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spacefarers

21 september 2020

How will humans "settle the Moon, Mars, and beyond," as Christopher Wanjek has it in the subtitle to his new book Spacefarers? Not, was my first thought. This will never happen. I grew up assuming it would happen, but it's been nearly fifty years since the last man on the Moon, and I can't imagine I'll see another man, or woman either, land on even the Moon in my lifetime.

As Wanjek admits, it's impossible to live in space; even in a brief space sojourn there is zero margin for error. Space programs so far have shown a daunting casualty rate. Any kind of interplanetary diaspora will entail indifference to human life.

Though psychological difficulties may be the least of our spacefaring worries. Stress can be mitigated by willpower, or by selecting astronauts who are resistant to it. Terrestrial colonization involved indifference to human life – albeit the indifference of colonizers to the indigenes, slaves, or convicts they controlled. But even at that, you couldn't embark on transoceanic relocation without a degree of just plain what the hell.

The real difficulty with space settlements, as Wanjek observes, is that nothing that, say, Polynesians could take for granted – air, rainwater, a non-toxic ocean, a magnetosphere, earthly gravity – is available out in space. Mars presents the most congenial location. But Mars is plagued by cosmic rays, South-Pole-like night temperatures, a thin and suffocating atmosphere, and horrendous dust storms. And we know what that meant for Matt Damon.

The Moon is nearby but less hospitable than Mars. I had forgotten – if I'd ever known – that the Moon undergoes wild day/night swings in temperature, from literally baking days to nights beyond any known terrestrial cold. The men who landed on the Moon in the 1960s and '70s timed their arrival for the lunar dawn, when things were bright but not yet toasty. And they got away fast. While on the surface of the Moon, they avoided cosmic rays mostly by luck. Moon Base Gingrich would have to be at a resource-poor lunar pole to avoid the freeze-fry cycle, and would have to be underground, sheltered from radiation. (The same applies to Mars. Wanjek asks: why colonize a stunningly beautiful place if you have to spend all your time in a prefabricated basement apartment.)

Everywhere else is worse than Mars or the Moon. On Venus people would have to live on blimps floating above Venusian clouds. On Mercury, they would have to construct habitats on rails to outrun the Mercurian dawn, with temperature swings that make the Moon look mild. On the outer planets … well, you can't live on the outer planets at all; they have no surfaces. You could try for some of their moons, like the popular SF destination Titan. But on Titan you'd have to tiptoe on a gooey surface of methane semifreddo, and you'd be insanely far from the Sun. The compensation of watching Saturn rise would be small comfort.

Better still are asteroids that could be hollowed out and fitted with artificial gravity, or comets that could be engineered the same way and also slung into interstellar space for a quick decades-long jaunt to Alpha Centauri. But each successive step in this speculation depends on mastering some technique like effortless fusion power as a prerequisite. By the time you're at the end of one of these trains of speculations, it's easy to forget that NASA can't even launch its own astronauts into orbit anymore, let alone construct starships.

Wanjek is scathing about the US space program. We did get men to the moon, and we have done astonishing unmanned exploration of the planets. But the Soviets garnered most of the "firsts," and the successor Russian program now ferries American astronauts to the International Space Station. The Chinese, says Wanjek, are likeliest to put the next men on the Moon. They have an authoritarian advantage over the American tendency to change goals with every incoming President, and are single-mindedly preparing to colonize nearby space. The one thing that might spur America back into the game is a new space race, with China this time, though Wanjek is understandably depressed about slipping the surly bonds of earth just to engage in yet another pissing contest.

Wanjek is more sanguine about the commercial potential of space, and the more feasible plans that entrepreneurs have devised to exploit it. Unlike traditional mercantile colonialism, mining the Solar System will displace and oppress no indigenes. There are strategically crucial metals in asteroids, fusion-fuel helium on the Moon, water everywhere. For far-fetched projects like terraforming Mars, it may be possible to import gas from Uranus, and I did not just make that up. And Wanjek says that such mining is a near-certainty to happen within the next few decades.

Of course we've been hearing "next few decades" for many decades now. And frankly, I think stuff like Teslas in space is just advertising. The flamboyant geniuses now competing to launch private spaceships seem like ephemeral self-promoters, not patient ground-layers of extra-terran lifestyles. Wanjek himself comes up with perhaps the best argument against space colonization. If you had the technology (e.g. that free clean safe fusion power) to exploit the distant, dangerous resources of space, you would have the technology to transform Earth radically for the better, using local resources. I guess, just maybe, chipping bits off asteroids, or towing a particularly nice one towards Earth, might make some practical sense. But remote-control robots will be doing the chipping, not human geologists with hammers.

Wanjek, Christopher. Spacefarers: How humans will settle the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020. CB 440 .W36

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