Who Picks Up the Trash on Mars?

Pub­lic inter­est in and excite­ment about space col­o­niza­tion seems to be peak­ing: first with all the lat­est hype about space trav­el, and last week with the dis­cov­ery of liq­uid water on Mars. But as excit­ing as this news is, there are much big­ger issues to deal with when we think about what it would require to build an actu­al colony in space. And I have the strong sus­pi­cion that it would require fun­da­men­tal­ly giv­ing up what we enjoy about our soci­ety as a trade for a ter­ri­ble exis­tence.

Let’s start with the obvi­ous: space is a ter­ri­ble place to live. If you buy a tick­et to Elon Musk’s Mars colony, you can nev­er go out­side again, ever. You will nev­er feel a breeze in your hair, or nat­ur­al sun­light on your skin. If you are extreme­ly lucky and man­age to avoid being cooked alive by radi­a­tion, you might see some trees, even­tu­al­ly. But at the most you’d have some pot­ted plants here and there, and oth­er­wise the only green you’ll find is in a pho­to­graph.

Liv­ing in space, even on Mars, which offers the most earth-like envi­ron­ment to live, would have all of the down­sides of liv­ing in Antarc­ti­ca dur­ing the win­ter — only worse. Now, there are some peo­ple who enjoy that: Antho­ny Pow­ell made a very inter­est­ing doc­u­men­tary about them. But the sort of per­son who finds liv­ing in Antarc­ti­ca enjoy­able for a long peri­od of time is also not a reg­u­lar per­son — they tend to either be eccentrics or active­ly hid­ing from some oth­er aspect of their lives (Wern­er Her­zog pro­filed sev­er­al of them: failed hitch­hik­ers, aca­d­e­mics, adven­tur­ers who get off on liv­ing under dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances).

And here’s the thing about liv­ing in Antarc­ti­ca: you have a job to do, and there’s almost no time to do any­thing else. Every­one says they want to hike Mount Cer­berus, but no one there for a job actu­al­ly gets to, because their sched­ules are so tight­ly pro­scribed by their employ­ers to max­i­mize their time being pro­duc­tive (since get­ting to Antarc­ti­ca and liv­ing there is incred­i­bly expen­sive). And dur­ing the over­win­ter, when they’re stuck inside? They start to devel­op Polar T3 syn­drome, which has pro­found­ly neg­a­tive neu­ro­log­i­cal con­se­quences. NASA is try­ing to study whether and how that syn­drome can be com­bat­ted with its Year in Space project.

One of the ways astro­nauts on the space sta­tion fight off depres­sion, lone­li­ness, and a feel­ing of claus­tro­pho­bia and iso­la­tion is by being so incred­i­bly busy they don’t have time to think, wor­ry, or stay up sleep­less. As a result, their dai­ly sched­ule is absolute­ly packed to the gills, and they have very lit­tle flex­i­bil­i­ty. They have to do all of these tasks, or else the mis­sion falls apart: dead­lines go unmet, main­te­nance goes undone, mon­ey is wast­ed, every­one’s rou­tine (which helps with men­tal health), goes to hell.

So you fight off bore­dom by hav­ing a tight­ly reg­i­ment­ed sched­ule. Because bore­dom means your brain starts to shut down, you become for­get­ful, you for­get to do tasks, you become unre­spon­sive to your peers and drag every­one’s morale down, and the tight­ly reg­u­lat­ed envi­ron­ment in which you’re liv­ing becomes a lit­tle bit less reg­u­lat­ed.

There can­not be much per­son­al choice on a space colony, or else the envi­ron­ment upon which every­one relies will fall apart. But also, there are more every­day issues to think about for a space colony: menial labor.

While peo­ple like Elon Musk get a lot of press for being big idea vision­ar­ies it is, I think, his plans to col­o­nize Mars that reveal a fun­da­men­tal break­down in think­ing about how to actu­al­ly run a soci­ety in space. In Musk’s vision,  peo­ple will appar­ent­ly pur­chase their own tick­ets (between $500,000 and $1,000,000 per per­son) to trav­el to Mars (this is a stark con­trast to an astro­naut being select­ed by a nation­al space orga­ni­za­tion). So, keep­ing in mind that this means going to Mars will be lim­it­ed only to very wealthy peo­ple, Musk thinks there will be a flow­er­ing of eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty on his Mars colony:

There will be lots of inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for any­one who wants to cre­ate any­thing new—from the first piz­za joint to the first iron ore refin­ery to the first of every­thing. This is going to be a real excit­ing thing for peo­ple who want to be part of cre­at­ing a civ­i­liza­tion.”

But who on Earth — lit­er­al­ly — would spend upwards of $1,000,000 of their own mon­ey to trav­el all the way to Mars just to run a Piz­za Hut? That seems like assum­ing a rather impor­tant can open­er, to bor­row an old econ­o­mist’s joke. And just as impor­tant: if you get bored work­ing at your cash reg­is­ter, how would you do some­thing else? Life in space is so dif­fi­cult that it is reg­u­lat­ed to the near­est minute; if you want to switch tracks, what does that do to your soci­ety? We don’t know. When an astro­naut does a space­walk, her lit­er­al every move is rehearsed for months on end. Every flick of the wrist is mem­o­rized so there are no cat­a­stroph­ic fail­ures. How do you switch job tracks in that sort of envi­ron­ment?

(I’m leav­ing unspo­ken the fun­da­men­tal issue here, which is that life in space is going to be, at least for the first sev­er­al decades, col­lec­tivist in nature, which intro­duces all sorts of free rid­ing and pub­lic com­mons prob­lems in the long term.)

To me, there is a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem here: no one is going to want to spend exor­bi­tant amounts of mon­ey on one of the biggest adven­tures humans can con­tem­plate just to per­form rou­tine tasks like admin­is­tra­tion, garbage col­lec­tion, laun­dry, and repair­man. Every­one loves to hate it, but soci­ety just won’t func­tion with­out bureau­cra­cy, and bureau­crats aren’t going to be the ones buy­ing Mars tick­ets.

In the U.S. Antarc­tic Pro­gram, your trav­el and liv­ing expens­es are sub­si­dized to vary­ing degrees, even if you work in the retail shop. And while you might be on lock­down dur­ing the over­win­ter, you are oth­er­wise an 18-hour flight away from the U.S. But in a self-fund­ed space colony, where there is no real­is­tic escape, no return trip (for years or decades at least), and nowhere else to go, who is going to drop even $500,000 for a trip where all you have to look for­ward to is work­ing a cash reg­is­ter?

Automa­tion isn’t good enough. We do not yet have machines sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to pick up lit­ter and garbage, to clean win­dows, to fold sheets. Laun­dry is such a hard prob­lem in space that NASA does­n’t even both­er: they just burn up every­one’s clothes in the Progress mod­ules that get filled with trash and incin­er­at­ed upon reen­try into the atmos­phere. Some astro­nauts have tried to grow seedlings, or even incu­bate ben­e­fi­cial bac­te­ria in their old box­er shorts, but the point is: we don’t real­ly know how to do laun­dry in space. What’s worse, laun­dry is very water-inten­sive, and water sup­plies on any space trip are going to be very lim­it­ed.

You can hand-wave all of that away and claim that in the future we will fig­ure it out, but this is not a sim­ple prob­lem (we can make sim­i­lar points about garbage col­lec­tion, recy­cling, and med­ical issues). Until we do tack­le these very big prob­lems, and I’m sure NASA wiz­ards are work­ing on it, there will be no way around either pack­ing a lot of mate­r­i­al with the inten­tion of throw­ing it away, or some­thing we just can’t think of. And as for clean­ing up after our­selves, there is no machine on the plan­et that can replace human labor for menial tasks.

Remem­ber: rich peo­ple who can afford not just a tick­et — that only gets you there — but all of the sunk cap­i­tal of secur­ing hous­ing (who builds it?), a busi­ness of some sort, and the means to replace things like med­i­cine and clothes are not going to be hap­py mop­ping floors or sort­ing bags of skit­tles in a Mar­t­ian bodego. So peo­ple like Musk will either have to import a per­ma­nent under­class to per­form these labors, or he will have to invent rad­i­cal­ly advanced robots to do it for every­one else. Or he’ll have to try to find rich peo­ple who are hap­py to push a swif­fer around the Mars colony.

Would you do that? Would you pay your life sav­ings into a one-way tick­et to a small com­mu­ni­ty where your job is to pick up filth and to oth­er­wise be bored and have nowhere else to go: no advance­ment, no oppor­tu­ni­ty, no prospects besides the same task over and over again for life?

I would­n’t. I sus­pect the peo­ple who say they would haven’t real­ly thought it through all the way yet.


Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.