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Monday, December 13, 2010

40 Acres and a Vacuum-Packed Mule

When thinking about colonization of other worlds and places within our solar system, I am reminded of how very unhappy many earthbound colonists have been with their new homes. When the Denny Party landed on Alki Beach in what was to become Seattle, the women and children wept at the realization that they had left civilization to be stranded upon some of the most temperate and arable land on the planet. They wept because they were far away from home, and because it was raining. Seattle rain. Not deluge, just steady drizzle. Plenty of water, plenty of food, November temperatures in the mid 50s, and the natives were friendly and helpful. But the settlers were heartbroken because it wasn't New York City, yet.

A closer (albeit fictional) analog to our potential planetary expats are the intrepid penguins from the movie Madagascar, who, having commandeered a merchant ship to Antarctica, set foot on the Antarctic ice and solemnly pronounce, "well, this sucks". 

Seattle, on the worst of days, is a hell of a lot more clement than Mars. Antarctica, on the worst of days, is a hell of a lot more clement than Mars.

So what would motivate thousands of people to relocate off-world to a place less hospitable than the least hospitable places on earth? To create, not just a scientific outpost like McMurdo Station in Antarctica, or a mining facility like Prudhoe Bay, but an actual frontier settlement?

What has caused people to create such colonies in the past? Here are a few possibilities.

Mineral or other wealth has always been a strong motivator, but there's no reason to imagine that we'll experience a Lunar or Martian Gold-Rush anytime soon. Mars has plenty of iron, but so does earth, and earth's iron deposits are a lot closer.

What Mars does have, however, is an awful lot of cheap real estate. Assuming that the cost of transporting a large number of families could be kept low per family, some people would likely be enticed by the possibility of owning a plot of land the size of, say, Japan. The land isn't arable, so they would be under no obligation to cultivate it. First generation homesteaders could congregate in a central community on Mars, and "tend" their lands from a distance. Once the central community was well-established, some settlers might well chose to actually homestead on their property. The central "city" would continue to grow, and smaller communities would crystallize around the outlying homesteads. In this way, large expanses of Mars could be colonized quickly, albeit sparsely.

One of the easiest ways to relocate large numbers of people from more desirable land to less desirable land is, um, against their will. Penal colonies, for example, have a long history of thriving in the most adverse conditions, and emerging within a few generations as a stable society. I'm actually a fan of penal colonies. But my ancestors were among the first European colonists of Australia, so I'm a direct result of one. The Botany Bay and Port Moresby colonies were unequivocally successful. A large penal colony on Mars or Callisto might, another century hence, be a sprawling metropolis like Sydney or Brisbane.

A slightly more benign corollary to the penal colony is the refugee camp. A population dislocated from their homeland by famine, war or persecution might well find impetus to settle on an alien world. It is not difficult to imagine a latter day Plymouth, or Salt Lake City, or Tel Aviv rising from the deserts of Mare Frigoris. 

It is also possible that utopianists would build a sanctuary from worldly ills on another world. Robert Heinlein envisioned a lunar libertarian utopia in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I am inclined to imagine that it would be utopianists, if anyone, who would first settle Enceladus. Nestled within Saturn's rings, spinning like a top delicately perched on the ice, a rotating colony on the surface of Enceladus would be far removed from terrestrial worries and law enforcement, but habitable and comfortable for those willing to leave earth behind forever. And the views would be unequalled in the solar system.

These are a small number of possibilities, there are thousands more.

Whether I have created here a reasonable template for future out-migration, or simply the backdrop for a science fiction novel, only time will tell. But it has been an interesting thought-experiment.

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