Moonshots: Space, Colonization and Conquering Human Nature

Space. The Final Frontier.

Those often quoted, pop culture cemented words are thought to have been developed from a White House pamphlet “Introduction to Outer Space”, disseminated in the aftermath of the Sputnik 1 launch in 1958.

“The first of these factors is the compelling urge of man to explore and to discover, the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before. Most of the surface of the Earth has now been explored and men now turn on the exploration of outer space as their next objective.”

I went to see Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” on a 70mm IMAX print, and couldn’t help but think of this quote as I watched one of the last great celluloid features. The sheer audacity of vision was astounding; the pacing, music and mise-en-scene towering 76 feet above the audience.

At its heart, Interstellar is about an extreme need to explore that final frontier. We have conquered all the mountains on Earth. We have explored its jungles and deserts. We have even gone to the deepest depths of the ocean. All that is left is to look out.  

Right now this vision is closer than ever. Private companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic have rapidly advanced our current rocket innovation, and if we follow a linear improvement in technology we could see commercial exploration happen in as little as 30 years.

A moonshot is an idea that lives in the grey area between an audacious project and science fiction. It’s essence is a proposal to address a huge problem with a radical solution that leverages breakthrough technology - instead of a 10% gain it strives for a 10x improvement.

Perhaps the greatest moonshot idea today is the need for space colonization in order to guarantee the safety of the human race. Some of our smartest and brightest minds are thinking deeply on this problem in order to find a radical solution we can progress towards.

“Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before. Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers ... I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”
Stephen Hawking
“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.”
Elon Musk

There is something romantic about this idea, a sort of cosmic destiny that triggers memories of great men and women conquering new worlds within uncharted waters. Like these explorers before us, space travelers will have to face one of the thorniest problems facing humanity - our need to control our primitive instincts and inherent human nature.

Colonizing Mars

You wake up in a bed little larger than a coffin. The air is stale, pungent, recycled through countless other lungs. You have learned not to breathe too deeply.   

A few photos hang on the top of the cramped space of your bunk, distant memories of sunlight, the expanse of the ocean, and fresh, salty wind on your face.

Hunger is ever present, but resources remain scarce. Already there are whispers about greater shortages on the horizon, a hint of a greater dissent that seethes through the colony.

You step into your space suit, feeling that claustrophobic shuddering will soon set in. Fabric stretches tight on your skin. You must fight the urge to tear off your helmet outside, knowing that the surface atmosphere would boil your blood to steam and peel away your skin like strips of burning paper.

Another day of hard labor lies ahead. But keeping busy is the only thing that stops the creeping psychosis from pricking at your skin, threatening to unravel your mind into the warm embrace of madness.

Astronauts in some ways represent the peak of human achievement. We pick the best and brightest, put them through rigorous physical, psychological and mental training, and expect them to operate in some of the most extreme conditions.

This begs the question - what happens when the average person faces similar conditions? How do we prepare them for the enormity of space?

Musk estimates that we would need a million people to form a sustainable, genetically diverse civilization on a planet like Mars. With this many individuals living together we compound the risks of civil war, anarchy, and social implosion.   

How likely would we be to work in harmony in these types of situations? Even more thorny, what would happen if some sort of unforeseen disaster occurred that disrupted the careful planning that was put in place?

No Mercy

In disaster situations, we like to think that humans are capable of banding together to solve problems, and we are capable of picking the path of sanity. At the other extreme are the “Fliesians”, people who believe that humans are just predators waiting to break free, throwing wide the gates to the animal kingdom.

To quote Titus Maccius Plautus,

“Man is a wolf to man”.

How likely is this scenario?

In the book ‘No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality’ by Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, the authors set about to answer this very question. How accurate is the Lord of the Flies principle, and does it in any way follow a predictable pattern?

‘No Mercy’ focuses on real situations involving predominantly adult groups who find themselves stranded in conditions of extreme stress in remote locations, with case studies ranging between 134 BC up to 2010 AD. If we are to think deeply about space travel, these examples of failed expeditions to the poles, shipwrecks on uncharted reefs and disparate groups stranded on deserted islands provide a rich set of data on human behavior.

The final conclusion is pretty grim. A negative pattern more often than not does occur, validating the ‘Fliesian’ principle through social and moral implosion.

This pattern invariably conforms to the following steps:

  1. Groups will invariably fragment into factions.
  2. Leaders frequently become obsessed with maintaining control rather than leading.
  3. If the strong are battling to survive, they will not waste care and resources on the weak.
  4. Morality, mercy and compassion are the expendable luxuries of civilization.
  5. Individuals will passively sanction evil actions by others to avoid becoming the next victim.
  6. The rule of law will decay into a state of nature.
  7. In the long run there is only one rule: self-preservation.

What is even more terrifying is how rapidly this descent can occur. In events like the Raft of the Medusa, the downward spiral begins in a matter of hours, with full blown chaos in a matter of days. An orgy of unprovoked murder, rape, cannibalism, and suicide.

The Raft of the Medusa by Jean Thèodore Gericault.

I’m a fan of the ‘Walking Dead’, and after reading ‘No Mercy’ you realize just how close Robert Kirkman got to the realities of societal breakdown in a grid down event. Even in slowly escalating situations, “fear the living” is more often than not a mantra.

The Solution

Before we give up completely, there are case studies in ‘No Mercy’ that ultimately avoid the ‘Fliesian’ situation. What is even more fascinating is that they often occurred in parallel to the former - dual shipwrecks on the same island or competing polar expeditions. A sort of visceral human A/B test.

The thirteen steps below should be adhered to in order to prevent our base human nature from taking control, increasingly important as we explore the potentials of space. While they are worded for disaster situations, long periods of colonization will likely need to follow the same template.

  1. As soon as disaster strikes, get rid of any alcohol.
  2. Acknowledge that the situation has changed: the group should be free to choose a new leader - someone they can trust to make decisions for the good of the group.
  3. As soon as possible, establish order and routine.
  4. Never allow the weak to die in order to save the strong - survivor maths is a fatal game.
  5. Share resources and workloads equally among the survivors, regardless of rank.
  6. Use a rotating work schedule.
  7. Communicate. Silence is your enemy.
  8. Stay busy, even if it seems pointless.
  9. The leader must be accountable, and replaceable.
  10. Fragmentation is almost inevitable, but the leader must control factional discord.
  11. Have a plan. If it fails, make a new plan.
  12. If one faction begins to dominate and victimise the rest, it is imperative the remainder organize and defend themselves. Once murders commence, they tend to escalate.
  13. Fight the mindset of individual self-preservation - we are communal creatures and we survive best in groups.

In Interstellar, perhaps the greatest lesson is that humans find a way to persevere. It is in our DNA to rage against the dying of the light, and to find a way to innovate and move forward.

To quote Musk:

“If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilizations, and I mean strange in a bad way. And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilizations.”

Controlling our primitive human nature might be the most difficult moonshot of all.