The following is a rough-form exposition, our initial thoughts.
To live in space, on the moon, on mars is to live off-world. However, each environment - from space stations, to the moon, to Mars, poses its own set of predictable challenges.
Among the many established challenges, there are: how do we bring or produce sufficient food? How do we bring or produce sufficient water? What kind of built environment is needed to survive in that environment? How will we communicate back with Earth? And others.
In short, what is necessary for securing the continued well-being of astronauts in off-world living environments?
The predictability of these questions yields a clear and easy source for scientific advancement. A goal which has been institutionalised in the form of challenge-prizes issued by Space Agencies, like NASA and ESA, and Prize Foundations, such as X-Prize and Schmidt Futures.
While Space Agencies and Foundations have paid attention to the physical and psychological requirements of small population astronaut communities, such agencies have paid comparatively less attention to the social, psychological, political, and economic implications of growing and sustaining these communities.
That work has been the realm of the social sciences. The fountain of many science fiction stories is the evolution of large scale off-world communities. But increasingly, agencies have the responsibility of pushing from science fiction to funded research. To think not only of the first generation which can survive, but the long-term consequences of the choices we make now in design and technology selection for how communities can evolve on Mars.
If all the resource, health, and psychological safety questions can be addressed, what should these communities do? How should they be governed and organised? What kinds of Earth problems can be left on Earth?
Simply because a topic has been given comparatively less attention does not justify the funding a large scale program. So, let's consider the justification for a social, economic, and political futures program. But first let's take a step back to ground what we mean by such a program.
Let’s say we want to understand what kind of informal decision approaches might exist in off-world communities. Within the US and the UK, at the least, a common informal approach is to turn towards flipping a coin or rock-paper-scissors. The ‘turning towards’ such mechanisms is an effort to introduce an element of randomness and therefore fairness, by deferring choice to the winner.
Informal decision mechanisms have existed across human history, and for good reason - they exist to avoid sending decisions to a more formal deciding body, which in the most obvious of ways is often unnecessary, too negatively bureaucratic, or over-formalised all social engagements. It seems ‘obvious’ why we get to decide things through rock-paper-scissors on Earth.
Is that the same in off-world living? If there is a smaller community, where decisions have high impact, should people get to autonomously decide what is and is not shared with the group? Are there limits on what we can use rock-paper-scissors to solve?
But let's consider another side - how about the impact of a built environment on human living. For instance, in a future built environment on Mars, should people have individual rooms and if so, should they be the same size? For instance, speculative designs for 3d printed moon and mars environments, generated from NASA’s habitat challenge, have a vertical orientation with lab, kitchen, recreation, and living spaces. Size of living space is often a proxy for economic wealth on Earth, and having a similar dynamic could code-in beliefs on spatial inequality. Whoever has the largest room has the power or the wealth, or is deserving of it. Is that the best way to organise the distribution of space as settlements grow?
Or how about the inevitable social-emotional issues that can emerge in team dynamics. If people are stuck together in a closed environment for years at a time, what kinds of practices/institutions could best resolve these tensions? Is anonymous submission of complaints even feasible or desirable? Such questions have been more addressed in space station environments. But in a settled community, the distribution of tasks which need human attention and therefore labour will likely be challenged, how much autonomy should the leader have in allocating labour, and what mechanisms for labour arbitration will be needed?
How about the answers to each of these ‘social, institutional, and governance challenges’ when the community has increasing diversity of beliefs, ages, and histories?
An institution is a repeated set of practices within a group organised around addressing specific problems. Whether intended or not, all designed environments are biassed towards enabling some kinds of institutional practices. If you want to have a group activity, and there is no room which can fit all members of that group, then the space is biassed towards sub-group dynamics and individuation.
All models of off-world living will, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have institutional and governance implications. These implications will exist around how people are allocated tasks and time, how people are allocated privacy and space, how different kinds of community practices can emerge around eating and socialising. Earth living demonstrates an exceptional variety of human institutions and social models of organisation. What kind of diversity will off-world living actually accommodate? In the NASA deep space food challenge there were further constraints - such as acceptability criteria in the food production process, given a reasonable amount of time, daily basis, small kitchen environment, and end of high intensity work days.
Across each of the above cases, and the plentitude of related cases of social, economic, and political organisation, is a need to advance the state of the art. This is not simply to create new knowledge, but to leverage the exceptionally large amount of existing knowledge to understand the consequences of designing off-world living.
Given what humans know now, what kinds of problems could humans successfully avoid on Mars?
Now this “avoidism” question is not an argument to say that all problems can be avoided, nor that picking a model that is a perfect fit for some kind of governance approach we decide on now is best, because that might limit the flexibility of community adaptation to challenges we have too little understanding of now. Instead, the avoidism question is to begin with the understanding that all our designs are implicitly avoidist, the question is what they are intended to avoid and what unintended consequences can emerge. Because a basic reality exists across time for unintended consequences, simply put: unintended does not mean unanticipated.
Naturally, this extends to some of the deepest and most entrenched ideological questions. There will likely be no one answer that is universally agreed upon. So, what will likely emerge is a number of standards created by different agencies and actors to support team dynamics, community wellbeing, decision frameworks, and governance frameworks. But the multitude of potential ‘standards’ and frameworks only reinforces the governance challenge. For instance, In the need to understand how different priorities and practices among these standards can interact, and what problems in their interaction we could avoid.
Building the technical capabilities for off-world living without the social, institutional, political, and economic capabilities is to create only half of a successful sustained off-world living strategy.
Towards a Potential Challenge Model
Of the many ways of funding research, the challenge-prize model has become well established for its ability to draw a large amount of inputs and drive public awareness. But naturally this yields a basic question: Is the use of a challenge-prize the best way to drive more research for the social institutional program?
The Deep Space Healthcare Challenge frames its approach simply.
If humans are to go to Mars in the 2050s, we need to find thoughtful solutions that enable them to stay healthy without external support.
Similar challenges have been pursued for food, living environment, water, and related areas of off-world living and travel. These challenges relate to the core questions around long-term human survival in off-world environments. The aim of any good challenge program is to improve the robust definition of the problem, to avoid skipping towards solutionizing.
However, such a challenge immediately needs to clarify:
1) What problem / features of the problem can the challenge help address
2) What outputs are needed to advance our understanding of that problem
3) What submissions to the challenge are needed to build that output
4) How can those submission be evaluated
5) How can the outputs be tested
Given the diversity of social science research traditions, this creates a large potential issue - as the diversity of schools of thought means some arguments and frameworks are incommensurable, they not only disagree on the problem they disagree on what would count as a good approach or solution to that problem. This diversity will be an essential issue to address within the solicitation.
So, to begin, what will be needed is to clarify what social science research is expected to respond to - and to that end, we have two preliminary proposals.
1) The first is to clarify the existing claims and assumptions within a given model of off-world living - being the expectations on how a given set of prototypes will be used. Quite simply, this is to get all the information and assumptions down and make them explicit. Were the prototypes designed for people of a specific body type? Were they designed with a specific metabolic range? Were they designed for people of a specific neurotyptical spectrum? Etc, etc. However, given the piecemeal nature of off-world living development, ending up with a clear and ‘total’ model is not only infeasible but potentially undesirable, given the rate of changes.
2) The second is to surface the claims among many distinct social science traditions on the potential challenges that can emerge from a given “off-world living model” and existing ‘approaches/solutions’ that have been tested in similar and dissimilar environments on Earth.
For instance, it is known that off-world living will have a different biome, particularly around the (hopeful) lack of parasites and related biological stressors. The lack of such stressors may create further unintended bio-physiological issues for human communities. How will the biological adjustment to these lack of stressors impact the social and psychological dynamics of the community?
Or even further, let's suppose that human beliefs on in-group and out-group preferences are resilient and hard to change. These can extend to divisions around preferred sports teams to more sustained issues of -isms, such as sexism and racism. What kinds of institutions and practices are needed to avoid the emergence of racist and sexist institutions in future off-world communities?
As a community grows, its resource and task management will likewise need to either change or be scale consistent.
To that end, a challenge model would solicit from a diverse number of communities the arguments around what kinds of ‘problems’ can emerge from existing prototypes for off-world living - everything from the sleeping equipment, communication systems, toilets, cooking equipment, and on.
The challenge of such a research program is that it must figure out
1) What is the most useful output from a social institutional review for design?
2) What are its own limits (e.g. what are the limits of current social science knowing for improving our understanding of the design of future communities?)
3) Given its limits, what it can contribute to existing design programs
4) Who would fund this programs given the disparate social incentives and wide diversity of potential social and institutional frameworks? (e.g. this program running in the UAE would likely not yield the same solutions as in the USA, which creates productive diversity).
Proposing a Hypothetical Program
If multiple groups are going to create sustained communities on the Moon and Mars in the 2050s, we need thoughtful solutions that allow them to resolve complex and changing social, ethical, economic, and political questions.
We can push for problem elicitation and identification, to proactively identify issues that will be common across different societies. Among the first thematic questions, we could imagine:
What kinds of social and group mechanisms are best suited to intercultural or interreligious dispute resolution in isolated, off-world communities?
What kinds of social inequalities can be created through the off-world built environment? How can they be understood, addressed, and mitigated?
How might social and economic inequalities manifest differently on the Moon and Mars as opposed to Earth? How can they be understood, addressed, and mitigated?
What kinds of early constraints will be experienced as early communities grow on the Moon or Mars?
We can push to the more imaginative and speculative.
If Humans are going to create sustained communities on the Moon and Mars in the 2050s that actively communicate with Earth, we need thoughtful solutions that allow them to maintain online social relationships among each other and members of Earth. What kinds of alternative “social media” can be designed for inclusive, responsible, inter-planetary futures.
If Humans are going to create sustained communities on the Moon and Mars in the 2050s that actively communicate with Earth, we need thoughtful solutions that allow them to sustain and educate new generations. What will the first education program look like for the first generation to be born or raised on the Moon or Mars?