How Colonizing Space Requires a Cathedral Builder’s Heart

On the esteemed John C. Wright’s blog, a discussion of colonizing Mars and space in general has broken out, to no one’s surprise. The commentariat has beaten up the various issues. The two general poles of the discussion perhaps can be represented thus: Man is an exploring animal, we will colonize space because it, like Everest, is there! Versus: hey, ya know, keeping people alive in places as hostile to human life as Mars, the moon and space in general is really, really, hard, and we haven’t made much headway in figuring it all out. Given the current state of things, space colonies are a pipe dream.

Anybody with an imagination wants Man to colonize space. We want there to be space aliens, or at least planets humans can live on. What could be cooler? I think most Sci Fi fans of a more scientific inclination recognize, however, that unless we happen across a very earth-like planet, AND figure out a way to get there that human being can survive, we’re way far away from setting up colonies in space. It’s just hoping against the evidence (or lack thereof) that if we just dig big enough holes or build fancy enough structures, that problems with human physiology, radiation, maintaining breathable air, and growing enough food in a closed environment will just get solved.

I’d like to believe that they will. Show me.(1)

But this is mere preamble. The biggest thing I think is lacking in any push to colonize space is generational patience. It’s not something that we’ll do in a lifetime. We humans are really bad at thinking past tomorrow, yet terraforming, even in the very limited sense of making some small area of, say, Mars, suitable for human life (within domes, with caverns down below, that sort of thing), will almost certainly take a long time.

Terraforming a whole planet is likely to take centuries, at least.(2)

Current state of the art: Space X launch. The closest thing to Flynn’s Plancks we’ve seen.

The modern world has produced hundreds of millions of people with the attention span of fruit flies and the patience of toddlers. American culture reflects this. And that’s not the half of it – few of us are able to make and stick to plans that go out past the end of the month. The idea that people like modern Americans could plan and execute something that takes generations would seem preposterous.

Old photo of the cathedral before completion shows the east end finished and roofed, while other parts of the building are in various stages of construction.
Cologne Cathedral under construction. Begun in 1248, work stopped in 1473 with a usable portion of the building complete but not the main facade and towers. Work continued off and on for a couple centuries, then took a couple centuries off, then commenced again in 1842, was completed in 1880, got blown up by allied bombers in WWII, and was rebuild. Finishing touches were completed in 2005. So, here’s a project that took about six and a half centuries to complete. Now your talkin’!

But there’s hope, after a fashion. There have been cases where large groups of people have enthusiastically supported and executed projects that took a century or more to complete: the building of the great Gothic cathedrals. These typically involved a complete commitment of the community (towns of hardly more than a few thousand people built some of these churches!), and took, more often than not, over a century to complete.

So: what remains for us to do if we seriously want to colonize the stars is to recapture whatever it was that motivated people to begin such huge, expensive projects knowing that they, themselves, would never live to see them completed. In fact, those involved early on might get to see the foundation laid; their grand kids might see the columns and buttresses go up; the grand kids of those grand kids might see the roof go on and the glass put in. Some distant descendant might get to see the towers and facade go up.

But all, or at least enough, saw building the Gothic church as a worthy thing, even if they, themselves, never got to enjoy the completed structure.

So, we must find men who will launch the hollowed-out asteroids with atomic ion drives toward the future colonies, and upon arrival set up the comet-shepherding lasers that nudges water-rich objects into decaying orbits around the target planets. As the planets begin to acquire atmosphere and liquid water, green algae is released. Perhaps shuttle craft visit nearby gas giants to mine oxygen, which is deposited on the worlds.

The grandchildren of the asteroid pilots release selected flora and fauna once their survival thresholds are met. The goal is to position the water-bearing comets so that they don’t collide with the planets, but rather are captured in orbits such that the atmosphere has a chance to burn them mostly up. But there will be some impacts, so the transplanted earth life must be tough and diffuse.

Once life is established, the gas mining targets creating an atmosphere with the proper greenhouse characteristics for the particular planet at its particular location in the Goldilocks zone.

By now, a couple centuries (at least!) in, the first colonists are ready to leave earth for the 250 earth year journey. The main deceleration laser needs to be completed and the Dyson power array deployed, ready to slow incoming starliners. More and more sophisticated animals and plants are seeded.

Finally, centuries later, the fist colonists arrive, greeted by the miners and pilots descended through many generations from those who first began the project. The planets are still rough, but tough-minded settlers can survive, and, by their actions, improve conditions.

So, what’s going to motivate all those people to do all that work, when they know they will die before they ever set foot on a livable extraterrestrial planet?

  1. The closest I’ve seen to showing how it could be done might be Mike Flynn’s Firestar series (which I will finish and review someday soon!). It’s as hard as hard Sci Fi gets, but there’s still some little leaps that I’d like to see bridged. A year or so on a space station, a couple hundred miles up and still within the magnetosphere creates physiological problems in human physical specimens in extraordinarily good shape taking extraordinary steps to keep fit. How bout we throw a station out at a Lagrange point for a decade, stick some people on it, see how that goes? I’d love to be convinced, but I’m not.
  2. Cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae-like stuff that is supposed to have first produced free oxygen on earth, took millions of years to create a breathable atmosphere. First, enough oxygen must be produced to saturate all the oxygen reacting stuff on the planet’s surface – all the exposed iron will rust, for example. Only then can significant oxygen build up in the air. After that, as a side effect, as the methane atmosphere was converted to an oxygen atmosphere, the greenhouse effect was reduced – plunging the planet into a 100 million year ice age. Maybe we can speed that up some, but the idea that one would just dump green plants onto a more promising and temperate Venus and wait for breathable air will most likely require quite a bit of waiting.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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