A few years ago, artists Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser created a work titled ‘A Touch of Home’. It’s an altered version of the ‘Earthrise’ photo that was captured during the Apollo 8 mission. Corke and Betzwieser made the moon appear to be infested with rabbits using a photo taken in South Australia in 1938. Alongside, they quote Thomas Austin, the English settler who introduced rabbits to Australia in 1859.
I love it. After all, in 1859, the European colony in Australia was so far and remote from ‘mother’ England, that in today’s terms, it could have been on Mars.
The first British settlements in Australia were effectively the Martian outposts of the 18th and 19th century. It may seem outrageous but hear me out.
There is a great book by Geoffrey Blainey called ‘The Tyranny of Distance’. Technically, I think it’s classed as ‘economic history’, which at first glance may sound boring. But Blainey is an entertaining author and his book is full of historical lessons that would be helpful for a Martian colony. The similarities between 18th century Australia and a future Mars settlement start when Blainey introduces the first fleet to set sail for Australia in the summer of 1787:
The course they had followed from England amounted to some 14,000 miles and had taken eight months and a week, of which actual sailing time was six months.
Jammed into cramped quarters for six months? That’s right on the money for the average time it takes NASA to send a robot to Mars – about six to eight months. NASA only launches these robot missions when the Earth and Mars are aligned in a way that saves the most fuel. It’s a brief launch window that only opens up every two years. Travel between Europe and Australia in the 18th centuries faced similar seasonal disruptions, as Blainey describes:
When the Secretary of State for the Home Department read the requests from Sydney, and if he agreed to fulfil them, he might wait months before a ship was ready to sail to Australia, and that ship might be a slow sailer. Thus more than two years could easily elapse from the time the governor at Sydney wrote his request until the day the cargo arrived.
OK, so the trips take a similar amount of time, but are they really comparable? Travelling across the vast expanse of space is dangerous and intimidating. So much so, that huge chunks of science fiction have been devoted to the slender chance of rescue from any misadventure. Yet, Blainey paints an eerily similar picture of the ocean voyage for those sailing for Australia in 1787:
In that mighty sweep of ocean virtually no port of refuge existed between South Africa and Australia or between New Zealand and Chile. If a ship foundered in mid ocean and the crew took to the boats they had small chance of reaching land.
However, cost is where the analogy between 18th century Australia and some future Martian colony starts to fade a little. Space travel is infamously expensive, but as Blainey points out, the establishment of the Australian colony was no cheap exercise either.
Australia cost Britain the huge sum of £1,000,000 in the first twelve years, and at the end of that time its population was only 5000.
One million pounds for the twelve years from 1787 amounted to 0.03% of British gross domestic product. In American terms, that’s about $5.7 billion dollars in today’s money. That is two orders of magnitude short of the estimated $500 billion for the first crewed mission to Mars and doesn’t even factor in the establishment of a permanent settlement. But Geoffrey Blainey goes on to add,
… this cost would have been far higher if Australia had not been on a deviation route to China for American as well as English ships, and if it had not been succoured from India.
Well, a Mars settlement certainly wouldn’t be on any resupply routes anywhere for a while, and there is no nearby established colony like India. All supplies and support would need to be shipped from Earth. Plus, a big chunk of that estimated $500 billion would be spent on developing the technology and ships capable of making the voyage. When Britain sent their first fleet to Australia, all the technology for completing the journey already existed.
I guess my point is this, the European settlement of Australia was outrageously expensive at the time. Maybe not quite on par with a Mars colony, but our travel capabilities in relation to the destination are not as developed. But are we two orders of magnitude behind the space equivalent of ocean travel in the 18th century? I hope not.
There are of course a number of glaring differences between 18th century Australia and Mars. At least there was air for the British colonisers to breathe and water to drink. Not to mention that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been living in Australia for at least 40,000 years before the Europeans rocked up. So it was definitely habitable. While history is littered with examples of European settlers being unprepared for the difficult Australian terrain and making questionable decisions (like introducing rabbits), ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ includes accounts of how the early British colony nearly starved to death on several occasions. Mostly because British agricultural methods were completely unsuited for Australia.
The soil was light and sandy. Most of the grain which convicts had sown did not germinate, partly because of the poor soil and partly because much seed had been overheated or injured by weevils during its long stay in the holds of ships.
Putting aside how much more difficult life would be on Mars compared to the average European settling in 18th century Australia, you have to admit, there are a number of parallels. And while we almost certainly have the technological know-how to colonise Mars if we wanted, there is also a lot of opposition to overcome. The objections range from ‘Why go to Mars when we have all these environmental problems here on Earth?’ to ‘Why go to Mars when we have so much social inequality at home?’.
A while back I created an accurate Martian simulator. I wanted to try my hand at growing plants on Mars, and it’s really difficult. Mars is a desert for a reason. It has hardly any nutrients for plants, with only small amounts of nitrogen and virtually zero potassium and phosphorus. But the experience got me wanting to go further. If you could sustainably grow vegetation on Mars, the same technology would ease the fallout from climate change on Earth. Growing plants on Mars and mitigating climate change on Earth are fundamentally the same problem – reversing desertification, increasing biodiversity and drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide. The only difference is that on Mars, the level of difficulty for the game is set to insane.
As hinted by Corke and Betzwieser’s ‘A Touch of Home’, there were many negative ramifications from the colonisation of Australia. The British completely decimated the indigenous people and distorted the local ecology. It may seem a little counterintuitive but settling another planet might be exactly what helps heal the wounds inflicted by colonial mindsets. During spaceflight, some astronauts experience a cognitive shift when they view the Earth from outer space. It’s called the overview effect and Michael Collins had this account from Apollo 11:
The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home and it’s fragile.
The more people that experience the overview effect, the more unified humanity on Earth will become. Plus, if we don’t learn from the failures in history, aren’t doomed to repeat them? So, what could the settlement of Mars learn from The Tyranny of Distance?
As kids in Australia, we all get taught about prison camp origins and the convicts on the first fleet. Geoffrey Blainey is quick to include the common historical account as to why Britain suddenly transported convicts to Australia.
The answer of most historians is that the gaols and hulks in England were dangerously full, and that England chose Australia because it had no alternative overseas gaol after the rejection of Das Voltas Bay (in South West Africa).
So the British spent 5.7 billion dollars in today’s money to build a prison? It would have been vastly cheaper just to build more prisons in Britain than float convicts to Australia. But Blainey offers more details behind the European decision to settle Australia.
Lord Sydney… also used the argument that Australia had several enticing articles of commerce. One was the flax plant which grew luxuriantly. British manufacturers judged it superior to Baltic flax for making of canvas and sailcloth and superior to Baltic hemp for the making of ships’ cables…
At the time Britain was spending £500,000 a year on importing flax to maintain her navy. The 18th century was a period where timber and flax were as vital to military superiority as steel and oil is today. As Blainey points out,
Australia then was not designed simply as a remote gaol, cut off from the world’s commerce. It was to develop its own export trade.
The problem of course was that Britain needed labour to build the settlement and cultivate the export industry. With no European infrastructure in place, it was always going to be a hard sell to coax Europeans to Australia. So convicted criminals were transported to Australian penal colonies and put to work for the duration of their sentence. The forced labour of convicts kickstarted the colony by clearing farms and constructing buildings, but the infrastructure alone still wasn’t enough to entice free settlers. Why immigrate all the way to Australia when the cheaper option was the closer and more established North American continent? Plus, with male convicts outnumbering female by eight to one, the demographics of the new Australian settlement quickly became unbalanced. It was not until the development of the Wakefield scheme that free settlers and capital were attracted to Australia in any solid volume. As Blainey explains,
Australian land should not be given away to settlers but instead sold at a relatively high price. The revenue from the sale of land would then finance the ship fare from Britain of poor emigrants, in particular married couples. When they reached Australia they would usually have to work as labourers for a time before they saved enough to buy the dear land, and so a supply of free labourers would be assured.
Australia used the Wakefield scheme to subsidise the fares of free settlers for a very long time. But as Blainey points out, even the prospect of striking it rich during the goldrush wasn’t enough to entice immigrants to Australia:
Australia had 400,000 people at the end of 1850, a few months before the rush for gold began, and that number trebled to 1,200,000 in the next dozen years. But even in those golden years the fares of nearly half the migrants were subsidised. While gold built an escalator across that ocean, tens of thousands of people would not have stepped on that escalator unless they had been presented with a free ticket or a bargain fare.
This doesn’t bode well for building a self-sustaining population of people living on Mars. The rich and adventurous who are able to afford the initial space-fares will most likely make the trip for entertainment. But I doubt they will be interested in building an outpost any more than a wealthy tourist visiting Antarctica. These space-fares won’t be cheap either, as CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk points out:
… I’m confident moving to Mars (return ticket is free) will one day cost less than $500k & maybe even below $100k. Low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home on Earth & move to Mars if they want.
If it’s only the people with $500k of equity in their homes that are able to relocate to Mars, I suspect the demographics of those who move will be significantly older and weighted towards families with fewer children. Maybe the average age would be something like 40 or 50? It takes lot of labour to build up that kind of equity in a property. Such a migration plan is starting to sound a lot like the plot to the film ‘Elysium’.
But some form of bonded migration scheme? That might work. A scheme where anyone could apply for a subsidised space-fare tied to a job on Mars. You would just have to stay and work on Mars for ten years or something to pay back the ticket. If you have the money and just wanted to do the space tourist thing, you could. But space adventure and a guaranteed job for ten years? That would open up a Mars colony to a vastly more diverse population and enable much younger generations to emigrate. Such a scheme would ensure that the settlement had the necessary supply of labour. But any Mars colony would need some sort of export market to make the loan tickets viable.
Remember when I mentioned that Australia was going to export flax? That it would save the British £500,000 a year and be better than the flax they were importing from the Baltic? Well, it didn’t work out that way. The British couldn’t work out how to process the Norfolk flax to make canvas and sailcloth. Plus, all the convicts were busy trying to cultivate crops so they wouldn’t starve. As Blainey points out, it was only much later that the British exported commodities from Australia.
Australia was becoming useful, not so much as a dead-end house for English criminals and a half-way house for English ships, than as a source of Britain’s raw materials – wool from the land and whale oil from the sea.
It took even longer for the British to develop the interior roads and railways that would eventually unlock Australia’s mineral wealth. Any Martian settlement is going to run into similar sorts of problems. Initially, transportation across the Martian surface will be slow and expensive, probably to the point where it will be cheaper to fly from the settlement back to Earth. The ‘Tyranny of Distance’ describes a similar land barrier in the early years of European settlement of Australia.
Water carriage was the cheapest of all forms of transport, and a Sydney merchant in 1820 could send a barrel of whale oil more cheaply to London than to a point only one hundred miles inland from Sydney. He could send goods more cheaply across the world than across the mountains he saw from his warehouse door.
In practical terms, I think this means the spacecraft and landers that transport humanity to Mars will also be used for transportation around Mars itself. A single large settlement, with all the infrastructure necessary to refuel and send vessels on the return journey to Earth will be the hub of the colony. Landers could be used to make shorter hops to small outposts as the colony expands.
Mars will also need an export commodity to help fund a bonded migration scheme along with everything else the Martian settlement needs. Ideally this would be a high value export with low mass and perishability. In 18th century Australia, that high value export was wool, which was priced in today’s dollars at about $13,500 USD a ton. This is a huge problem for a future Martian colony, as sending vast quantities of anything back to Earth for that kind of money is going to be impossible, at least initially. I did a quick Google and the current price of traditional ‘high value’ commodities like gold is at $50 million a ton and palladium at $60 million a ton. While that sounds like a lot of money, I don’t think you are going to be able to ship a ton of anything from Mars to Earth for less than $60 million a pop.
I’m not exactly sure what we might find on Mars that can help finance a settlement. We are going to need to do a lot more robotic exploration and surveying ahead of time. We already know we are going to need water to drink, along with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to grow plants. Plus, methane to fuel return trips to Earth. But while we are hunting around for that stuff, we should also be looking for things that might have value back on Earth.
But minerals and agricultural products are antiquated exports. The real ‘export’ value of a Martian colony is the knowledge it would generate. Just imagine, all that new spinoff knowledge that end up solving a multitude of Earth based problems. Information can weigh nothing and doesn’t perish easily - just figure stuff out and transmit the discoveries across space.
These days it is considerably cheaper and faster to travel between Australia and Europe. You can fly in a commercial airliner for about $1700 and the trip only takes a day. There is also a huge tonnage of Australian minerals and goods that gets shipped around the world each year for a fraction of the cost and time it took for the first fleet to sail for Australia.
So, while trips between Mars and Earth will initially be expensive, the travel time and cost is going to improve constantly from the moment a Martian colony is established. In the beginning of colonisation, it took about 70 years to drop the travel time of sailing from England to Australia down from half a year to about 2.5 months. The first improvements came in the form of navigational instruments that enabled the Great Circle route.
Between the Cape of Good Hope and Melbourne a ship that forsook the traditional route along a latitude of about 40 degrees and instead curved far to the south could save over a thousand miles.
I think similar improvements will occur on Martian voyages, first with improvements in the technology to open up faster, more direct routes between Mars and Earth. Then efficiency improvements will squeeze more out of existing propulsion technologies. Eventually, new propulsion approaches will be developed to enable much faster vessels. It’ll be akin to how steamships replaced sailing ships and aircraft replaced ships on the voyage between Europe and Australia. All this will eventually enable more movement of cargo and people between Earth and Mars, at a much lower price and in a timelier fashion.
When I first started down this path of inquiry after reading Geoffrey Blainey’s book, I was excited. We can’t be that far off the space-faring equivalent of the Barque sailing ships that journeyed to Australia in 1787. If the British could sail an equivalent distance in the 18th century and start a new settlement, shouldn’t it be possible for us to start a Martian settlement today? It wouldn’t be easy, but that is exactly why it is worth trying. It’s the sort of big focused project that will generate all kinds of solutions to many problems on Earth, including the big stuff like environmental destruction and social inequality.
We should definitely struggle to overcome the tyranny of gravity (and distance) to settle Mars; it’s going to make Earth Harder. Better. Faster.
You can join the conversation on Twitter or Instagram
Become a Patreon to get early and behind-the-scenes access along with email notifications for each new post.
Hi! Subconsciously you already know this, but let's make it obvious. Hopefully this article was helpful. You might also find yourself following a link to Amazon to learn more about parts or equipment. If you end up placing an order, I make a couple of dollarydoos. We aren't talking a rapper lifestyle of supercars and yachts, but it does help pay for the stuff you see here. So to everyone that supports this place - thank you.