Space republics: how to democratise space exploration and accelerate colonisation

I have vivid memories from the hot July night of 1969 when the Eagle landed on the Moon. I was nearly five then. I was woken up[1] and hurried by my parents, still dressed in my pyjamas, to our next-door neighbour who owned one of the very few, black-and-white, television sets in the neighbourhood in downtown Athens. There must have been over a dozen people gathered in that relatively small living room, kids and adults swarming around the tiny screen, watching in amazement at the fuzzy moving images relayed from space. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was going on. The black and white pixels were often too coarse to discern the action, but still everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen, watching speechless as the first men from planet Earth were about to set foot on another world. And then, the television presenter translated Armstrong’s immortal words: “One small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind“. People were moved to tears. These men up there, pitching the Stars and Stripes on the surface of the Moon, were more than just American astronauts; they were representing all of humanity, paving the way for our common destiny and future. Neil Armstrong’s laconic verse had captured the democratic and internationalist zeitgeist that defined the early days of space exploration.

Much has changed since then. The Apollo missions ended in in 1972 and humans have never escaped low Earth orbit since. As budgets for human space exploration started to shrink, dreams of space colonisation were thawed by more pragmatic, scientific projects. True, we know much more today about our solar system and the universe thanks to deep space probes and space telescopes funded by government budgets. But when it comes to sending humans into space the baton is increasingly being passed from governments into private hands. This should be warmly welcomed. The commercialisation of space is opening up new opportunities for innovation, with dozens of companies attracting talent, raising capital and putting it to work in developing space technologies for rockets, satellites and spacecraft. Among those companies there are five that lead the race of putting humans in space, in what is called “space tourism”: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Space X, Orian Span, and Space Adventures[2].

Space, the final inequity

When commercial operations begin the fees for space tourists with Virgin Atlantic, Blue Origin and Space X will range between $100,000 and $300,000. Orion Span is planning Aurora Station, a luxury space hotel in orbit; a one and a half week stay would cost $9.5 million. Space Adventures has already sent tourists in the International Space Station; businessman Dennis Tito has reportedly paid $20 million for the honour, while the English soprano Sarah Brightman purportedly put down $50 million for a trip to the ISS[3]. It seems logical that commercial space ventures should target high net worth individuals as their first customers. The history of technology demonstrates how many initially costly technologies gradually became democratised. We could perhaps take space entrepreneurs in good faith and trust that, like Neil Armstrong, they think of their business ventures as opening the way to space for the whole of humanity, and not just for the few whose pockets are deep enough to afford it.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2

Space X Dragon capsule. Elon Musk has been a great advocate for space colonisation.

However, space entrepreneurs are not operating outside history. Like the rest of us, they too are children of our times, similarly bound to historical circumstances and contemporary worldviews. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing us all at a tipping point. Technological innovation, particularly in AI and Data, could amplify wealth and knowledge asymmetries, unless radically democratized. In a technofeudalist scenario, whereby political and economic power moves away from the people and towards the hands of a plutocracy, space colonisation will be limited to a small minority of very wealthy individuals and their families. We see such technofeudalist scenarios playing out already with surveillance capitalism becoming the dominant economic model of the AI economy. A similar outcome should be expected in a future technototalitarian scenario whereby a very powerful, highly centralised and authoritarian State uses AI and Data to control citizen behaviour. There, selection for who will travel in space will be limited to a ruling elite and their immediate circle.

Soviet Space colonies

The Soviets had a vision for exporting communism to space.

As these ruling minorities monopolise space exploration, their knowledge will vastly increase, as well as their ability to manipulate matter and life. One could speculate that, by mid next century, the descendants of that spacefaring minority will begin to genetically diverge from the rest of humanity. Space colonisation in a technofeudalist or technototalitarian future could thus evolve into the ultimate dystopia. For those future spacefaring superhumans the rest of humanity will increasingly feel like a nuisance; for little will remain to bond them and those of us still trapped by Earth’s gravity, climate extremities, and economic exclusion. Space would thus become the ultimate inequity. Perhaps, the future alien invaders of Earth could be the descendants of today’s superrich space tourists. To hedge against such a future we need to think of ways to democratise space exploration and, ultimately, colonisation.

Expanse

The TV Series Expanse, based on the books by James S.A. Corey, imagined a future where humanity is split between Earthers, Martians and Belters.

 

Democratising space

Space is the great commons. Like all commons it suffers from the free rider problem. Why should citizens invest money or effort today into something that aims to hedge for the long-distant future of humankind, i.e. for when they will be dead? To answer that question we must first consider what is the utility of space exploration that would make sense for investing today. The philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued[4] that there is an enormous opportunity cost from delaying space colonisation. This is due to the economic goods derived from sustaining very large populations of people living happy lives in accessible regions of our Galaxy. By calculating the number of lives that could exist by advancing technological progress in space he proposes a utilitarian measure for space exploration.

However, there are many other utilitarian considerations for space exploration, at much shorter time scales that those Bostrom proposes. Space tourism, mining asteroids, manufacturing new materials at zero gravity, are examples of potentially profitable space ventures with democratic governance using cryptoeconomics and cryptogovernance. Current experiments with ideas such as Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) illustrate the feasibility of this proposition. By founding “space cooperatives” that can scale using cryptogovernance now we can transform space exploration and colonisation into a social good and a viable goal for humanity. Participants in those organisations may never become colonisers themselves, but their grandchildren or great grandchildren might. Democratising space in this way can drive not only accelerate innovation but distribute ownership of space technology more equitably as well. Importantly, it would forge a bond between present and future generations over longer time scales, and promote a long-term view for the future of humanity. Instead of thinking in terms of two or three generations at most, participating in space colonisation projects will help us think in terms of centuries. This will not be the first time that humans set goals that could be fulfilled only by more than one generation: medieval cathedrals are an example of cross-generational projects. Such long-term view is vital for our survival, not only because it is needed to colonise space but to also protect fragile ecosystems on our home planet.

Small nations in space

Space cooperatives using a DAO can be adopted by smaller nations to fund their space programs. Currently, space exploration and exploitation is restricted to a few big and wealthy nations (US with NASA, EU with ESA, China with CNSA, Russia with ROSCOSMOS, India with ISRO and Japan with JAXA), and a small group of super-rich individuals.  If one is to include other nations who possess some space capability (for example satellites on Earth orbit) the list us still limited. Out of 195 countries in the world today only a handful are reaching out to space (see graph below).

n09wGXsyB5WtbB2rdC-gUB8WtQ69y7XzmURS9lcANJ0

Using a DAO small countries can tokenize space exploration, apply cryptogovernance to democratically select appropriate goals, strategies and priorities, and raise funds via a cryptocurrency or some other cryptosecurities (e.g. bonds on a blockchain) in order to commission and deploy space missions.

Governing space republics

There has been surprisingly little thinking on political systems that would be appropriate for space colonists. Indicatively, the pioneer James Desmond Bernal, in describing life inside his futuristic “space spheres” writes: “The inhabitants can be divided into the personnel or the crew, and the citizens or the passengers…. There would probably be no more need for government that in a modern hotel: there would be a few restrictions concerned with the safety of the vessel and that would be all.[5]

It is of course naive to think that humans, of any number, would coexist peacefully for any meaningful period of time without the need of a system for collective decision-making and conflict resolution. History can help us identify examples of human colonization that failed because of the wrong political organisation. The Pilgrims’ colony at Plymouth in the 17th century came on the brink of collapse because it had initially adopted a communist-like system of distribution[6]. Space colonists will have to deal with much more than simply running their economy. The challenges of space, the great unknown, require a political system of enormous resilience and agility, a system that enables colonists to quickly discover and increase knowledge by applying rational reasoning; use this knowledge effectively to adapt and survive; and remain motivated to persevere against all odds and overcome unpredictable dangers. They may need to decide on self-modification through genetic engineering in order to adapt in the hostile environment of space, or to live on other planets with different atmosphere or gravity.

Governing a space colony would also benefit from applying design principles from decentralised cooperatives. New human species may evolve in space colonies. Remaining connected to the home planet by treasuring the values and principles of democratic governance could ensure that if, one day, humanity expands across the Galaxy, our distant descendants in the far away stars will still feel that, however different they have become, they are still members of a common human lineage that began on planet Earth.

Why go to space?

Not everyone would agree that humans should colonise space. Norman Mailer, writing about the Apollo 11 moon landing, felt unsure if it was “the noblest expression of the 20th century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity[7]. He saw in space exploration a mix of greatness and hubris, a bright ray of hope for humankind after the horrors of the Second World War, but also a shade of darkness in what he feared may lead humans to think of themselves as “gods”. He was right in detecting a conflict in one of the greatest accomplishments of his age. What drives us into space is what has always driven human to push the boundaries of our possibilities: the interplay of irrational emotions and rational reasoning – or, if you prefer, the tension between Desire and Necessity.

We may have to colonise space in order to survive as a species in the long term. Indeed, space colonisation may provide the only way for preserving world peace. Logic dictates that we should advance space technologies, as well as adopt democratic means of governing space commons and space colonies, so we may achieve an equitable future for future generations in space regardless of race, religion, sex or wealth. But logical Necessity is not enough to make us want to take the enormous risks and strategise across time scales spanning many generations. It is the irrational Desire to explore, learn, and indeed conquer, that inspire – and will keep inspiring – us with a longing for trying our luck at the stars.

 

Endnotes

[1] Eagle landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969 at 15:17 EST. I watched the landing from Athens, Greece, which is EST+7.

[2] Source (2018): https://singularityhub.com/2018/05/10/5-space-companies-zeroing-in-on-first-launch-of-tourists-into-orbit-and-beyond/#sm.000kykq9217xnfrbupe1x10qzc76h

[3] Brightman’s trip was ultimately postponed. See: http://time.com/3857549/sarah-brightman-international-space-station/

[4] Bostrom N (2003), Astronomical Waste: the opportunity cost of delayed technological development, In: Utilitas 15 (3): 308-314, Cambridge University Press.

[5] Bernal J D, (1929), The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An enquiry into the Future of Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, Foyle Publishing.

[6] Rothbard M N (1979), What Really Happened at Plymouth, Mises Institute website, accessed: https://mises.org/library/what-really-happened-plymouth (excerpt from “Conceived in Liberty” book)

[7] Mailer N (1970), Of a Fire on the Moon, Little Brown.

One thought on “Space republics: how to democratise space exploration and accelerate colonisation

  1. Pingback: Abandoning the metropolis: space colonisation as the new imperative | George Zarkadakis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s