Mars Curiosity, Planetary Resources, slaves and the Louisiana Territory: putting things in historical context and plans for the future

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What do Mars Curiosity, Planetary Resources, the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the 1802 slave rebellion of Saint Domingue have in common, and what insight can this provide for our collective futures?  The clue is that both Mars and the Louisiana Purchase are big and Planetary Resources and Saint Domingue are small.

The summer of 2012 has proven to be a bumper season for space activities.  First, we had Page/Schmitdt/ Cameron’s Planetary Resources’s coming out announcement.  Then we had the successful docking of SpaceX’s Dragon at the Independent Space Station.  Finally, on the 6th August 2012, NASA successfully landed Curiosity, its car-sized science laboratory cum Mars rover, in the Gale Crater, Mars. Because of the 14 minute communications lag between Mars and Earth, the entire decent took place autonomously, controlled by on-board computers, a feat even more impressive given the extraordinary complexity of the landing, which involved air breaking, parachutes, rockets and finally a “sky crane” which winched the lander down from its airborne robot platform.  The new rover, Curiosity, is a huge machine (it is the vehicle on the right of the picture, with the previous two Mars rovers on the left), which is why previous methods of landing (including giant airbags) were not practical.

Mars has a surface area of 144 million square kilometres, which is 28% of the Earth’s surface, which does not seem much. However, since 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans there are only 148 million square kilometres of land on Earth. Mars is practically speaking the size of Earth’s land mass. It is big, reasonably close by, has a very modest atmosphere, reasonable gravity and many of the requirements necessary for prolonged human inhabitation.  For reference, the entire United States has a surface area of 10 million square kilometers.

Planetary Resources’s announcement was at the other end of the scale: they plan to make money, reasonably soon, by first identifying, then capturing, then mining small near earth orbit asteroids. If they can capture an astroid with valuable minerals (they used platinum as an example) they would at a stroke cause a collapse in the relevant commodity price on Earth and make themselves fabulously wealthy.   It is likely that many of the space vehicles required to do this will be like Curiosity – autonomous units – rather than manned vehicles.

So what do NASA’s Curiosity and Planetary Resources’s activities have in common with Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 acquisition of the Louisiana Territories from France, and France’s attempt to crush a slave rebellion in the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue?

Saint Domingue was the most valuable part of France’s North American territories.  It had recently been taken over from the Spanish and was a major producer of raw sugar, refined sugar, indigo, cotton and coffee. By the 1780’s it was supplying about 40% of Europe’s sugar and 60% of Europe’s coffee demand.  Inspired by the French revolution’s exhortation for liberty, equality and brotherhood, the black slave population rose up in revolt against their white masters, whom they outnumbered by 10 to 1.  Napoleon sent in 20,000 French soldiers to try and crush the revolt.  Saint Domingue, was too valuable to lose.

In contrast, the French were happy to get rid of the Louisiana Territories.  Initially, only the land surrounding New Orleans was up for sale, but the French, desperate for cash with which to fight the British, offered up the entirety of their lands in continental North America, for 50% more money.  The Americans were unsure as to what to do: there was no constitutional process to acquire the territory and it was a huge amount of money for the time. Jefferson finally agreed to the purchase and at a stroke the American colonies suddenly not only expanded their territory but also were given access to the West for the first time.  This enabled America to become a continental power and removed France as a competing power.  Only the Spanish in Mexico and the British in Canada remained.

From France’s perspective it made sense to fight for Saint Domingue, despite the clear hypocrisy in defending slave owners’ rights, and to abandon the Louisiana Territories, which, whilst vast, required large numbers of settlers in order to make it worthwhile.  After all, Saint Domingue may have provided up to one third of all of France’s income for the period.  The Louisiana Territories had poor soils and despite best efforts to promote the land for immigration, nobody seemed to want to go there.

Planetary Resources is also right to focus on mining near earth asteroids.  Like the Caribbean islands, they represent clear objectives that do not require large numbers of settlers to make valuable and could prove mind bogglingly lucrative for its investors.  Robotic explorers and miners will take the place of the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves.

And yet it is Mars, with a surface area the size of the Earth’s landmass, that will ultimately be the greatest source of wealth.  Not for its focus on mineral resources, though that will play a part, but for increased space for mankind’s huddled masses.  Companies like Planetary Resources and SpaceX are focused on making a profit, and it is only by making a profit will there be the funds required to develop mankind’s capabilities in space.  The technical skills that they are and will be acquiring to do this will put them in good stead for the bigger picture: the colonisation of Mars.


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  • “Have you ever watched the original total recall? If we dont have ‘abundant’ resources and land then we will be charged per breath due to overpopulation. I will let you think about the alternative. –I would work there and I would be proud of it. Slavery is long gone and just like myself I would go for the ride and the opportunity to be part of a niche market. If I get taken for a ride…hey… I got to do something the pharaohs did not…Where’s the looser?Bring it on before I get old!”

    • tristanfischer

      Great film and I am sure that there are millions who would join you, were the opportunity to be there, in the same way that they left everything behind to emigrate to the Americas 150 years ago.

  • very neat analogies, worth further thinking about

  • Excellent essay. However:

    “From France’s perspective it made sense to fight for Saint Domingue, despite the clear hypocrisy in defending slave owners’ rights, and to abandon the Louisiana Territories”…

    Please do not confuse the fascist dictator Napoleon, who killed millions of French people, and millions of other Europeans, with “France”. It’s quite a bit like confusing Hitler and “Germany”.

    Hitler was not born in Germany. Napoleon was not born in “France”, either. In both cases we have people who want to belong, while hating secretly.

    The Constitution of the French republic, years prior to Napoleon’s coup, had outlawed slavery in the colonies, as it had been outlawed in metropolitan France more than a millennium before, in 660 CE.

    It is important to distinguish Peoples, and some evil men who happened to have lead them. Sometimes.

  • The article is interesting, as I was curious how these could be tied together, but, I think the conclusion is making a massive leap.

    If a company can make money mining asteroids, which is very unlikely, unless there is a dramatic change in how they plan to do this, there is a big difference between sends hundreds of robots to an asteroid and mining, and transporting it back, and taking a planet and making it so we can live there. A big part of the expense is to build there first, then have the resources to move a large number of people. This is very different from shipping people from Europe to the US, as it is a trip of known, relatively limited risks.

    The biggest problem is that such an endeavor will require commitments from many governments, and they can’t even agree on how to deal with global warming, which we are seeing is negatively impacting us currently. How will they agree on a way to ship people to Mars, when more and more resources will be used just to keep us on this planet, for example, if the oceans indeed rise 20 feet, then major cities will have to be rebuilt or moved, as millions of people are displaced, and this will place a strain on resources that would be needed to get to Mars.

    Nice in theory, but I don’t see people changing enough for it to become a reality, but the article was interesting, in tying together some events that I couldn’t see coming together.
    Posted by James Black

    • tristanfischer

      Hi James,
      Thanks for your comments, which are very valid.
      The expense of getting to Mars is huge and and, unlike going to North America, it would be expensive to eek out a living in a terrible environment. A European making the trip to America could expect to sell everything they owned (not much) to pay for the cost. Many went over as indentured servants – effectively selling themselves- for a period of up to 15 years to pay for the cost. Something similar might happen to pay to get to Mars.

      If we can barely manage to look after the Earth with a habitat perfect for life, then living on Mars is arguably a big step. However, new materials, combined with lower gravity could make living in big domes possible. There would be no shortage of volunteers. The question is whether it would make any sense financially.

  • Pingback: Roots: A historical understanding of climate change denial, creationism and slavery – 1629-1775 - History, Future. Now.()

  • Article. Which is more important to future of mankind: NASA Curiosity Rover or Cameron’s Planetary Resources? Find out http://t.co/8tBEDOQZ

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