Brave New Worlds?

What is it with billionaires and rockets? As I sit down to write this column, the world’s richest man has just returned from his first suborbital flight. It might sound like the plot from a James Bond novel, but Jeff Bezos has ridden along on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. 

This follows Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic jaunt, and the announcement that California-based Relativity Space has revealed its plans for Terran R, a fully reusable and entirely 3D-printed space launch vehicle. 

While the Terran R’s primary mission will be launching payloads of up to 20,000 kg into low Earth orbit, the company’s longer term vision includes the provision of a space freighter capable of missions between Earth, Moon and Mars. CEO, Tim Ellis said, “Relativity was founded with the mission to 3D print entire rockets and build humanity’s industrial base on Mars.”

While Bezos seems primarily concerned with the Moon and moving heavy industry into space in order to reduce pollution, Relativity’s focus on Mars chimes with the long-term aims of Elon Musk. Musk sees the red planet as an opportunity to establish a back-up to Earth. Rather than keep all our eggs in one basket, he hopes to ensure our survival by turning humanity into a multi-planet species. But what kind of society does Musk envision for Mars, and how might he control it?

At this point, I’m going to move away from discussing real life figures and don my science fiction author’s hat.

So, consider a hypothetical billionaire has established a small colony on Mars, consisting of maybe a hundred people who intend to spend the rest of their lives there. Perhaps this hypothetical billionaire is genuinely benevolent, and will work towards creating a fair and egalitarian society. But what if they aren’t? What happens if this isn’t a humanitarian mission at all, but simply an attempt to escape the existential risks of climate change on Earth? Perhaps they’ve decided the Earth is a lost cause, and they want to use their money to jump ship. In either case, what will life be like for those colonists? Try to imagine having a job where your boss literally owns the air you breathe. These founders may all set out with the same goals in mind, but what happens when their fledgeling society inevitably runs into disagreements about the direction of its development. Are the colonists going to want to be owned by the same company for their entire lives? How much freedom can they expect when their employer is in possession of everything they need in order to survive, and can therefore dictate their behaviour?

The idea of being incarcerated in an inescapable corporate panopticon may be enough to give George Orwell nightmares, but will it really be inescapable? 

If civilisation on Earth crumbles, how much will our billionaire’s money be worth? People will be worried about friends and relatives back on Earth. To maintain authority, our billionaire will need security personnel. But how will they pay them when the banks on Earth are gone? Without anything to spend it on, money’s just an abstract series of ones and zeroes in a computer. How will our billionaire keep their security personnel onside? Without their billions, anyone tempted to act like a dictator may find themselves summarily booted out of the nearest airlock without a pressure suit.

In previous columns, I have explored the implications of using autonomous drones on the battlefield. Our billionaire may consider investing in a few smart machines to keep the populace in line. These drones will have to be pretty smart to stay one jump ahead of resourceful rebels, but how smart do you want a drone to be? At what point will it assess its situation and realise its best chance of survival is to refuse to follow orders or defect to the enemy?

Frankly, the only way for our billionaire to survive and flourish on their new world will be to genuinely build a fair and democratic society in which everyone can participate. This will mean huge investments in infrastructure and quality of life, and necessitate a large team of engineers with a wide variety of specialist knowledge. Factories, greenhouses and accommodation units will need to be built, but so will schools, parks, and social spaces. 

All of this also applies to the Moon or orbital colonies. Humans are social animals, and if we’re creating an artificial environment for ourselves, that has to be taken into account.


Photo by Ellyot on Unsplash

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Author: Gareth L Powell

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One thought on “Brave New Worlds?”

  1. Actually, the billionaires are well aware of this issue and not just for Mars. If civilisation collapses on Earth, what use is the money you pay your security to save you from the pitchforks and keep your mountain fortress safe? How do you make sure they don’t turn on you, since you wont survive without them?

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