The social, environmental, and economic impacts of space colonization

2021-11-19

 |  Technology/Innovation

Outer space has fascinated humankind for centuries, with Nicolaus Copernicus’ model of Earth revolving around the Sun (proposed in 1543) and Galileo’s observation of Saturn’s rings in 1610 often regarded as notable contributions to the beginnings of the modern field of astronomy. It’s likely that neither Copernicus nor Galileo would have dreamed of it, but today people can tour space at will. Well, so far that feat is limited to billionaires

But the exploration of space does not come without risks and consequences. In this article, we will explore the social, environmental, and economic considerations of space exploration.

Earth’s resources are cluttering space

Firstly, space exploration requires the mass production of space technology which requires the extraction of precious materials. Satellites are mostly composed of aluminum, which is refined from an ore called “bauxite”, a mixture of hydrated aluminum oxide, silica, and iron oxide. The building of satellites is energy-intensive because the aluminum needs to be refined from bauxite, molded into parts, and assembled; yet, what is less obvious is that once the satellites are launched into space, they may never return to Earth.

Even though aluminum is an “infinitely recyclable” metal with a multitude of uses, its incorporation into satellites usually means its permanent removal from Earth. This loss of aluminum to space poses two issues: first, new aluminum will need to continuously be mined, consuming energy acquired from the burning of fossil fuels – which exacerbates climate change – and second, the cluttering of Earth’s lower orbit (up to around 750 km altitude) by satellites, debris from aging satellites, discarded boosters, and debris generated from collisions makes the region a hazardous place for astronauts. 

The European Space Agency estimates that there are a total of approximately 166 million human-made objects in space, ranging in size from one millimetre to the size of a refrigerator, whose orbits crisscross at high relative speeds. These metal pieces have average impact velocities of 36,000 kilometres per hour, meaning they have the potential to cause an out-of-control cascade of collisions that could throw Earth’s entire satellite system into disarray. The more objects clutter Earth’s lower orbital region, the greater the chances of a chain reaction. While SpaceX insists that the probability of a collision between satellites and tracked debris is negligible, their calculations do not account for untracked debris. And while space debris is out of sight for the most part, it exists and this means that humans have effectively started polluting a new environment beyond the Earth – the space environment.

Space debris. Source: How do tiny pieces of space junk cause incredible damage? | Live Science

The permanent loss of Earth’s resources to the assembly of space-bound objects not only has environmental implications because it is energy-intensive and removes useful materials from Earth irreplaceably, but it also poses safety concerns for astronauts and manned spacecraft alike. 

Space “colonization” is colonization 

Space exploration is often used interchangeably with the term “space colonization”, and unfortunately this is the case. Space exploration is in fact a form of colonization. Today, space is being explored by the ultra-rich, which bears resemblance to the exploration, conquering, settling, and exploitation of many parts of the world by European explorers beginning in the 16th century. The Outer Space Treaty – a treaty that entered into force in 1967 that governs activities surrounding the exploration and use of outer space – states that “outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States” or by all countries. However, policies have not caught up with today’s new age of space travel – it is clear that space is at risk of being monopolized by billionaires and their companies. Elon Musk and SpaceX, and Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic are just a few examples of potential colonizers who might treat outer space as their playground because they are the first ones to get there.

Richard Branson, CEO of his space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, going for a weightless ride aboard his space plane “Unity”. Source: Billionaire Richard Branson reaches space in his own ship | Technology News,The Indian Express 

The concerns are clear: today’s colonization of space runs the risk of occurring with a colonial mindset similar to the same mindset adopted by European colonies in the 17th century when they invaded the lands of Indigenous peoples, exerted their control over those peoples, and forced the Western way of life upon them. Colonizers treat new land as territory with unlimited resources to exploit, their unsustainable practices destabilizing food systems and leaving a trail of environmental destruction in their wake. Colonialism’s lasting repercussions – including but not limited to environmental degradation, human rights violations, and the spread of disease – have made life excruciatingly difficult for many and are still being felt to this day. By following this line of thinking, space exploration runs the risk of colonization impacts – while there is no other life forms in outer space that we know of at present, once humans settle on other planets (if habitable environments can even be created), the same inequalities and consequences of colonialism will prevail. For instance, there are no rules around societies in outer space because countries have not decided on them yet – then, does that mean whoever successfully lands first will be the “ruler” of Mars and create the first human colony on Mars? Who gets to decide this? Is this acceptable? 

It is clear that rules need to be established as soon as possible, before further space exploration occurs. Countries need to come together, think critically about the future, and think through all possible scenarios of space colonization and their consequences.

The cost of space exploration

Finally, none of this space activity is possible without money. In 2021, NASA had a budget of $23.3 billion, which was spent on human spaceflight, robotic missions, scientific research, and administrative costs. As alluded to earlier, it is not even certain whether liveable habitats are possible in space – artificial sources of pretty much everything we need to survive will have to be supplied, including but not limited to oxygen, food, water, and temperature regulation not to mention more than two hours of exercise every single day to prevent muscle and bone atrophy. Humans living in space will feel like fish out of water, living in artificial tanks. 

This raises the question: if there is a perfectly nice planet where we can live naturally, why pour billions of dollars into trying to live in a hostile place that will feel nothing like the environment we have now? Why not spend that money trying to improve our current home – to tackle climate change for instance, or to address poverty and food insecurity? 

A climate striker questioning the spending of billions of dollars on space exploration. Source: Why we are spending billions to go to Mars instead of using – Caymans Post

Final words

From environmental implications, to the fatal flaws of exploring space with a colonial mindset, to the question we should all ask ourselves – i.e., why are we exploring space in the first place and trying to create a livable habitat where none exists, instead of treasuring the planet we are living on now – it is clear that space exploration comes with consequences and an endless list of questions. These consequences need to be considered thoroughly if space exploration is to continue with the goal of truly benefiting humankind.