The stranger considerations of space colonization
Paws, claws and vomit bags in space.
NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, SpaceX and a myriad of subcontractors each have some version of a Mars plan. With a notable exception, all of these plans involve little more than ‘boots and footprint’ opportunities for a select group of elite astronauts. In this article, we’re going to talk about some of the stranger implications for the lone exception mentioned above.
SpaceX has publicly announced plans to not only take astronauts to Mars in the 2020’s but anyone that can afford the cost of a ticket. They call this a colonization effort with the stated purpose of making our species multi-planetary. Their website sports an illustration of a terraformed Mars and their webcasts always include the line “Location: Earth” lest there be confusion on the matter.
Of necessity, the first ships of this colonization effort will be heavily laden with foodstuffs, construction materials and machinery. If the colony is to grow beyond the outpost stage, biological capital in the form of plants and animals must eventually follow the durable goods. These species will both stimulate the nascent Martian economy and serve as the required inputs for terraforming projects.
Even if terraforming itself takes centuries or millenia to complete, as a species we have never been alone. This means that long before Mars can support life without active human intervention, we will be bringing the whole kit and caboodle of plants and animals with us because we must. They provide food, they are companions, producers and maintainers of the balance of our Earth’s ecosystem which is itself on a knife’s edge between paradise and radiation-blasted rock. If people are serious about making a go of colonizing and eventually terraforming Mars then they will need to pack up and take the ecosystem with them.
Would you want to live someplace with no animals of any kind?
In the same announcement of the forthcoming SpaceX Mars missions, Elon Musk explained that in order for the scheme to work out people must want to go to Mars. I believe that an adequate stock of biological capital on Mars will be a deciding factor for a number of would-be homesteaders and outer space safari-seekers to make the trek. I would like to think that we as a people have not lost touch with nature to the extent that we can thrive without it.
Plants help themselves out in this regard by producing seeds which are both lightweight and hardy. These are both qualities well-adapted to space flight and will make it easier for people to bring them with them. However, if you will pardon my tacky pun, transporting animals is a whole other beast. SpaceX is working on a timeline of decades – and a single one at that for the first mission – which means they will not have technologies depicted in movies such as vat-births, ‘statis’ and other sci-fi conceits to facilitate animal off-world export. People are going to have to load stinky goats and cows and all manner of other animals into their spacecraft with them. Though they would probably do well to send juveniles rather than full-grown adults to avoid breaking mass budgets for the journey and to buy down the risk of damaging hardware or injuring human crew.
With the trajectory that SpaceX plans on using, the journey will only last a month. We have enough experience with our own bodies in space to know that the animals will not immediately die and could endure a journey this short but to steal a line from Wikipedia on animal experiments in space:
“Most survived and the few that died were lost mostly through technical failures.”
I predict that when people start shipping goats across the cosmos, there will be an awful lot of ‘technical failures’ until they get good at it.
There is some precedent for the carrying of live animals into space. After all, the dog Laika and the chimp Ham beat even Yuri Gagarin into space. The conditions then were primitive enough that not every animal sent into space was expected to live. With each mission engineers and scientists learned techniques and honed the technology necessary to keep small populations of diminutive creatures alive. But our needs for biological capital will extend well beyond a handful of mice and spiders in small cages.
Large animals present their own problems. Their size means they have a significant amount of inertia as they bumble about the spacecraft. If a mouse escaped its enclosure, the worst it could do is chew and claw through sensitive materials and leave waste floating about to be sucked into the ventilation filters. A single goat can do all that and also break bones and sturdier equipment as they cannonball around. A whole tribe of goats jostling about during planetary entry could easily throw the center of mass of the spaceship off-kilter enough to doom the mission.
Making things worse, most animals don’t have anything other than their mouth with which to grasp railing and steady themselves if they were to be set free floating. Take this as a cautionary tale –
There are very solid engineering reasons why don’t want goats free-floating around and chomping on your air ducting and electrical harnesses.
This means they will need to be lashed to a bulkhead for nearly the entire trip. We can also expect that a certain percentage of animals will vomit from motion sickness and terror on the way up and from space sickness once on orbit. Hence the titular vomit bags. I have another prediction: the person who invents a vomit bag that stays attached to an animal’s face, catches vomit and does not allow the animals to suffocate on it will make a lot of money some day.
The above does not really encompass the totality of their hardware needs, either. For at least the launch and landing phases of the trip they will need some sort of protective g-cushioning. Then someone must figure out how to feed them with generating a massive floating mess and then figure out what to do with the waste and smell. People are going to have to engineer solutions to these and many other problems and in doing so they will find cross-over applications that increase the quality of life for Martians in unexpected ways. Astronauts and space travelers produce waste and need g-cushioning too, after all.
It is odd that this is even a topic worthy of discussion in the context of the aerospace industry but I do not think I am wrong – when SpaceX or any other entity follows through with Martian colonization plans, they are going to have to consider these kinds of issues and solve problems we do not even know need solving. It seems cruel to put animals – who are certainly not given a choice – through such an arduous, uncomfortable journey. In the end, however, the short-term price paid by the animals leads to their long-term survival as a species beyond what anything on Earth could manage on their own.
I’d even argue that our penchant for propagating mass extinctions saddles our species with a moral obligation to spread life.
I think it will be easier to sell the colonization effort to people if they could see it had some semblance of normalcy. Not having pets, wild animals, ornamental and productive plants as part of your daily life is not normal. For no other reason than to give people more reason to make the journey, they will be taking these things to space. Further, our economy is underpinned by biological products and their absence would thrust us back into the stone age. Mars will not and cannot be any different in this regard. This is because we have not so much taken ourselves out of the food chain as we have learned to manage and benefit from it. California alone produced $47 billion in agricultural products in 2015 which is nearly four times the entire economic output of North Korea.
That’s a whole lot of goats.