TCS Daily


Home Improvement on Mars

By Kenneth Silber - November 28, 2006 12:00 AM

It was somewhere amid the kitchens and closets that I caught a glimpse of humanity's future beyond the Earth.

For better and worse, I tend to be a "big picture" sort of person. One aspect of this is my longstanding interest in space exploration and astronomy, subjects about which I have written frequently at TCS and elsewhere. The everyday, smaller-scale type of "space"—real estate on this planet—is something in which I've had only a moderate interest (as evidenced by my living in the same Manhattan rental apartment for almost two decades).

However, prompted by impending marriage and a softening real-estate market, my fiancée and I have been looking at houses in what New York City people call "upstate" (say an hour north of the city). As we both have an affinity for old houses, and she has an architectural background, we have included in our search structures that will need considerable renovation (or even a massive build-out in the case of one stone barn).

And, while inspecting grout and crawlspaces might not evoke images of the celestial, it has become increasingly evident to me that certain skills and attitudes valuable in terrestrial real-estate acquisition and improvement are essential conditions of a human future in space. For space exploration to move beyond its current limited scope and pace will require not just such big-picture elements as political will, technological breakthroughs, and major economic incentives. Crucially, it will also require that people have hands-on experience, a do-it-yourself attitude, and a personal stake in the outcome.

Consider the recent news that NASA will send astronauts to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008. This will be the fourth servicing mission for Hubble, and it will underscore that among the qualities needed for successful astronaut work is being handy. Notwithstanding the traditional preference among professional astronomers for robotic missions over manned ones, the fact remains that Hubble, a keystone of astronomy in the past decade and a half, would not be working if repair people did not come by as needed.

The importance of being able to fix and build things, moreover, will only increase as space operations are conducted for longer periods and further from Earth. Habitation on the moon or Mars may involve prefabricated domes or tubes, for instance, but will also require improvisation, patch-ups, and knowledge that can only be derived from a close look at the details of an alien environment. Deep-space missions, much like fixing up old houses, will require figuring out what to do, not just following an instruction manual.

Space tourism is rightly noted as a promising means of accelerating human space flight via market forces. However, the model of space travelers as passengers who sit back and enjoy the view may turn out to cover just a fraction of human space activities. I suspect that a major draw for humans to space will be the possibility of doing something once you're there. This might involve more active forms of tourism, such as driving a rover across the lunar surface. But over time it should also include the possibility of owning and developing property on celestial bodies.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for Reason sketching out how a system of space property rights might develop, and later I wrote for TCS that space bonds linked to property rights could be a valuable incentive for space exploration. If such proposals sound far-fetched, consider what real estate on Earth would be like if property rights here were in the same legal and political limbo as they are in space. Public housing, for all its often troubled history, at least involves ownership by government. At present, neither public nor private entities have any accepted way of acquiring extraterrestrial property.

Consider the massive task that is performed every day of building and rebuilding the housing stock on Earth. Some of it is performed by governments or large developers, but much of it is done in a highly decentralized way, by individuals or small contractors. A successful human presence in space will also require such decentralization. From that standpoint, space enthusiasts should take heart from the growing popularity of do-it-yourself TV shows and superstores here and now. The people who live on Mars will be those who have the skills and desire to build a house there, brick by pressurized brick.


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10 Comments

modern homesteaders - - - -
Bull's eye, Ken Silber. NASA, predictably, degenerated into a self-serving sclerotic bureaucracy according to the iron law of government agencies. Exhibit A being the international space station doing nothing but burning up billions upon billions of of hard-earned taxpayers' dollars.

The whole thing should be scrapped, or sold to the highest bidder. The billions thus saved should be offered as prizes for the first to create a permanent moon colony and the first to go to Mars and return safely.

I understand we've foolishly agreed that no country may claim extraterrestial territory. However, I also understand that this does not affect private persons, and that the US could recognize privately owned extraterrestial real estate. Ergo, I also propose that the prize winners be awarded large tracts on the moon and Mars associated with their enterprises, recogized as private property in US law. Excelsior!

Living on Mars
The radiation levels at the Martian surface would require substantial shielding of any 'housing'.
Underground accommodation would seem necessary unless future technology permits plasma or other active shielding systems to be transported to the red planet and operated there.
There are also the daunting size/mass/power problems of shielding the human accomodation in any spacecraft traveling to Mars unless future technology can produce biological repair processes to repair the radiation damage that the astronauts would suffer during their journey. Given the lilitations of present techmology I suspect that most wannabe Mars travellers would opt to keep their 'handy' skills terrestial.

Space as Home
"...future technology can produce biological repair processes to repair the radiation damage that the astronauts would suffer during their journey."

If humans are to become "space" inhabitants, as opposed to terrestrial earth inhabitants, significant technology innovation will be required. Solar and cosmic radiations, omnipresent in open space, are only a couple of the many challenges to be overcome. We could construct personal or habitat based shielding...or it might be better to re-engineer the human body with adjunct or innate protective capability.

As hostile as earth can be to human survival, space presents several geometric levels of additional risk. The full benefits of the final frontier will not be realized until humans re-engineer themselves so that space is their "natural" habitat.

Virgin Mars
If Richard Branson or any other private party could put together an expedition to Mars and have the resources to defend it, they could own it until someone tries to take it away.

Once the surly bonds are earth are loosed, why should any earth government have any say as to who owns what in space?

Fortunately Russia & China are now capitalist
On the spot as regards proprty rights being necessary for profit making enterprise - nonprofit enterprise being unsustainable when the political wind chages.

I think it would be possible for the UN or G11 or US + Russia + China (both now capitalist powers) to state that they recognise "full rights to exploit & trade in" property within 100 miles of a base. This would be de facto ownership without technicly breaching treaties. It would allow control of any asteroid (they all have diameters under 100 miles) & the establishment of a base on a planet but not a Columbus style claiming of an entire planet (which obviously didn't work for the Kilng of Spain anyway). Had evidence of polar ice turned up on the Moon it would probably have been all close together but this seems now unlikely. It would also have to apply to the L points which may shortly turn out to be the most valuable real estate in the universe despite being unreal estate.

I think it is probably better that a planet not be grabable by one landing though the Chinese, who are odds on favourite for the first permanent Moonbase may disagree. It is vital that the spacegoing states seek to come to some agreement on this - fortunately since Russia & China both support capitalism (& are doing increasingly well on it) this is probably doable.

Maybe Home Depot?
We can already see another place that has such a problem of the 'commons'. For example maybe that's why nothing gets developed and we see no HOme Depot in Antartica. If it could be privatley owned, by companies or individuals, then we would see all sorts of projects down there whereas now its just a wastland. Also if not for NASA there would probably also be a resort spa etc on the moon.

China somewhat, Russia no
Capitalist reforms in China seem to have stalled out in the last few years.

Russia is advancing backwards as fast as Putin can find more opponents to kill. Russia has always been a autocracy/kleptocracy going back to the czars. In the last century they put a communist veneer over the age old system. In recent years, the only thing that has changed is that the veneer fell off. For a short time they tried to put a capitalist veneer on the system, but it fell off quickly.

Amen, D - - - -
Getting international "cooperation" of any sort would be exactly the wrong way to go. It would ensure that nothing beneficial gets done, as you rightly point out, on Antarctica. Recall the high seas' valuable manganese nodules scattered over the abyssal plain under all the oceans. Proposals to mine this asset were met with the whine that they were the common property of all mankind, even landlocked nations. We stupidly bot into the indefinite delay that ensued; nothing got done.

Radiation exposure and other technical space travel and living problems are just what private efforts are meant to solve, much faster than NASA ever could or would. I've noted, for instance, that underground living quarters on both orbs would solve both radiation and diurnal and annual extreme temperature excursions. It happens that the structural stresses caused by "air" pressure necessary in these spaces could be just offset by a layer of native soil thick enuf to solve radiation and temperature problems. So living spaces could be of inflated, flexible material. Excelsior!

Trying to get there
I have some serious disagreements with some of the statements here in the discussions but agree completely with the article.

I believe that we have answered all of the necessary questions to survive and now only have to earn the money to do the job.

John Wayne Smith, CEO
1000Planets, Inc.
Http://www.1000Planets.com
Leesburg Florida.

If they put adverts on their rockets ...
Russia is very capitalist. Putin gets a very bad name in the western media but that is not because he is killing people (not 1,000th many as Bush surely?) but because he is standing up for Russia's interests whereas Bush is standing up for US interests, or at least what he believes to be US interests. The reason why he is overwhelmingly popular & what our media choose to call the "democratic opposition" is remkably unpopular, is because he has been successful in defending these interests.

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