Can we create a back-up civilization from the convenience of our earthly home?
The upcoming SpaceX Starship launch wakes hopes that the mankind will be able to start settling Mars and the solar system within the coming decade or two. Some argue, the launch costs will be so low we should just build stations and cities with materials from Earth. After all, industrial processes in space are untested, and the industrial equipment itself is heavy as well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just launch everything?
This is not an easy question: of course no delivery costs is always cheaper than delivery costs, no matter what those are, but with launch costs potentially as low as $20 per kilo to the Moon, or $10 to LEO, the costs are rapidly approaching the prices of the delivered goods themselves. This is less per kilo than some airlines charge for excess baggage.
Let’s have some fun with numbers: let’s launch the largest motor home I know of, the SLRV Commander 8x8, to space. This is also not a mini camper — it is a luxury “expedition vehicle” with luxury interior meant to accommodate up to 10 people traveling through Australian Outback — complete with 2 kW solar panels, 26 kWh of lithium-ion batteries and a 1000L water tank, among other little amenities. Its maximum permitted road weight is 42 metric tons (it is “only” 18 tons when empty). 42 is, as always, the answer. To land it on the moon, multiply 42,000 with $20, and get 840,000 dollars. This is expensive, but incidentally, it is less than the price of the vehicle itself (a million up to a million and a half USD). Which means, if you had the money to get one built, you can also afford to send it to the Moon!
Now, why would we do that? Because the density of an actual Moon-capable mobile home would probably be similar. The Commander is obviously not built with Space in mind, so it has a lot of extra bits and pieces that you would not need on the Moon — you could easily get rid of an axle or two and some of the HP in 1/6th the gravity — but of course it lacks “little” things like an airlock, shielding, life support system, etc, which would take their place. Or rather, their mass budget. And if you do run out of the mass budget, you could always replace the washing machine or the full-size kitchen with something slightly less absurd.
Speaking of something less absurd, a normal camping trailer usually only runs up to 2.5 tons, which reduces the launch price to 25.000 USD — again, very much within the same range as the vehicle itself. Or about as much as an average college loan.
Which shows us, that colonizing LEO (low-earth orbit) or the Moon by sending prefabricated habitats from Earth suddenly becomes feasible. Almost affordable, even. It becomes even more so, if you can share essential equipment like life support and shielding with other habitats, and if you build for weight efficiency like the inflatable Bigalow Aerospace modules (1.5 tons — $15.000 to low earth orbit for 16 cubic meters of space —more than in a Class B recreational vehicle.)
In fact, this calculation works even for raw materials: the cheapest carbon fiber at the moment of writing is about $15 per kg — for aerospace grade material, it is roughly in the $100 range. For the latter, the cost of delivery to the moon is just 20% — one fifth — of the raw material price. In many places, you would pay more VAT than that.
Given that the gigantic manufacturing capacity and capability available on Earth, and the complete absence of any capacity off Earth, it seems like it would make more sense to just launch everything from Earth and be done with it. Right?
It depends on your goals. If your end goal is to build a city in LEO, or on the moon — please go ahead. There are legitimate reasons to do this: given that to haul an average Joe’s weight to space would only cost $900, which is less than a business-class ticket on many airplane routes, space tourism starts looking a lot less far-fetched. Given Elon Musk’s figure of 1.5 million per launch and 100 people per Starship, a very luxurious travel ticket in your own crew cabin to a hotel in LEO would be 15.000 USD. This is comparable to the (pre-pandemic) price of a world cruise and well within the means of an increasingly large number of people.
The acceleration of space research that could be achieved in orbit with the right personnel and equipment can also not be overstated: today, any experiment in LEO requires years of planning and preparation, and tens of thousands or even millions of dollars. If you can literally just chuck a drone with your newest breadboard out of the airlock and see what happens with your newest propulsion system, then reel it in, fix and try again next day, this is at least a 300-fold acceleration of the development process. This is what we need to achieve technologies that will, in the long run, truly enable life to become interplanetary.
But is this enough to back up civilization?
Let’s say, a large asteroid hits Earth unexpectedly and wrecks the climate even further. It will likely not wipe out humanity altogether — we are as tough as rats and cockroaches, and we are also clever, adaptable and can build technology — but it will create an enormous humanitarian crisis, and set us back for at least a few decades — maybe as much as a century. We will be busy building self-contained, heated food farms not relying on sunlight in case of a full-blown “nuclear winter”; we will be rebuilding infrastructure and fighting for survival. It may very well completely destroy our manufacturing base and repositories of knowledge. It will almost certainly not leave us with a lot of extra time or resources to care for the orbital cities we created, or colonies on the Moon or Mars. Those would have to fend for themselves.
What does that mean, if we have not created a manufacturing capacity off-world, like on the Moon or on Mars? The very first things we will need to survive every day are air, food and water — so obviously, we should not rely solely on deliveries from Earth for those. What about the rest? Can a lunar colony MacGyver their way out of a civilization collapse? True, there are many people out there with an amazing capacity to kludge things together to survive, as anyone growing up in a developing (or a collapsing) nation will attest. They will likely be able to get by without re-supplies for a while, detecting air leaks with tea leaves and repairing things with duct tape, chewing gum and wire. But decades? Maybe they will be able to 3d-print replacements. Maybe they will even be able to cast parts from lunar regolith using solar concentrators. But every single piece of equipment in use today relies on electronics — on highly integrated microchips. Your phone has them, your watch has them (unless it is mechanical), your air conditioner has them, and the air recycler in your lunar camper will have them, too. So does the lighting and the timer on the watering system for hydroponics, not to mention every modern communication system and the aforementioned 3d-printer.
Current microchips have components so small that they can get physically damaged by ionizing radiation. Even if you design them to be logically radiation-proof, even if you handle them carefully and don’t subject them to stress, overheating, power surges, etc, the radiation environment outside Earths’ atmosphere is capable of physically destroying single transistors that comprise those chips one by one — not just the CPUs, but also the computer memory (RAM). This means, sooner or later electronic components will reach their damage tolerance and have to be replaced. Microchip fabrication equipment is, however, extremely specialized — and extremely expensive. The machines producing the newest generation of microchips cost around 120 million dollars, and ship in 40 freight containers. There is only a handful of companies that have the ability to manufacture or repair those machines. Given the low volume and relatively high value of the end product, people suggest that advanced electronics will be one of the last things that remains an Earth export.
This, however, would leave any off-Earth settlements without the ability to repair their own technology — technology vital to their survival. On Earth, we will not die if our electronics fail tomorrow. Life will be moderately inconvenient, too warm some places, too cold in others — but we can always just make a fire as long as there is stuff to burn, or find an ocean to cool down in. It might leave us some of starving and in search for non-salty water, but it will not leave us without air to breathe. Down here, we might even have enough time to build some low-tech desalination equipment, and catch a fish or two. On the Moon, less so.
Unless there is at least one settlement off Earth that can actually maintain their own machinery — and this includes replacing their electronics, and repairing the machines that they need to do so — we have not, in fact, backed up anything. Whether the settlement is in LEO, on the Moon, or on Mars: a settlement that can not survive without constant support from Earth is not life becoming interplanetary, it is just a foothold in a door that will slam shut the moment the settlers are cut off from home.
If our goal is to back up our civilization, to guard against catastrophic setbacks , to make life truly interplanetary — and I think it should be — then, when we move out into the solar system and beyond, we need to be making sure that our settlements are self-sufficient. Reliant on each other maybe, interconnected, but not forever dependent on Mother Earth.
“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you can’t remain in the cradle forever.” — Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, Sept. 17, 1857 — Sept. 19, 1935