The Twin Frontiers: The New Space Race & Abyssal Colonization

The New Space Race

Since 1972, no human manned space mission has proceeded beyond near Earth orbit.

Now, numerous countries, including but not limited to the US, China, Japan, India and Israel, seek to change that. However, the most prominent efforts promoting space colonization are not coming from governments, but from industrialists.

September 27, Space-X founder, CEO and lead designer, Elon Musk, gave a talk titled Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species at AIC on his company’s plans to colonize Mars and the numerous technical challenges entailed by the venture.

Space-X Mars mission timeline projection with constrained budget (2016).

May 9, Jeff Bezos of Amazon held a talk for Blue Origin, whereat he discussed the tantalizing prospects of space colonization and what he and his company were doing to advance that cause. The near-hour long talk was titled, Going to Space to Benefit Earth, and covered a considerable amount of ground (as one must when attempting to plot out a rough trajectory for the interstellar future of a entire species).

First image of Earth from lunar distance, acquired by Lunar Orbiter-1 on the 23 of August, 1966. At the time, the spacecraft was on its 16th orbit around the Moon.

Bezos talked at length about Earth’s resources, growth versus scarcity, and Blue Origin’s reusable rockets; however, most interestingly (to me) was his brisk discourse on O’Neill Colonies (or O’Neill Cylinders). Unlike Musk, whose talk centered on Earth-to-Mars transit for prospective future colonies without remarking what those colonies might look like or how they might be built, Bezos waxed more conceptual regarding potential rough guidelines for colonial deepspace habitats.

O’Neill Colonies were developed out of J.D. Bernal’s space colony sphere concept (aptly titled Bernal Spheres) by the American physicist, Gerard Kitchen O’Neill in a series of lectures in 1975 to 1976 and also in his 1976 book,  The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. In brief, a O’Neill Colony was conceived of as a massive cylinder, 5 miles in diameter, 20 miles long, constrained at each end with a bearing system, that would generate artificial gravity by spinning so as to be maximally conducive to human habitation. Until Bernal and O’Neil nearly all space colonization discourse was constrained to planetary surfaces due, at least in part, to what Issac Asimov called ‘planetary chauvinism’ (who borrowed the phrase from Carl Sagan).

The Promise of the Abyss

Whilst the theoretical archive of space habitation is dense and public support strong, the like archive of oceanic habitation is somewhat thinner with public support being considerably less strong as a consequence despite the fact that it is now wholly within the realm of technological feasibility. One of the likely reasons why can be found in a line from Mr. Musk’s previously mentioned talk wherein he noted that,

“Right now, on Earth, you can go anywhere in 24 hours. I mean, anywhere. You can fly over the antartic pole and parachute out, 24 hours from now, if you want. You can get parachuted from the top of Mt. Everest — from the right plane. You can go to the bottom of the ocean. […] So, there is no physical frontier on Earth anymore.”

He is correct, as far as the surface of the earth goes (the subterranean is another story entirely), but traversing a frontier and settling a frontier are two very different things. Despite the ease with which a contemporary advanced submersible may traverse the bottom of the ocean, no permanent human settlement has ever there been created.

In terms of intercivilizational development, space colonization is the more important trajectory, this much is incontestable, as, given a sufficiently long timeline, a species-wide extinction event will eventually occur (such as the death of the sun, which would entail the evaporation of all life on Earth), thus, moving out into the solar system is a way to hedge our species’ collective bets for continued existence. That being said, there are a number of promising benefits from oceanic colonization in the short term, including resource extraction, migration alleviation, scientific and architectural experimentation and many more, all of which have their own knock-on effects (both potentially positive and negative). To further develop concrete plans for oceanic colonization, then, it behooves us to engage in a perfunctory cost benefit analysis, for if the negatives are found to outway the positives no one will want to engage in the project and if the analysis is not conducted, no one will care because no one will know. However, if the benefits of mass underwater habitation construction are found to be generally positive, the knowledge thereof will further incentivize those preternaturally exploratory few who would invariably be at the vanguard of any prospective future abyssal ventures.

Bountiful Sanitary Water

The first and most obvious benefit of ocean colonization is that, with a sufficient filtration system, one will never run out of clean water, both for consumption and sanitation. In a deepsea habitation with a reverse osmosis desalination system, the supply of clean water would be endless and energy expenditure, minimal, as (provided sufficient depth) the pressure would perform the majority of the operational heavy-lifting.

High-Yield Aquatic Farming

Crustacean, fish and mollusc farms in addition to gardens, would be both easy to maintain and provide ample, nutritional vittles, both for consumption and exportation. The novelty of deepsea base cuisine itself will, in some quarters, will likely be such to generate considerable demand.

Mineral Mining & Hydrocarbon Extraction

Polymetallic nodules, manganese crusts, metalliferous sulphidic muds and massiveconsolidated sulphides all can be exploited for metals, whilst submarine phosphorite deposits can be harvested for elemental phosphorous, fertilizer, feed and industrial chemical supplements.

New Sovereignty — Conflict Mitigation

Crowding and demographic diversity engender and intensify inter-tribal adversity, spurring a desire for system exit by those unamenable to assimilation. To alleviate future inter-group conflict by separatist designs or over-capacity migrant flow, new, submarine sovereignties can be created whereby future civil wars (the most bloody, fatal kind of warfare) are mitigated.

Mitigation Of Complications Brought About Via Sea Level Rise

The fear of sea level rise could be completely mitigated by designing oceanic habitations around the coast, whether above water-level, below-water-level or architectures capable of both floatation and submersion whilst sustaining a amenable habitat.

Orienting Design Trajectories Toward Multivarient Domain Mastery

Beyond the immediate aesthetic and material benefits of ocean colonization, the single most important aspect of designing sustainable, durable human submarine habitation is in orienting design towards mastery of the inhospitable. In place of making previously habitable domains more habitable, the ultimate goal of colony design efforts should be to make all spaces habitable — whether that domain is the deep ocean, a distant planet, or the unlit and unpopulated expanse of void-space.

Past and Continuing Attempts At Inverse Arcology

Though ocean colonization has not been as feverishly pursed as space colonization (as can be gathered from the fact that every major industrial nation has a space program, but none have similar programs for sea-floor settlement), there have nonetheless been numerous past and continuing attempts to make the sea human habitable. Before we come to the various structures and plans for watery residence, it is important to note that though many of them were not forthright attempts at colonization (widespread, long-term settlement for large populations), there is no intrinsic reason why they could not in the future. Every metropolis in the U.S. was once but a scattering of small homesteads. In like fashion, the aquatic demenses of tomorrow can only arise from gradual, granular development.

Underwater Residences

The Conshelf I, II and III

In 1962, Conshelf I was set up off Marseilles at a depth of ten meters. The structure measured 5 meters long and 2.5 meters in diameter. Two men, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly, were the first ‘oceanauts’ to live in it, completely underwater, for a week.

In 1963, Conshelf II was deployed, it was designed to function as a small village, built on the floor of the Red Sea at a depth of ten meters. Like Conshelf I, the Conshelf II was developed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in conjunction with the French petrochemical industry.

In 1965, Conshelf III was deployed in the Mediterranean Sea, between Nice and Monaco, at a depth of 330 feet (100 m). Like stations I and II, Conshelf III was intended to function as a proof of concept habitat and pave the way for future designs of deepsea industrial bases.

Sub-Biosphere Project II

Begun in 1998, the Sub-Biosphere project (SBS2) is the brainchild of London designer and concept artist, Phil Pauley which lays out a potential submersible human habitation. SBS2 consists of 8 spheres affixed in a circle to a larger central sphere from which life support is monitored, all of which would function as biomes capable of floating or submerging beneath large bodies of water.

The Muraka

The Muraka, which means ‘coral’ in Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives, is a opulent villa located 16.5 feet beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean. Whilst not meant for private residence, it certainly could be used as such and shows the aesthetic allure of submarine architecture.

Project Ocean Spiral

“This is a real goal, not a pipe dream. The Astro Boy cartoon character had a mobile phone long before they were actually invented – in the same way, the technology and knowhow we need for this project will become available.” —Shimizu Corp spokesman, Hideo Imamura on project Ocean Spiral

‘Ocean Spiral 02’ concept art.

In 2014, the prolific Japanese architectural firm, Shimizu Corporation, announced plans for Ocean Spiral, a prospective underwater city which would accomadate approximately 5000 people and draw power from the water its via thermal energy conversion.

It is projected to be operational by 2030.


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