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  • Writer's picturePhilip Day

Pitcairn: Lessons for Colonising Mars

Most of the commentators in the Space Industry from around the World have formed a view of what the early days of the colonisation of Mars is going to look like. Based on experiments such as Mars One's remote missions to the Utah Desert, thought experiments on the practicalities of life on the red planet and to some extent, the hopes and wishes of all of us with an eye to the stars which are influenced, not a little, by science fiction we have formed this view.

What can the lived experience over hundreds of years, of the World's most remote western communities teach us about Mars? Well, it turns out: a lot.

I'm not going to bore you with a long introduction as the the background of the two nations that we will be discussing. If that's important to you, then the Wikipedia articles for Pitcairn Island and Tristan Da Cunha are linked. Here we will touch on only that from which a comparison can be drawn to our Mars colonies of the future.

Pitcairn has a unique governmental, economic and societal structure, which has been formed since 1790 in almost, but not total, remove from their governing power. Whilst in this case, the governing power is the United Kingdom, and the powers supporting Martian colonies are likely to be US, Chinese and others, the similarities continue. Pitcairn was formed of British sailors, and local (though non-native to the island) Polynesians. Any viable martian colony is likely to consist of multi-nationals with varying cultures, religions and even languages. In the 230 years since Pitcairn was settled, they have created their own language based on the Middle English of the sailors, and the Polynesian of their companions. I do not expect as rapid a departure from the chosen languages of the settlers, because it is presumed that the immigration model to Mars will be more like that of America or Australia, where over the entire existence of the colony, there has been a constant stream of new people coming from the original location, and bringing with them, their original language.

Back to Pitcairn then, whose population living over 3,000 miles from anywhere else, and relying on satcoms for dial-up speed internet access, forms an almost commune of 50 or 60 people bearing such great resemblance to the remoteness of a Martian settlement that they warrant much closer attention, and we must review our model of what a young Martian colony will look like with these hundreds of years of lived experience to guide our updated thinking.

Most of us have grown into the idea that SpaceX or some other agency is likely to send hundreds of large inter-planetary vehicles to Mars in order to found a colony of viable size with, almost immediate effect, quickly up-scaling into the super-one million category in a short period of years. We all admit that there is a high chance that a small number, fewer than 100 are likely to make a start on the surface and prepare for the arrival of a more general first wave, and that these early explorers face peril and glory in equal measure, on what is almost certainly a one-way trip. As many of you will know, a return to Earth after prolonged exposure to Martian gravity and the micro-gravity of the journey is a huge stressor on the body that some believe, no human can survive. Of course, we confidently admit that science loves a problem, and this is truly solvable. But it isn't yet solved.

A review of remote Earth-bound colonies suggests that this hypothesis for a trajectory to Martian city number one is probably rather flawed. Throughout the rest of this article, please consider that the remoteness that we are discussing on Earth separates communities from bustling developed cities with full resources and infrastructure by a number of days, and instantaneous communication is now possible, even if it wasn't during their formative years. Let us consider that Cities by their very nature represent almost the pinnacle of human settlement endeavour and are not self-supporting anywhere in the world. A city is a resource sink, and a problem multiplier. When resources are scarce on Earth, and remoteness increases we see population density declines rapidly in example after example. This indeed is why the railroad initiative of the early United States was so important to ending the civil war. Bringing the railroad to the South of the USA would have reduced lines of communication and supply and reduced the relative remoteness of communities in the South. Thus allowing for rapid development and growth.

Remote communities of up to a dozen or so people often take the form of homesteaders, working as self-sufficiently as possible, as did the early settlers of our main case study: Pitcairn Island. But how can you homestead on a barren planet on which crops cannot be induced to grow in the natural environment - so that instead humans will have to prepare the area to be farmed and thus, we're back to a very resource intensive, labour intensive preparation phase, before ever a human can sustain themselves off 'the land'. Thank goodness our model includes those early 100 astronauts. They will be busy.

As always, our fixated minds will begin to fix on solutions to that problem:

  1. Send 100,000+ colonists on vessels like Starships with enough food and other resources to last the journey, some safety buffer and a year on the surface. That's plenty of time to set up a farming infrastructure to supplement, and then replace off-planet food resourcing.

  2. We can de-risk said scenario by forward positioning resources as so often discussed, but perhaps even using robotics to build large "fields" by 3d printing protection, and manufacturing regolith into soil and heating the space.

  3. Et cetera... We love to solve problems, especially if it helps us to get to Mars!

But in science and engineering, the simplest solution is usually the best one. Why try to de-risk thousands of settlers who have almost zero functioning infrastructure all living in a city that has no surrounding supply-chain businesses, towns, villages and farms, when you could try to de-risk a much smaller number, who are living in a more group-sufficient way, and need vastly fewer resources. Our technology and ability to invest might be able to sustain many thousands for a short period in great discomfort, or a smaller group in relative comfort for a very long time indeed. No doubt in either case we will not go for the homestead route but rather specialise our labour. One group of settlers focuses on water as a key resource, another on other utilities and each of these relies on the groups that focus on the production of food. Indeed, the more people we drop onto the surface, the more likely we are to come across problems associated with people that require specialist skills to overcome their issues. Cities need hospitals, not just a local GP. Cities need policing (although small communities also suffer from crime, we'll come back to that) and schools. Doctors, teachers, police officers, local government, fire-fighters etc are all professions which have to be subsidised by the functioning local economy. Let me be clear, I'm not talking solely about wages here.

On Pitcairn, a community of about 55 people today, they have a local government, they have a church and a school, a police officer and a doctor. Almost all of this is paid for by the British Government and sourced from (relatively nearby) New Zealand at a staggering distance of almost 3,400 miles (or just over 5,500 km). The journey takes several days and makes it one of the most remote communities on Earth, costing about $5,000 NZD for a return trip. Contrast this against months in micro-gravity and a price-tag well into the hundreds of thousands of frankly any major currency you choose to pick, and we begin to realise that Pitcairn is not nearly as remote as Mars - not by a long chalk.

Relative to Mars City One then, Pitcairn is extremely accessible and yet they are visited about 4 times a year by a supply ship delivering food, fuel an other essential supplies. All 50-odd islanders are almost never all on the island at the same time, because they wish to visit family or more critically for our discussion, need medical treatment that is not viable to be delivered in situ. Now, there are 6 islanders permanently living away from the rest of the colony, because they are in prison. This proves that even small very tight-nit communities are not immune from serious crime, and indeed, perhaps the lack of variation in the day, employment and diversion of islanders is partly to blame. We must admit that our community on Mars will carry with it our human vices as well as our dreams and virtues, and the fallout from that human imperfection must be included in our planning.

Pitcairn, like Mars is wholly taken up with self-preservation of their little society. All able bodied residents (which accounts for around 2/3 of those living there) are required to conduct community tasks that are mandatory. Manning the long-boats which rendezvous with passing shipping, cleaning public toilets and maintaining local infrastructure such as roads is mandatory. Such a system is also required for a civilisation on Mars. A small community cannot treat their house as their castle, there just aren't the resources for someone to be a full time HV engineer to look after the grid on your behalf. Indeed, there is only one qualified HV engineer on Pitcairn and he is due to retire in the next couple of years, although this is just one of his roles. Who will provide the training to his replacement in keeping the grid running locally if everyone else is focused solely on their own home and survival.

Whilst this particular problem might not be encountered in the early days on Mars when individual buildings and equipment will be self-powered with solar panels for the most part, there will come a time when a grid is required. And that time, is long before we're looking at a city-sized settlement. That grid will need to be either community run, or community subsidised so that the specialist brought in can be housed, fed, cared for when ill, rested and entertained.

The same goes for the doctor, police office and teacher, who are all sourced from New Zealand, qualified there and are temporary residents only. They are on-island for their skills, not for their over-arching desire to make a one-way trip. Will Mars have that same opportunity to bring people in for a short 3 year posting before sending them safely home? Will Mars attract all of the necessary skills for such an arduous role?

We may regard the long-boat manning and other mandatory tasks on Pitcairn as fairly far removed from a Mars Colony, but we couldn't be more wrong to overlook that. Someone will have to man the arrival areas and care for humans arriving after months in micro-gravity. Those people, driving rovers are synonymous to the long-boat operators. The roads on Pitcairn as a community endeavour, and surely main routes on Mars will be expected to be maintained to increase efficiency, comfort and overall logistics operations in the settlement.

Public toilets may or may not be "a thing" on Mars, but with sanitation infrastructure more difficult than most people on Earth give credit for, and indeed major cities around the world such as Rome, Mexico City, and London are fighting hard to upgrade their sanitation systems to account for the numbers that now dwell there; it is extremely likely that bathing facilities will be shared and governed in their use, for a while to come on Mars, and that these facilities will have to be maintained. Especially considering public health can so easily be impacted by poor hygiene in bathing facilities.

Perhaps less obviously, but equally importantly, complicated pregnancies, cancers or any other medical situation requiring more than immediate care are referred out of the colony of Pitcairn Island. This isn't going to be possible on Mars, so a highly capable medical system will have to be maintained, although most of the time, it will be hoped to be maintained unused. Even only slightly larger settlements, such as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, a community of approximately 250 people maintains a hospital here on Earth.

Children on the settlement are schooled locally until they reach secondary age (High School) when they are given the choice to go to New Zealand, or distance study for their education. There will be no such choice on Mars. Indeed, will the age of compulsory education come down, to encourage children into the productive work-force to help in supporting the community as soon as possible? We see this in lesser developed parts of Earth today.

Mars, will solve many of these problems in the same way that Pitcairn does, with a bespoke solution, relying on voluntary effort of all inhabitants, and this has affected their method of government in a way that we must investigate for our Mars Colony model.

Pitcairn is wholly 'owned' by government. The land is assigned by the council, and can be withdrawn without notice or compensation (although this is never actually done). To select a plot on which to build, one consults the local residents and picks their favoured place after applying for approval to settle. As long as the council agrees, you've got yourself a place to call home. This is highly likely to be a similar situation on Mars, where space is not exactly at a premium, but connectivity to the infant utilities network will be at a significant premium, and additional distance (measured in small numbers of metres) will be costly to connect up. Ever tried to have a fibre line installed to your house, and then realised that it's really expensive if they decide they need to dig up a local road? Well, this is orders of magnitude more difficult to achieve on Mars for every single home.

All of the product of the island, the entire GDP is owned by the island's government. Anyone who grows something, carves something, designs or sells anything does so in a most amazing and unique manner. A manner that sounds pretty communist to the Western disposition.

A seller does so directly to the client - all good so far. The buyer then pays the colony's government, who decide how much to pay the seller. This is designed to help balance the local economy, and ensure that everyone has enough to survive, no matter what job they perform. In a society so small every job is critically important, and most don't provide services to outsiders, and thus do not attract investment. All of a sudden, that wooden turtle that sold to an outsider for $50, is supporting the diesel costs for the long-boats, the salary for the teacher, or the new parts for the generators keeping the lights on in the town.

Pitcairn departs here from our imagined Mars colony, because commercial enterprise is not encouraged on the island, whilst it forms the main reason that our Mars Colony will realistically exist.

Even so, the commercial gains of any business on the planet will have to be shared out in part through a taxation system that is quite punitive in order to support the resource hungry settlement supporting human life on the surface. We are looking at a rather 'left' governmental structure compared with the way that the United States views good government. I reference the United States here because it is they who are likely to reach the red planet first, in the hope, presumably, of turning it politically blue compared to a Chinese settlement that promises not to be too far behind. Why will the government need to be left of American centre? Medical and buildings insurance don't make any sense, because we can't suddenly and expensively add builders, materials, medicines, diagnostic machines or doctors to the surface of Mars when things go wrong. Resources and resilience have to be in place before the crisis. There will have to be a Martian Health Service of gigantic proportions that puts Obama-care to shame and more closely emulates the extra-ordinarily wasteful NHS of the United Kingdom. There will have to be spare capacity in power, food and water generation. Spare capacity in housing, in case of disasters and in labour resourcing, in case someone falls ill, or is killed. A not insignificant possibility in such a frontier colony.

Let us investigate this tax system, and support the contention that it won't be an enterprise utopia, as some other commentators have imagined.

Imagine a remote place on Earth, that is beautiful and sought-after as a location for specific types of industry. In this case, let's image a place who's economy is based on tourism: The Maldives.

No doubt you are picturing islands and coral atolls, turquoise ocean and diverse marine life. An almost unequalled paradise filled with wavelets and bird-song, and maybe not just a few cocktails too. But the infrastructure here has not been supported effectively because the government can't afford to maintain a refuse disposal system that can cope with the large number of tourism businesses and the waste that they produce. There is now, a veritable island made out of floating plastic waste. Plastic waste so deep, that local people are starting to populate the island as a new home, striking out from poverty stricken lives on the existing islands. The impact to local ecology is significant.

Now let us translate this to Mars. Businesses in the Maldives are not legally compelled to properly invest in their waste solutions, and so, to maintain their bottom dollar (the reason all businesses exist) they ignore it as far as possible. As far as possible is also then a function of policing the legislation, which has not been effective. The same will be true for Mars. If the legislation is not in place, or not policed, humanity might turn our new home, into a wasteland. Hazardous to ourselves and others long before the ambitions of those who wish to terraform the planet can begin their long and arduous journey to create a habitable, perhaps even pleasant countryside planet.

Mars promises to be a society which is deeply weird for many decades to come. Not only can we cite Pitcairn's lovely but unique people as an example here, but we can look to other remote communities living similarly on the edge of human civilisation. Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic with a population about 5 times the size of Pitcairn at around 250 people is also unusual from a global westernised societal perspective. Perhaps worryingly, both of these anomalous territories are part of the United Kingdom, which might say more about the United Kingdom than she cares to admit!

Tristan as the island is more commonly known, shares some interesting anomalies with our previous subject Pitcairn. The remoteness is self-evident, the tourism and subsistence farming based industry, including significant fishing effort is shared to. But so is the departure from usual western means of government. Tristan is another quasi-communist nation who's industrial effort is limited by a communal ownership of all land and farms and which does not permit outsiders to work or settle on the islands. Tristan has become known among the scientific community and enthusiasts for its magnetically anomalous condition, but even this has not precipitated a change to the local economy.

So we have two examples of settlements which have existed in significant, but not total isolation from the rest of civilisation for a couple of hundred years. The isolation is slightly reduced in modern times, although both communities rely on satellite communications, and indeed neither island community has a reliable internet connection at any location. The larger community on Tristan houses an Internet Cafe which uses a satellite Inmarsat link rated at 3072 kbit/s (perhaps 10% as fast as a normal DSL home broadband connection). But at least these communications methods are considered 'live' here on Earth.

Mars has a maximum communications lag of a staggering 24 minutes, meaning that live conversations with family or friends back home will be impossible, until some black-box technology comes along to enable faster-than-light communications. Don't hold your breath for it.

Not quite reduced to letter writing, the people of Mars will forge their own society, which is likely to be rather more communist than American business and politicians will be jumping to support, and the chances that they will continue to develop their society along the lines of Earth-civilisation relies entirely on constantly topping the population up with terrestrial humans fresh from our cultural centres, which will slow the inevitable formation of a new culture. It is extremely likely however that Mars, as with other young nations with regular cross-pollination with their founding fathers will cherry-pick their own way forward rather sooner than their founding nations might be expecting, or hoping for.

See America, Australia, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, and the UAE among dozens more who sought independence from a distant ruler, forged their own paths politically and made their own mistakes (and all have a space programme of their own). Some of those decisions have become very unpopular in their parental nations and that is something we on Earth need to be prepared to understand too. We might seek to go to Mars as Europeans, or Americans for example, but before long "our" citizens on Mars might look upon us as a foreign power governing them through a lens of life that doesn't understand the reality on the surface, and which thus doesn't act in the local best interest. Long-term national investments might not get the long-term chance to pay off that is presently hoped for in government circles.

Will Mars end up as a red flag-flying communist utopia. No. Almost certainly not, but neither will it be a SpaceX-led All American Dream. Mars is going to be a (hopefully delightful) strange world analogous to, but different from Earth. Mars will face some extremely tough challenges in eking out an existence amid, not the volcanic rock of the remote Earth peoples who have never been more than a couple of days travel from bustling cities and resources of developed nations, but in a vast and terrifying desert which is constantly trying to kill them, and thwart every effort they make. A comfortable life there will not be on Mars for most, if not all people who choose to go there in the next 30 to 50 years. It is indeed romantic to think of 2 year missions in a glorified tent in Utah as teaching us all we need to know about deep-space psychology, and those lessons are important, but we should look close to home to see if we Humans are ready to set out in numbers, to permanently populate the stars.

If Pitcairn Island can teach us anything it is this:

Life will go wherever it is allowed, welcome or not. Life will stay for as long as it can, and if it is beaten back (Pitcairn was abandoned for a few years after all but one person was killed) it will return to struggle on again and again. But, the existence of life is not necessarily the existence of success and it is forecast that Pitcairn will be uninhabited by 2045. It is just way too remote for anybody to want to live there.

Let me leave you with these questions, to which your thoughts are invited in the comments below:

Will Humans live on Mars? Probably.

Will generations survive one after another on the red planet, and will we indeed turn it into a blue marble, and then a green one in time?

Will we truly go to Mars and stay there forever this time, or will we wait until Mars isn't the very extent of our powers, but merely a sensible decision that is well within them before we find that we settle in numbers long term?

This piece was written by Philip Day in the hope of inviting comment and discussion, and is by no means an attack on fellow enthusiasts for humans visiting and living on Mars nor on western democracy. It is important for us all to review our established norms and beliefs, and as scientists we should keep searching for signs that our model as it stands is incorrect. It is hoped that this piece will enable our bright and inspiring community to add elements of Human life on Earth as lived experience to our models, and recognise the scale of the challenges from a personal and human point of view that must be planned for.

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