Space Colonies Are Cool. And Economically Impossible.

Pub­lic Domain,

At the Re:Code con­fer­ence this week, Ama­zon CEO and rock­et­ship man­u­fac­tur­er Jeff Bezos made some bold claims about going into space. “We will set­tle Mars,” he told the audi­ence. “And we should, because it’s cool.”

Mars colonies are cool if you don’t think about them very much. But col­o­niza­tion nev­er hap­pens sim­ply because it is cool. Euro­peans did not col­o­nize Africa, India, and the Amer­i­c­as because trav­el­ing in dis­ease-choked ships, bat­tling scurvy and mutiny, was cool. They did it to make mon­ey. The prospect of new sources for gold and sil­ver, brand new food crops (pota­toes, corn, toma­toes, beans, tobac­co, chiles, cashews, pineap­ple, blue­ber­ry, sun­flower, choco­late, squash, pump­kin), along with brand new com­mod­i­ty crops (tobac­co, qui­nine for med­i­cine, etc.), made for a pow­er­ful incen­tive to move into the new lands even if it required com­mit­ting geno­cide to go there.

More­over, the peo­ple who did the col­o­niz­ing were not the titans of indus­try. Most of the ear­li­est col­o­niz­ers were the “sec­ond sons” of nobil­i­ty, who were edu­cat­ed but had no chance of inher­it­ing either wealth or posi­tion. They were who lob­bied the mon­archs to form expe­di­tions and set off to cre­ate mas­sive eco­nom­ic colonies.

One last thing? The colonies were on the same plan­et as Europe. They did not need any nov­el equip­ment just to breathe air or drink water. In rel­a­tive terms, the Amer­i­c­as were a par­adise to the Euro­peans. Space, in con­trast, is lethal: you must bring or man­u­fac­ture your own air, and your water must be heav­i­ly processed to be potable. The pri­ma­ry indus­tri­al out­put of any colony will be cre­at­ing its own hab­it­abil­i­ty: gen­er­at­ing pow­er so you don’t freeze or boil to death, refin­ing water, and gen­er­at­ing (and fil­ter­ing) the air. The Euro­peans just had to show up.

There is a hint of this eco­nom­ic imper­a­tive in Bezos’ call for indus­tri­al­iz­ing space. He has a vision of mov­ing all “heavy” indus­try into space, and rezon­ing the entire plan­et as res­i­den­tial and light indus­tri­al use. How one would build, say, auto­mo­biles or a heavy crane in space and then hurl it to the ground in one piece is not real­ly clear; Bezos’ vision seems lim­it­ed to gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­i­ty and build­ing com­put­er chips.

There is a cer­tain Sim City aspect to this idea, and for good rea­son: the city build­ing game not only shares these broad assump­tions about “zones” but it rests on fun­da­men­tal­ly lib­er­tar­i­an assump­tions about how com­mu­ni­ties actu­al­ly func­tion: there are no ghet­toes, no races, no clubs or sports lob­bies, and there are no pol­i­tics apart from the tax base and gen­er­at­ing a prof­it.

In oth­er words: it is an ide­al case for how a lib­er­tar­i­an tech mogul would think about the world. That is not, how­ev­er, the way the world works.

For starters, the eco­nom­ic case for col­o­niz­ing space is far from set­tled: min­ing raw mate­ri­als on Earth is cheap, and launch­ing equip­ment into space, to then wait years or decades for raw mate­ri­als in the form of aster­oids to be brought close enough to Earth to be usable in a fac­to­ry, remains hor­ri­fy­ing­ly expen­sive. This may not be the case for­ev­er, but even with SpaceX’s most opti­mistic pro­jec­tions (Bezos’ own firm can­not reach orbit, so he has noth­ing yet to com­pete with Elon Musk’s com­pa­ny), the cost of launch­ing heavy min­ing equip­ment into space is going to be an appalling cost (the most opti­mistic projects are around $500 per pound for Low Earth Orbit). There is zero com­pet­i­tive advan­tage to launch­ing min­ing equip­ment with such exor­bi­tant cap­i­tal costs.

But what of Bezos’ plan for orbit­ing solar pow­er instal­la­tions? The idea has some appeal, but USCD physics pro­fes­sor Tom Mur­phy looked at the issue and saw seri­ous issues. The rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive-to-reach Low Earth Orbit is com­plete­ly imprac­ti­cal for a solar pow­er array, leav­ing only geo­syn­chro­nous orbit as a viable option. But launch­ing things to GEO is heinous­ly expen­sive — SpaceX can get some­thing there for around $8,000 per pound. And these arrays need to be big: the trans­mit­ting dish would need to be a thou­sand feet across in space, and the receiv­ing dish more than half a kilo­me­ter wide on the ground. This is to say noth­ing of the extreme ener­gy loss­es in trans­mis­sion, and oth­er fac­tors.

As Dr. Mur­phy puts it: “I find myself scratch­ing my head as to why we should go to so much trou­ble.”

The real­i­ty is one Bezos seems reluc­tant to admit. “We want the pop­u­la­tion to keep grow­ing on this plan­et,” he told his audi­ence. “We want to keep using more ener­gy per capi­ta.” He described a harsh “ret­ro­grade world,” where­by humans need to reduce their ener­gy con­sump­tion and stem pop­u­la­tion growth, and claimed it sound­ed hor­rif­ic. But this is the world we live in today: ris­ing incomes are tight­ly cor­re­lat­ed (pdf) with reduced birthrates, and the last decade of expe­ri­ence in the U.S. has shown that eco­nom­ic growth is not depen­dent on a steady increase in per-capi­ta ener­gy con­sump­tion.

So why would Bezos want an inef­fi­cient, crowd­ed plan­et where peo­ple don’t real­ly work except in space? I’m not pre­pared to spec­u­late about that, though I sus­pect the “cool­ness” of such a world is its pri­ma­ry appeal. But being cool is expen­sive: a Mars colony will cost a tremen­dous amount of mon­ey to found and oper­ate; and it is unclear how such a colony could ever become eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable or main­tain an infi­nite case for its cor­po­rate over­lords to take a longterm finan­cial loss (and don’t for­get its gov­ern­ment). Sim­i­lar­ly, big float­ing colonies in space sound cool, but in real­i­ty are just as ridicu­lous­ly inef­fe­cient and expen­sive as a Mar­t­ian colony.

Maybe, in time — Bezos threw out an esti­mate of “hun­dreds of years” — these ideas will become eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable. At some point, dig­ging met­al out of the ground will become more expen­sive than send­ing a bunch of man­u­fac­to­ries to an aster­oid, but that point is a very long ways off. Maybe some­one can con­coct a viable eco­nom­ic case for build­ing vul­ner­a­ble, mar­gin­al habi­tats on Mars, but that remains far into the future.

But I wor­ry about the excite­ment over cool bil­lion­aires doing cool things that won’t last. There is a strong sci­en­tif­ic imper­a­tive to explor­ing, dis­cov­er­ing, and under­stand­ing the won­ders of our solar sys­tem. And there is a sol­id case for send­ing explo­ration teams (along with robots!) into the dark so that they can learn about our uni­verse. But per­ma­nent colonies are a real­ly hard sell. When Euro­peans set out for the New World, their lust for wealth wound up destroy­ing the nat­ur­al world around them, the cul­tures that lived there, and mil­lions of lives. It came at a hor­ren­dous cost, in oth­er words. And that cost is some­thing the cur­rent titans of com­mer­cial space col­o­niza­tion seem com­plete­ly unable to dis­cuss.

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