We Have A Choice To Make

The idea that Satoshi Nakamoto might have been an alien might make for an amusing History Channel documentary. As a popular meme inspired by the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens” says, “I’m not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens.” In all seriousness, Satoshi probably didn’t come from another planet any more than Elon Musk did, but it should still be seen as no coincidence that cryptocurrencies have shown up right when we’re at a decision point as a spacefaring species. Do we develop to the point where interplanetary trade becomes a reality? Or do we backslide in the belief that there are other, more important things we could be doing as a species?

These are the ladies who handled the calculations for early attempts to send probes and, later, men into space. They were called, of course, “computers.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a new technology had to wait for the right time and place to catch on. The idea of a computing machine that was more advanced than a simple abacus didn’t catch on until the mid-20th century even though at least one calculating machine had actually been built in the 18th century. Even when NASA acquired a mainframe supercomputer in the 1960s, it still called upon its cadre of human computers to check its work and wouldn’t have relied on the supercomputer in any case since those things were slow and had a terrible habit of overheating. Most of the time, it was just faster to ask the math whizzes to handle the calculations – and for those of you who care, these calculations and, later, programming the new computers were considered to be women’s work at the time. Now laptops and mobile devices are everywhere and pretty much taken for granted.

Similarly, Bitcoin showed up at a time when the technology behind it could be refined as needed to handle the job of acting as a backbone for an interplanetary economic system. When I first comprehended what Bitcoin is, my entire reaction was, “Okay, cool, so it’s like a rudimentary, 21st century version of Star Trek‘s Federation Credits.” It’s a way to go shopping on Deep Space 9’s Promenade without having to carry a purse or risk losing your cash to a pickpocket. I never once saw an ATM or a bank on DS9 and it wasn’t because the Bajorans didn’t use currency (and anyway, it would have been hard to justify Quark’s presence as a regular on the TV series if he couldn’t make a profit). Odo can authorize a transaction by typing on an electronic tablet and pressing his thumb against a reader – though I’m surprised he didn’t file charges against Quark later for selling him a baby sentient life form. With Bitcoin, we’re just seeing the rudimentary version of what Federation Credits could become.

However, before we can form an interstellar or even an interplanetary economy, our species has some decisions to make. Cynthia McKinney’s statement that we need to solve problems on Earth didn’t just come out of nowhere, but she’s wrong when she says that space exploration and colonization has no immediate value when it comes to solving Earth’s problems.

Cynthia McKinney

Apollo 8’s Moonrise picture was barely even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to space travel being valuable for raising awareness of Earth as a planet. Orbiting satellites are capable of producing high-resolution images on Earth’s surface that help experts understand the effects of illegal deforestation and may be able to capture it as it’s happening, which in turn can help to capture the criminal loggers. If you don’t believe me, just check out the Earth View option on Google Maps. That satellite has a good enough resolution to take an image of your car.

New technologies that are enabled by orbiting satellites, such as GPS and satellite TV, help create new skilled jobs and careers that keep people employed in a meaningful way. Weather satellites give us better forecasts and plenty of advance warning if people need to evacuate due to an incoming hurricane. OneWeb has teamed up with Virgin Galactic to work on satellites capable of delivering Internet access to disadvantaged regions to help enable new opportunities for the less privileged, so it’s not even hyperbole to say that cryptocurrencies have huge potential in these regions once the infrastructure that enables their functionality exists.

The OneWeb plan is not even charity – not that it’s likely to make a huge profit for Richard Branson unless the beneficiaries develop a taste for Virgin Soda or buy cell phones produced by Virgin Cellular. It’s opening up new markets in regions that have been neglected by less farsighted businesspeople who have forgotten what they learned in their college-level economics class and have trouble seeing beyond the next quarterly report. It’s unleashing economic principles that occur when more people are included in an economic system. It’s still up to the obvious beneficiaries of the OneWeb plan to use the new capacity in their region – something that may come slowly among populations that are used to being the recipients of international aid efforts and being ignored by large international corporations that have gotten too used to doing business with people who can afford to pay up front for their products and services. However, it will happen once these populations see the potential even if it means they become a population with a higher-than-normal percentage of freelancers. Of course, they’ll want to spend this new currency that they have on their cheap tablets and that drives up GDP. Populations that might have previously been held back by society or the lack of meaningful opportunities can enrich everybody when they become capable of earning money and spending money.

These are just a few examples of the ways that being a spacefaring species can enable improvements right here on Earth. What can we accomplish with a meaningful space colonization effort that leads to interplanetary trade? It’s always tempting to suggest signing the celebrities and politicians we hate most up for that one-way trip to Mars concept that was popularized by Bas Lansdorp and Mars One, but I have a better idea. Throw the colonization of space wide open to anyone who thinks they can do it.

It will not matter if Kanye West and the ten fans he has left decide to colonize some little stretch of Martian terrain that no one else wants. I might have mentioned before that Mars is harsh, but at least it will not care about the size of Kanye’s ego (and, yes, he did miss an opportunity when he sent his legal team after the cryptocurrency called Coinye West instead of turning it into a branding thing. C’mon, it was a joke!). What will matter is that someone, somewhere, is capable of becoming an important member of a viable Martian colony. This kind of person should not be held back by any artificial barrier because creating a viable colony will be difficult enough as it is.

The Right To Emigrate

This is usually about where I get a little Libertarian, but liberty will have to be balanced against practicality in this case. The right to immigrate should naturally be balanced against a colony’s ability to absorb a large influx of newcomers. That colony probably won’t be able to support a sudden explosion in its population unless the newcomers bring the resources needed to support themselves, which usually won’t happen if they are fleeing a bad situation.

More important for our purposes is the right to emigrate – to leave a place where one feels unsafe or unwelcome or one is unable to find any meaningful opportunities for gainful employment. We assume that there is no immigration agency on Mars yet.

Therefore, nobody should care much about who wants to leave Earth and why they’re willing to take the risks involved in creating their own colony on the frontier. Some segments of the human populations, such as the Jews, survived over the millennia by knowing when to swallow their pride and run. A smart nation won’t even need a series of plagues to realize that letting them go would be the easiest way to handle the matter. “Sayonara, wouldn’t want to be you,” may be the appropriate response of a nation that takes a laissez-faire attitude toward the matter rather than risk a reputation as a nation that commits human rights abuses against a segment of the population that it does not want. Trying to hold this population in against their will is like adding more helium to a balloon than the balloon can hold. Eventually, something is going to explode.

Space is the new “out.” It’s the new frontier that people can flee to when they decide that taking the risks inherent in living on the frontier is better than remaining in an oppressive situation. It’s like America was a few centuries ago, minus the natives that get pushed aside to make room for the newcomers. We could argue all we want about what happened to the Native Americans, but the important thing to remember right now is that Lowell was wrong. Barsoom doesn’t exist. Mars HAS no native civilization that is advanced enough to create a worldwide canal system. Beyond some results from the Viking probes that NASA mission reports called “enigmatic” and some equally controversial readings from a Martian rock found in the Arctic, we can prove that modern Mars has elements that could support life, but we can’t conclusively prove that it has actual life of any sort.

If there are any human rights violations during the process of colonizing space, it will usually involve exploitation of workers or colonists who were forced to join a particular colony or use a particular socioeconomic structure against their will. No supporter of any particular socioeconomic structure should feel like they have the right to force everyone else to follow that structure simply because they believe it’s the best way to do things. You can feel morally superior because your colony does not use the same system as everybody else if it makes you feel better. If you choose to join a coalition of colonies that trade with one another, though, remember that one colony equals one node equals one vote, and don’t be surprised if the members of other colonies prefer not to abandon a system that worked for their particular colony. The decentralized system is designed to be a way to help curtail abuses committed by one party that becomes too powerful.

You can find the gritty details of Norbert Kraft’s simulation in this book by Mary Roach, among other interesting factoids about living and working in space.

I actually believe that Mars One did the smart thing by choosing Norbert Kraft to help with the selection process because this is an expert in aerospace medicine who’s done actual field work that included commanding a 110-day simulation in Moscow. It was an international crew and that can be problematic if the crew is constantly running up against cultural misunderstandings. A lot of people run into trouble when traveling to another country because something that their native society taught them to take for granted may actually be considered rude, offensive or illegal in the nation they’re visiting. Lock an international crew in an isolation chamber for almost four months and similar cultural problems becomes enlarged and clarified as if it was something visible that the crew is looking at through a microscope. One crew member quit in the middle of the simulation. Two crew members suffered (probably minor) injuries in a brawl. One crew member complained that a fellow crew member sexually harassed her – which Dr. Kraft blamed on the differences between what French and Russian societies regard as flirtatious behavior. This was just a simulation that lasted 110 days, not the real deal of sending colonists to spend the rest of their lives on Mars.

So obviously, choosing a crew that can work smoothly together is not easy even if you’re using a relatively neutral, objective criteria that doesn’t have much to do with nationality, politics or anything else other than the ability to do the job and get along with other people fairly well. It will be much more difficult if artificial criteria such as the ability to stick to a certain political or religious doctrine are used. To make it short, your colony won’t do very well if Kim Jong-Il was in charge of the selection committee because not only will he fail to understand the qualities that might make a good colonist, but he will also insist that the colonists adhere to the prevailing doctrine of North Korea’s government.

Norbert Kraft Discusses Mars One Training, Crew Psychology and Survival

Diversity is not necessarily a bad thing if we can stick with the right of each colony (and each colonist) to decide what’s desirable. The colony that actually succeeds out of a hundred colonies that use varying socioeconomic models and criteria for selecting colonists could surprise us all. The last man standing could very well be the incorrigible hermit who would never have been accepted into any particular colony but proved that he could succeed while going it alone. This might come off as, “Throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.” However, that’s a cliché for a reason. An eventual success will depend on the ability of each colony and each colonist to choose options that they think they can literally live with.

Remember, no human has ever been farther from Earth than lunar orbit. Apollo 13 actually set an altitude record for manned space missions. So what we think we know about creating a space colony is mostly educated guesses based on science done on our space stations and in our simulators. If we take these educated guesses and apply them, we still have a lot of room for experimentation.

Most colonies could tank because one of those educated guesses was wrong. They could tank because the colonists chose the wrong socioeconomic model or chose to support Rip Van Wrinkle because they think it would be morally wrong to kick him out even though his laziness endangers the entire colony. They could tank because the colonists just weren’t emotionally well-suited for the unforgiving environment of outer space in the first place. The rest of us can learn from those failures and, eventually, something will stick.

The right to emigrate is going to be important for colonists that care about not getting dragged down through no fault of their own. When a colony was based on ideas that weren’t so bright to begin with, the more discerning colonists will want to bail well before it fails. Other colonies may not be very fond of taking in refugees from a colony that failed or is going through some kind of internal strife. They care about not over-extending their own resources to the point where they compromise their own ability to survive, so they may just choose to do what they can and take in 50 out of more than 50,000 refugees because that’s all they can reasonably absorb – or not. A more practical scenario may be that a group of colonists recognize that their colony is declining or just not a safe place for them anymore, so they gather their things and strike off to form their own colony in a region that nobody’s claimed yet. In this case, they aren’t trying to force their way into any colony or even begging a neighboring colony to let them in. They may have failed the first time, but they aren’t using this as an excuse to impose themselves on neighbors who may already have a list of complaints against their former colony and can’t support them in any case.

So I shorten the line item of Robert Zubrin’s Martian Constitution (really a bill of rights), as listed in How To Live On Mars that says, “The right to immigrate or emigrate,” to, “The right to emigrate.” It’s the right to strike off on one’s own if one doesn’t like the way things are going. It’s the right to establish your own space colony with a group of your friends or just put down roots on a previously unclaimed or abandoned stake if you think you can do it alone. It is not the right to impose oneself on another colony if that colony is not in a position to accept immigrants. This distinction exists because the right of established colonists to survive is not less important than the right of surviving members of a failed colony to join them, but the survivors may have a second chance to form a colony that actually succeeds or could limp back to Earth.

What’s in it for me?”

How long have you been working at that minimum wage job at McDonald’s? It’s lame, isn’t it? Especially when you were told that a college degree would help you do better. News flash: A liberal arts degree isn’t worth all that much in the real world. There just aren’t very many job opportunities available for people who majored in feminist studies. (Why is that even a thing?) However, if you did well in trade school but the opportunities just aren’t there because the manufacturing jobs got outsourced to China, you did get royally ripped off.

Politicians love to talk about jobs. High unemployment is seen as an indication that the economy isn’t doing so well. That job at McDonald’s counts as employment because at least you’re working even if your paycheck and your career aren’t where you want them to be. I’d rather talk about career opportunities – the idea that you can do better if you only had the opportunity to get into a job that you’re actually qualified for.

The problem here on Earth is that many people work at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart but they’re still on food stamps because they aren’t making enough to support themselves. Yes, it is unfair that you can work 40-hour weeks and still need public assistance. The problem here isn’t entirely that the Waltons are greedy sots. The greater problem is that they know they have you cold because you don’t have the opportunity to leave for a job that pays you more money. A comprehensive space colonization effort can solve that problem by putting you and every other trade school graduate back to work at jobs that you’re actually qualified for. After all, somebody needs to build the hardware. A comprehensive project like the building of a half dozen large Kalpana One station can get you into a position where you can tell the Waltons to take this job and shove it because you’re moving up and out of the company.

You might even work up the nerve to join a colony or, better yet, set up your own stake somewhere on Mars. You always wanted to own your own piece of land, right? On Mars, you can – and ignore that guy who’s selling novelty deeds for Martian land. That property belongs to the people who have the guts to go claim it and are smart enough to actually prove out their claim and defend it against competitors. Those deeds are not on the Blockchain anyway. It’s still work and plenty of it, but at least you’ll no longer need to explain to the landlord why you’re late on the rent this month and you, or at least your descendants, could sell that property for a fortune when Martian property values go through the roof. So hop a ride on that Aldrin Cycler if you think you have what it takes to get in on Martian property ownership early.

Yeah, but is it ethical?”

I’m not going to lie here. The fatality rate during the process of colonizing Mars is likely to be atrocious. It’s not for wimps. The “Loser’s Row” section of the Martian cemetery will likely be populated with the frozen corpses of colonists who screwed up – if future Martians even have a cemetery, which would be doubtful considering that smart Martian colonists will waste nothing. However, the concept of space colonization itself should not be regarded as unethical.

What would be unethical when it comes to colonizing space? It would be unethical to deceive future colonists about what they’re getting into. It would be unethical to coerce people into joining your particular space colony because you think it would be the absolute best thing for them. It would be unethical to force workers to operate your mining rig against their will or without compensation. It would be unethical for one large, well-developed colony to force smaller neighboring colonies to use its socioeconomic model simply because the members of the larger colony thinks it’s morally and ethically superior to what they’ve been using.

Likewise, it would be unethical to deny future colonists the chance to live in their own space colony simply because someone who has nothing to do with the proposed colony got scared. They may die due to any of several factors – bad luck, a stupid mistake, personnel problems, take your pick – but at least they’ll have gone into it with their eyes wide open. They may have signed a piece of paper saying that they understood the risks before they got involved. That piece of paper would pretty much be a legal CYA for their supporters on Earth for as long as it can be shown that they were mentally stable and weren’t coerced in any way when they signed up for this. They could have backed out at any time before launch. So it’s not unethical to let them go if they understand what they’re getting into and are voluntarily doing it anyway.

Where Are We Going With This?”

For the sake of discussion, I assume that you’ve reached an age where you’re capable of making decisions with greater consequence than whether you want pie or cake for dessert. You realize that driving to work has its risks and, in fact, slightly more than half of all car accidents occur within five miles from home. You do it anyway because you believe that it’s worth the risk.

The entire point is that it should be your choice to make. You might hate your job, but you do it anyway because you haven’t chosen the freelancing world yet. If your office is on the second or third floor, you might have a choice between taking the risk of being trapped in the elevator or slipping on a wet stair in the stairwell. Why should the idea that some people’s chosen job involves strapping themselves into a rocket and blasting off to the International Space Station be regarded as unusual when you take risks that you probably don’t think about very much every day? That rocket launch might be much more spectacular (and so are the disasters when they happen), but life insurance is a thing because people know that they could get into a fatal car crash without much warning.

You probably don’t want somebody else making the decision of whether you are allowed to drive or not, right? Okay, you can do something colossally dumb like driving after you’ve had a few large beers at that restaurant. That’s when you should think about whether driving home is really a risk worth taking. However, if you’re stone cold sober and just trying to get to work, you don’t want to be bothered by a lame-O third party who tries to deny you permission to drive while trying to earn a living. Why should a fully capable adult who wants to join a space colony be denied the chance to do so when you wouldn’t put up with somebody denying you the right to make choices that could have irrevocable consequences for your own life?

It’s entirely possible that the problems that the human species will never really fixed simply because it’s tough to find a solution that’s imperially fair to all parties involved. As biological entities, humans are very sensitive to a perception that they are being screwed over. That koala who threw a tantrum after being forced out of his favorite tree didn’t react all that differently from the way that many humans react after being cheated out of something that’s important to them. The best we can do is find a solution that keeps the unfairness as low as possible.

Koala Throws A Tantrum

As you can see, this isn’t too much different from the behavior of some children. We aren’t so far removed from koalas that we aren’t going to react when forced out of something we consider ours.

That solution will most likely include giving people a way out if they want it. As I mentioned, the American frontier used to be people’s way out when they decided that going it alone in a dangerous, largely unexplored wilderness was better than staying home. Some of them actually became rich because they found gold or succeeded in developing their stake in a way that made it a valuable piece of land that could be sold to the people who came later. Nobody who chose to remain behind in what they saw as a relatively secure “civilized society” complained too much about it because at least the misfits were taking themselves out.

Sure, it lead to a disconnect between first-, second- and third-generation colonists and the European homeland that created some pretty serious real world consequences. However, at least the British monarchy wasn’t stupid enough to try to bottle up its misfits and dissidents in close quarters with loyal citizens on the British Isles. Anyone who knows the name of Guy Fawkes may understand what I’m talking about. The British government would have had to fend off a lot more of that kind of thing if it hadn’t allowed emigration to new colonies.

Would future Martian colonists be equally disconnected from the old world and equally mistrustful of a distant government that does not seem to understand their needs? Probably. If there’s a bright side, it’s that a true War of the Worlds will be in slow motion. The laws of physics can be utterly lame when you’re itching for a fight while your fastest battleship takes months or years to get anywhere. This will even buy time for cooler heads to prevail. Such a war would also be unpopular on Earth because, “Why the heck are we spending so much money to put down a few upstart colonies?”

There will probably also be a lot of movement between colonies and creation of new colonies for many of the same reasons that people move around here on Earth. They may be moving because they realize that a particular socioeconomic model wasn’t such a bright idea and they don’t want to be around when everything finally falls apart. They may be moving because it’s just become impossible to get along with the neighbors or because they feel like they’re just not getting ahead where they are now. They may be moving because they’re the misfits that nobody wants around. These will be the people who would be willing to work for passage to their colony of choice on the next trading caravan that comes through because they’re convinced that they can build a better life for themselves somewhere else. Really it shouldn’t matter why they want out. They should not be compelled to stay where they are now because that’ll only cause more problems than it solves.

Emigration should be regarded as a kind of pressure valve. It’s a way to avoid the unwanted pressure of people who become disillusioned with their current society because they don’t fit in and don’t have any options for leaving. Eventually that pressure will grow to the point where the society can’t contain it and something is going to blow wide open. This basically means that any solution we come up with for problems here on Earth will have to include the right to emigrate even if it means that people emigrate to a new space colony.

So, What’s Your Choice?

I honestly do not see the decision between colonizing space and solving Earth’s problems as being such an easy black-and-white decision. It’s shades of Malthusian theory – the idea that us backwards apes are so blasted stupid that we can’t get our act together enough to make a good show of colonizing space, and there’s just plain too many of us anyway. Actually, space colonization has a shot at becoming an integrated part of the solution if we don’t blow ourselves up first. If nothing else, a few successful colonies will mean that we no longer have all our eggs in one basket.

I’m stuck in the same boat as everybody else and that boat has a pretty big hole in the bottom. We don’t really have time to argue about a solution. We tried plugging it and we tried bailing water. We might have even tried reducing our cargo by a considerable amount and it didn’t work. Calling the Coast Guard is not an option when we’re too far away for an emergency radio call to be effective. Just start swimming now and maybe we’ll reach that cruise ship on the horizon if we’re lucky and don’t run into any sharks. For me, it’s an easy choice. How about you?

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