Space Colonization – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Source: Tom Simpson, “Space Settlement, AMP Corporate commission by John Conrad Berkey, 1988,” flickr.com, Oct. 4, 2018, creative commons license

While humans have long thought of gods living in the sky, the idea of space travel or humans living in space dates to at least 1610 after the invention of the telescope when German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote to Italian astronomer Galileo: “Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies.” [1]

In popular culture, space travel dates back to at least the mid-1600s when Cyrano de Bergerac first wrote of traveling to space in a rocket. Space fantasies flourished after Jules Verne’s “From Earth to the Moon” was published in 1865, and again when RKO Pictures released a film adaptation, A Trip to the Moon, in 1902. Dreams of space settlement hit a zenith in the 1950s with Walt Disney productions such as “Man and the Moon,” and science fiction novels including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). [2] [3] [4]

Fueling popular imagination at the time was the American space race with Russia, amid which NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed in the United States on July 29, 1958, when President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law. After the Russians put the first person, Yuri Gagarin, in space on Apr. 12, 1961, NASA put the first people, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the Moon in July 1969. What was science fiction began to look more like possibility. Over the next six decades, NASA would launch space stations, land rovers on Mars, and orbit Pluto and Jupiter, among other accomplishments. Launched by President Trump in 2017, NASA’s ongoing Artemis program intends to return humans to the Moon by 2024, landing the first woman on the lunar surface. The lunar launch is more likely to happen in 2025, due to a lag in space suit technology and delays with the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion capsule, and the lunar lander[5] [6] [7] [8] [36]

As of June 17, 2021, three countries had space programs with human space flight capabilities: China, Russia, and the United States. India’s planned human space flights have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they may launch in 2023. However, NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011 when the shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21. NASA astronauts going into space afterward rode along with Russians until 2020 when SpaceX took over and first launched NASA astronauts into space on Apr. 23, 2021. SpaceX is a commercial space travel business owned by Elon Musk that has ignited commercial space travel enthusiasm and the idea of “space tourism.” Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin have generated similar excitement. [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Richard Branson launched himself, two pilots, and three mission specialists into space from New Mexico for a 90-minute flight on the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 mission on July 11, 2021. The flight marked the first time that passengers, rather than astronauts, went into space. [14] [15]

Jeff Bezos followed on July 20, 2021, accompanied by his brother, Mark, and both the oldest and youngest people to go to space: 82-year-old Wally Funk, a female pilot who tested with NASA in the 1960s but never flew, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands. The fully automated, unpiloted Blue Origin New Shepard rocket launched on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and was named after Alan Shepard, who was the first American to travel into space on May 5, 1961. [16] [17]

The International Space Station has been continuously occupied by groups of six astronauts since Nov. 2000, for a total of 243 astronauts from 19 countries as of May 13, 2021. Astronauts spend an average of 182 days (about six months) aboard the ISS. As of Feb. 2020, Russian Valery Polyakov had spent the longest continuous time in space (437.7 days in 1994-1995 on space station Mir), followed by Russian Sergei Avdeyev (379.6 days in 1998-1999 on Mir),  Russians Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov (365 days in 1987-1988 on Mir), Russian Mikhail Kornienko and American Scott Kelly (340.4 days in 2015-2016 on Mir and ISS respectively) and American Christina Koch (328 days in 2019-20 in ISS). [18] [19]

In a 2018 poll, 50% of Americans believed space tourism will be routine for ordinary people by 2068. 32% believed long-term habitable space colonies will be built by 2068. But 58% said they were definitely or probably not interested in going to space. And the majority (63%) stated NASA’s top priority should be monitoring Earth’s climate, while only 18% said sending astronauts to Mars should be the highest priority and only 13% would prioritize sending astronauts to the Moon. [20]

The most common ideas for space colonization include: settling Earth’s Moon, building on Mars, and constructing free-floating space stations.

Should Humans Colonize Space?

Pro 1

Humans have a right and a moral duty to save our species from suffering and extinction. Colonizing space is one method of doing so.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, stated, “I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, ‘Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.’… I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.” [1]

According to some philosophies, humans are the only beings capable of morality, and, thus, preserving humanity is the highest moral imperative. Following from that premise, Brian Patrick Green, Director of Technology Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, concluded, “Because space settlement gives humankind the opportunity to significantly raise the chances of survival for our species, it is therefore a moral imperative to settle space as quickly as possible.” [21]

Some theorists, including Gonzalo Munevar, PhD, interdisciplinary Professor Emeritus at Lawrence Technological University, believe colonizing space will increase clean energy on Earth, provide access to the solar system’s resources, and increase knowledge of space and Earth. The benefits to humanity created by the resources and knowledge “create a moral obligation to colonize space.” [22]

Sheri Wells-Jensen, PhD, Associate Professor of English at Bowling Green State University, argues that the moral imperative goes even further than simple preservation: “[W]e have a moral obligation to improve: that is, to colonize yes, but to do it better: to actively unthink systems of oppression that we know exist. To spread ourselves without thought or care would probably result in failure: more planets spiraling toward global warming or space settlements filled with social unrest.” [23]

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Pro 2

Space colonization is the next logical step in space exploration and human growth.

Fred Kennedy, PhD, President of Momentus, a space transportation company, explained, “I’ll assert that a fundamental truth – repeatedly borne out by history – is that expanding, outwardly-focused civilizations are far less likely to turn on themselves, and far more likely to expend their fecundity on growing habitations, conducting important research and creating wealth for their citizens. A civilization that turns away from discovery and growth stagnates.” Kennedy pointed out that while humans still have problems to resolve on Earth including civil rights violations and wealth inequality, “Forgoing opportunities to expand our presence into the cosmos to achieve better outcomes here at home hasn’t eliminated these scourges.” We shouldn’t avoid exploring space based on the false dichotomy of fixing Earthly problems first. [24]

Humans are not a species of stagnation. Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon.com who traveled to space in 2021, asserted that exploring space would result in expanded human genius: “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans. And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power unlimited for all practical purposes.” [25]

Space, in particular, is connected to exploration and growth in the human imagination. In 2014 Elon Musk stated, “It’s obvious that space is deeply ingrained in the American psyche… SpaceX is only 12 years old now. Between now and 2040, the company’s lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people.” [1]

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Pro 3

Technological advancement into space can exist alongside conservation efforts on Earth.

While Earth is experiencing devastating climate change effects that should be addressed, Earth will be habitable for at least 150 million years, if not over a billion years, based on current predictive models. Humans have time to explore and colonize space at the same time as we mend the effects of climate change on Earth. [26]

Brian Patrick Green stated, “Furthermore, we have to realize that solving Earth’s environmental problems is extremely difficult and so will take a very long time. And we can do this while also pursuing colonization.” [23]

Jeff Bezos suggested that we move all heavy industry off Earth and then zone Earth for residences and light industry only. Doing so could reverse some of the effects of climate change while colonizing space. [25]

Munevar also suggested something similar in more detail: “In the shorter term, a strong human presence throughout the solar system will be able to prevent catastrophes on Earth by, for example, deflecting asteroids on a collision course with us. This would also help preserve the rest of terrestrial life — presumably something the critics would approve of. But eventually, we should be able to construct space colonies… [structures in free space rather than on a planet or moon], which could house millions. These colonies would be positioned to construct massive solar power satellites to provide clean power to the Earth, as well as set up industries that on Earth create much environmental damage. Far from messing up environments that exist now, we would be creating them, with extraordinary attention to environmental sustainability.” [23]

Space Ecologist Joe Mascaro, PhD, summarized, “To save the Earth, we have to go to Mars.” Mascaro argues that expanding technology to go to Mars will help solve problems on Earth: “The challenge of colonising Mars shares remarkable DNA with the challenges we face here on Earth. Living on Mars will require mastery of recycling matter and water, producing food from barren and arid soil, generating carbon-free nuclear and solar energy, building advanced batteries and materials, and extracting and storing carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide – and doing it all at once. The dreamers, thinkers and explorers who decide to go to Mars will, by necessity, fuel unprecedented lateral innovations [that will solve problems on Earth].” [27]

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Con 1

Humans living in space is pure science fiction.

Briony Horgan, PhD, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science at Purdue University, explained that terraforming Mars is “way beyond any kind of technology we’re going to have any time soon.” [28]

In one widely promoted plan, Mars needs to first be warmed to closer to Earth’s average temperature (from -60 °C/-76 °F to 15 °C/59 °F), which will take approximately 100 years. Then the planet must be made to produce oxygen so humans and other mammals can breathe, which will take about 100,000 years or more. And those two steps can only be taken once Mars is thoroughly investigated for water, carbon dioxide, and nitrates. [29]

A 2018 NASA study concluded that, based on the levels of CO2 found on Mars, the above plan is not feasible. Lead author Bruce Jakosky, PhD, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, stated, “terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.” [30]

If a workable solution were found and implemented, a project of that magnitude would cost billions, perhaps trillions.

Billionaire Elon Musk explained that the SpaceX Mars colonization project would need one million people to pay $200,000 each just to move to and colonize Mars, which doesn’t include the costs incurred before humans left Earth. Returning to the Moon would have cost an estimated $104 billion in 2005 (about $133 billion in 2019 dollars), or almost 7 times NASA’s entire 2019 budget. [31] [32]

But, a person has yet to set foot on Mars, and no space station has been built on another planet or natural satellite. [32]

Further, as Linda Billings, PhD, Research Professor at George Washington University, noted, “all life on Earth evolved to live in Earth conditions… If humans can’t figure out how to adapt to, or arrest, changing conditions on Earth – then I can’t see how humans could figure out how to adapt to a totally alien environment.” [23]

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Con 2

Humans have made a mess of Earth. We should clean it up instead of destroying a moon or another planet.

If humans have the technology, knowledge, and ability to transform an uninhabitable planet, moon, or other place in space into an appealing home for humans, then surely we have the technology, knowledge, and ability to fix the problems we’ve created on Earth. [33]

Lori Marino, PhD, Founder and Executive Director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, asserted, “[W]e are not capable of enacting a successful colonization of another planet. The fact that we have destroyed our home planet is prima facie evidence of this assertion. It is sheer hubris to even consider the question of whether we should ‘go or not go’ as if we are deciding which movie to see this weekend because we really are not in a position to make that choice… What objective person would hire humanity to colonize a virgin planet, given its abysmal past performance in caring for the Earth’s ecosystem (overpopulation, climate change, mass extinctions)?” [23]

Some assert that leaving Earth in shambles proves we are not ready to colonize space in terms of cultural, social, or moral infrastructure, regardless of technological advancements.

John Traphagan, PhD, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, argued, “Colonization has the odor of running away from the problems we’ve created here; if we do that, we will simply bring those problems with us. We need a major change in how we think about what it means to be human—we need to stop seeing our species as special and start seeing it as part of a collection of species. In my view, as long as we bring the… [idea] of human exceptionalism with us to other worlds, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes we have made here.” [23]

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Con 3

Space is inhospitable to humans and life in space, if even possible, would be miserable.

As novelist Andy Weir explained, “The problem is that you still don’t want to send humans to the moon. You want to send robots. Humans are soft and squishy and they die. Robots are hard and nobody gets upset when they die.” [34]

Bioethicist George Dvorsky summarized the hostile nature of Mars: “The Red Planet is a cold, dead place, with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The paltry amount of air that does exist on Mars is primarily composed of noxious carbon dioxide, which does little to protect the surface from the Sun’s harmful rays. Air pressure on Mars is very low; at 600 Pascals, it’s only about 0.6 percent that of Earth. You might as well be exposed to the vacuum of space, resulting in a severe form of the bends—including ruptured lungs, dangerously swollen skin and body tissue, and ultimately death. The thin atmosphere also means that heat cannot be retained at the surface. The average temperature on Mars is -81 degrees Fahrenheit (-63 degrees Celsius), with temperatures dropping as low as -195 degrees F (-126 degrees C).” [28]

Meanwhile, lunar dust is made of shards of silica and cuts like glass. The dust clung to the space suits of Apollo astronauts, scratching their visors and getting in their eyes and throats, which could result in bronchitis or cancer. And the radiation on the Moon is about 200 times higher than on Earth, in addition to other problems colonizing the Moon would cause humans. [35]

Humans would have a host of illnesses to deal with due to climate differences on Mars or the Moon: cancer, radiation illnesses, reproductive problems (or sterility), muscle degeneration, bone loss, skin burns, cardiovascular disease, depression, boredom, an inability to concentrate, high blood pressure, immune disorders, metabolic disorders, visual disorders, balance and sensorimotor problems, structural changes in the brain, nausea, dizziness, weakness, cognitive decline, and altered gene function, among others. Astronauts who have spent just a year in space have demonstrated irreversible health problems. [28] [29]

Humans haven’t even attempted to live in Antarctica or under Earth’s seas, which have many fewer challenges for human bodies, so why would humans want to live on a planet or on the Moon that’s likely to kill them fairly immediately? [28]

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Discussion Questions

1. Should humans colonize space? Why or why not?

2. If humans were to colonize space, where should we start: Mars, Earth’s Moon, or another celestial body? And what should be done on that body: residences, industrialization, or another purpose? Explain your answer(s).

3. If humans were to colonize space, how could life on Earth change? And would these changes be good or bad? Explain your answer(s).

Take Action

1. Analyze Christopher Schaberg’s position that “We’re Already Colonizing Mars.”

2. Consider the language used to talk about humans living in space with Bill Nye.

3. Explore George Dvorsky’s position that “Humans Will Never Colonize Mars.”

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

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2.Anne Collins Goodyear, “Space Travel Was a Dream for Artists Long before Armstrong Stepped on Moon,” business-standard.com, July 15, 2019
3.Authors Calendar, “Savien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655),” authorscalendar.info (accessed July 23, 2021)
4.Mike Wright, “Article on Von Braun and Walt Disney,” nasa.gov, Aug. 3, 2017
5.Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Yuri Gagarin, “eb.com, Mar. 23, 2021
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20.Pew Research Center, “Majority of Americans Believe It Is Essential That the U.S. Remain a Global Leader in Space,” pewresearch.org, June 6, 2018
21.Brian Patrick Green, “Self-Preservation Should Be Humankind’s First Ethical Priority and Therefore Rapid Space Settlement Is Necessary,” sciencedirect.com, June 2019
22.Gonzalo Munevar, “An Obligation to Colonize Outer Space,” sciencedirect.com, June 2019
23.Kelly C. Smith and Keith Abney, “The Great Colonization Debate,” researchgate.net, Apr. 2019
24.Fred Kennedy, “To Colonize Space or Not to Colonize: That Is the Question (For All of Us),” forbes.com, Dec. 18, 2019
25.Matthias Döpfner, “Jeff Bezos Reveals What It's Like to Build an Empire — and Why He's Willing to Spend $1 Billion a Year to Fund the Most Important Mission of His Life,” businessinsider.com, Apr. 28, 2018
26.Robert Matthews, “When Will Earth Become Uninhabitable?,” sciencefocus.com (accessed July 27, 2021)
27.Joe Mascaro, “To Save Earth, Go to Mars,” aeon.com, May 11, 2016
28.George Dvorsky, “Humans Will Never Colonize Mars,” gizmodo.com, July 30, 2019
29.Matt Williams, “The Future of Space Colonization -- Terraforming or Space Habitats?,” phys.org, Mar. 10, 2017
30.NASA Mars Exploration Program, “Mars Terraforming Not Possible Using Present-Day Technology,” mars.nasa.gov, July 30, 2018
31.April Glaser, “Elon Musk Will Need One Million Mars Colonists to Get the Ticket Price down to $200,000,” vox.com, Sep. 27, 2016
32.Dave Mosher, "NASA Says It Needs a $1.6 Billion 'Down Payment' from Congress to Send Astronauts Back to the Moon within 5 years," businessinsider.com, May 14, 2019
33.Sarah Fecht, “Stephen Hawking Says We Have 100 Years to Colonize a New Planet-- Or Die. Could We Do It?,” popsci.com, May 4, 2017
34.Eric Niiler, “Are Moon Colonies Possible — or the Fantasy of Billionaires?,” onezero.com, July 30, 2018
35.Shannon Hall, “The Moon Is a Hazardous Place to Live,” nytimes.com, July 8, 2019
36.James Doubek, "NASA Wants to Return to the Moon by 2024, but the Spacesuits Won't Be Ready," npr.org, Aug. 21, 2021