Ep 02: Who Gets to Go?

Before we can head out into space, we have to ask: Who gets to go? What will the population of space settlers look like? Who will be allowed to go, and who will be left behind?

Historian Donna Gabaccia rejoins us to talk about what kind of people have migrated to new places on Earth in the past. Anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan reflects on what this question of selection tells us about our readiness as a society to settle space. Astronomer Jesse Shanahan discusses the possibilities for disabled people in space. And marine biogeographer Karen Backe explores the question of which animals we should bring with us.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Imagine this: You’re an interplanetary settler getting ready to leave the Earth behind you and head for your new home. Last week we talked about what your motivations might be for making this trip. But now that’s all out of the way, and you’ve sold your house, packed up all your belongings and boarded the ship. Your luggage is stowed, your seatbelt is fastened, your tray table is in its upright and locked position. Are you ready?

Here’s my next question for you: Who are you? How did you get onto this ship? Did you buy a ticket? Were you selected by lottery, or because you had some special skills? Maybe you just knew the right person? Look around the passenger bay: who are your fellow travelers? Do they look like you? How did they get here? And who’s getting left behind?

Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. In this episode, we’re talking about how we’ll decide who gets to go to space. We have a couple of models for that right now. Space agencies like NASA have rigorous selection criteria. But there have also been a few examples of space tourists, who paid space agencies big bucks to take a ride into space. And Elon Musk has said that he’s planning to charge people who want to move to Mars on his SpaceX ships.

So is this a good model? I think it depends on why we’re going into space, so this gets back to our conversation from last week. In the case where we’re all fleeing from some kind of terrible catastrophe on Earth, and going to space is the only way to survive, then charging people for tickets is the kind of thing a supervillain does. On the other hand, if there’s no life-or-death reason to leave Earth, and some private company like SpaceX is building rockets, then they have every right to charge for tickets in our capitalist system. If economics is what’s finally pulling us back into space for good, then money’s going to have to change hands at some point.

But let’s think about what this means for our space settlements, and who will live there. Elon Musk has specifically said that he wants to make space settlement more affordable.

Here’s a clip of him talking about just that at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in 2017.

Elon Musk: “If we can get the cost of moving to Mars to be roughly equivalent to a median house price in the United States, which is around $200,000, then I think the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilization is very high.”

But while $200,000 might be “affordable” for middle class Americans who already own a home that they can sell, it’s nowhere near affordable for a lot of the Earth’s population. Does this mean that our space settlements will be populated by middle and upper class Earthlings with a taste for adventure? One unsettling problem with that idea is that economic status often tracks with race, nationality, disability, and all sorts of other things. So if we decide who goes to space just based on who can afford the cost, we could end up with a population of space settlers that isn’t at all representative of the demographics of humans on Earth.

University of Toronto history professor Donna Gabaccia, who you might remember from last week’s episode, pointed out some other problems with that plan.

Donna Gabaccia: “And historically, if you’ve talked to anyone who has studied colonial Jamestown, you will know that recruiting from “Anyone who has $100,000 and wants to go” is not necessarily a good model for getting the work done. And in fact, the Jamestown colony almost starved to death because it was largely prosperous, second and third sons from English families who simply imagined they were going to carry on their traditional gentry and privileged ways of life, in a very rude and crude colonial setting. Death and starvation is not what they’re reckoning for. And yet, most efforts to colonize brand-new environments have involved a lot of death, and considerable starvation as well.”

I certainly haven’t heard SpaceX advertising a “rude and crude colonial setting.” In fact, Elon Musk has talked a lot about the luxury cruise ship that’s going to carry his settlers to Mars.

Elon Musk: “Just want to give you a sense of what it would feel like to actually be in the spaceship. In order to make it appealing and increase that portion of the Venn diagram where people actually want to go, it’s got to be really fun and exciting, and it cannot feel cramped or boring. So, the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games, you can float around. There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!”

But cruise ships don’t just carry passengers: they also carry all the support staff to make the passengers’ trip safer and more comfortable: chefs, bartenders, cleaning staff. Are you planning to do all this with robots? Someone better come along to repair the robots.

So then what do all of these workers do when the ship gets to Mars? Is this same sort of divide between service workers and settlers going to last forever, or will everyone just turn into potato farmers? It seems to me that starting your trip with that kind of class distinction between servants and paying customers will be hard to shake off. Donna Gabaccia agreed.

Donna Gabaccia: “They almost always involve deep economic, or in some cases, inequalities of social status, really, that dehumanize the next round of the common laborers. And probably, that would start automatically with, you know, this fancy cruise ship, and you were saying, “Who’s cooking the meals, who’s cleaning the toilets? Where’s, you know, what’s happening with just the functioning of the cruise ship?” That’s where the inequalities will begin.”

Even if you put aside this idea of a luxury cruise liner colony ship, you still need someone to build your infrastructure on Mars. Again, you might be assuming that a lot of this can be done robotically, but eventually you’ll have to have human workers in your settlement.

Donna Gabaccia: “So, do our space colonizers want their labor force to reproduce? Or do they expect that they’ll just continuously replenish their workers as they age and die, with newcomers from Earth? I mean, are these people supposed to reproduce or not? What is going to happen to old people? Are you going to ship them home to Earth, and on what resources is the Earth going to take care of them? You see the point I’m making, that concerns about labor, investment, and profit will shape the age structure and the gender structure of any group of people who are either sent into outer space or who choose to go into outer space.”

You’ll have to consider the demographics of your settlers, too. You want to make sure your workers have the right combination of skills: it wouldn’t do you much good to send a ship full of doctors, scientists, and civil engineers if you didn’t also send plumbers, mechanics, and electricians. Does everyone need to speak the same language? Will we have American colonies and Russian colonies and Chinese colonies, or will those differences matter less in space? Will your settlement be full of younger people looking to start a new life, or older people who just want to retire off Earth?

I asked Donna who tended to be the people in a society that migrated to a new place, historically? What type of person was the typical migrant?

Donna Gabaccia: “Certainly, if we look at all major migrations for which we have historical evidence, from 1500 down to the present, we know for a fact that the majority of the migrants, whether they were slaves, indentured servants, indentured plantation workers, or voluntary labor migrants or even refugees, they tend to be younger. They tend to be working age. Their gender balance is mixed, depending on what their motivation is. Refugee migrations are sometimes female-predominant with large numbers of small children, for example. Whereas, especially very long-distance migrations in the 19th century and during the slave era tended to be male-predominant.”

Assuming you want your colony to eventually be self-sufficient, that means you’ll need to be able to replace your aging population. Given that the cheapest and easiest method of reproduction is still the old-fashioned way, does that mean you want to control the gender breakdown of your settlers? Make sure you have the optimal ratio of women to men? Plus, that assumes that all of your settlers are both willing and able to reproduce.

This line of thought got me worried about the possibility that the people in charge of space settlements will select their incoming citizens based on fertility or genetics, which does not sound like a great way to start a brand-new utopian society. I talked about this with Michael Oman-Reagan. Michael is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Memorial University, and he’s written a really excellent piece on similar topics called Queering Outer Space. I highly recommend it. I asked him how he thinks we should be deciding who gets to settle space, and he pointed out that maybe that question itself is thinking too small.

Michael Oman-Reagan: “I think the fact that we would even have to decide who gets to go into space and settle it is a great indication that as a society, maybe as a species, we aren’t ready to go into space and settle on other worlds. We still live in a world of artificial scarcity and inequality, and that makes such a decision even possible or necessary about whether who can go. So instead, imagine if it were the case that everyone on Earth had the technology, means, ability, and right to move anywhere they wanted on our planet. Once we’re there, then we’re probably ready to move into space, because we’ve then achieved something more egalitarian here on Earth. And whoever wants to go into space could just decide to do so. Whoever doesn’t, won’t.”

I also asked Michael what his thoughts were on the possibility that space settlement selection policies would, for example, discriminate against gay, elderly, or infertile people, or even just people who don’t want to have children.

Michael Oman-Reagan: “Once we’re living in space, especially trying to cross interstellar space, I don’t think biological reproduction will be an issue. Generation ships will include crew who do reproduce, and crew who don’t, and that will be up to individuals, an option available to all, and available in many forms, from biological to otherwise. Each subsequent generation will also also include all sorts of people who makes all kinds of decisions, because that’s what it is to be human. We are that diversity. And even if we tried to exclude it by design, it would simply reappear. If we’re discriminating in any form, again, I’d say that means we’re not ready to be leaving the Earth.”

While I think Michael makes a good point, I expect that if private companies end up working out a way to settle space and make a profit at the same time, they won’t be waiting around until someone tells them they’re ready to leave Earth. But all this talk about infertility got me thinking about another way people might get selective about who to accept into their space settlements: health and disability.

Space is an extremely harsh and hostile environment, and at least in the beginning, space settlers will be living far, far away from medical facilities on Earth. Even now, NASA puts its astronaut candidates through extremely rigorous medical exams to screen for warning signs that they might develop a life-threatening illness while in space, or that they won’t be able to handle the physical challenges of their mission. Does this mean that in the future, people with physical disabilities won’t be accepted into space settlements?

To explore this question, I talked with disabled rights activist and fellow astronomer Jesse Shanahan. Jesse has been doing amazing work on increasing the accessibility of STEM fields for disabled people, especially in astronomy. She also recently gave a talk on this topic at Starship Congress 2017. She agreed that a lot of people seem to just assume that space settlement will only be for able-bodied people.

Jesse Shanahan: “And there’s this perception of space travel being prohibitively inaccessible and that there’s just nothing we can do, and that we’re gonna have to only have neurotypical, able-bodied people in space.”

But Jesse points out that even if you did decide that no disabled people were allowed to come to your space settlement, you will still eventually end up with disabled people in your space settlement.

Jesse Shanahan: “Well folks, accidents happen. Disability is this weird kind of marginalization that people can move in and out of. You know, you can’t just get hit by a car and end up the member of a different race. But you can get hit by a car and wake up disabled. And so, disability is going to happen in space. It is a fact of human existence. And especially in a hostile, unfamiliar environment, there’s even more chance for people to become disabled, both mentally and physically, given the requirements and the harshness of the job. And so rather than thinking that we can circumvent the disability issue by just preventing previously disabled people from becoming settlers, instead we need to talk about what kinds of infrastructure we can put in place because disability is inevitable.”

Jesse says the best thing to do would be to plan for the presence of disabled people in our space settlements ahead of time, instead of just screening out disabled settlers and hoping for the best.

Jesse Shanahan: “And so the best way to approach it is to be really, really well-prepared, to have this access built into the policies, the settlement structure, and to be really well-prepared for it. Because whether you like it or not, somebody’s going to get injured, somebody’s going to become mentally ill, and especially as that colony becomes self-sustaining and grows, you’re going to have, you know, as people procreate and the colony grows, you’re going to have genetic traits… Like for me, you know, my disability is genetic, and although it is a rarer one, there are plenty of genetic disabilities that have higher instances within the population. And so rather than trying to toe the line of eugenics and say somehow that we’re gonna prevent that from happening, this is a very natural, normal part of the human experience, and if we’re going to create human settlements, then disability is gonna to be a part of that.”

Plus, it’s not like making space settlements more accessible would be this big huge favor we were doing for disabled people out of the kindness of our hearts. Accessibility is good for everyone!

Jesse Shanahan: “…in particular, one thing that many people forget about accessibility is that yes, it is a design or infrastructure ideology with disabled people in mind, but when pursued and when done effectively, it actually benefits everybody… So, you know, maybe you see a flight of stairs, and you say, “Okay, we need to put a ramp for people with wheelchairs.” Okay, fine, for disabled people, yes, that’s exactly how you pursue these issues, you make them disability-focused and you provide access. But the thing that people don’t realize is that that doesn’t just open up that space that was previously inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs, it also helps people who say, you know, have strollers, for example. Or people who, you know, were— like, need to have a roller bag or something like that, who maybe perhaps can’t carry a backpack on their back. So even though you approach it with disability in mind, the great thing about accessibility is that it ends up improving things for everybody. And it helps everybody access a space efficiently and more effectively.”

So how do we make our future space settlements more accessible? According to Jess, the keys are to plan ahead, and include some actual disabled people in the conversation.

Jesse Shanahan: “So, the biggest thing with accessibility and thinking about accessibility when planning for space travel or settlement, is that it needs to start happening from the very beginning. A lot of times the best, you know, people with the best intentions think about accessibility at the end, and try to tack on features at the very end, and it’s never as effective. And often times it’ll be prohibitively expensive, or it’ll just be completely ineffective. So I would say that if you are working towards planning settlements and working on the problems of space settlement or space travel, you need to start including accessibility experts and disabled scientists in this planning process.”

So far we’ve been talking about how to decide who, out of the population of humans on Earth, gets to go live in space. But what about all the other life on Earth? How many other species do we want to bring along? Obviously we’ll want to bring a self-sustaining food supply, so plenty of plants, and any animals we’re still using as food sources. But what else? Do we need to bring whole ecosystems? Or can we be more selective? It’ll be hard enough to keep ourselves alive for a while. Should we just worry about the humans in the settlement and the plants that they’re eating, and leave everything else on Earth? For this conversation I called up a very good friend of mine.

Karen Backe: “Hi, I’m Karen Backe. I am a graduate student studying marine biogeography in California.”

And what’s marine biogeography, exactly?

Karen Backe: “It’s the study of where critters live and why they live there.”

So Karen studies the habitats of marine animals and how those habitats are changing due to climate change. I asked her whether she thinks we should be bringing non-human life with us when we migrate to space.

Karen Backe: “I think, in any scenario in which you’re thinking about taking human life to other places, in my mind it would be maybe impossible (if it were possible, a tragedy) to do it without other life. I think that humans evolved in the context of an ecosystem, of a natural space. And as much as we might like houses and doors and cars and air conditioning, on some very primal level, we still belong to that ecosystem in a very, very intrinsic way, and an inseparable way.”

Karen Backe: “If you were to separate humans forever from that kind of context, and I think perhaps worse, to raise new generations of children outside of that context, I don’t think people would be quite right. I don’t have a more specific way to say that. I think it would mess with people’s heads. I think people would be something else, something less.”

Okay, so maybe we need to bring some Earth life along with us for our own sakes. To keep us mentally healthy, remind us where we came from. To keep us grounded, if you’ll pardon the pun.  But what about the scenario where we’re leaving the Earth because of some kind of extinction-level event? Do we need to make sure we’re building some kind of ark so we can save every possible species? Karen pointed out that for a lot of species, this kind of catastrophe is happening right now, thanks to climate change.

Karen Backe: “I think all of the fragile species, all of the species that are highly vulnerable to different kinds of disease spread, pretty much everything that lives in the ocean that requires pH conditions anything around what they are today, we’re gonna lose all of those. We are losing all of them, we’re losing them at a very rapid rate, we’re gonna keep losing them. And so I think that my motivation, at least, for being on the— for committing my career to the kind of research that I do, it’s to preserve as much diversity as possible. The world can’t keep up with the pace that it’s changing, and that’s the tragedy that— in my mind, to be avoided. So to plan a future on purpose with a lack of diversity is sort of the same tragedy, and I think that we should really be planning a full ark.”

Karen did note that climate change models don’t predict the same kind of doomsday that, say, an asteroid impact or a gamma ray burst would bring. Climate change isn’t going to sterilize the Earth, and some species will manage to scrape by just fine.

Karen Backe: “I think raccoons will probably be okay, crows will probably be okay, cockroaches will probably be just fine. I think there are some very resilient species that are highly omnivorous, that do fine in cities around human populations, that either reproduce fast enough or are generally resistant enough to some kinds of diseases. There’re gonna be okay.”

I thought this was an interesting point.

Erika Nesvold: “So you mentioned the raccoons, and the crows, and the cockroaches will be fine. The interesting thing that I was thinking about, and thank you for mentioning that, is that those omnivore creatures that you were talking about—”

Karen Backe: “Mmhmm.”

Erika Nesvold:” —raccoons, and cockroaches, and stuff. They’re the ones who would probably survive the most and probably thrive the best in our space colonies without any extra effort on our part. Right? So, the rats are gonna be fine, they’ll come along with us whether we want them to or not. It’s the fragile species that you were talking about, that actually, we would have to make a concerted, expensive effort to preserve in space, to make an ocean big enough for whales, for example. Like, we might have tanks full of fish that we’re gonna eat, but there’s no reasons for us to make oceans that our marine life on Earth can live in. And that would be so, so difficult to do. So, that’s an interesting point. ‘Cause we would really have to make a lot of effort, I think.”

Karen Backe: “Well, mmhmm. And that, what you just brought up, actually is very interesting, I hadn’t even thought about that at all. If you’re talking about whales or very large animals that require very large habitats, it brings up another suite of problems, and it’s exactly the kinds of problems that people that run zoos and aquaria run into.”

So then we’re kind of caught in a dilemma. Once we’ve decided we want to save a bunch of species by moving them off-Earth, how much effort do we expend on that project? Can all these species even survive in space?

Karen Backe: “If we have some sort of a moral imperative to preserve every species, then we have to think about what those species need. And if you’re gonna stick a whale inside a small tank for the purposes of transit to another environment, well, sure, fine, I mean that’s an emergency evacuation. But if a whale is going to live inside of a small puddle forever? Do we need the capacity to make an ocean large enough for each creature to have a real life before we move an individual or a species? I mean, you can’t move just one whale, that would be pretty sad too, right? That’s an interesting question, and I think there’s going to be a lot of logistics that need to be considered. I don’t believe that it’s more ethical to move a pod of whales into a teeny, tiny little space forever, where they will then expire, rather than to leave them on a planet that’s dying. If that’s the scenario, then I don’t know if that would be worth the time and the money, because then they would not have an environment or a habitat that would be natural for them. And they would die in those conditions, which would be pretty tragic. The only major argument in favor of doing that is, you know, human ingenuity is pretty boundless, and to save things as sort of the last vestige of possibility maintains hope for the longest possibility. So if there was ever a scenario in which we would be really finding new oceans or creating new oceans, then yeah, we absolutely have an imperative to save all those species.”

So what do you think? If you’ve been imagining yourself as a settler on Mars or the Moon, how did you get there? Did you buy a ticket? Maybe you’re working in the colony to pay off your transportation debt? Who’s there with you? People like you? A melting pot from around the world? Did you bring your dog? Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com.

You can reach historian Donna Gabaccia on Twitter @drg1949, or check out her recent book with co-author Katharine Donato, called Gender and International Migration, From the Slavery Era to the Global Age. You can also reach astronomer and disability activist Jesse Shanahan on Twitter @enceladosaurus, which is one of my all-time favorite Twitter handles.

If you liked this episode and want to help it reach more people, please rate and review it on iTunes. If the podcast gets enough positive ratings and reviews in the first few weeks, it could end up on the iTunes New and Noteworthy list, which would put it in front of a lot of people who otherwise might not hear about it. You can also take the old-fashioned route and just tell all your friends to check out the podcast!

Next week I’ll be talking about property rights in space. Who owns the land you’ve settled on? Can anyone own property on the Moon or other planets? Can you just go up and stake a claim? Find out next week.

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.