Is planet-hopping colonization a viable approach?

It’s understandable that colonizing planets is a natural inclination. Humans live on a planet, and everyone’s used to the idea of inhabiting planets as a standard approach. …But can it always work?

New information from the Voyagers and exoplanet data indicates that space is a very tough place, and planets aren’t always too hospitable. These worlds would require a lot of effort and cost to colonize. This means resources are diverted to achieving what may well be an unrealistic goal, “on principle”.

Planets do have their uses as physical locations. They do have resources. They are useful structural elements in their solar systems. They’re interesting scientifically, and humanity has only just scratched the first inklings of the realities of space travel and exploration.

Space travel and exploration, however, have a long logistic tail to manage, inside and outside the solar system. With foreseeable technologies and viable interstellar drive, future colonies and economic resource exploitation will be in roughly the same state as Age of Sail outposts for a while. A long way from home, dependent on a dubious level of support, and with any number of possible needs and issues to manage.

Isaac Asimov made the point very clearly in a short story called Mother Earth (one of his best) that alien planets are truly alien. None of them can be Earth, biologically. Humans need terrestrial nutrition, environments, etc., everything from microfauna to basic materials.

Can you make the materials you need from an unknown resource base? Or are you going to be dependent on whatever you can make plus whatever you can bring with you, or arrange to have supplied? At these distances, these are life-or-death questions. They’re also serious issues for the viability of any type of exploration.

Risk-aversity is very much part of the economic mindset. The support for space exploration and development stops where the viability becomes questionable. This could rebound severely on human development, stopping exploration in much the same way the Ming Dynasty lost its invaluable early explorations.

Relying on planets as any sort of support base, therefore, is a potentially too- risky proposition in many more ways than just “win or lose”. Even if terraforming undergoes a massive Renaissance, it’s a long-haul proposition. The kind of planning and work required will vary, perhaps drastically with every single planet. The support system will inevitably be playing catch-up with every move.

Creativity allows the mind to grow

If you like the idea of spending centuries plodding along in our region of the galaxy, that’s fine. If you don’t, and I definitely don’t, you need a better support system in place. Preferably one that isn’t dependent on the vagaries of what support might or might not be shiftable to wherever at any given moment.

You need a way of moving enough resources to support every move without having to go back to Earth and get whatever it is you need. This isn’t Star Trek; certainly not at this stage. You can’t (yet) replicate whenever you want. That might happen with better materials and transformational technology, ( ways of doing it have been proposed for decades) but you can’t assume that tech will be in place when and where you need it.

The situation so far is:

  • It’s a long way back to Earth for essentials. Too long. Any situation could become catastrophic without proper resources. At 0.99% of the speed of light, you’re talking about years for anything to get anywhere.
  • You can’t rely on alien planets to have exactly what you want. You may be able to process materials on these planets, sure; but depend on them? Not a realistic scenario. This is one of the reasons for the relatively sudden great interest in availability of hydrogen and things like H3 as energy sources, and that’s about as basic as it gets. The idea is to be able to build what you need from the atomic-level science of Table of Elements resource acquisition in space is quite right in effect, but that’s pretty tricky and resource-intensive, too.
  • The time and risk factors in lack of resources are always critical in any operational context. You couldn’t run a picnic on the basis of “guess where the food is”, either. The chances of a mission becoming non-viable are too high if you have to live off the land.
  • The range of available support is also likely to be short. Very short, in the early days. An exploration vessel could probably go far and fast for quite a distance, but how about a lumbering big freighter with all the supplies? Range-increasing technologies will play a huge part in what’s actually doable.
  • Humans are high-maintenance. The sheer amount of materials required to keep a human functional on Earth, never mind space, is enormous. This is an inescapable issue. A lot of effort has already gone into considering how to manage this problem, but the further out you go, the more dangerous this issue becomes. As Asimov pointed out in Mother Earth, trace elements in food and water alone can be serious issues. You need a whole portable ecology. Try that for hand luggage. (Theoretically possible, but it hasn’t been done yet, and has its own issues.)

A quick look at the obvious in space logistics

If you can’t rely on support from your base, you need to carry a lot of stuff with you. That obvious. The trouble with this is having enough, being able to replace lost resources, etc. How do you know what you’ll need under any number of variable situations?

You can’t. You can land on Mars and find that damn ubiquitous microdust sabotages your electronics, for an all-too-likely scenario. …Or causes some unknown form of silicosis, for another. Lose your gear, or get your people in real trouble, and your operation is already seriously compromised, maybe almost instantly.

The hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other exoplanets already known are likely to be equally uncooperative. Exploration by guesswork is obviously not an option. People can’t wait for urgently needed resources they don’t have. Hit-or-miss support isn’t going to even be believed to work in any possible situation.

So what’s the solution? Difficult, but it’s belt-and-suspenders

The short answer to these problems is based on military logistics – Bring your support capacity with you, and a lot of it. Armies throughout history have basically evaporated due to lack of support. The development of logistics is based on hard-earned knowledge that Murphy’s Law can never be repealed.  The word SNAFU, a military expression, means “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up”. That expression didn’t just happen. It was learned, the hard way.

Now would be the time for some equally realistic, very healthy cynicism to take hold in space travel of all kinds. You can already see how the fan’s going to be hit, and probably why. Multiple redundancies only go so far. You need helplines.

The proposition:

Make damn sure your support capacity comes with you. Bring instant large-volume manufacturing, fast research, etc. You may need to support yourself for years or decades.

The Table of Elements resources approach works. Even unknown compounds can be reworked. Be able to create what you need, without depending on a probably-ridiculous support coming from Earth or some other distant source.

Identify all viable and non-viable local resources as support options. No-brainer, you’d think; but what can you actually access and use? The theory of accessing resources leaves a lot to be desired right now. If you can’t access it, or use it, you need to be self-supporting as far as you can think ahead.

Building your own support infrastructure is likely to be a nuisance and expensive, but it’s necessary. In theory, you can build anything, or assemble something like a production facility or several, with some Tetris-like transportation. How long does it take you to put together a building frame? Should be seconds.

You don’t have to build support systems on planets. Support could be dropped off before you get there, and/or built in space as a mobile support system closer to operations. (Might be better to build in space, so you can dodge any local disasters.)

Close support is essential. Space is quite dangerous enough without creating problems for yourself. Colonization can’t happen on a hand-to-mouth basis. Nor can anything else, much.

Is colonization necessary? In micro, yes; scientific information from other worlds is obviously incredibly valuable. Parking large numbers of humans on other worlds is a very different ballgame. The necessity should also be subject to pretty severe scrutiny. You could divert a lot of resources to this particular hobby with the classic current supply-and-demand pseudo logic, which can’t work at all in this environment.

Colonizing other planets could be far more difficult than the wariest, least starry-eyed people have suggested so far. The likely result of plunking down colonists on another planet, even a near Earth like planet, would be sick people, dead people, or starving people or more likely combinations of all.

Stretching Earth’s umbilical cords that far can’t be simple. Bring a factory, not a picnic basket, and you’ll probably be OK.  

Paul Wallis books, Wanderlaugh, Mimbly Tales, Ads, Gothic Black, The Threat-Hamster Papers

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