Why go to space?
As Space Explorations Technologies Corp. (more commonly known as ‘SpaceX’) founder and CEO Elon Musk has said before, multi-planetary colonisation is not a plan B but instead a necessity for the survival of humanity. The best explanation of this is that of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs had in many ways ruled the Earth and seemed unstoppable and very well adapted to survival. Unfortunately for them, a giant asteroid collided with the Earth and completely wiped out almost all of their species. This or some other unforeseen and unavoidable tragedy could also cause the destruction of humanity. The chances of this are vastly reduced if people inhabit more than one planetary body, hence the desire to colonise Mars.
Currently, SpaceX is working on a rocket called ‘Starship‘ (formally the BFR). Note that design changes are in progress and all images given by SpaceX will not be representative of the final design. The Starship will be a fully reusable rocket technically capable of travelling anywhere in the solar system. It will eventually take people and cargo to Mars to set up a self-sustaining colony there. The current forecast for this is for 2024.
The fact that the rocket will be able to be re-used multiple times means that the cost per launch and Martian ticket price will be far lower than the normal multi-hundred-million dollar prices. The Starship will be the most powerful rocket built and also the cheapest per launch. This will help make space accessible to more private companies and the general public and would enable a mass colonisation of Mars and other planetary bodies.
If you want to send people into space, you obviously need to make sure they won’t die. For space faring systems, this means a whole host of life support systems, including oxygen recycling/ production, air purification systems, cabin pressurisation, food storage and preparation systems, food production and many many more.
All of these systems add weight, complexity and further points of failure. Furthermore, given that most of these systems would be critical, there would need to be redundancy, spare parts and serviceability. This could potentially more than double the extra weight, reducing the payload capacity, passenger capacity and free space on any rocket.
This would affect not only rockets but also habitats themselves. Habitats would need large areas devoted to farming, healthcare, life-support and more. All places of work would need to either be in a larger habitable zone or have their own life-support systems. Exploration would also be limited by the oxygen capacity of spacesuits meaning for a long time only areas near enough to habitable zones would be explored in great detail, potentially leading to useful resources being missed entirely.
How this changes with a digital being:
Unlike biological humans, digital beings do not need most of the resources so vital for human habitation. One funny example of this from popular culture comes from ‘Rogue One: a Star Wars Story‘. In one scene, Bodhi Rook, a pilot, says ‘we’re all annihilated in the cold dark vacuum of space’, to which K2SO, a droid not unlike the digital beings discussed here, responds ‘Not me… I can survive in space’.
Digital beings would rely exclusively on access to energy, which can easily be generated and stored with solar panels and batteries. Essentially, this means that both rockets and habitats could be created with vastly more simplicity and vastly less mass. Space suits wouldn’t be needed, and any thermal maintenance systems could be integrated directly into the artificial body and any upgrades could be applied separately to the actual rocket and habitat hardware.
Technically, digital beings could survive on their own without any rocket, and a rocket would only play the role of transport. Also, any habitats could easily be like our current buildings without the need for air locks or filtration systems. Exploration would be limited only be the size of the battery in cases of no sunlight, e.g. caves. The only public buildings needed would be emergency services, excluding ambulances, communication systems and power stations, assuming buildings are not off-grid.
In many ways, this would make things like manufacturing, travel and transport easier as the density component of drag would be almost eliminated and overheating would be less likely, potentially even to the point where superconductors, wires with no resistance, could be operated under normal conditions. Internal components like batteries that may only have a narrow operating temperature range could have their own thermal management systems.
Due to the environmental versatility of digital beings, many components necessary for biology to survive can be removed and the colonisation of the solar system and eventually the galaxy can be achieved at a much faster rate and for far cheaper. These places would probably be uninhabitable for biological organisms, at least for the first years of the colony being set up. Most of the solid planetary bodies could be explored and inhabited at a minimal cost, and production could be achieved far easier due to lower drag and more favourable temperatures. This will ensure that humanity would be very likely to survive for billions of years and the sum of all knowledge preserved.