Life on the High Frontier

Many proposals for space colonies are beautifully written and lavishly illustrated. Based on a combination of science and art, they are mixtures of reality and wish. They offer the lure of a better life, including pleasant surroundings, improved political forms that thoughtfully balance the needs of the individual and community, supportive social relations that rest on personal trust and caring, tremendous individual freedom, and increased opportunity to find happiness and material wealth.

Existence Needs

Existence needs are satisfied by safe, comfortable, and provident environments that accommodate people's biological requirements, engender a sense of security, and offer material gain. Although some building materials must be exported from Earth, settlements would be constructed from metals and regolith mined on and scraped from the Moon and Mars and, later, from disassembled asteroids.

Bova and O'Neill propose shielding settlers from radiation by means of lunar rocks or cast by-products of lunar refining. Savage envisions shielding orbiting communities with massive amounts of water sandwiched between huge, spherical or hemispherical transparent membranes. On Mars, shielding requirements will be less onerous, because even the thin Martian atmosphere affords some protection against radiation, but here again regolith will be put to use.

Space junk and meteorites threaten orbiting and lunar communities, but because of the habitat's enormous volume even a relatively large object striking it would not lead to an explosive loss of atmosphere. At Moonbase, Asgard, or on Mars, the loss of atmospheric pressure would be so slow that, in the absence of a network of sensitive sensors, occupants would barely notice the drop for several days. There would be plenty of time for repairs.

O'Neill proposes rotating or spinning his islands to create artificial gravity in order to protect the residents from deconditioning. Savage would not use artificial gravity, but hopes to keep Asgard colonists healthy through electrical stimulation of the muscles. The Moon and Mars offer some gravity, but much less than Earth's. Without special regimens it might be very difficult for long-term residents of the Moon to visit Earth. People born on the Moon might not be able to visit Earth except under unusual conditions.

Orbiting settlements would be free of terrestrial geological disasters such as earthquakes and inclement weather, including storms, monsoons, droughts, heat waves, and cold snaps. Hopefully, we could prevent the importation of undesirable insects and other vermin from Earth. Clean technologies could let us avoid pollution and minimize problems associated with environmental health. Because there is no atmosphere, the weather on the Moon would be predictable, but settlers would have to put up with dust storms on Mars.

Crowded and primitive at first, living quarters would become increasingly spacious and pleasant as the settlement matured. Savage foresees efficiency apartments and family units that are larger than many residences on Earth, although colonists might have to choose between spacious quarters in the interior of the settlement and smaller peripheral apartments that offer spectacular views. O'Neill's plans avoid high-rise structures and call for comfortable, stacked, low-rise buildings with plenty of shared or common areas. He envisions lush vegetation, lakes and rivers, small villages, and intermediate-sized cities (approximately the size of San Francisco) on Island III.

Food should be abundant, healthy, and tasty. Tomorrow's space-farers may produce such novelties as yeast burgers on the Moon and mushroom burgers on Mars. As for staples, Savage expects production of algae-based protein made palatable by varying textures and adding synthetic flavors. Drawing on then-recent developments in production agriculture, O'Neill suggests that, using mirrors and shutters to bathe the crops in continuous sunlight, little square footage would be required to grow food on a per capita basis. Because it takes tremendous acreage to raise cattle, beef would be a rarity, but in addition to healthy vegetables settlers might produce chicken and turkey and perhaps pork.

Space settlers would have jobs and the opportunity to make money, perhaps more than they could make on Earth. One stream of income, foreseen by both O'Neill and Savage, would result from information processing, consulting, software development, and other highly compensated activities that require very little office space and that can be done by telecommuting. Unfortunately, because it is a lot more expensive to maintain a computer programmer in space than on Earth, this kind of employment would be at best a stopgap measure.

Another income stream would derive from the goods and services that settlers would provide one another in space. Settlements would have their doctors, lawyers, maintenance engineers, entertainers, and fast-food merchants. Of course, none of these activities would be lucrative until large numbers of people are actually there.

Another income stream would come from exports. As noted in chapter 1, exports could include solar electric power beamed to earth, helium-3 for use in fission reactors, and minerals mined from planets and asteroids. Zubrin describes an economic triangle involving Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt: Earth manufactures and exports high technology to Mars and the asteroid belt. Mars exports basic supplies and low technology items to the asteroid belt, and the asteroid belt returns metal and other resources to Earth.

Settlers would be attracted to Bova's Moonbase by the opportu nity to earn high salaries (set at 25 percent above that for comparable work on Earth) and excellent working conditions. Settlers might stay on the Moon or Mars for an extended period of time since it makes more sense to grant high salaries than to pay for a continuous shuffle of workers back and forth. The Moon, like the Arctic before it, could become an excellent place for adventurous, talented, and work-oriented people to stash away large amounts of money for advanced education or for starting a business following their return to Earth.

Most of the work at Moonbase would be done indoors in carefully controlled, comfortable, pollution-free shirtsleeve environments. Robots and automated systems would do the mind-numbing, repetitive, and dirty tasks, and most of the work done outside. All of this is suggestive of industrial humanism of the 1930s. The employer pursues a policy of benevolent self-interest, using high pay and good working conditions to attract the most capable and most motivated workers to do the job.

Relatedness Needs

Relatedness needs are satisfied by warm, caring interpersonal relations; organizations that treat employees and customers or clients as unique, worthwhile individuals; and benevolent, nonoppressive governments that take their citizens' welfare to heart. Most of the literature on space colonies focuses on relatively small communities (involving anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred settlers) or very large communities, with hundreds of thousands or millions of residents. The challenge for small settlements lies in developing governmental and other institutions in a setting that is basically understaffed. The challenge for large settlements is in ensuring that these do not evolve into totally impersonal entities where citizens get lost in the crowd.

Richard Terra imagines social life in small groups of asteroid miners in the Oort Cloud at the outer fringe of our solar system.12 The Oort Cloud consists of tens to hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of comet nuclei ranging from .10 to 10 kilometers in diameter and each weighing between ten million and ten trillion metric tons. It surrounds us like a hollow shell whose inner and outer limits are approximately 1 to 2 light-years from here. The nuclei contain frozen gasses, organic chemicals, and metals. The prospectors' biggest technical problem will be finding a suitable energy source (perhaps nuclear fusion, perhaps highly focused starlight) that far from our Sun.

Terra foresees initial groups of one hundred to two hundred settlers forming colonies in various sectors of the Oort Cloud. These settlers would have to be extremely rugged and self-reliant. They would be forced to pool their resources and efforts to survive and prosper. Of necessity, they would be highly cooperative with one another. Everyone would have considerable latitude for individual expression (so that they can find happiness), but it is very unlikely that anyone would become so individualistic as to seriously antagonize someone else. Such small communities would be unlikely to become highly stratified. More likely they would be run like families. Important decisions would be reached by consensus, and Terra thinks that the community would avoid choices that create special hardship for specific individuals. There would be a strong sense of common fate, and there would perhaps be some elitism when the settlers compared themselves to people in larger settlements.13 Precedence for this is found in the Antarctic, where some residents of small, isolated stations consider themselves superior to the hordes at McMurdo and other large staging bases.

About the same time that O'Neill was planning huge satellites, the world was becoming aware of serious problems associated with crowding in our cities. Solid, middle-class citizens were discovering themselves stalled in freeway traffic and jostled on city streets. Some people felt like they were faceless entities cast adrift with the anonymous hordes. Sociologists describe this as anomie, a state where people feel disconnected from one another and alienated from society as a whole.

Experimental research of that era underscored some of the detrimental effects of crowding. J. B. Calhoun compared crowded and un-crowded rats.14 Those pressed together in close confines had difficulties courting and suffered from sexual dysfunction. They produced fewer offspring, and these offspring were puny and sickly. Normally, rats are careful nest builders. Crowded rats were less likely to build nests, and, when they did so, their nests tended to be incomplete or of inferior quality. The crowded animals were highly aggressive and prone to illness, malfunction of their organs, and tumor growth, and they had higher mortality rates. Calhoun used the term "behavioral sink" to describe the crowded pens that undermined health and caused mal-adaptive behavior. Studies by Calhoun's contemporaries hinted that high population densities had adverse effects on humans, including poor work, physical and mental health problems, and increased crime and delinquency.15 The problem before us, then, is how to bring the expected benefits of the smaller settlements to giant settlements that are home to millions of people.

One tactic is to use design techniques that increase a sense of spaciousness and break up the interior of a large settlement, so that it is transformed into a collection of smaller communities. Thus some plans call for distant horizons; visible, interspersed structures; and the use of colors and lights to open up areas. There may not be as much room for grassy fields as we would like, but there is ample allowance for vegetation, including trees, shrubs, and hanging plants. To create a friendly look, buildings can be aligned at odd angles, rather than with military precision.

Architecture can foster positive relationships among settlers. The clustering of buildings, orientation of entrances and exits in different ways, and development of neighborhood parks and other common areas are intended to make it easy to meet, mingle, and develop a sense of community. Variations in architectural styles reinforce a sense of community within a particular subdivision and give residents of different subdivisions their own sense of identity. The models for some space settlements are quaint sections of European cities whose funki-ness makes them pleasant despite high population density, and the models for others are the small, carefully planned, ecologically minded and occupant-friendly housing developments that began to dot the North American landscape in the 1960s and 1970s.

Even as visionaries sought to avoid crowding, they tried to escape the blight of big governments. Governments should be kept to a minimum and should interfere in individual freedom as little as possible. Each person should have the right to do as he or she pleases, with the proviso that these activities cannot infringe on other people's rights. The goal is to establish minimalist, low-profile governments that meddle as little as possible, and, when they do meddle, they should try to do so in understanding, friendly ways.

The space settlement literature contains few references to monarchies, dictatorships, and other authoritarian forms of government, but many references to democracy, so the settlers themselves will be in charge. (An exception is Bova, who sees residents of Moonbase beholden to authorities on Earth.) O'Neill claims that he is "a-political" (while arguing for liberal and humanistic forms of government), whereas Savage urges a pure democracy. A representative democracy, notes Savage, tends all too often to be perverted to accommodate the interests and needs of the elected officials and their cronies. On an advanced Millennial colony, decisions will be made by millions of individual minds working in concert, achieving synchrony, and, in the process, perhaps approaching a higher level of consciousness. Everyone who is able and chooses to do so should vote on each issue, which might be done electronically in a form of government that Jim Dator calls "teledemocracy."16

With the possible exception of politicians and officious government bureaucrats, a minimalist democracy offers something for everyone. The poor and dispossessed of the world become enfranchised and gain some control over their lives. Middle-class people can live without having to support the indigent and without mistreatment at the hands of large governmental bureaucracies. Wealthy people can see increased freedom to pursue entrepreneurial goals, unfettered by needless laws and regulatory agencies. If the vision actually materializes, then almost everyone will win.

We hope that space will draw decent, hard-working, honest people, and that, thanks to prosperity and a benevolent government, crime will be left behind on Earth. But this is unlikely to happen. Alvin Ru-doff points out that space settlements will reflect their inhabitants' social backgrounds, including their weaknesses as well as strengths.17 Misbehavior, he notes, could include arson, gambling, substance abuse, pornography, suicide—all manner of crime and delinquency, including sabotage and terrorism. The designation of alcohol, drugs, firearms, or other items as contraband could result in an "underlife"; that is, organized illegal behavior kept secret from authorities or those who seem likely to disclose the behavior to authorities. In space, as on Earth, we can expect laws and enforcement procedures.

Although particular laws may strike us as silly or wrong, put to the test most people support law and enforcement procedures that prevent "war of all against all" and protect societies and individuals from excessive harm. Space settlements, at least those not micromanaged from Earth, will allow a fresh start. As we move to new worlds we can reassess our laws. If we so choose, we can discard laws that relate to victimless crimes, perpetuate discrimination or inequity, or impose punitive taxes that prevent economic growth. We may want to preserve the right to live unharmed by others, to protect oneself, to express one's views freely, to make choices, and to receive restitution when so justified. The underlying values are individuality and freedom tempered by the need to protect the greater good.

Legal systems proposed for space tend to take one of two directions. The first, based on a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature, focuses on mediation and arbitration. The model here, according to Donald Scott, is the community arbitration panel that works to restore amicable relations among quarreling neighbors.18 That is, the colonists could establish a panel to ensure that people understand the consequences of their acts, make restitution when possible, and learn to get along with one another.

The second model, based on a less optimistic view of human nature, is military justice. Kenneth Schwetje points out that whereas a court martial preserves a defendant's basic rights and follows certain civilian procedures, it follows simplified procedures.19 Military justice does not depend upon a huge legal apparatus that allows appeals at multiple levels, and could be easily adapted to space.

Dator theorizes that the primary concern will be the peace of the community, with relatively little weight assigned to the "rights of the accused," "the rights of the victim," and "restitution."20 Small colonies may also be shorthanded, and so neither incarceration nor the death penalty would be attractive. The most obvious alternatives are reduced privileges, heavy fines, and deportation back to Earth. Someday there may be penal colonies, including a few that, like Australia, evolve into highly successful independent societies.

If they meet expectations, then space settlements will reduce social inequities, restore individual freedom, and guarantee the right to pursue happiness. Although they may consist of huge numbers of people, they will avoid crowding by spreading the population around a number of smaller communities. They also will eliminate the unpopular aspects of big government. They will be intended to keep people from feeling disconnected with one another and alienated from society as a whole. Here, we have an interesting combination of a reversion to small-town rural America but with mammoth populations and high technology.

Growth Needs

Space settlements are intended to help people to feel secure and worthwhile, and to grow psychologically. Freedom from want and a supportive social environment provide good starting points. Robert Zubrin, especially, stresses that the first generation of emigrants to a new colony will see themselves as having a "fresh start" in a location where they will be judged by their merits, not by such factors as their background, gender, or ethnicity.21 Drawing on the work of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who sought to understand the social consequences of westward expansion during the nineteenth century,

Zubrin draws parallels between opening the western frontier in the 1800s and opening the next frontier in space. According to Zubrin, our Western humanist society, with the premium that it places on the individual and a high rate of technological change, is a direct outgrowth of the opening of the western frontier. Today, however, the western frontier no longer exists. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, and we are no longer in a period of rapid technological growth.

Opening up the high frontier, states Zubrin, will create new wealth. On Earth almost everything of consequence is owned, and a "have" must surrender something if a "have not" is to gain. By making new resources available, the frontier creates new opportunities. Pioneers in space can stake claims to land, homestead, and create new wealth out of the resources found in space.

Given few hands and the challenges of a frontier, people are forced to find new ways of doing things, to develop new laws and customs as well as new technologies. The labor shortage reduces status distinctions. On a frontier, the physician, electrician, and carpenter's apprentice are all worthwhile. The premium placed on the individual generates a greater willingness to invest in education and welfare. This, in turn, unleashes creativity and talent.

When people move to a frontier they leave old institutions behind. By opening up the space frontier we will foster self-reliance, education, and equality, and thereby set the stage for dynamic democratic forms of government. Because space offers ample room for future expansion, we could have endless renewal on the high frontier.

Not everyone agrees with this attractive analysis. Some historians are rethinking Turner's original work. Howard E. McCurdy points out that the frontier did not necessarily provide equal opportunity for all—blacks and Mexicans undoubtedly were short-changed, and it is unlikely that many Native Americans would share Turner's opin-ions.22 Moreover, some of the benefits attributed to life on the frontier may have been due to other factors, such as the personalities of the people who chose to emigrate. Nonetheless, space opens up new opportunities, and let us hope that settlers will take good advantage of their fresh starts.

Space settlements can accommodate human diversity and preserve cultural differences, as well as encourage the development of new space-based cultures. Since space is vast, there can be many settlements, each tuned to special tastes. To be sure, there are subcultures within the nations of Earth, but these are to a large extent constrained by the dominant culture. Whether we are talking about architecture, political systems, or lifestyles, large orbiting communities (or perhaps even entire planets) could be devoted to a particular way of life.

One of the strongest proponents of variety is Magorah Maruyama, who proposes architectural designs that will express the colonists' values and accommodate their preferences and behaviors.23 For example, one such settlement might feature completely separate dwelling units, each essentially sealed off from the others and allowing a very individualized and private life. Another settlement might be designed in a much more open fashion, with communal living areas that promote group activities. In the former, people can enjoy hard architecture that serves to isolate and defend them against unwanted intrusions, while in the latter residents can enjoy softly flowing architecture that promotes a sense of openness and accessibility.


Proposed space settlements have attempted to rectify the problems salient at the time they were planned. These problems included a growing concern with the environment and with big government, and a sense that social relationships were becoming too impersonal. As envisioned by some of their planners, space settlements offer hope for repairing and revitalizing human society and curing anomie, ennui, and even (thanks to artificial textures and synthetic flavors) lunch pail lassitude! Space, in other words, provides the opportunity to conduct social experiments and construct an ideal society. Not everyone agrees with this. A thoughtful and dissenting note comes from sociologist Alvin Rudoff.24 In his view, when we look forward to space settlements, the search for Utopia will be no more fruitful than it has been on Earth. Instead of deliberately experimenting, we should establish an environment that permits natural processes to evolve. We should not seek to establish a "static perfection" but rather a dynamic society geared to adaptability, adjustment, and change.

In their 1986 book, James and Alcestis Oberg include a NASA artist's conception of a space station and an actual interior view of a Salyut station.25 The flowing lines, spaciousness, freedom from clutter and overall aesthetic appeal of the imaginary space settlement represent perfection when compared to the cramped, functional, cluttered look of the real thing. It may be possible to construct large, attractive habitats, and perhaps tomorrow's space settlements will be a far cry from contemporary space stations. Nonetheless, we should expect many slips between design and execution. Furthermore, mass emigration is at least decades, maybe centuries, away (if it occurs at all). Between today's planning efforts and tomorrow's wholesale departures from Earth, new scientific discoveries and technologies will emerge. As we become more knowledgeable and capable we will change our plans. At one time we believed that the Moon was covered with a thick layer of dust. A Moon base planned in that era was designed to float in this stationary ocean of dust, held in place by cables and anchors.26 What else will we have to rethink, and will our job become easier or more difficult?

Perhaps in our efforts to envision tomorrow's space settlements we can be compared to a naval architect of 1800 trying to imagine future vessels. Although he might have some vague ideas about "floating cities," what are the chances that he could have envisioned one of today's giant passenger ships, such as the Queen Elizabeth II? It would take a very fertile imagination, and tremendous luck, to predict all-metal boats, petroleum-based and nuclear power systems, refrigerators and air conditioners, navigation and communications equipment, and everything else that comprises today's floating giants.

Like those of physical scientists and engineers, the crystal balls of social scientists grow hazy when we try to peer into the distant future. The engineer's point of departure is present-day technology, and the social scientist's jumping-off point is the collection of political forms, social institutions, cultures, and ways of doing things that surround us today. Between today's planning and tomorrow's emigration humans will change culturally and psychologically, so the first true colonists most likely will be very different from us. Furthermore, the cultural elements that are transported into space will not stay intact, for as emigrants move into new ecological niches, they will evolve new ways. As Jim Dator observes, space is a place to do things that cannot be, or have not yet been, done on Earth.27 Nonetheless, we have to begin somewhere, and the visions described in this chapter are good places to start.

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