Age of Invention: The New Space Empires

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The other week I attended an unconference, which had a session on the implications of establishing colonies on other planets. Although this was largely meant to be about the likely impact on Earth’s natural environment — what will be the impact of extracting raw materials from asteroids and other planets? — some of the discussion reminded me of the challenges faced by the long-distance explorers, merchants, and colonists of four hundred years ago. There are quite a few parallels I can see between travelling to Mars, say, in a hundred years’ time, and travelling between continents in the age of sail.

For a start, there’s the seasonality and duration of the voyages. European ships headed for the Indian Ocean had to time their voyages around the monsoon season; trips across the Atlantic were limited to just half the year because of hurricanes. Round-trips took years. Similarly, the departure window for a voyage from Earth to Mars only comes around once every 26 months, and even the most optimistic estimates place eventual journey times at about 4-6 months. Supposing that Mars can be permanently settled, any colony there will likely be extremely dependent on the regular arrival of resupply craft. There’s only so long that any group can survive in a hostile environment on their own.

Although the space merchants and colonists of the future will not have to deal with any pre-existing local populations, this will probably put them at more of a disadvantage than the travellers of the past. Although seventeenth-century merchants who were left behind in distant ports were often at the mercy of local rulers, as I explored in a post for paid subscribers last month, they often only managed to stay alive because they could beg or borrow from local communities. Space colonists will have no such potential safety net — something that will likely only be offset in the short-term by the ability to send supplies unmanned.

The sheer quantity and frequency of resupply trips will therefore be one of the most important factors in the success of any space colonisation effort, and will determine which company or country will see the most long-term success in exploiting the commercial opportunities of other worlds. It was certainly a deciding factor in why the Dutch, for over half a century, were able to outmatch the English in the Indian Ocean.

And this will have implications for how countries’ space exploitation efforts are financed and organised. The Portuguese had once been the only Europeans to trade directly into the Indian Ocean, but the structure of their trade — essentially a state-run monopoly with some licensed private merchants — was unable to compete with the arrival of the Dutch. The initial Dutch forays into the Indian Ocean in the 1590s had originally been financed by lots of different companies, often associated with particular cities — similar to the proliferation of billionaire-led space exploration companies today. But the Dutch soon recognised that such a high-risk trade would only be able to survive if it came with correspondingly high rewards — rewards that could only be guaranteed by eliminating domestic competitors (and if possible, foreign ones too). They therefore amalgamated all of the smaller concerns into a single company with a state-granted monopoly on all of the nation’s trade with the region. In this, they actually copied the English model, but then outdid them in terms of the organisation and financing of that company (for reasons I went into earlier this month).

Are we likely to see a similar move towards state-granted monopoly corporations when it comes to space colonisation? I suspect it depends on the potential rewards, and on the strength of the competition. There is certainly precedent for incentivising risky and innovative ventures in this way, through the granting of patent monopolies. Patents for inventions in the English tradition originally even had their roots in patents for exploration. I would not be surprised if such policies end up being used again by countries that are late-comers to the space race, perhaps by granting domestic monopolies over the extraction of resources from particular planets or moons. Although direct state funding can help in being first, like they did for Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, state-granted monopolies for private actors may again end up being the ideal catch-up tool for laggards, as they were for the English and the Dutch.

How the monopolies are managed will also matter. The English East India Company, for example, was initially more focused on rewarding its shareholders than it was on investing in the full infrastructure with which to dominate a trade route. The Dutch company, by contrast, from the get-go was part of a more coordinated imperial strategy — one that sought to systematically rob the Portuguese of their factories and forts, to project force with the aid of the state. Indeed, if there’s one big lesson for the geopolitics of space, it’s that far-flung empires can be extremely fragile, with plenty of opportunities for late-arriving interlopers to take them over.

Although it’s difficult to imagine space colonies being able to become self-sufficient any time soon, it seems likely that those controlled by particular companies or countries may occasionally be persuaded — by bribes or by force — to defect. What’s to stop them when they’re hundreds of millions of kilometres away from any punishment or help? Ill-provisioned factors, forts, or colonies happily switched sides to whoever might provision them better. As I mentioned last week, such problems curtailed the ambitions of other would-be colonial powers, like the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. When the Dutch turned up in the Indian Ocean, many of the Portuguese forts they threatened simply surrendered.

We should expect to see many more principal-agent problems — conflicts of interest between employers or leaders back on Earth and the agents acting on their behalves on another planet or moon. As space travel eventually matures, with craft potentially becoming more autonomous, able to take off and land wherever and whenever their captains and crews desire, their employers will have to start worrying about how to keep those crews in line. It is amazing that anyone was ever entrusted with a ship in the age of sail: they were essentially given full control over some of the most expensive capital investments in the world, then sent off for years and years with almost no contact and expected to return.

For all the loyalty, patriotism, and promises of payment that can be mustered, there will always be some rogues. There were plenty of opportunities in the seventeenth century for mutineers and pirates. And even if they didn’t strictly go rogue, many colonists and merchants frequently disobeyed orders or took matters into their own hands, often committing violent atrocities even against other Europeans, to be smoothed over later by the diplomats back home. In 1623 on the island of Ambon in Indonesia, the Dutch governors tortured and murdered English merchants — officially their allies — on the trumped-up charges of a conspiracy. The victims’ families were not compensated until over thirty years later, and only as an outcome of the first Anglo-Dutch War, by which stage all the perpetrators were dead. We will likely see similar again, with space pioneers able to exploit the ambiguity between an act of war and a mere crime. One major difference, of course, is that we can communicate with Mars in just a matter of minutes. But the physical distances are what count, leaving the people on the scene with full agency, especially when rival companies, other countries, or even self-sufficient colonies give potential defectors more options to escape punishment.

Employers back home will probably have to set examples. There’s a reason that the Royal Navy sent a ship all the way from Britain to Tahiti — half a planet away — just to hunt down the mutineers who had taken over the HMS Bounty, to bring them home to face justice. Even insufficient zeal in the pursuit of a captain’s duties could be grounds for court martial and execution, as happened to the unfortunate Admiral Byng. As Voltaire wryly put it, “it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.”

If the age of sail is anything to go by, then the impending age of space colonisation will see many of the same solutions played out all over again. Having shrunk our world with trains, planes and telecommunications, space colonisation promises to make it huge again — for better and worse.

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