There is a history and a mythology of space exploration. The history is one of people going, bringing what they need to survive, and learning, and doing science and engineering and occasionally art, and bringing back knowledge. And there is a mythology, again, of human beings going to space and doing things: colonizing, mining, going to the stars. It’s all very human centered.
And it’s what you would expect from people who shop in grocery stores, and poop in toilets, and breathe without thought. We have a civilization where less than two percent of the population works in agriculture. In some ways, we aren’t that different from the astronauts we send to space. What we ingest and excrete is created and disposed of, for the most part, by other people and lifeforms we have little awareness of. We have other things to deal with.
It seems so obvious that to state it is insulting: there is no humanity without Earth’s ecology. We imagine ourselves as separate from nature, even opposed to it, but we are inescapably of the fabric of the life of this planet. The food we send to the International Space Station may be highly processed, but it originates in living organisms on Earth.
To establish independent colonies, we’ll have to do better. We’ll have to send not just people, but functioning ecologies for them to be a part of, to sustain them over time. So when we talk about colonization, permanent habitation of humans elsewhere, it’s better to speak of Earth-life colonizing other worlds. And before we reach for the goal of terraforming other worlds, we must practice localized terraformation. We would begin with human-centered protoecologies that would include humans and highly efficient and compact systems, made up of algae and other microorganisms, and controls to regulate their continued operation.
You could call them cybernetic organisms. We’d exchange nutrients with it, in a tight cycle, initially. ‘Exchange nutrients…’ yes, that is a euphemism for taking the pee and poo and hair and sweat and CO2 and probably cleaning fluid and laundry detergent–everything that goes down the drain and in the garbage in your house–and recycling it back into food and O2 and other useful stuff. That’s what the ecological system does for us on Earth.
Before you say ‘yuck,’ remember every drop of water you have ever drank, every atom of water in your body, is dinosaur pee. Every atom of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen and all of the trace elements in your body have all been metabolized through the bodies of living organisms on Earth for billions of years. We are all made of shit: shit a billion times over. The Bible says we go from dust to dust, but the truth is we go from shit to shit.
The best reason to mine the asteroids is that all the water on Earth is dinosaur pee. Yuck indeed.
And how will colonists eat? What kind of food will they have? It’s a little hard to say at this point. Maybe initially it will be something like Soylent. Maybe we’ll make ways to add variation and flavor. But it’s a lot to ask someone to go to a place where they’ll never eat an orange again. So you’ll need an ecology that will support orange trees. Or maybe something less ambitious to start. Kale? Basil? Will they exchange algae pesto recipes?
There are some reasonable starting places. But sustainable agriculture depends on a broad set of ecological services, provided on Earth by a living context that doesn’t exist anywhere else we know of. So we’re going to have to bring it along, if we are to persist elsewhere, even on a smaller scale than that of a planet.
Thus, the terraformation imperative: true space colonization is terraformation, at any scale.