Thursday, April 20, 2023

SpaceX's Starship Makes the Case for Lockean Liberal Darwinism in Space

After the first launch attempt on Monday was scrubbed, the launching of Starship today was partially successful.  This was the first attempt at a fully integrated launch of Starship with its Super Heavy booster.  Elon Musk had warned ahead of time that there was a 50/50 chance the Starship would explode on the launch pad.  So, it was a great success when the lift off cleared the launch tower.  The rocket ascended for about four minutes.  But as you can see in the video, if you look at the lower left representation of the booster's engines, it appeared that 5 of the 33 raptor engines in the booster did not fire.  The rocket began spinning erratically.  There was no separation of the booster from the Starship.  Then, there was what SpaceX engineers call a "rapid unscheduled disassembly."  In other words, it blew up!  All of the data from this flight will help for the planning of future flights.  As Musk predicted, it was exciting.

The testing of Starship will continue until SpaceX has shown that both the Starship upper stage and the Super Heavy booster are fully reusable.  Starship must return for a vertical landing, and Super Heavy must return for landing on its launch pad.  That's a big deal because that will drastically reduce the cost of launches into space, which paves the way for space travel that will establish human settlements on the Moon and then Mars.  

From 1970 to 2010, the price of launch to orbit was stable at $10,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).   One of the primary reasons for this high price is that the rockets were destroyed in each launch.  Imagine flying a 747 jet, destroying it after one use, and then building a new one for the next flight.  The ticket prices would be high.

Then, beginning in 2010, SpaceX began cutting the price of space launch.  The company introduced partially reusable vehicles.  The Falcon 9 rocket reuses 9 of its 10 engines.  The Falcon Heavy rocket reuses 27 of its 28 engines.  This cut the price of launch from $10,000 per kilogram to $2,000 per kilogram.  Now, if they are successful with Starship becoming a fully reusable heavy lift launch system, the price of a launch to orbit will be reduced to under $500 per kilogram.

The people at NASA and other government space agencies around the world had always assumed that this was impossible.  This all changed with the emergence of an entrepreneurial space race sparked by companies like Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.  For a libertarian space enthusiast like Robert Zubrin, this shows that human expansion into space--to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond--requires the liberty secured in a free-market society that promotes the freedom of thought for human inventiveness in creating the technology for space travel and exploration (Zubrin 2019, 2022).  

After all, the original space race--between the United States and the Soviet Union--was won by the U.S. when Americans became the first--and the only--people to land human beings on the Moon.  As President John Kennedy indicated in his original announcement of the Apollo program, the aim was to show that a free society can outcompete a tyrannical society in conquering space.  That first space program was planned by politicians and governmental administrators in NASA contracting with private aerospace corporations.  The first crewed Moon landing was achieved in 1969 (Apollo 11).  But after the sixth and last crewed Moon landing in 1972 (Apollo 17), the politicians and administrative bureaucrats lost interest in the early plans for landing human beings on Mars.  In 2008, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said that if the Saturn rocket program that had landed crews on the Moon had been continued, "we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for 'the next 50 years.'"  That original vision for settling Mars had to be renewed by space entrepreneurs like Musk.  Now, NASA has plans for a Moon to Mars mission that will land human beings on Mars for the first time as a step towards human interplanetary settlement.

But even if this shows that liberty is required for human expansion into space, we might still wonder whether liberty will prevail in the human space settlements on the Moon, Mars, and possibly other moons and planets in the Solar System.  On the one hand, people like Charles Cockell (2013, 2022) have argued that human space societies will be inclined towards tyranny, because everyone in a space society will be totally dependent on their government to provide them artificial life support, and thus those who control the government will be able to tyrannize over the society by threatening to withdraw life support (most importantly, breathable air) from anyone who resists being oppressed.  Under these conditions, liberty can be secured, Cockell contends, only if the right institutions for limiting, dividing, and checking governmental power are established (the sort of constitutional republic established by the American Founders).  

On the other hand, people like Zubrin (2019, 2022) have argued that Cockell's pessimistic fear of the propensity to extraterrestrial tyranny is unjustified, because the only successful human settlements in space will have to be inclined towards liberty.  Zubrin sees at least two main reasons for this.

The first reason is that any successful extraterrestrial society will have to respect individual liberty because only free people with freedom of thought and action can provide the inventive innovation that creates and sustains the technology of artificial life support required for extraterrestrial environments.  There are no natural resources to support human life on Earth or on any other planet.  There are only natural raw materials.  And it is human inventiveness that creates the technology for transforming raw materials into resources.  There are no natural resources on Mars today.  But there will be plenty of resources on Mars once there are lots of resourceful people there to transform raw Martian material into resources for supporting life.

For example, the atmosphere of Mars is very thin, and most of it (95%) is carbon dioxide, with only a trace of oxygen (.174%).  So, a Martian society will need to devise and manage technologies for extracting oxygen.  The carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere could be broken up to release the oxygen atoms.  Or, the ice in the polar regions of Mars could be collected, melted, and filtered, and then through the electrolysis of the water, the water molecules could be split into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.  The oxygen could then be provided for breathing, and the hydrogen could be used to make methane fuel.  All of this will require lots of resourceful, inventive people with ideas for how this is to be done.  And these people must have the freedom to discover these ideas and put them to work.  A tyrannical government that would deny this freedom would make it impossible to sustain a society on Mars.

You can see here that Zubrin appeals to the classical liberal argument (of Julian Simon and others) that the resources to support a prosperous human life will always be abundant as long as there are lots of people with good ideas and with the freedom to develop those ideas to solve human problems.  That's why the expansion of human freedom on the Earth over the past two hundred years has created explosive growth in human population and prosperity.  The same will be true for human societies on Mars.

The second reason for why Zubrin thinks Martian societies will have to favor freedom is that only free societies will attract immigrants, and Martian societies will need immigrants to overcome their severe labor shortage.  "From a Darwinian point of view, an extraterrestrial tyranny is an impossibility because that colony would not be able to grow, it would not be able to blossom.  It would be outcompeted for immigrants by ones that offer greater liberty" (Zubrin 2022, 500).

I see this as an extension to Mars of Lockean liberal symbolic niche construction and the evolution cultural group selection with a Lockean open borders immigration policy.


Cockell, Charles. 2013. Extra-Terrestrial Liberty: An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of Tyrannical Government Beyond the Earth. London: Shoving Leopard.

Cockell, Charles. 2022. Interplanetary Liberty: Building Free Societies in the Cosmos. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zubrin, Robert. 2019.  The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Zubrin, Robert. 2022.  "The Case for Space is Liberty."  In The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty, ed. Charles Cockell, 497-504.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Roger Sweeny said...

"In 2008, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said that if the Saturn rocket program that had landed crews on the Moon had been continued, "we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for 'the next 50 years.'"

Only if by "we", he means a very, very, very small number of carefully selected people. Getting to Mars is not like stepping on board the space ship Enterprise and turning on warp engines. It means a year and a half voyage in a small, enclosed space with no gravity the entire time. Then it means another small enclosed space, this time at about a third earth gravity (3.721/9.807=0.38) in a place with an unbreathable atmosphere, a sun that is only about half as bright (590 w/m2 v 1,000 W/m2), and a surface where nothing will grow. Even if the flight only cost a dollar a kilo, getting to Mars and staying there would be remarkably difficult and expensive.

Larry Arnhart said...


A few months ago, and now again, you've made a good point about how a human settlement on Mars might be an unrealistic fantasy, for a lot of reasons.

Eventually, I will need to respond to this.

Roger Sweeny said...

I think a human settlement on Mars is possible. It just will always be small and require special people who will be living very, very, very different lives than anyone on earth has ever done. They will not be Pilgrims getting off the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock or Paleo-Siberians working their way down the Northwest coast, thence to populate the continent.

Even more, they will not be the humans on Star Trek who jump on and off planets virtually at will, and live fairly ordinary lives in what is essentially a traveling luxury hotel. Ordinary as in normal gravity and atmosphere, spaciousness, food and drink they are used to, etc.