Can the British Empire teach us about space colonies?

There seems to be a lack of discussion on practical governance in space. When a sustained human presence is finally established on a moon, planet, asteroid, or far-flung space station, what infrastructure will be necessary to see that it is both well administered domestically and well provided for from home? Although many innovations will be necessary to get this in place, the core problem, when you distil it to its essence, is actually not new at all.

An outpost in space will communicate with Earth in near real-time. However, when issues arise which cannot be handled with the resources currently at hand, there is a potentially lengthy wait for help from Earth to physically arrive. With our current technology, flight time to the ISS, orbiting the Earth at an altitude of around 400km, is about 2 days. The moon, at a distance of just over 384,000km, can be reached in a little over three days. Even its closest proximity to Earth, the 58 million kilometer journey to Mars will take around 214 days.

The British faced a similar challenge in the late 19th century. By 1877, a telegram from New Zealand could reach London almost instantaneously. However, even a steam-powered ship would take up to 120 days to cover the same distance. By examining the ways in which they dealt with this difficulty, we might be able to gain some insights that could help to address our present dilemma.

Firstly, they saw to it that the outposts themselves were as well equipped for any eventuality as possible. This included food, medical supplies, equipment for building and agriculture, trained specialists, and either a military garrison or a supply of arms for the settlers themselves. Secondly, far-flung outposts were reinforced and supported by a network of other such places nearby, or other points of contact closer than Britain itself. New Zealand, to continue our example, could seek urgent aid from Australia, India, or even some of the smaller South Pacific islands under British control. At the same time, Royal Navy vessels were constantly patrolling that part of the world and could be called upon for assistance if necessary.

A colony in space will not share all of the same challenges as one in 19th century New Zealand. However, the approaches that the Victorians took to mitigate these risks are worth considering. They give us some basic pointers as to how these things worked then and, therefore, how they may be able to work now.

The people living on these outposts will have to have the resources and training to go it alone 99.9% of the time. This basic rule effects not only who goes, but perhaps also where they go. Unless a planet/moon is capable of being worked to somehow generate sustenance, we shouldn’t send people there unless they can produce sustenance there by other means (artificially in a lab such as with Quorn, or some version of the Replicator from Star Trek, perhaps). This method of artificial production would also be necessary in order to maintain far-flung space stations where agriculture is limited or impossible. At these times and distances, reliance on supply vessels would simply be too risky; the settlers might be one blip in the supply chain away from starvation.

For the 0.1% of instances where external help is needed, it cannot be too far away. This means a network of outposts and support systems where help can either be found from the nearest colony, the vessels that regularly patrol the area, or via a ‘stepping stone’ style ferrying of resources from a spot farther afield, but closer than Earth.

This will require much deeper consideration than what is found here. But insights like these will help make challenges like this far easier to undertake. We need not re-invent the wheel. Why should we not take advice from one of the most well-administered colonial empires in modern human history?

No matter where, or when, you are, the frontier is still the frontier.



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  1. Pingback: Avoiding Colonialism in Space | Applied History

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