The Space Settlement Summit

I attended it a few weeks ago. So did Jeff Foust.

It’s not going to happen until the line of affordability crosses the line of desirability for a sufficient number of people. Over the weekend, Elon made the point that living on Mars is not for the faint of heart (or as a haven for rich people).

Meanwhile, the NatGeo series Mars has started to explore the legal issues, an area in which I am currently involved. Note that Dennis O’Brien is a big fan of the Moon Agreement (that he calls the “Moon Treaty”). I am not.

30 thoughts on “The Space Settlement Summit”

  1. Related: When Did NASA Go to Pot? No, it’s not about Maryjane. From a recent panel discussion about Mars hosted by Lucianne Walkowicz, the NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology:

    Chanda Prescod-Weinstein:This includes thinking about why our language for developing understandings of environments that are new to us tends to still be colonial: “colonizing Mars” and “exploring” and “developing,” for example. These are deeply fraught terms that have traditionally referred to problematic behaviors by imperialists with those that we would call “indigenous” and “people of color” often on the receiving end of violent activities.

    If I smoke marijuana will Mars’ fraughtness become shallower?

    1. The danger level is high for marxists taking over any international off-Earth effort at settlement or outpost building.

      I haven’t watched this season of that NatGeo show, but the teasers made it look like marxism and technocrats vs marxist view of capitalism.

    2. The people who are upset with Western colonization of the Third World don’t seem to have a problem with the invasion and colonization of the West by the Third World.

      1. You can’t have social justice without punishment and the people and groups punished wont be those responsible for past sins real or imagined but instead be stand in scapegoats.

  2. The line of affordability is the least of Elon’s problems. The real problem, which he won’t acknowledge, is that people won’t want to live on Mars, even if it is affordable. It is a dimly-lit, cold desert. It is more inhospitable than the South Pole. People will be living in tin cans-likely underground, with an occasional outdoor stroll in a full-up space suit. Because Mars gets only 40% of the sunlight we enjoy, people will get Seasonal Affective Disorder.

    He needs to come to grips with more of a South Pole Station model, a self-sustaining colony is not going to happen for purely market reasons.

    1. When my great-great grandparents came to the Edmonton area, there were no trees here. They had to live in a sod house for three years. No roads either, just the railroad from Calgary.

      They left behind a house and a farm and all their family to cross an ocean on a boat in 1890, with no hope of ever returning. They left civilization behind and endured unimaginable hardship – four of their seven children died.

      But it was better than living in Prussia.

      1. One of the factors which drive settlement of inhospitable locations, leaving a less hospitable location, which is often on account of government.

    2. The real problem, which he won’t acknowledge, is that people won’t want to live on Mars, even if it is affordable.

      Don’t confuse your personal interests with those of everyone else. For example, even if only one in a thousand people want to go to Mars enough to pay for it, that’s still 300 hundred thousand people in the US and seven million people globally. I bet the numbers are an order of magnitude higher, particularly, if Mars becomes the place to go for people who actually want to do something.

      1. For example, even if only one in a thousand people want to go to Mars enough to pay for it, that’s still 300 hundred thousand people in the US and seven million people globally.

        This argument is on the same intellectual level as the guy who intends to support himself by asking people to give him $1 per year. Even if only one in a thousand pay up that’s $300,000/year from the US and $7 million/year worldwide.

        1. To be fair, David Gadbois and Karl Hallowell are talking about different things. Karl Hallowell is right that there will be enough people with the desire to go. David Gadbois is right that Mars is a harsh place for the human psyche. If I remember your comments correctly, you are also right that there isn’t a strong economic foundation for going to Mars.

          All of these things can and will change. Who can say over what time period and in what direction?

        2. This argument is on the same intellectual level as the guy who intends to support himself by asking people to give him $1 per year. Even if only one in a thousand pay up that’s $300,000/year from the US and $7 million/year worldwide.

          This easily explains spam emails. If the asking is dirt cheap, then it can indeed be worth it from the vanishing small portion who are suckers for anything.

        3. I just went to Wikipedia and saw this at the top of the page:

          To all our readers in Canada,
          It’s a little awkward, so we’ll get straight to the point: This Tuesday morning, we humbly ask you to protect Wikipedia’s independence. We depend on donations averaging about $15, but 99% of our readers don’t give. If everyone reading this gave $3, we could keep Wikipedia thriving for years to come. The price of your Tuesday coffee is all we need. When we made Wikipedia a non-profit, people warned us we’d regret it. But if Wikipedia became commercial, it would be a great loss to the world. Wikipedia is a place to learn, not a place for advertising. It unites all of us who love knowledge: contributors, readers and the donors who keep us thriving. The heart and soul of Wikipedia is a community of people working to bring you unlimited access to reliable, neutral information. Please take a minute to help us keep Wikipedia growing. Thank you.

          This is also the rationale behind Kickstarter and Patreon and other such websites. Whatever intellectual level it is, it apparently works.

        4. There are people who support themselves that way. In the ‘80s there was a company in Seattle that guaranteed that you would learn how to panhandle $100 per day using their techniques.
          A few years back when at an SAS conference a speaker asked how would go to Mars if there was a way to do so about a third of the people raised their hands.
          A thriving community may never exist on Mars but a struggling one will happy as soon as it becomes possible to get there.

      2. It isn’t just personal interest but the human factors that make someplace livable, not just survivable. The goal is settlement and that means men and women who want to go to Mars must be able to attract a mate and the settlement must be nurturing for their children.

        It is possible but in the short to medium term, will require experimentation. The biggest drawback is that it requires being in touch with the soul of humanity, something many space nerds are out of touch with. Two other drawbacks are that it requires the involvement of artists, who are often more concerned about their own perceptions rather than others, and central planners, who tend to think they know best how to organize a person’s life than the person.

        It is possible. The challenge is just as great as getting to Mars though, perhaps even greater.

  3. The NatGeo series has it completely wrong. Since no government is willing to invest in a project that is portrayed in the series there will be no scientific mission. There will be robotic exploration missions followed by prospectors. Look at the American West as an example. Entreprenuers were there exploring and harvesting resources long before any government had established any real order. That was on land the US owned. This will be a much more difficult place to attempt to control politically.

  4. And as for the assumption that no one would pay for the goods mined or created by these Unsavory Rabble is also ludicrous name one good on earth with value that cannot be sold on the black market. There are dozens of countries right now that would welcome the arrival of any ship carrying valuable cargo from space, if the cargo is valuable enough.

    1. Let’s take a hypothetical: suppose someone mines asteroid (6178) 1986 DA and returns with ten thousand tons of Platinum-group metals, delivered to low earth orbit 100 tons at a time spread out over 20 years.

      I have thought that something like that would simply flood the Platinum/Gold/Iridium market and bring the price crashing down, but would it? I’m thinking that it isn’t so straightforward.

      Would that first 100 ton shipment crash the metals market, or would international politics mean that the USA, China, Russia, the EU, and OPEC all compete for exclusive rights to that first 100 ton shipment?

      Orbital transfer issues, including trade-offs between fuel efficiency and time efficiency, would mean that some years there would be far fewer than five shipments, and some years there would be far more, probably with the last half of shipments in the last three years. How would the increasing number of shipments over time affect the price of Platinum-group metals?

      1. Right now, terrestrial platinum costs anywhere from about $550 to $1200 an ounce to mine and 200 tons were produced in 2017. The current price is $827.95 an ounce. In order to compete with terrestrial platinum the total cost to mine and deliver the 10,000 tons would have to be under $300 billion.

        The extra supply would be significant but would the market demand help prices stay stable?

        We need better numbers on what it would cost to mine an asteroid and deliver the ore. The closest number to reality is the last leg relying on a SpaceX Super Heavy.

        You would want the cost of mining an asteroid to be significantly less than terrestrial mining so that if terrestrial supply increased at current production costs or if production costs decreased, that asteroid mining could still be competitive. Fracking vs traditional drilling,with fracking being terrestrial mining, is a good example of a similar relationship, although there could be a role reversal at some point.

  5. “It’s not going to happen until the line of affordability crosses the line of desirability for a sufficient number of people.”

    Well, yeah.

    Geez, too bad there hasn’t been someone making that point for the last thirty years…

    1. There are already quite a number of lakes on Mars. Here’s an example: crater Louth. Another: crater Korolov. The ESA write-up here talks about “at the north pole,” but Louth is at 70 degrees north latitude, which is a long way both from the pole proper, and the martian permanent polar ice cap.

  6. Here’s a paper from Icarus on these martian high-latitude water-ice lakes (or “mounds”): “Climate-driven deposition of water ice and the formation of mounds in craters in Mars’ north polar region (pdf).

    Notice that Louth (as seen in the link in the posting above) contains some 13 cubic km of water (ice) — a huge amount right there — but crater Korolov is basically full to gills with water, containing more than 3,800 cubic km (920 cubic miles) of the glistening substance!

    1. 13 cubic km of water (ice)- 13 billion tons- has appealing aspects, but it seems 5 km of liquid water should be more desirable.
      But compared the 13 cubic km of water with only 1 km cubic km of it converted into liquid water that could be as appealing.
      So in terms real estate development, how much would it cost to convert 1 billion tonnes of ice into water?
      And whatever that cost assume 1000 people buy real estate and cost melting ice would be added to real estate price.

      1. I agree having the water liquid would be preferable. However, unless you pressurize (somehow supply air pressure upon) the ice lake to raise the local boiling point, the moment (some of) it melts, it will immediately start to boil; boiling liquid water into vapor consumes a great amount of energy — and that will suck heat out of the lake at such a rate that the rest of it (the amount that doesn’t initially evaporate) will promptly re-freeze.

        One would also need, I expect, to insulate it against the general martian cold. Perhaps a pressurized dome over the (35 km!) crater would suffice in this regard.

        1. Perhaps easier to construct a covering over one of the collapsed lava tubes or some canyon. Ice/water could be transported to one if none existed nearby.

        2. There are areas on Mars would have enough pressure to prevent low temperature water from boiling, though in dry martian air, you have issue of evaporation.
          You can also have liquid water lake with ice on the surface. Or if had cold liquid water lake, and a fluctuation pressure, and it boiled, ice would form quickly at the surface and it would cease to boil.
          Another aspect with offering liquid water, is one can offer liquid water which can delivered at time and the amount in which customer wants it.
          So with 1000 land owners each have 1 million tonnes liquid water which part value of chunk if land, The land could also have right to 2 million tonnes of frozen ice.
          1 million tons could water at say 3 C or warmer.

          If you melting ice, one probably also be capable of heating the water to even higher temperature, So for 40 C or warmer water you charge more per unit deliver or get less than 1 million tonnes. So, instead of chunk land getting 1 million tons of cold water, you 1/2 million tonnes hot water. Or 1/4 million tons of hot and 1/2 million of cold water. If land use for farming, warmed water could be good way to keep the plants warm.
          Land owner “brings his own container” and runs his own pipe, so as to the water to owned land or however it would used. And if land get 2 million tonnes of ice- land owner have to mine it [or sell the rights to the ice or someone else]

          1. The Viking landers measured the relative humidity on Mars at 100%. There would be no evaporation, since the atmosphere is already saturated.

  7. I’ll put an even finer point on my statement from above. The chance to settle Mars is not even something you can even give away for free to the vast, vast majority of the population. While a lot of people might say that they are interested in that sort of thing in a survey question, as soon as anyone actually starts thinking through the reality, you are only going to get a handful of die-hard adventurers that would actually go through with it. It will not be enough for a self-sustaining colony.

    Again, the Antarctic outposts are instructive. Even in these conditions, there are on the order of hundreds of people on the whole continent who are generally *paid* to stay there on a seasonal basis. And only on the order of dozens of people actually stay year-around, and even these folks aren’t spending the rest of their lives there. If you’ve seen documentaries on Antarctica you’ll notice that these are, for the most part, pretty quirky, colorful characters, to say the least. And the conditions are often miserable, even inside in the relative comfort of their temperature-controlled facilities. Morale is a huge issue in these places. And I don’t even want to think about the venereal diseases that get passed around in such insular environments.

    I would believe that, perhaps, many people would like to *visit* Mars. With a one-way travel time of 6 months, and then a year or so stay (waiting for the next launch window back to earth), that is a heck of a vacation. But I suppose some folks can afford to do that sort of thing and take that kind of time off.

  8. This can’t be said often enough: Living in a Mars colony is not going to be that different from living in a first-world city on Earth. In fact, it will resemble living in an upscale apartment complex with an attached shopping mall. Most people will move to Mars for the jobs and maybe better housing (bigger apartments anyway). No one is going to get aboard a Mars colony ship, land on Mars, and be thrown naked into an airless desert! The conditions detractors love to talk about are what Mars pioneers will face. And they’ll go to Mars and get high pay to build the Mars Colony that the coders and barristoi will live in.

    I did a thought experiment a couple of years ago to see what it would to replicate my current rural lifestyle on Mars. Turned out it’d take two to five million bucks for off the shelf and lightly modified hardware, depending on whether I had to buy the construction equipment or could rent it on Mars. What would I do on Mars? I decided if I had to buy the equipment, my sign (and directory entry) would read, “Billy Bunzolo’s Search, Rescue, Towing, and Digging. We’ll make a hole in Mars for you, or pull you out of one you made on imapct…”

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