Saturday, September 17, 2005

Colonizing Mars

According to the Boston Globe this morning, a private firm called 4Frontier hopes to put a human colony on Mars in twenty years or so.

If price were no object, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that by the end of the 21st century, prospering self-supporting colonies might exist on terraformed Mars. But the colonization of Mars will be hugely expensive, and doubtless beyond the reach of any private corporation.

Some years ago I suggested -- with tongue only half in cheek -- that we take a page from the opening of the American west.

To encourage the building of transcontinental railroads, federal and state governments gave away huge tracts of land. Six square miles of land was typically granted to the railroad companies for every miles of track that was laid. The companies parlayed free land into big profits.

Nor was it a foolish transaction for government. Before the coming of the railroads, western land could hardly give away. In the wake of the railroads, federal holdings became immensely valuable.

During the years 1850 to 1871, the U. S. government passed out more than 130 million acres, or more than the combined areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

So here's the deal. By a treaty involving all spacefaring nations of Earth, ownership of Mars will be claimed in the name of humanity, then sold to finance exploration and colonization of the red planet.

Land thought to have substantial subsurface water or mineral resources will be auctioned to the highest bidders, most likely multinational investment consortiums. A stake in Martian exploration and development by big business will stiffen political resolve to get the job done quickly.

The romance of owning land on Mars will also appeal to a broad range of small-scale investors. I would gladly sign up for a few acres for my progeny.

The surface of Mars is roughly 36 billion acres, approximately the same as the land area of Earth. If, say, a tenth of that were sold at an average of $100 per acre, a Martian exploration program could be well under way.

Of course, large tracts of land will be held in trust for future public parks. These will include such natural wonders as the Olympus Mons and Tharsis Montes volcano complex and the Coprates Chasma canyonlands. Also historic sites such as the landing places of the Viking 1 and 2 probes. Certain low-lying areas will be reserved for future lakes or seas -- if sufficent water can be found.

As the adventure proceeds, more land will be offered for sale. As the first colonies are established -- say by the year 2050 -- property values will appreciate, especially near settlements. By law, any land transactions between private owners will be subject to a heavy tax, with the proceeds plowed back into colonization.

By the end of the 21st century, Martian colonies should be economically independent of the home planet.

On Monday, I'll reveal the plot I have picked out for my great-great-grandkids.