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).

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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.

The Venusian

venusian-scout-ship-49In the neighbourhood where I grew up there lived an old man we used to make fun of.  His name was Vangelis.  Barba-Vangelis[1] was the kind, tender type of fellow who did not mind very much when a ball came crashing through his window or when a can of red paint fell “accidentally” on his head as he walked by.  He was always very patient with us little devils and occasionally, despite our mischievous schemes against his physical and mental hygiene, he would come out of his humble single-storey house to hand us sweets and candy bars.  To no avail.  For no act of reconciliation could ever pacify us. Barba-Vangelis was too nice for us, too patient, too kind, too inhuman. Nature had  programmed us to exterminate him.

At times, our parents would talk about him on the dinner table; whenever all other subjects, politics and such,  run out of their temporary interest.

“What sort of new invention has he thought up now?” my father would ask, a question enough to spark a burst of laughter in all of us.

“I wonder if he is still busy at that ‘Psionic’ helmet of his”, my mother would then add giggling.  “He’s been awfully quiet late!”

One reason why this extraordinary fellow was causing so much of a humorous stir in us was that he came from another planet.  Planet Venus to be precise. But that was not all. For you see, not only was he an interplanetary explorer but an inventor as well, who tirelessly laboured in his scientific laboratory for “the good of mankind and the Galaxy”, to quote his own words.  And it wasn’t so much his alien planetary background that caused us to consider him an oddball, as were his many crazy inventions which never ceased to amaze or amuse us. Take, for example, that “Psionic helmet” thing.  No-one knew what use one could make of it.  Barba-Vangelis was developing it for years.  One day he asked everyone to gather round and witness the first real life demonstration of its use. That was before my family and I moved in the area.  But our neighbours were still talking of that day when Barba-Vangelis, wearing the Psionic helmet, stood in front of them, switched it on and started reciting the rhapsodies of Homer’s Iliad, totally by heart, in the original text.  The Psionic helmet was meant to tune one’s brain to poetry.  By wearing it one became a poet too. What a disappointment!

The list of his practically useless inventions was almost limitless.  To mention but a few, there was the anti-nuclear umbrella which protected one from nuclear fallout, a system that secured safe transgression of railway cross-roads, an electronic device that prevented female switchboard operators from fainting on the job, a detoxicator of Cuban cigars and a supersonic drilling machine for underwater mining.  But his most famous intellectual achievement – one that made national news in fact – was his decoding of Aristotle’s “Physics”.

Using the sacred knowledge of his home planet he managed to uncover the true meaning of Aristotle’s works (please note that he was another extraterrestrial too; Barba-Vangelis, however, never revealed to us from which planet exactly).  In fact, he showed that Aristotle had been cryptically describing in his books the design of a sub-nuclear propulsion system for intergalactic travel.  Barba-Vangelis came out with all the equations and there was a big corporation down in Athens who were interested and quickly bought up all the rights, patents and such.  Nothing was ever heard of his discovery since.  People said that Barba-Vangelis took a large sum of money to shut himself up about such things and that the revolutionary propulsion system found its way to the United States where the scientists are still trying to make sense of it.

His only real friend was Mr Peter Paschalides, the father of my good friend and partner-in-crime Dimitri.  Mr Paschalides worked at the local branch of the National Bank and was a very educated person (compared to the abounding ignorance of our little society).  Some people, including my parents, would accuse him – secretly of course – of being a freemason, a horrid thin to be accused really.  Well, Mr Paschalides would frequently visit Barba-Vangelis’ scientific laboratory and spend hours in there with him, talking about all kinds of subjects and comparing, no doubt, our two different worlds.

This way, and I mean through the good services of my friend Dimitri, I got to learn some of Barba-Vangelis’ private secrets.  That he came to our planet with his friends, many-many years ago, in order to collect samples of our ground for scientific experiments.  That Barba-Vangelis, a young officer in the Venusian starfleet at that time, being of the amorous type, pursued a beautiful young girl and so he cut himself off from the landing party.  Three days of intense lovemaking later, his friends had gone and that was how he was left behind.  He run and run, as fast as he could, only to see his spacecraft lifting off in a bright flame.  His friends had abandoned him on Earth.  He never really forgave them for that and still spoke bitterly of their unexplained delay in coming back to fetch him.  Many years had gone since then and Barba-Vangelis made the best of his awkward situation.  Got a job, bought a house, invented things, never loosing hope that some day his friends from Venus would return.

One cold autumn day I happened to be at my friend’s house when his father, Mr Paschalides, came near to us and, with a very serious tone in his voice, warned us never to annoy Barba-Vangelis again.  What more, he pleaded with us never to go even near his house.  Interpol was after him and we could find ourselves in very deep trouble.  As you understand, nothing could excite our childish imagination more than that.  After that day we would make sure that at least one of us kept tabs outside Barba-Vangelis’ house, in case Interpol showed up to arrest him.  Our secret detective mission was thrilling us to bits and we took it in turns. We even kept a log book of his moves which we regularly reviewed in search of meaningful behavioural patterns. But all this was nothing compared to what really happened a while later.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were back home from Mass, with our families, ready to sit down for a handsome Sunday meal, when the whole of our little neighbourhood was shuddered by a terrible noise.  We all thought it was an earthquake.  Our house shook like a leaf in the wind and my older sister, who was at the time coming up the stairs with a pot full of hot chicken soup, fell, breaking the pot, a leg, and suffering a slight burn on her left thigh.  Then, after the noise and the tremor had subsided, the whole neighbourhood filled with a purple-orange colour, as if a radiant cloud had sat on top of us.  People went to their windows to witness the strange phenomenon.  And there it was! Right above our heads!  A huge flying object that sparkled in bright colours.  It stood there hovering, virtually noiseless, lest a soft hissing sound that appeared to be caused by its luminous rays hitting the air.

“It is Barba-Vangelis’ spaceship!” cried my older sister, with tears of pain in her eyes.

“My God!” whispered my mother and crossed herself three times.

“It came to take him away”, said father gaping.

I cannot remember how long that strange thing stood there.  Not long enough, anyway. For some reason Barba-Vangelis did not come out of his house to board and his impatient friends seemed to fear Interpol’s appearance too.  For after a while they let go of waiting and vanished as spectacularly as they had appeared; with a noise and a shudder as great as the first one.  Nothing was left of the bright flying object.  Not a smell, not a sound, not a trace. As if it had never really appeared. So we all decided never to talk about this to anyone.  Few weeks later, when the sighting of the Venusian spacecraft was more or less forgotten, Dimitri and I were returning from school when we saw Barba-Vangelis coming out of his house with a big suitcase.

“He’s leaving” cried Dimitri.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He’s going to Venus, stupid, can’t you see his suitcase?” came the answer.

We hid into the little park, inside the bushes and let Barba-Vangelis walk in front of us without noticing our presence.

“Let’s follow him!” Dimitri whispered in my ear.

“What, you think he’s going to his spaceship?” I asked him in a similarly conspiratory whisper.

“Of course he is.  Let’s follow him and see what he does!”

And so we did.  Like a pair of true professionals Interpol would have been proud to employ in her ranks.  Barba-Vangelis paced his way across the main square, climbed up the stairs to the old school and followed the little narrow path that led away from our neighbourhood and into the nearby woods.  Dimitri and I looked at each other.  The woods were a place totally out of bounds for all us children.  Many years ago in those woods many strange killings had taken place.  The victims were all young women found brutally abused and murdered. Someone was arrested in the end, a young electrician who pleaded innocent but was nevertheless sentenced to life, to be later killed by the inmates of his prison during a riot.  Strange thing was that, after his killing, there were a couple of new cases of murdered young women in the woods.  So, naturally, everyone turned to the supernatural. Perhaps the young electrician was truly innocent and he had now returned as a ghost to take revenge on our little neighbourhood that accused him of a crime he never done.  Anyway, whatever the real reason for these strange coincidences was, it was we, the children, who paid the price of adult superstition.  The woods were out of bounds, final. But on that day, temptation and the single-minded quest for the truth led Dimitri and me to break the taboo and defiantly enter the forbidden grounds in hot pursuit of Barba-Vangelis.

We followed him closely as he walked deep into the heart of the woods.  After a while, finding himself a small opening in the trees, he stopped and put down the suitcase.  Dimitri and I hurried under a bush and took cover. That must be the meeting point with Mother-Spaceship we thought. All we had to do now was wait until it showed up.  Barba-Vangelis had not noticed us till then.  Taking his time, he opened the suitcase and took out his Psionic helmet.  After making a few adjustments to a variety of knobs and buttons that clung on to it, he wore it on his head.  He then reached again into the suitcase and took out a long metal rod that looked like a spear. I felt Dimitri’s heartbeat pounding into my ear.

“You know what?” he whispered in a trembling voice.

“What?”

“I just had a thought…”

“What?”

“Well, you know all those killings in the woods… maybe it is Barba-Vangelis who did them all.”

“Do not be a fool”, I said.  “Barba-Vangelis is a sheep.”

“He is a maniac I am telling you, just look at him!”

“Shut up Dimitri! We’re going to frighten him and he may cancel the spaceship’s landing!”

“What’s that spear he’s holding then?”

“It’s not a spear, simpleton, it’s an antenna.  He’s signalling Venus! Shut up!”

But my friend would not have any of it.  Whatever went through his mind at that fateful moment, had caused him a bad seizure of panic.

“Let’s go!” he said.  “We got to go!”

And with those words he leapt out of the bush like a frightened rabbit.  The flutter of the leaves made Barba-Vangelis turn around and take notice of our presence.  But Dimitri had already taken flight.  I was left behind in the bush alone, my eyes crossing Barba-Vangelis’ eyes in a moment of terrible silence.  I can’t remember exactly what happened then.  But in an instant that seemed miraculous Barba-Vangelis was leaning over me as I stood inside my little bushy hide, frightened to tears.

“Are you frightened?” he asked in a soft, tender voice.

“No, not really..”, I lied.

“Where did your friend go?”

“He run away, I guess.”

Barba-Vangelis shook his head.  He remembered his friends who had run away too, so many years ago.

“Was he scared?”

“He thought you were the killer of the woods.”

Barba-Vangelis took off his Psionic helmet and sat on the grass next to me.  His face was sad and his shoulders hung numbly at his sides, like the shoulders of a marionette.

“In my planet”, he said, wiping a tear from his eye, “in the endless valleys of Venus, when two persons want to become friends they sit next to each other – like we are now – and dream of the colour blue.  In my planet the colour blue is very different from Earth’s.  It has a different hue. It’s difficult to imagine it if you have not seen it… Then, they blow into each other’s face and their breath seals their friendship for ever.  And friendship, for those blessed with it, is the strongest bonding force in the Universe…”

We sat there like that, silently under the trees.   I was not frightened anymore. I was trying hard to imagine the colour blue.  But all I could think of was blank.  White blank.

“Will your friends come again to fetch you?” I finally asked.

Barba-Vangelis smiled wryly.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“I think they will”,  I said.

His face opened up in a wide smile.

“Yes, they will…” he said. “They will!”

That was my first and last encounter with Barba-Vangelis.  Next month my father, being an army officer,  was moved to another post and we all had to follow him like the nomads we were.  Our life took another turn.  Many years later, when I was at University, I received a letter from my old friend Dimitri.  He was working know as a clerk at the branch of the National Bank in our old neighbourhood.  His father, Mr Paschalides, had retired after suffering multiple brain strokes.  It was then when I learned that  Barba-Vangelis had passed away.  Being a lonely fellow, with neither relatives nor friends on our planet, the neighbourhood, together with the Church, put some money together and gave him a descent funeral.  His grave still exists today in a small graveyard outside Thessaloniki.  It consists of a small tomb and a stone under a cypress tree.  It is a very simple monument.  Only his name is written on it and his nationality.  “Vangelis Hadjidimitriou – Venusian”.


[1]Barba: Uncle (a common familiarising term used in modern Greek for senior citizens)