“One giant step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
The famous epitaph as spoken by Neil Armstrong; the first human to walk on the Moon. This is old news as far as space exploration is concerned. Since the last Apollo missions of the 20th century, humans haven’t set foot on another planetary body since. This, however, is set to change.
The boys are back in town
The ambition for returning to the solar system and travelling to Mars was set earlier this century by, and including every, US president since George Bush Junior. According to the CEOs of SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), humans are destined to become an inter-planetary species within the next 13 years. Both tech billionaires are racing against the clock to be the first to set foot on Mars.
Out of all near-Earth objects, why oh why are we going to Mars? Mars is interesting for a number of reasons. It has an atmosphere; despite not being as “thick” as either Earths or Venus’. It has frozen water: One of the prerequisites for Earth-like life to exist. It is suitably large and is larger than the moon and as such has gravity. As revealed by satellite surveys, Mars has experienced recent volcanism and boasts the solar system’s largest volcano! So there is the potential for harnessing geothermal energy. Yet, the fact that there has been operational plate tectonics on Mars indicates that there could still be some active convection currents, and more importantly water vapour, within its lithosphere. If this is the case, then Mars will contain water in two of its elemental forms.
Whilst this is highly ambitious, what is more, interesting are the benefits of Earth to Mars travel:
- Enhanced inter-planetary propulsion;
- A human lifeboat in case of calamity on Earth;
- But more interestingly, the technology and enhanced ambition for the exploration of the outer solar system (i.e. beyond the asteroid belt separating the inner rocky planets from the outer gas giants).
Of course, for the likes of Bezos and Musk, whoever lands the first humans on Mars will unequivocally become the world’s richest and simultaneously most powerful person. Rich in the literal sense, akin to Bill Gates until the mid-2000s, and powerful because they will possess the technology and infrastructure to populate other solar system bodies.
Space travel and the colonisation of the solar system will fundamentally change governance structures on Earth as well as our institutions. Once we set foot on Mars, the Westphalian state system becomes obsolete overnight and so does our economic system. Capitalism is predicated on infinite growth yet it’s a paradox on one planet. On one planet, capitalism in its present conception cannot last simply because our planet’s resources are finite. Mars offers enhanced finite resources but the colonisation of the solar system offers infinite resources. This raises the philosophical question, who is right: Capitalists, Socialists or Marxists?
With this in mind, it’s feasible to hypothesise that not only was Francis Fukuyama correct when he penned “The End of History and the Last Man”, in that capitalism is the culmination of human ideological evolution, but also that Malthus and his current cohort are wrong. Limits to growth that other vestige of eco-warriors from the 70s, which posits humans outgrowing their natural resource base, and capitalism being a short-lived experiment that benefits the few at the many. All look likely to be proven wrong.
Would Earth have a purpose?
In the closing decades of the 20th century, prior to the environmental movement becoming more galvanised, OECD nations opted to relocate their heavy, dirty, manufacturing processes to the developing world and emerging markets. China eloquently captures this manufacturing shift. Whilst OECD nations reduced manufacturing as a percentage of their economies, and consequently carbon emissions superficially looked to decline, the manufactured products were shipped back to developed markets (OECD) for final assembly and upscaling. Using this analogy, I believe that moons and planets that have a human colony for the extraction of resources that are rare or absent on Earth will also perform advanced industrial processes on their respective worlds as well. However, as with the offshoring movement, goods will be transported back to Earth for final assembly and dissemination to all planetary markets.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk should be highly commended. They have taken the torch handed to them by the federal government and NASA – to enable private citizens to engage in space exploration. However, it is their Earth-based businesses where these entrepreneurs really shine! Take Musk’s businesses for example. Tesla is a planetary technology company. By selling Tesla cars, Musk is able to enhance version 1.0 of Mars vehicles. He is able to gather significant data on scales unimaginable to his predecessors. SpaceX is Musk’s baby: since acquiring NASA contracts he’s been able to start making money but Tesla and Solar City are the businesses that will allow human settlers on Mars to thrive. Both businesses being deployed on Earth allow Musk to refine the designs.
Human ambitions to populate the solar system are likely to succeed this century because of tech titans, advances in computing, and data-driven businesses. Space will never be fully colonised and represents the ultimate market for Earth-bound capitalism. The next few decades will certainly prove interesting times indeed.