators or various cyclers such as for the moon or Mars…maybe even propellant depots to keep the running fleet of ships supplied.

Therein lies the challenge: with a wide variety of solutions, which if any of these implementations should be pursued in the near term?  Much as in the case for Part 4, what is the business case for investing in one or more of these technologies now, versus some other?  How does one calculate the payoff?

Expanding humanity beyond earth, permanently.  Becoming a multi-planet species.  It’s the clarion call for human spaceflight…yet is it a value proposition for today?

Next time: Conclusion.

Text © 2011, Joe Williams.  All rights reserved.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/homegrowngraphics

Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 5: Settlement