SPACE BASICS: “Space Settlements” vs “Communities Beyond Earth”

Kalpana One space settlement

By Dale Skran

In a previous post on What Is a Space Settlement? I made a serious effort to define a “space settlement” and came up with this:

“A space settlement” refers to a habitation in space or on a celestial body where families live on a permanent basis, and that engages in commercial activity which enables the settlement to grow over time, with the goal of becoming economically and biologically self-sustaining as a part of a larger network of space settlements. “Space settlement” refers to the creation of that larger network of space settlements

When reading this definition, please keep in mind that it is an attempt to define a “desirable exemplar” of a space settlement, i.e. the kind of thing space advocates have in mind when they push for the creation of space setttlements. A space settlement with a shrinking population and declining standard of living is still a space settlement, but it is certainly not a desirable goal. Likewise, a space settlement might be under the control of a remote sovereign, but otherwise meet all the other criteria. I submit that although this arrangement may be true as we start to expand into space, over time it will become less so. The question is whether it is desirable that an Earthly sovereign should for all time maintain control of all space settlements. If this position is asserted, it is advocacy of a new form of colonialism, and, I submit, not a desirable exemplar.

It should be noted the idea of a “desirable exemplar space settlement” is different from an attempt to create a dictionary definition of “space settlement.” A group of slave miners on Europa may constitute a space settlement in some technical sense, but this is not a future that the NSS advocates for.

For a long time, there have been conflicting opinions about whether to use the terms “space colonies” or “space settlements,” although recently we’ve seen more use of “space colonies.”  “Colony” brings up all sorts of negative associations: the exploitation of native peoples, the oppression of the “colonists” by a remote sovereign, and the obsolete mercantilist economic system. As a result, NSS has long favored the term “space settlement” as being both unambiguous and preferable to “space colony.”

Unfortunately, “settlement” also has some negative connotations, although to a much lesser degree than “colony.” This has led the Beyond Earth Institute (, a self-described “think tank,” to suggest a new terminology, namely “communities beyond Earth” which they define as:

“A community beyond Earth is defined as a group of people building, sustaining, and growing an economically vibrant self-governing society outside the atmosphere of our home planet.”

There are at least two problems with this approach, but, I think, one really good point.  The problems are:

  • The phrase “communities beyond Earth” is much less self-defining than “space settlement.” In some sense, the crew of the ISS is a “community beyond the Earth” while it is clearer that the ISS is not a “space settlement.”
  • The definition of “communities beyond Earth” makes no reference to families or children. It is conceptually possible for a “community beyond Earth” to fully meet their definition, while actually having no children or families.  Imagine a group of miners on the Moon, for example.

It is possible that the authors of the Beyond Earth Institute’s statement removed mention of “families and children” to avoid excluding childless couples.  This impression can be removed with a minor tweak to my definition.  It should be emphasized that:

  • Mention of the term “families” does not imply any particular family structure or particular form of marriage. People may read this as “families” = “heteronormative nuclear family” but that is not the intention.
  • Regardless of the family structure, if there are no children, there will be no long-term future for the space settlement without an endless stream of new immigrants from Earth.

The definition does have, however, a good idea that my definition did not include, that of a “self-governing society.” The notion of space settlements being self-governing, perhaps exhibiting a wide variety of different systems of government, is a key element of the O’Neill vision. This suggests that my definition of a “desirable exemplar space settlement” could be improved in the following fashion:

“A space settlement” refers to a habitation in space or on a celestial body where people, including families with children, live on a permanent basis in a self-governing society, and that engages in commercial activity which enables the settlement to grow over time, with the goal of becoming economically and biologically self-sustaining as a part of a larger network of space settlements. “Space settlement” refers to the creation of that larger network of space settlements.

Properly, a “space settlement” that is not self-governing is a “space colony” – an extension of some Earthly sovereign. Although I am not yet convinced Beyond Earth is on the right track with their terminology of “communities beyond the Earth,” I welcome their valuable contribution to the on-going dialog about our future in space.

Copyright 2020 Dale Skran


National Space Society

National Space Society

4 thoughts on “SPACE BASICS: “Space Settlements” vs “Communities Beyond Earth””

  1. The idea that a “space settlement” must conform to some predefined ideological definition is truly nonsense. One of the most hopeful aspects of space settlement is a level of diversity no longer possible on Earth. A “sovereign” can mean anything from a figurehead (like the Queen in the British Commonwealth) to a ruthless dictator. There will be settlements that are conquered or otherwise dominated by other space settlements. There may be settlements where there are no :families, just free love for procreation, or only artificial insemination, or gestation in glass jars (a la Brave New World), or children raised communally (like a kibbutz), There will be all conceivable political organizations, and weird religious communities. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

  2. A Space or Terran Clade might be a better alternative term. As a society or settled community located elsewhere in space would be a branch of Terran civilization with Earth as a common ancestor.

  3. I would not be surprised if space settlements were under the government of a sovereign power on Earth, at least in the beginning. Over time they would come to want independence and this can be done smoothly, as it has been done with much of the British Empire becoming over time the British Commonwealth. There are now many independent countries that freely and of their own volition belong to the British Commonwealth but are not ruled by Britain. A similar progression from space colonies to independent space settlements with kindred and affinity to their original sovereign power could easily and naturally occur. As always, here’s hoping for smooth and peaceful development.

  4. Human evolution is still going on. Physically very slow on our planet..we can never tell if humans can adopt bearing children on a microgravity environment or on an artificially generated gravity in a space settlement or colony and that will change human phenotypes and genotypes… mentally, we are developing a future kind of higher awareness….spiritual awareness coupled with high tech electronic equipment on the quantum levels including robotics and development of cybernetics… cyborgs,…even perhaps a new human species…Homo sapiens sapiens or Homo deus…something like an eternal human being fit for inter stellar travel..of course new system of governance will ensue based on the type of society and technology that are created…and perhaps inter dimensional travel will become a possibility…in 50 to 100 years from now I would expect a highly evolved humanity in terms of spiritual awareness and this will be the basis of future civilization on Earth and beyond ….space settlements, or colony whatever…


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