Thoughts on Exploiting the Solar System

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2018


Mankind has been exploiting the earth ever since he emerged as a species. As mankind came to realize that stars were distant suns he dreamed of exploiting those as well. That dream is still a distant one, but exploiting the bodies orbiting the solar system is not so far off... perhaps.

This essay is thoughts about what it is going to take to exploit the other bodies -- planets, moons, asteroids and comets -- that orbit our sun.

The first necessity: a good propulsion system

We have launched into space using boost-and-coast propulsion systems. The rocket roars for a few minutes at most, then the ship coasts... and coasts and coasts for days to years. This works for cargos that are mechanical and robotic, but it doesn't work well for carrying people. Machines and robots can make the years-long journeys with very little in the way of life/machine-support required and they can be designed to not mind years of sleeping or thumb-twiddling while they wait for their ship to arrive at its destination. With human cargos we can get to the moon in reasonable time with boost-and-coast, but no further.

The breakthrough we need to carry humans comfortably to more distant bodies are ships with constant acceleration propulsion systems. These are ships where the engine stays running through the entire journey -- little or no coasting, and preferably at close to 1G in acceleration.

The key is creating practical constant acceleration systems -- "practical" meaning it can become consistently profitable to launch them. These can make a journey much faster than contemporary boost-and-coast technology allows. If these constant acceleration ships can also support full life-support then it becomes practical to move humans around the solar system -- practical in the sense that humans will become interested in making the journeys. Trips will take days to months, not years. The trips will become comparable to crossing oceans on steam ships, which worked out a lot better than sailing ships or Viking rowboats.

Why Populate the Solar System?

Even if cheap and practical interplanetary travel is developed there remains another really big question: what will make people desire to emigrate to other solar system bodies in big numbers, as in, millions of people? Why would millions of people want to live on The Moon and Mars?

What sent millions of emigrants to North and South America over a couple centuries was exploiting the wilderness and creating sustaining Industrial Revolution jobs such as railroading and steel making.

What are going to be the railroading and steel making equivalents on The Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies? What will be the "wilderness exploitation" equivalent?

Exporting material goods is not likely to be a large market -- it will be too easy to manufacture just about everything locally. Likewise, greenhouse growing will locally produce just about all needed foods and fibers. There will be markets for faddish stuff, but these are not likely to become large enough to sustain big commerce.

What will be the big commerce markets between inhabited solar system bodies? Or... will there be compelling reasons to emigrate and settle these worlds that aren't relying on big commerce?

If there is big commerce it will center on moving information, not material goods. What kinds of massive information flows will benefit people living on different worlds? Once again, a big question is what can't be produced locally?

Another reason to move is fear: fear of being treated badly on a home world, and the converse, hope of being treated much better on a distant world. Historically, the hope is often job-related. Which brings to mind the question of what other kinds of hopes can there be beside job-related ones? As an example, is religion going to provide compelling reasons to move on?

Finding reasons that will compel lots of people to want to move to distant solar system bodies is going to be a big challenge.

Governing styles on other solar system bodies

If we get the constant acceleration space ships and the planetary bodies of the solar system start gaining large populations what will be the governing styles for those planetary bodies? Suppose The Moon and Mars both get to a million in population, what styles of government will they embrace?

Monarchy was the governing style for Agricultural Age societies. When Europeans came to the Americas new styles were invented and adopted, the most famous being the federalism and democracy of the United States. This happened because for the immigrant Europeans the Americas had no previous governing tradition to embrace. They could start from scratch and come up with institutions appropriate to their "modern times and circumstances" -- taming a wilderness and beginning the Industrial Age.

What will The Moon and Mars support?

They will support something new because technology has changed once again. Industrial Age and lack of tradition allowed democracy to be experimented with in North America. Now we have smartphones and soon we will have ubiquitous artificial intelligence (AI). How will these technology changes effect our governing styles in places that don't have traditional governments already in place?

The new styles are likely to be decentralized -- no congress-in-a-big-room equivalent -- and AI will take care of the details -- humans will come up with the big concepts and AI will write up the legalese details. AI will also be taking over much of the bureaucratic and executive functions.

The goal is faster and more relevant government. If these new forms work better at producing faster and relevant government functions then they will stick and be used widely. If they don't, then people will go back to the traditional ways.


These are some thoughts on what it is going to take to exploit the bodies orbiting our sun, and what differences doing so will make to how we organize our societies.

Succeeding at exploiting our solar system bodies is going to take overcoming some big technological challenges and coming up with some interesting answers to the sociological challenges as well.

And when we successfully meet those challenges, the results that follow are going to be equally interesting, and quite different from what we currently experience here on earth.



--The End--