previous : index : next Space Gazette - Index HobbySpace Home
The Spacefaring Web 1.19 The Martian Alternative
John Carter McKnight
Jaunuary 9, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Will planetary settlements avoid the structural limitations on freedom which would seem to plague L5 colonies, and is there any way to enable social experimentation and diversity in a space habitat? Definitive answers must wait on good data on the costs of particular settlement technologies, work which as far as I am aware is yet to be done. However, some preliminary conclusions are possible. In the first few generations, L5 colonies will be constrained by economic and concomitant political limitations, while cheap shelter may enable an explosion of diversity on Mars.

Recapping the previous column, the only likely reason for creating an L5 settlement is to provide worker housing for space-based export industry: to create an economic colony. A structure like Gerard O’Neill’s Island One, a one-mile sphere housing 10,000 people, will likely cost on the rough order of a trillion dollars. Only a very large industrial complex could produce a return justifying such an investment. Minimizing investment risk will likely entail minimizing potentially disruptive social experimentation (including dissent and whistle-blowing), while the builder/owner’s monopoly on basic resources (including air) will provide a powerful lever for control.

Martian settlements may face looser economic and political constraints. The planetary environment provides resources ready to hand that an L5 settlement would have to import from Earth or the Moon and then process more extensively: the atmosphere provides some radiation shielding, and the costs of covering a structure with regolith are obviously much lower for something already on the ground than in deep space. Extracting useful materials from Martian regolith and atmosphere should likely be similarly cheaper than from lunar regolith transported to Earth orbit by mass driver, the most economically feasible way of supplying raw materials to L5. Arguably, the cost to construct a 10,000 person settlement on Mars should be at least one order of magnitude less than that of Island One. Reducing the economic pressure to justify a return on investment would allow more marginal enterprises: more research and exploration, a greater focus on economic development for growth rather than production for export. Of course, it is difficult to imagine a viable Martian export industry in the first place (at least with Earth, rather than the asteroid belt, as a market). In short, a true settlement as opposed to a classic economic colony. With economic colonialism as a lesser force, both motive and opportunity for coercion are lessened. Thus a Martian settlement should have more diversity and more opportunity for social experimentation than an L5 colony of like size.

But the truly interesting issue arises from the Martian ability to go beyond the like size comparison. O’Neill likely pegged Island One as the smallest economically viable space colony. Advances in robotics may well leverage a space-based labor force beyond what O’Neill envisioned, enabling a smaller number of people to generate adequate return on investment. However, the construction technologies and materials he describes imply a significant economy of scale: given the requirements for reasonable self-sufficiency, one might as well build big. Assuming a global market for whatever the colony’s industrial complex produces, gigantism in production also makes some sense.

The Martian situation would seem quite different. Given that some of the survival infrastructure is provided by the planet, and industrial export is much less of a driver, a self-sufficient settlement might be quite small. Hundred-person settlements would seem entirely feasible with respect to technology, economics, division of labor and social factors. Obviously, the cost of such a settlement would be vastly less than that of Island One, and probably affordable based on the incomes of the hundred people, assuming a first settlement with rentable or surplus construction materials.

Thus, anyone seeking an alternative to conditions on Island One would be forced to raise the trillion dollars to build a similar facility in order to have autonomy, while a comparable inhabitant of the first substantial Martian settlement would need only a few millions to buy their freedom. Inevitably, much greater diversity will be generated on Mars.

Critically, autonomy short of self-sufficiency seems much more viable on Mars than L5. Someone seeking to go it alone in deep space might be able to trade services for air, water and food – derived from materials imported from the Moon, processed by perhaps the most expensive labor in human history, and certainly priced with an outrageously high markup. They would still have to pay for a basic habitat with radiation shielding, navigational equipment and propulsion systems.

In the Martian case, the costs of locally-produced survival goods should be much lower. If small-scale atmosphere refinement is feasible, air and water costs may be negligible. Minimum shelter may be as cheap as an inflatable beach ball covered with regolith, equivalent in cost to a good mountaineer’s tent. The difference in cost, and in its cultural implications, is enormous.

While we may in time see crusty old asteroid miners in single-person ships, that old staple of space opera, the first generation of space settlements should follow two paradigms. One, in L5, will be built around large-scale export industry, with fairly large communities looking much like current privatopias in design, legal strictures and social norms. Meanwhile, Mars will see a number of settlements ranging from solitary scientists, explorers, prospectors or sheer nomads upwards to towns likely much smaller than L5’s Island One, there being no economic need for big Martian cities in the first generations. Low capital expenditures and little export industry will engender poorer (or, more positively, lean and frugal) settlements, but with the freedom to be politically independent and culturally diverse.

Interestingly, this late 21st Century division is already visible in embryonic form within the space community. The community divides roughly into entrepreneurs, explorers and pioneers. The entrepreneurs have always been closely allied with O’Neill and his heirs, notably within the Space Frontier Foundation. While some explorers look to deep space and the SETI endeavor, Mars has been the been the passion of many. The Mars Society talks less of pioneering now than in its early days, but its members are more likely to be found in the high desert or the Arctic than the average space entrepreneur, who may already live in a community much like Island One. What we choose and build now, each of us in accordance with our natures, is setting the stage for the first generation’s work in space. This paradigm allows some natural focus to our efforts: the commercially-minded will work on Earth-orbital projects, while the scientists and hardship-loving pioneers can build towards Mars. We can hope that these differences in temperament and focus will not impede effective cooperation within the space movement towards common goals.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at

previous : index : next Space Gazette - Index HobbySpace Home