“A space colony’s government will be in charge of all resources needed to maintain life” 

by Richard Hollingham  /  22 June 2015

“Two short blocks from the London headquarters of Britain’s security service, MI6, a group of 30 men and women is plotting to overthrow the government. Not the British government, nor any government on Earth, but a tyrannical administration on an alien world in the future. This is not a game. The scientists, engineers, social scientists, philosophers and writers gathered at the British Interplanetary Society in London are taking their task seriously – studying, with academic rigor, the problem of toppling despotic extraterrestrial regimes. This is the third annual conference on extraterrestrial liberty. Last year the event tackled the challenge of writing a constitution for an alien settlement, concluding that successful space colonies should base laws and liberties on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. “This year we’re discussing what happens if you don’t like the government you’ve created and want to overthrow it,” says conference organizer Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh. Conclusions from these meetings will be published as essays, designed to serve as manuals for future spacefarers. “We hope the discussions we have will constitute the first ideas on extraterrestrial liberty,” Cockell says. “We’ve got a chance to think about what the problems might be in outer space before we go there.” The scenarios the group is contemplating are easiest to imagine if you think about what a space colony might be like. Perhaps a domed settlement with a few hundred residents, beneath a thin dusty Martian sky. A fragile and isolated outpost of humanity 225 million kilometres from the home world. With a brutal dictator and his cronies in charge of the oxygen generators, for instance.

Non-violent opposition
“Say, for example, you don’t like your government and you resort to revolution,” says Cockell. “Someone goes and smashes up the habitat, destroys the windows and instantly the place is depressurized, the oxygen is lost and everyone dies. “The consequences of violence in space could be much more catastrophic than on Earth,” he warns, “So how do you dissent in an environment in which violent disobedience might kill everyone?” The answer lies, Cockell believes, in preventing dictatorships emerging in the first place. This would be achieved by building non-violent means of opposition to government into the rulebook, perhaps through organized labour systems – similar to unions on Earth – or by holding the leadership to account through journalism and media. “Once you stop a free press in an extraterrestrial environment, you’re actually in deep trouble,” he says. The physical structure of the settlements could also be designed to minimize the effects of conflict, with air, water and power systems in multiple locations. Not only would this reduce vulnerabilities to a break down or failure but it would avoid the dangers of a central point of control. However, even with a free press or organized unions there are issues in space that do not arise on Earth – particularly when companies are involved.

“As we know private corporations can be just as ruthless and despotic as the worst governments,” says Cockell. “If you strike, then maybe the corporation says ‘that’s fine – let me show you to the airlock and you can leave’ and off you go into the vacuum of space.” And while freedoms, liberties and labour laws have evolved on Earth – at least in democratic nations – they may need to be adapted before anyone settles elsewhere. Space is a unique environment and there is a balance to be struck between slavery and total freedom. Opting out is not an option. A Martian colony that is so libertarian that everyone sits around doing nothing all day is unlikely to survive for long. “We need to arrive at a balance between a society that maximizes civil liberties but also maximizes the potential for people to survive the lethal conditions of space,” says Cockell.

“Off-Earth colonies will have to find a balance between liberty and a society where everyone contributes”

Sci-fi signposts
Although this may be one of the few times that academics have formally contemplated the challenges of off-planet living, science fiction writers have been thinking about it for decades. One of the British Interplanetary Society’s most famous members is Arthur C Clarke and conference delegates include one of today’s best-known and acclaimed sci-fi writers, Stephen Baxter. Baxter’s 2010 novel Ark, for instance, features a starship on a multi-generational mission to a distant new world where precisely the issues of governance arise. “You have a group of young very competitive candidates applying to get on this thing,” explains Baxter, “and then they find they’re stuck there.”“At first it’s military discipline, then they go for a consensual government but that breaks down and a dictator takes over because he gets hold of the water supply – very relevant to this discussion,” Baxter says. “You also have a middle generation who are going to live and die on the ship and they evolve a rebellious teenage culture.” Some people do not even believe they are on a spaceship but in some sort of prison or social experiment.

“Evolving a society inside a box is a fascinating area to think about,” says Baxter. “Sci-fi writers are always thinking one step beyond, it’s a great bed of thought experiments.” In fact one of the first known books on lunar revolution, The Birth of a New Republic, was written by sci-fi author Jack Williamson in the 1930s. The novel explores tensions within society and between the Moon and Earth. Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, even explores the idea of a prison colony on the Moon with a despotic prison warder who controls the air supply. For Baxter, the conference helps shift these sci-fi ideas into practical reality. “The more you anticipate, the more chance you have to get it right,” he says. “It’s not that far away before we have long-term missions away from the Earth and we have to look at the psychology of people in enclosed environments and construct a civilization on this basis.” In the 1930s a colony on the Moon was a distant dream. Even in 1966 humanity was three years away from that first step. A long duration mission could happen during our lifetime. If it is to succeed and humans are to successfully colonize new worlds, we need to be prepared.”

by Richard Hollingham  / 9 July 2014

“In a dimly lit, windowless room in an unfashionable area of south London, a group of around 30 philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, lawyers and space enthusiasts is busy trying to create a government that doesn’t yet exist. How do you do it? By rifling through the best our species has come up with so far. That’s why they are currently huddled around a copy of the Constitution of the United States. They also have to hand the constitutions of Japan, Iceland and Mongolia. Their task over two days: to draw up a constitution for a “free and independent” human settlement on the Moon or Mars. “The future of humanity beyond the Earth is a fascinating subject,” says Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist at the University of Edinburgh and the organizer of this, the second International Extraterrestrial Liberty Conference (ELC). “One of the things that has been so important in the history of human civilization is freedom and liberty, so what we wanted to do was think about liberty beyond the Earth.”

Even a few years ago it would have been easy to dismiss this conference as a purely academic exercise for space geeks. However, with Mars One planning a colony on Mars in the next 10 years, Nasa proposing to reach the Red Planet by 2033 and SpaceX founder and PayPal billionaire Elon Musk aiming for permanent human settlement of Mars, considering how these alien bases might be governed is a serious business. “The relevance now is that there’s an increasing number of nations going into space, there’s an increasing number of private companies building rockets and with this renewed effort in space exploration it’s becoming very important to think about who’s going to control space,” explains Cockell. “Will it be corporations? Will it be the state? How is the individual to have any freedom in an environment that is absolutely lethal?”

Declaring Year Zero
Any nation or company planning to start an extraterrestrial colony will almost certainly be tempted to begin civilization from scratch; to rip up the past and arrive at a utopian vision for a new form of government. However, history suggests this is not a sensible approach. The Holocaust, Cambodia’s killing fields and the Soviet gulags are testament to some of the appalling atrocities that humans commit when those in charge decide it’s Year Zero. The US Constitution, on the other hand, may have been much amended since it was first adopted in 1787 but it has stood the test of time. It has also inspired the constitutions of more recent democracies such as Japan. The conference organizers settled on Iceland as another example because, like an extraterrestrial colony, the country is in a relatively isolated location with a low population. And, as on Mars, inhabitants also face a unique set of natural challenges, in fact parts of Iceland even look like an alien world.

Iceland’s isolation and harsh landscape also makes its constitution a good candidate 

“We have hundreds of years of experience of drafting constitutions and we should build on that,” says Cockell. And in broadly adopting the US constitution, conference delegates agree on a democratic structure with individual freedoms protected by a bill of rights. They also back an independent judiciary and press freedom. “But,” says Cockell, “there are things about space that are completely different to the Earth environment, in particular the issue of who controls the oxygen.” Conference delegates decide that having air to breathe is a fundamental right that needs to be enshrined at the heart of any colonial constitution. “A space colony is a tyranny prone environment,” Cockell warns, pointing out that no other constitution has listed the right to breathable air before. “If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and could threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power.”

Right to leave
As I walk around the room eavesdropping on conversations, I notice that the words Star Trek keep coming up. It turns out that someone else was giving this some serious thought around half a century ago in a Hollywood production office; Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry. “The people who wrote Star Trek had a system in place, the Federation,” says Janet De Vigne, a language lecturer and colleague of Cockell’s at Edinburgh. “Star Trek is a post-capitalist society – if you’re setting up a settlement, what is the economic set-up going to be? The economy could be completely different.” Delegates also agree that the “right to leave” should be included in the new constitution. But that raises questions over the practicalities of leaving a colony on a planet without breathable air. As going outside is not a viable option, who pays for the trip home? Even more concerning, if the colony is being run by a corporation do they have the right to sack you? To send you back to Earth or throw you out of the airlock?

Another idea that receives broad support owes its origins to Ancient Greece, whereby the government is part elected but also made up of people selected through a lottery. “In a sealed space colony, having a system where everyone has a vested interest in the political system is a good thing to do,” Cockell says. “Apathy in a lethal, hostile environment is extremely dangerous.” Cockell plans to spend the summer pulling the discussions together into a final constitution. However, the ultimate aim of the conference is to put together a series of academic books on how an extraterrestrial settlement might operate. Due to be published next year it will serve as a manual for how to set up and operate a successful space colony. These delegates in this small windowless room in south London, may one day be credited as the new founding fathers and mothers. After all, the first constitution beginning “We the people of Mars…” could be signed into law in the next 20 years.”


Mars-bound crew clusterAbove, a Mars-bound crew cluster with its propulsion vehicle on the left and two aero-shields on the right departs for its six-to-eight-month long trip to Mars. The L1 Logistics Base is in the high left.” {Art: Anna Nesterova}

Mars at One Tenth the Cost: The Modular Path to Money Saving
by John K. Strickland  /  January 25, 2015

“Elon Musk’s SpaceX has enormous implications for Mars.  When Musk’s reusable rockets and upcoming reusable spacecraft become a reality, Mars missions will be possible at one-tenth the cost of the Mars plan NASA now has on its books.  One such low-cost Mars plan comes from the Space Development Steering Committee’s chief analyst John Strickland.  Working with artist Anna Nesterova, Strickland has developed the following program. SpaceX’s Falcon-based reusable boosters will carry vehicles and crew that will travel to Mars.  A Falcon-based super-booster can carry 220 tons.

A logistics base will remain in low Earth orbit.  At this base, the cargos launched from Earth are attached to in-space propulsion units, units that will carry them to another logistics base further out in space.  The next destination will be a space truck stop at a gravitational “balance point” between the earth and the Moon called L1.  L1 provides an advantage—with minimal fuel you can stay in place.  And there’s a bonus at L1–no space debris. The L1 logistics base will be built by robots. First they will build a long, docking truss.  Why is it called a “docking truss”?  Because this truss will provide docking, unloading, loading, and refueling facilities for cargos and vehicles doing the transport runs between the Earth, the Moon, and Mars.  This logistics base will be a full-service space truck stop and cargo depot. The L1 truck stop will also be used for trips to the Moon and back.  Those trips can be very fruitful.  The moon’s water can be used to make the rocket fuel with which the truck stop refuels all the vehicles based at it. This Includes a fleet of vehicles headed for Mars.

logistics base“Above, many of the vehicles for the Mars mission have arrived at the completed L1 docking truss, the truck stop at the earth-moon gravitational balance point.”

At the L1 docking truss, key elements of the first Mars mission will be assembled in space. This Mars fleet will consist of twenty two vehicles. There will be twelve large vehicles designed to stay in Mars orbit, and each will have a 100 foot wide aero-capture heat shield.  The heat shield will use the Martian atmosphere as an air brake to ease the vehicle into orbit without using up valuable fuel.  Meanwhile, there will be ten Mars ferries that will go back and forth from Mars orbit to the red planet’s surface.  Seven ferries will carry cargo, and three will carry crew. The Mars-bound crew clusters will go into low Mars orbit and stay there.  Two will support the crew operations before and during a landing, but they will not land. Two crew clusters are docked together, a fact that has allowed the crews to work together during the long voyage to Mars. Within a few hours, the crew clusters will separate and reconfigure.  They will deploy two extra heat shields. Why?   To protect the propulsion modules that have thrust them into an Earth-Mars transit orbit.  Each propulsion module will use an aerocapture shield as an air brake to slow itself without using up fuel.  It will park in Mars orbit, where it will wait to provide propulsion for the trip back to Earth.

Low Mars Orbit

Above, the Mars fleet has arrived safely in Low Mars Orbit. A robot on rails has built a Low Mars Orbit logistics base, and all the fleet’s vehicles have docked at the base. The robot has stacked all of the aero-shields like pancakes out of the way at the left end of the truss.  The vehicles that the shields protected during aero-capture are not designed to land.  They are crew clusters, propulsion modules, propellant depots and large cargo carriers. Mars landings are handled entirely by the ten conical Mars ferries. Three of these ferries carry crew.  In this picture, one of the seven cargo ferries is taking on fuel from a depot before landing on Mars. Together, the ten ferries can land over 600 metric tons of crew, habitats, food, equipment and rovers on Mars by making multiple trips.

seven cargo ferries

In the final picture above, the seven cargo ferries have landed the equipment (far right) to produce at least 100 tons of fuel per month from Mars ice and to set up a habitat for the crew.  Now, that the first 100 tons of propellant have been produced and stored, one ferry has enough fuel to go back into orbit.  In this picture the first crew ferry (in the foreground) has safely landed with even more cargo for the Mars base and with humans. The ferries descend and take off at a landing zone well away from the base itself for safety.  The cargo container is pulled directly out of the Ferry’s cargo bay with a winch. John Strickland’s Mars mission is not a flags and footprints mission.  It builds a permanent transport infrastructure in space.  And once we start landing this program’s components on Mars, we are on Mars to stay.”


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