Fully Automated Gay Space Communism Is the Future of Humanity

This past week, at the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion R&D con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, DC, Elon Musk dra­mat­i­cal­ly down­sized his vision for col­o­niz­ing Mars.

Musk explained that Red Drag­on was no longer in line with the evolv­ing vision SpaceX has for get­ting to Mars—specifically, the part where you have to land on Mars. The com­pa­ny is hit­ting pause on the devel­op­ment of its propul­sive land­ing tech­nol­o­gy on the Drag­on V2 space­craft. Musk argued that while the tech­nol­o­gy works, SpaceX would be put through the wringer try­ing to meet NASA’s safe­ty stan­dards for land­ing a human crew on the ground.

To rephrase Musk’s rather cov­er-your-ass fram­ing, he does not have a sol­id plan for land­ing humans safe­ly on Mars. With­our cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy, there is only about a 48% suc­cess rate for even reach­ing Mars — suc­cess­ful­ly land­ing on the Red Plan­et, a much more dif­fi­cult prospect, has only been done suc­cess­ful­ly about 30% of the time — with proven tech­nol­o­gy, not the Super Dra­co thrusters SpaceX has not yet used on a mis­sion. When you are fac­ing a 70% chance of a crash land­ing with peo­ple at risk, NASA is com­plete­ly right to put in place very high stan­dards of sur­viv­abil­i­ty for any human jour­ney there.

I have spent a lot of effort in this space pok­ing holes at the star­ry-eyed vision­ar­i­ness of Musk for a spe­cif­ic rea­son: the mar­ket­ing is, in many ways, actu­al­ly bad for the big­ger goal of get­ting human­i­ty into space for the long term — some­thing that is super cool and jus­ti­fi­able in any least some ways. And it is frus­trat­ing to see a com­pa­ny doing gen­uine­ly excit­ing work — reusable rock­ets! — also be tak­en seri­ous­ly for its insane and impos­si­ble dreams that would be more fit for a Col­lier’s cov­er draw­ing rather than any­thing seri­ous and sub­stan­tive. One impor­tant way the end­less cycle of hype, rein­forced by breath­less fan­boys in the techn media, is how a long string of bro­ken promis­es — SpaceX has not met any of its bench­marks or per­for­mance met­rics, despite a few recent suc­cess­es with reusing first stage rock­ets, to the best I can tell — can dele­git­imize an idea in the gen­er­al pub­lic. I do won­der if Musk is tee­ter­ing close to this tip­ping point — as he has with his oth­er com­pa­nies (from cre­ative debt restruc­tur­ing mar­ket­ed as invest­ment to Tes­la’s remark­able inabil­i­ty to turn a prof­it despite dom­i­neer­ing mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion) where promise sim­ply does not ever match real­i­ty. You can game that sys­tem for a while but it has a very short shelf life.

His actu­al accom­plish­ments deserve so much more respect than the casu­al way he grabs onto and dis­cards the mar­ket­ing around them. (I sus­pect he did not real­ize how long it takes jour­nals to pub­lish, giv­en his Mars vision was treat­ed lav­ish­ly by Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can just one month before he repu­di­at­ed it at the ISSR&D con­fer­ence.) The Fal­con Heavy rock­et that under­girds his vision is, Musk admit­ted, real­ly hard to build — though he did not take back any of the snark he has flung at oth­er rock­et builders, includ­ing NASA, who have also strug­gled to build big.

That being said, the new focus — this week, I sup­pose — on col­o­niz­ing the Moon first, before Mars, makes much more sense. There isn’t a huge dif­fer­ence in delta‑v between going to the Moon and to Mars, but the Moon does take less, and hav­ing no atmos­phere to acci­den­tal­ly burn up in actu­al­ly makes land­ing a lot more straight­for­ward. More impor­tant­ly, safe­ly send­ing peo­ple to the Moon is some­thing we — NASA — know how to do very well.

But let us actu­al­ly grap­ple with Musk’s vision, which I find more inter­est­ing and prob­lem­at­ic than the rou­tine issue of a for­mer tech mogul over­promis­ing and under­de­liv­er­ing behind a mas­sive hype machine. The future of human­i­ty is inter­plan­e­tary he says — along with Stephen Hawk­ing and oth­ers. And that is great! Human­i­ty would be won­der­ful if it could leave the bounds of this one plan­et we call home and set up in new spaces. But — but! — such a mon­u­men­tal, gave under­tak­ing is, again, an idea that deserves seri­ous thought behind it, and not the poor­ly dis­guised shal­low mar­ket­ing that Musk has lav­ished upon it.

I’ve dis­cussed Musk’s vision for an inter­plan­e­tary soci­ety before and called it scary; I’ve not­ed the built-in need for a per­ma­nent under­class, espe­cial­ly if Musk’s vision of wealthy peo­ple going first actu­al­ly pans out; I’ve not­ed that a gov­ern­ment on Mars would most like­ly require some form of tyran­ny or mil­i­tary-type hier­ar­chy in order to func­tion; and I’ve addressed how Sil­i­con Val­ley-style lib­er­tar­i­an cap­i­tal­ism actu­al­ly argues against build­ing colonies in space because they’ll nev­er real­ly gen­er­ate a prof­it.

To me, this vision of human­i­ty in space requires think­ing beyond repli­cat­ing the 13 Colonies, but in Valles Mariner­is (or Oceanus Pro­cel­larum). Rather, there should be a more delib­er­ate think­ing-through of what sort of econ­o­my would exist in a space colony — assum­ing one is built beyond the research sta­tions that NASA has planned, and which are far more viable and like­ly to actu­al­ly exist.

The sim­ple fact of the mat­ter is that any space colony is going to be, in essence, a hydraulic empire. That is, it will be a soci­ety whose gov­ern­ment will, more or less, con­trol the access to water, air, and food to such a degree that oper­at­ing out­side that gov­ern­men­t’s purview will be a death sen­tence (many fic­tion writ­ers explore what it might be like if that was­n’t total­ly the case, but I do want to keep this as real­ism-adja­cent as we can despite invok­ing a form of gov­ern­ment that nev­er real­ly exist­ed).

If you sit down and think about what goes into a suc­cess­ful space colony, you have three over­rid­ing prin­ci­ples:

  1. Extreme­ly lim­it­ed space
    Cre­at­ing liv­able space in space is real­ly hard to do: struc­tures must be pres­sur­ized, hard­ened against kinet­ic strikes from debris and radi­a­tion from the sun, and until we fig­ure out how to actu­al­ly man­u­fac­ture things in space they will be hell­ish­ly expen­sive to deliv­er from Earth — the ISS, which is the size of a sin­gle foot­ball field, cost over $150 bil­lion to design and then fling into orbit.
  2. Extreme­ly lim­it­ed resources in a closed sys­tem
    NASA is spend­ing a lot of ener­gy work­ing on In-Situ Resource Uti­liza­tion, or using local mate­ri­als to gen­er­ate life sup­port for a manned mis­sion to deep space. But this is a lot hard­er than heat­ing space ice to make water and air and pro­pel­lant. Things like laun­dry, life-sav­ing med­ical care, even gas bal­ances in the long run are all big ques­tion marks for space.
  3. An over­whelm­ing imper­a­tive to gen­er­ate life sup­port
    Put sim­ply, our robots are not sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to auto­mate life sup­port and they will not be for the fore­see­able future. Gath­er­ing mate­ri­als to gen­er­ate life sup­port — pick­ing up ice, vapor­iz­ing Mar­t­ian soil or Lunar regolith, or smelt­ing down sil­i­cate rocks to make solar cells — is going to be the pri­ma­ry eco­nom­ic out­put of any colony for a very long time, and all mem­bers of that colony will have to be involved in it, whether it is in gen­er­a­tion (e.g. repair­ing the machines that scrub the air) or in main­te­nance (e.g. safe­ly clean­ing toi­lets in such a way that there isn’t mass ill­ness), or mere­ly in con­ser­va­tion (e.g. not wast­ing elec­tric­i­ty or water or air so that the long-term via­bil­i­ty of the colony is pre­served).

There are plen­ty of oth­er ideas to derive from these three prin­ci­ples. Bore­dom and depres­sion will be seri­ous prob­lems, because humans are adapt­able to new set­tings and the thrill of being in space will not last more than a cou­ple of weeks (if that). In the Antarc­tic pro­gram, every­one from sci­en­tists to fire fight­ers to retail work­ers who over­win­ter at the south pole must fight Polar T3 syn­drome, which caus­es debil­i­tat­ing neu­roses. They have it lucky: if they feel bad­ly cooped up, they can pop open a door and get a breath of fresh air — no such relief will ever be pos­si­ble on a Musk colony. NASA fights this issue by pack­ing astro­naut sched­ules to the minute with tasks to per­form: always being busy, except for a few planned per­son­al respites, is vital for main­tain­ing state of mind while in orbit (same with rou­tine phys­i­cal exer­cise: endor­phins work!). And with the del­i­cate eco­log­i­cal bal­ances need­ed to main­tain both atmos­phere, potable water, and bac­te­r­i­al bal­ance in a closed envi­ron­ment, intro­duc­ing both preg­nan­cy and chil­dren (unpre­dictable behav­ior, to say noth­ing of tweaked immune sys­tems and resource strain with more mouths/lungs to fill) seems like a dan­ger­ous idea.

That leaves me with only one solu­tion to a polit­i­cal econ­o­my of space: ful­ly auto­mat­ed gay space com­mu­nism.

Think­ing this through log­i­cal­ly has an inex­orable log­ic:

  1. Ful­ly Auto­mat­ed
    The econ­o­my on earth is being increas­ing­ly auto­mat­ed, from man­u­fac­tur­ing to jour­nal­ism to pro­gram­ming to nurs­ing.
  2. Gay
    Repro­duc­tive free­dom is sim­ply not pos­si­ble in space: the deci­sion to birth a child will fun­da­men­tal­ly change the nature and out­put of the colony, in ways that are impos­si­ble to pre­dict. Sure, het­ero­sex­u­als could sub­mit to birth con­trol (tubal lig­a­tion, vasec­to­my), but these are imper­fect. Homo­sex­u­als, on the oth­er hand, do not pose a risk of unplanned preg­nan­cy. It would be a built in, social and sex­u­al safe­guard against the quite lit­er­al killer of unex­pect­ed pop­u­la­tion growth.
  3. Space Com­mu­nism
    In space, a com­mu­nis­tic soci­ety is the only one that makes sense. A small space colony would inher­ent­ly be com­mu­ni­tar­i­an, with a shared des­tiny and the require­ment to keep the needs of the com­mu­ni­ty above the needs of any indi­vid­ual (swash­buck­ling space operas have it so so so wrong). But it would also, by neces­si­ty, be com­mu­nist, with some mod­i­fi­ca­tions for being in the unique envi­ron­ment posed by liv­ing in space. The colony itself would have to own the means of pro­duc­tion for water, air, and food, but those util­i­ties must be freely acces­si­ble by every­one. It can­not be cap­i­tal­is­tic, because that would cre­ate an inher­ent class con­flict between the work­ers who may not be able to afford access to water and air, and the rul­ing class who would hoard it for them­selves. In addi­tion, because almost every­thing would have to be man­u­fac­tured local­ly — even­tu­al­ly — due to the extreme cost of import­ing from Earth, and because that man­u­fac­tur­ing would be auto­mat­ic, there is no inher­ent rea­son to restrict those goods through pric­ing and income.

This con­cept is the sub­ject of memes for a bunch of rea­sons, rang­ing from dis­af­fec­ta­tion with Amer­i­can pol­i­tics to an unfo­cused desire to escape what feels, some days, like impend­ing doom for the plan­et. But there is real mer­it to design­ing a soci­ety in space along these prin­ci­ples — one that might not be the unreg­u­lat­ed lib­er­tar­i­an par­adise bil­lion­aires like Musk dream for, but one that actu­al­ly has a chance of suc­cess­ful­ly exist­ing in the most extreme envi­ron­ment we can think of.

Stay tuned in this space; there are a lot more ideas around this to suss out. Luck­i­ly, there is plen­ty of inspi­ra­tion to be had in sci­ence fic­tion for this con­cept, and in the future I’ll be draw­ing from it to dis­cuss how some of these ideas might work.

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