Yesterday, I read an article in which Elon Musk proposed a plan to build a sustainable colony on Mars. The initial goal is to transport 80,000 colonists, each paying $500,000, who would establish a sustainable population and fund the estimated $40 billion price tag for the project.
I am very supportive of civilian space efforts. The real will to be innovative and adventurous in thinking about the future of humans in space seems to have faded from the government institutions who have been the dominant force in this area. I too believe that the next substantial leap will come from civilian efforts.
What concerns me is that, in these early efforts where the funding is more crucial than finding willing colonists (which wouldn’t be difficult at all), off-world travel and settlement will run the risk of becoming the domain of the wealthy rather than of the suitable. There are many individuals who possess skills and aptitudes that would be invaluable on a Martian colony, but who could never hope to scrape together the half-million-dollar fee to put them to use.
How do we make sure that those with the ‘right stuff’ make it up there rather than just those who can afford it?
The Anglo-Saxons, odd as it may seem, may have something to contribute to this question. At the heart of Anglo-Saxon military organisation was the fyrd, the citizen militia raised from the populace to serve as the bulk of the infantry. To supply troops for the fyrd, the kingdom was divided up in to districts, each of which provided a certain number of suitably-equipped, able-bodied men. The best military equipment, as it is still today, was prohibitively expensive. Thus, those sent to the fyrd were frequently those wealthy enough to afford the kit.
However, allowances were made for when those individuals either could not serve, or did not wish to. The district could pool resources to equip others for service, which gave people the option of sending the capable fighters as opposed to just those who could afford to purchase the equipment.
Imagine if we did the same for our astronauts.
Crowd-funding the cost of transport into space would not only allow those with the necessary skills of a future Martian to achieve their potential despite a hefty price tag, but would also allow for astronauts and colonists to come from diverse origins, preventing the human population in space from becoming dangerously homogeneous in any number of ways.
This could be done now, with the structures we already have in place. Someone could make a good case on Kickstarter for their place on that first vessel to Mars and raise the 500k. But, if aspirations towards greater civilian-government collaboration towards these ends are achieved, this system could be formalised on a national or global scale. We could ensure, as the human presence in space grows, that our off-world brethren display the same wondrous variety as those of us on Earth.