Space and Human Survival: My Views on the Importance of Colonizing Space
by Sylvia Engdahl
Below is a statement that I originally wrote in 1994 for the students in my
online Connected Education course on
Space Age Mythology (Ive since made a few minor modifications.) It
wasnt part of the course material, but simply explains personal views I
have often referred to in online discussions. It also will shed light on why
all my novels are about space travel and/or other worlds.
At the time I wrote this, I believed that orbiting colonies of the kind proposed by
physicist Gerard O'Neill were the most practical first step in establishing a major
human presence in space and that they could be built soon if enough effort and
funding were devoted to it. We now know that they are a long way ahead and are not
the top priority. That does not invalidate the basic facts about the need to make
use of extraterrestrial materials and energy and to move polluting industry into orbit
in order to preserve Earth's environment. I still think there will be orbiting colonies
someday, but other things, such as a permanent base on the moon and/or Mars, and
perhaps the mining of asteroids, will precede them.
People have frequently asked me why I believe expansion into space
is essential to human survival. Heres why.
Space and Human Survival, Part I
Until recently, the reason most commonly offered for believing our survival
depends on space travel was that our species will need to move elsewhere in
order to survive the ultimate death of our sun, or the possibility of our
sun turning into a nova. (Scientists now believe that these specific
scenarios wont happen; but the sun will eventually become a red giant,
which as far as Earth is concerned, is an equally disastrous one.) This is
not of such remote concern as it may seem, as Ill explain below. However,
it surely is a remote event, billions of years in the future, and I
dont blame anyone for not giving it very high priority at present. It is
far from being my main reason.
A more urgent cause for concern is the need not to put all our eggs in
one basket, in case the worst happens and we blow up our own planet, or
make it uninhabitable by means of nuclear disaster or perhaps biological
warfare. We would all like to believe this wont happen, yet some people
are seriously afraid that it willits hardly an irrational fear.
Peace with Russia may have drawn attention from it, yet there are other
potential troublemakers, even terrorists; the nuclear peril is not mere
history. Furthermore, there is the small but all-too-real possibility that
Earth might be struck by an asteroid. We all hope and believe our homes
wont burn down, and yet we buy fire insurance. Does not our species as
a whole need an insurance policy?
Even Carl Sagan, a long-time opponent of using manned spacecraft where robots
can serve, came out in support of space colonization near the end of his
life, for this reason; see his book Pale Blue Dot. And in an interview
with Britains newspaper Daily Telegraph, eminent cosmologist
Stephen Hawking said, I dont think that the human race will
survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space. There are too
many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. Hawking is more
worried about the possibility of our creating a virus that destroys us than
about nuclear disaster. However, he said, Im an optimist. We
will reach out to the stars.
My novel The Far Side of Evil
(Atheneum, 1971; updated version
Walker, 2003) is based on the concept of a Critical Stage during
which a species has the technology to expand into space, but hasnt yet
implemented it, and in which that same level of technology enables it to wipe
itself out. The premise of the book is that each world will do one or the
other, but not both. I have believed this since the early 50s, when there was
real danger of nuclear war but no sign of space travel. When the Russians
launched Sputnik in 1957, my reaction was overwhelming joy and relief,
because I thought that at last our energies were going to be turned toward
space exploration. I felt that way through the era of Apollo. Since Apollo,
as public support of the space program has waned, my fears have grown again,
because I dont believe that a world turned in on itself can remain
peaceful. A progressive species like ours has a built-in drive to move
forward, and that energy has to go somewhere. Historically, when it was not
going into mere survival or into the exploration and settlement of new
landswhich is the adaptive reason for such a driveit has gone
This is the price we pay for our innate progressiveness. I know that it is
now fashionable to deride the concept of progress, and certainly we cannot
say that progress is inevitable. It surely doesnt characterize all change
in all areas of human endeavor. Nevertheless, overall, the human race as a
whole advances; if it did not we would still be cavemen. This is what
distinguishes our species from all others. And like it or not, this drive
is inseparable from the drive toward growth and expansion. Many successful
species colonize new ecological niches; this is one of the fundamental
features of evolution. When a species cant find a new niche, and the
resources of the old one are no longer sufficient, it dies out. If the
resources do remain sufficient, it lives, but is unchanging from era to era.
There are no cases in biology of progressive evolution unaccompanied by
Colonies or Settlements?
People sometimes object to the term space colonies on political
grounds and for this reason NASA, along with some others, prefers the term
space settlements. The objection, however, strikes me as
invalid. To be sure, colonization does have some bad
associations, since on Earth it always involved taking over the land and/or
culture of indigenous inhabitantsbut that is precisely what a space
colony would not do! Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, advocates
colonizing inhabited planets, even if we should ever find any. The
idea of expanding into space is to abandon our dependence on zero-sum games.
A more accurate precedent for the term colonize in the space
context is its meaning in biology: the establishment of a species
presence in a new ecological niche. Im therefore glad to see
space colonies prevailing on the Web.
The question of resources raises an even more crucial reason for expansion
into space than the danger of Earths destruction. Its obvious
that this planet cannot support an expanding population forever. Most people
who recognize this fact advocate population control to the extent of
zero population growth. I do not; I believe it would be fatal not
only for the reason explained above, but because if it could be achieved it
would result in stagnation. I do not want a world in which there can be no
growth; growth leads to intellectual and artistic progress as well as to
material survival. Furthermore, I do not believe it could be achieved. The
built-in desire for personal descendants is too strong; that is why our
species has survived this long, why it has spread throughout the entire
world. Moreover, the biological response to threatened survival is to speed
up reproduction, as we can see by the number of starving children in the
world. If we tried to suppress population growth completely, we would have
either immediate violent upheaval or a period of dictatorship followed by
bloody revolution. Ultimately, we would reduce the population all right; we
would decimate it. That may be survival but its surely not
the future we want.
We do not want even the present restriction on resources. Currently, some
nations live well while others are deprived, and its asserted that even
those with the best access to resources should stop using them upthe
underdeveloped nations, under this philosophy, are not given the hope of a
standard of living commensurate with the level our species has achieved.
Will the Third World tolerate such a situation forever? I surely wouldnt
blame them for not wanting to. And neither do I want the rest of the world
reduced to a lower level of technology. Even if I had no other objection to
such a trend, the plain fact is that a low level of technology cannot support
the same size population as a high level; so if you want to cut back on
technology, you have to either kill people outright or let them starve. And
you certainly cant do anything toward extending the length of the human
lifespan. This is the inevitable result of planning based on a single-planet
If there is pessimism in Earthbound science fiction (which its most
outstanding characteristic), these truths are the source of it. I have not
seen any that denies any of them; pop-culture SF reveals that what people
grasp mythopoeically about such a future involves catastrophic war,
cut-throat human relationships in overcrowded cities, and a general trend
toward dehumanization. Apart from the major films with which my course dealt
(e.g. Bladerunner), Soylent Green postulates cannibalism and
Logans Run is based on the premise that everybody is required to
die at the age of 30. The destruction of the worlds ecology is a basic
assumptionwhich is natural, since in a contest between a stable
biosphere and personal survival, humans will either prevail or they will die.
Myths showing these things are indeed part of the response to a new
perception of our environment: the perception that as far as Earth is
concerned, it is limited. [A basic premise of my course was that all myth
is a response of a culture to the environment in which it perceives itself
to exist.] But at the rational level, people do not want to face them. They
tell themselves that if we do our best to conserve resources and give up a
lot of the modern conveniences that enable us to spend time expanding our
minds, we can avoid such a fateas indeed we can, for a while. But not
forever. And most significantly, not for long enough to establish space
settlements, if we dont start soon enough. Space humanization is not
something that can be achieved overnight.
I have called this stage in our evolution the Critical Stage. Paul
Levinson [the Director of Connected Education] uses different terminology
for the same concept. He says that we have only a narrow window to get into
space, a relatively short time during which we have the capability, but have
not yet run out of the resources to do it. I agree with him completely about
this. Expansion into space demands high technology and full utilization of
our worlds material resources (although not destructive utilization). It
also demands financial resources that we will not have if we deplete the
material resources of Earth. And it demands human resources, which we will
lose if we are reduced to global war or widespread starvation. Finally, it
demands spiritual resources, which we are not likely to retain under the sort
of dictatorship that would be necessary to maintain a sustainable
Because the window is narrow, then, we not only have to worry about
immediate perils. The ultimate, unavoidable danger for our planet, the
transformation of our sun, is distantbut if we dont expand into
space now, we can never do it. Even if Im wrong and we survive
stagnation, it will be too late to escape from this solar system, much less
to explore for the sake of exploring.
I realize that what Ive been saying here doesnt sound like my
usual optimism. But the reason it doesnt, I think, is that most people
dont understand whats meant by space humanization.
Some of you are probably thinking that space travel isnt going to be a
big help with these problems, as indeed, the form of it shown in todays
mythology would not. Almost certainly, youre thinking that it
wont solve the other problems of Earth, and I fear you may be thinking
that the other problems should be solved first.
One big reason why they should not is the narrow window concept.
The other is that they could not. I have explained why I believe the
problem of war cant be solved without expansion. The problem of hunger
is, or ultimately will be, the direct result of our planets limited
resources; though it could be solved for the near-term by political reforms,
we are not likely to see such reforms while nations are playing a
zero-sum game with what resources Earth still has. Widespread poverty,
when not politically based, is caused by insufficient access to high
technology and by the fact that there arent enough resources to go
around (if you doubt this, compare the amount of poverty here with the amount
in the Third World, and the amount on the Western frontier with the amount in
our modern cities). Non-contagious disease, such as cancer, is at least
partially the result of stress; and while expansion wont eliminate
stress, overcrowding certainly increases it. The problem of atmospheric
pollution is the result of trying to contain the industry necessary to
maintain our technology within the biosphere instead of moving it into orbit
where it belongs.
In short, all the worldwide problems we want to solve, and feel we should
have solved, are related to the fact that weve outgrown the ecological
niche we presently occupy. I view them not as pathologies, but as natural
indicators of our evolutionary stage. I would like to believe that
theyll prove spurs to expansion. If they dont, well be one
of evolutions failures.
If I have frightened any readers here, Im not sorry! But cheer up; in
Part II Ill explain how humanizing space can not only save our species,
but give all cultures equal access to resources that are virtually unlimited.
Space and Human Survival, Part II
When we think of space exploration, we usually think of its goal as To
seek out new life and new civilizations, to go where no [hu]man has gone
before. Thats what excites us and inspires awe, in some of us at
least, and thats certainly the fountainhead of our mythology.
Personally, I believe that from the evolutionary standpoint the joy of
exploration is a built-in factor for preservation of the species, just as is
the joy of sexual love. But, as our feelings about sexual love mean much more
to us than biology and have been the source of many great achievements of our
civilization, our exploratory instinct means more than survival. The
discovery of new lands has always led to a renaissance in the arts and in
intellectual progress, and the same will be true of expansion into space.
This process is an aspect of our creativity. We do not explore because we
want to survive, any more than we make love because we want to survive;
survival is only a byproduct.
However, at this stage of our evolution we have run into a problem with the
process. Columbus explored because of his personal urge to do so, and both
the Renaissance and human survival followed. (Explorers of some sort were
essential to survivalimagine what would have happened if our species had
been forever confined to the single site where it diverged from its hominid
ancestors.) It was difficult for explorers to get money for ships, but each
had to talk only one backer into it; Columbus, according to legend,
convinced Queen Isabella. Settlers could move into new lands with their
personal resources alone, as Americans did when they loaded their belongings
into wagons and set out on the Oregon Trail. Both explorers and settlers were
laughed at by people who didnt share their views; it didnt
matter. They went anyway. It wasnt necessary for their culture as a
whole to decide that it wasnt a waste of money.
Not so with space humanization. We cant rely on the drive toward
exploration because, by the population at large, its not considered a
top priority. It never was, in any society. If the people of Columbus
time had had to vote to tax themselves in order to fund his ships, he
wouldnt have gotten anywhere; most of them felt he would fall off the
edge of the world, and even the educated minority, who knew better, felt
there was better use for their money. Even in that era, the most altruistic
would no doubt have preferred to give Isabellas jewels to the poor.
There were some myths, travelers tales, about riches to be found in new
lands; but just as in our time, rational, hardheaded skepticism ruled the
Yet purpose as expressed in mythology is the opposite of rationally-derived
purpose. Mythology reflects what we feel, not what we know consciously. Thus
Space Age mythology shows us why wed like to explore space, but not why
the majority should be willing to pay for it. It shows our dreams, but not
what science reveals as the concrete advantages. People who enjoy the
mythology dont need hardheaded justification (though even they are
often unwilling to vote on the basis of their feelings), while those who
dont enjoy it are apt to judge the whole issue of space humanization on
the basis of admittedly-impractical mythic metaphors.
It is true enough that we cant solve the problems of Earth by setting
forth in starships like the Enterprise, or by interplanetary travel at
all. From an economic standpoint, a trip to Mars is not the best way to begin
the process of expansion (though its certainly a later goal, and I
support doing it first on the grounds of its effect on the public
imaginationsee What About Mars.
The basic ideas of
space humanization are (a) to make use of extraterrestrial resources
to supplement those of Earth; (b) to move heavy industry off Earth,
where it pollutes and where energy is expensive, into orbit, where energy is
cheap; and (c) to provide large areas of living space to which people
can eventually move (not to ship extra people into space, which
as critics are quick to point out, would not work, but to make room for new
people to be born without increasing Earths population). Only in this
way can we get the resources we need both for preserving Earths
biosphere and for eventually building starships.
If you have not heard of this scenario before, its likely to strike you
as impossible, impractical, or prohibitively expensive, if not all three. It
certainly isnt what mythology has thus far prepared us for. And yet, we
had the technological capability to begin this process 30 years ago, and
its not nearly as costly as the exploration of a planet without prior
space industrialization. The key to it is that we wouldnt try to lift
the components of space habitats up from Earth. We would use raw materials
from the moon and asteroids, and build solar power satellites in orbit. The
power would then be beamed to Earth, where it would be cheap enough to lift
the Third World out of poverty (many people in the Third World spend a large
share of their time and/or income on firewood, and in so doing,
destroy forests). Products of space-based industries would be shipped
down to Earth, not lifted up out of its gravity well. Some
scientists feel that enough food could be raised in orbit to ship food down,
(Courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center)
And meanwhile, the space-dwellers producing all these things cheaply for
Earth would be getting rich, because they would not be citizens of Earth
nations; they would be citizens of their own orbiting colonies, entitled to
the full proceeds of their labor. Eventually, they would be rich enough to
fund interstellar expeditions. And their living conditions would not be what
youre imagining if youre picturing Deep Space Nine. Orbiting
coloniesprobably the most difficult concept to understand if you
havent seen any of the artists renditionswould be little
worlds built from extraterrestrial materials, with the living space on the
inside of the sphere. They would be complete biospheres with trees and
lakes and gardens, much less crowded and less sterile than New York City.
Many of their advocates have said that having once lived that way, humans
would never want to live on the surface of a planet again, and that if they
traveled to a new planet, theyd go to its surface only to explore.
Much of this, in particular the design of the colonies, is the vision of
Gerard ONeill, formerly professor of physics at Princeton and until his
untimely death, president of the Space Studies Institute which he formed to
research the engineering details of the scenario. His book The High
Frontier is a classic that should be read by everyone serious about
space settlements. (It is now back in print in an expanded edition that
includes a CD-ROM.) At one time there was an active citizens group, the
L-5 Society, dedicated to his ideas, but it has merged into the National
Space Society. He testified before Congress many times and was recognized as
an expert on the future of space, though his specific proposals werent
taken seriously by enough people to count. NASA did two studies of his
orbiting colony concept. But of course, though it was entirely feasible from
the technological standpoint, it was not feasible politically or financially,
at least not in this country. Japan and India were more enthusiastic;
Im not sure what the status of their interest now is, but I once heard
that Japan is aiming to have a space hotel in orbit by 2010, and I wont
be at all surprised if the first orbiting colony turns out to be Japanese.
Most space experts dont advocate anything as ambitious as ONeill
Colonies. Its not likely that space industrialization will proceed that
rapidly. But we could do it in stages. We could build the solar power
satellites (studies that have proven them impractical have been
based on the assumption that materials would be lifted from Earth; use of
lunar materials would make them cost-effective). And we could certainly start
utilizing the too-long-abandoned moon. But the American people seem blind to
the need to do so, and while private corporations could ultimately get rich
by doing it, its a very long-term investment. So I get very
discouraged, and fearful that our window (see Part I) will close.
Of course, I too am excited by the long-range possibilities of galactic
exploration shown in Space Age mythology. Paul Levinson has a lot to say
about the infinity of the universe and how, in principle, our species has
access to its infinite resources and the infinite extension of intelligence
this will make possible. I agree wholeheartedly (except that unlike him, I
believe we will meet other intelligent species someday). But none of this
can happen unless we survive long enough to make it happen. And we cant
survive that long, in my opinion, unless we take the necessary steps to get
from here to there. This is why I believe the most crucial function of our
new mythology, and the one with the greatest adaptive value, is expression
of the idea that people belong in space.
Text copyright 1994 by Sylvia Engdahl
Sites to Visit for More Information
(Links updated November 2015)
Listed below are some of the most informative online resources focused on the benefits
of human expansion into space, the concept of orbiting colonies, and/or the use of
extraterrestrial materials from the moon and asteroids. It does not include material focused
primarily on the implementation of these goals, on exploration, or on space science.
Significance of Space
Space and Subject Classification by Michael Huang - a long-overdue
explanation of why it's important to classify space as a region instead of
putting everything about it under "science" or "technology."
Space Settlement: The Journey Inward, a paper by Steven Wolfe
presented at the 2004 National Space Society conference, dealing with space
and the evolutionary impulse. His
Ad Astra article with the same title should be read by everyone who
cares about getting humankind into space.
Toward an Ecological and Cosmonautical Philosophy by Joseph Kirby.
Journal of Technology and Evolution, July 2013. Human duties toward life "consist not only in protecting the biosphere, but also in developing techno-biological living systems capable of reproducing in the ambient matter of the solar system."
Major Space Advocacy Organizations
Space Society (with which the former L-5 Society focused on
O'Neill's ideas has merged). The aim of NSS, an international membership
organization, is to create a spacefaring civilization. Be sure to read its
Statement of Philosophy.
The Mars Society,
a membership organization that promotes the exploration and settlement of Mars.
The B612 Foundation
, which has the goal of developing and testing technology for tracking and altering the orbits of asteroids, and which has just announced the first privately-funded deep-space mission, which will discover and catalog them.
Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking's 2011 interview with a Canadian newspaper about why we must colonize space. Hawking has said many times since 2001 that space colonization is essential for survival and his statements have been widely reported.
Sagan's Rationale for Human Space Flight by Michael Huang. "Every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring—not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive."
Humans Will Colonize the Solar System by Michael Griffin. Washington Post, September 2005. "while I cannot say that multiple-planet species will survive, I think I can prove to you from our own geologic record that single-planet species don't."
website. PERMANENT is an acronym for rogram to Employ
Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near
Earth in the Near Term. Its site provides resources
for those needing technical information.
The Coming Age of Space Colonization by James Fallow, The Atlantic, Marcn 2013. "There are lots of strategic materials and metals that we can get in space and that will be necessary for us if we want to create abundance and prosperity generations from now on Earth."
A detailed Space Settlement website maintained by Mike Combs,
with pictures of orbiting habitats.
Space Colonies, online version of a book edited by Stewart Brand
that contains debate from the magazine CoEvolution Quarterly
These are books containing significant discussion of the benefits of human expansion into space rather than exclusive focus on exploration or the technical aspects of space travel. You can see my annotations for most of the older ones in my Listmania list at Amazon.com.