With humanity rapidly approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity, and its limited resources dwindling at an alarming rate, concerns about the future of humanity are rampant among scientists and the general public alike1. To some revolutionaries, the answer lies in what has been coined as “space settlement”. In short, space settlement is the theoretical establishment of a permanent human settlement on a celestial object other than Earth, and in most cases the subsequent exploitation of the natural resources present there. As such, space settlement is considered as the next logical step in space exploration, beyond the satellites and robotic exploration completed to date. But while space settlement seems like the logical solution to humanity’s problems of an expiring Earth to some, not all are as enthusiastic about the proposition.2
Proponents of space settlement argue that there are several reasons for extraterrestrial colonization. The most prominent of these is the argument that space settlement would allow for the continuation of the human race in the event of a planetary-scale disaster, whether natural or man-made.3 This argument has grown especially potent in today’s political climate, as the possibility of total nuclear war grows more and more likely as global tensions rise. Another notable argument is that the settlement of neighboring planets would provide humanity with natural resources that could further society and improve quality of life on Earth. Finally, advocates for space colonization contend that establishing settlements would alleviate the Earth of the stress of overpopulation and resource depletion, on the theory that resources from colonies could be shipped home to help provide for the Earth’s growing population.4
While there are many scientists such as Stephen Hawking5 who endorse space settlement, there are many who strongly object to space colonization. Chief among their arguments is that the massive opportunity cost necessary to establish a colony would be much better spent improving quality of life on Earth.6 As of the present, sending anything from the Earth into orbit costs approximately $1400 per kilogram, making a theoretical space colony the most expensive endeavor ever undertaken by humanity. Objectors to space settlement assert that the massive investment necessary would further exacerbate pre-existing issues on Earth, such as economic inequality, environmental degradation, and world hunger.7 In addition to these imminent perspectives, they claim that the commodification of the cosmos would only advance the interests of those in power, furthering economic inequality to an even greater extent.8 In summary, opponents of space settlement assert that the vast resources necessary to even begin the process of space settlement would be far better spent solving problems on Earth. 2
Humanity is a far cry from establishing a space settlement. Before humanity can even consider space settlement, we must first find solutions to these glaring issues:
- A lack of a controlled ecological life-support system fundamentally necessary to support life on another planet.9
- An absence of knowledge of how humans would respond to a low-gravity environment such as Mars for an extended duration.
- Social and political structure and governance that would need to be established, especially if the settlement were multinational.
- The sheer cost of establishing a space colony; at the present $1400 per kilogram price point, the transportation costs alone would cost trillions at the minimum3 .
- The inadequacy of present-day defenses against radiation; Solar flares and cosmic rays could wipe out a colony completely.
- Energy: While solar energy is the most obvious source of energy, the creation of a solar farm from scratch would be extremely difficult, even after putting aside raw material costs. 6
The Moon is the most obvious choice for settlement10, because of its proximity to Earth, and its abundant water in the form of ice.10However, the moon’s lack of atmosphere lacks protection from meteorites or space radiation, making it highly risky to place a colony there. In addition, the Moon’s low gravity is a large concern, as it is unknown how the low gravity there would impact the health of inhabitant’s long term.11
Although we once thought Mercury to be an uninhabitable wasteland, we now know that Mercury is actually full of minerals and resources.12 In addition, Mercury’s proximity to the Sun makes it an excellent harness for solar energy, meaning Mercury has the potential to be a launch point for spacecraft. In addition, because Mercury has very little axial tilt, its poles lie in eternal darkness, trapping vast quantities of water. Therefore, agriculture on Mercury could theoretically be possible, making Mercury a viable option for colonization. 13
Perhaps the most widely known by the public as a location for settlement, the planet’s comparatively close proximity to the Earth makes it an appealing settlement location. However, its scarcity of water and the toxicity of soil mean that life there would be harsh at best, if not impossible. In addition, massive dust storms and radiation exposure could put the health of colonists at risk, meaning that the colony’s inhabitants could be wiped out at any moment. And while there are valuable metals and resources present there, most believe that the risk associated with living on Mars is too great. 14
Rich in resources and minerals, the Asteroid Belt could provide humanity on Earth with resources in the event of complete depletion of Earth’s assets. However, because of how thinly spread the Asteroid Belt is, the only realistic settlement location would be the asteroid Ceres. 15With available ammonia, water, and methane, Ceres is considered as the most suitable location for supporting life. However, its vast distance from Earth presently makes colonization of Ceres impractical. 15
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14. Keith A. Spencer (8 October 2017). “Against Mars-a-Lago: Why SpaceX’s Mars colonization plan should terrify you”. Salon.com. Archived from the original on 19 September 2019. Retrieved 2022-07-23.
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