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 is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.