Imagine a world in which earth has started to colonize other worlds slowly, though the expense to send ships to other worlds is extremely high, and without FTL drive it takes some times to create a self sustaining colony. To support the building of these colonies governments have looked to the support of investors for financial backing. These backers are putting a significant expense into supporting colonization, both due to the high original colony ship construction expense and the opportunity cost of tying so much capital into a potentially risk effort, and will expect the colonies to make a pretty hefty repayment to cover these expenses. Effectively each colony is going to start out in significant debt and is going to be expected to work to repay their original colonization expense & interest over decades, if not generations, once they become self sufficient.

Due to the expense of of travel between worlds shipping supplies between worlds is almost never cost effective, thus a colony can not repay its debt by sending supplies back to Earth. However, the existence of reliable and high-bandwidth FTL comms has made an information economy viable, see second half of my answer here (Interplanetary commerce: how do you compare currencies?).

Colonies are small compared to earth, and don't tend to produce a significant amount of science or cultural resources, such as movies. However, many other forms of information exchange & economy exist. For instance, programmers on a colony may be hired to write software for a program being created on Earth, or telemarketers on a colony may call people on Earth to ask if they want to buy some product, or Amazon may by cloud computing power from servers built on the colony. A therapist or accountant or Engineer on the colony may tele-communicate with clients on Earth etc etc. Thus there are many ways to produce value for earth from a colony via ansible alone, which could be used to eventually repay investors. Likewise all the same serves can be purchased by people on the colony from earth, plus Earth having a much larger culture will have numerous works of media and science etc that the colony is going to want. Thus the colony is incentivized to do work for Earth to earn the money required to purchase the information/media it desires from Earth.

So in theory this sort of investment is viable to support colonization. However, the people on the colony will likely get frustrated with having much of their earnings from earth being taken to pay for interest on the original colonization fees incurred by their grandparents. Due to the high interest rate on colonization backed stocks and the decades, or longer, that interest had to build up before the colony was self sufficient and capable of starting to produce value to repay Earth the final colonial debt is high and will take a very long to repay. It would be tempting for the colony to write off its own debt and refuse to repay it rather then spend so long doing so, and Earth is too far away to send anyone to physically take back any of the supplies they sent to support the colony.

Thus the only means of enforcing repayment of debt is via market forces & restricting the colonies access to information from Earth until debts are replayed. The problem being that other colonies exist, any data that Earth sells to colony A can then be sold from A to B to C etc. In much the same way that another countries exports are often easy to pirate online because your home countries laws provide little protection/restriction from pirating media not produced within that country. If Earth-originated information were to start being 'pirated' earth would lose most of its means of compelling a colony to repay its own debts. Again, Earth has no way of imposing its laws about not pirating data on external colonies by force.

So, can Earth reliable gaurentee a means of enforcing a colonies will repay their debt, over whatever length of time it takes, once the colonies becomes self sufficient? Will economic forces be able to ensure this occurs? Or will colonies all revolt against their collective debt?

For now assume that Earth's economy is mostly integrated and consistent rules are enforced across all Earth Ansibe communications, regardless of country of origin. Ie, ignore inconsistency in laws and assume whatever laws Earth passes in regards to Ansible and colony debt are aided by. Also assume these laws are written to support the backers of colony ships by ensuring they will get repaid.

Also for now assume that it is possible, eventually, for colony to repay their own debt. I'm not sure this is true, it could reach the point where the interest on the debt grows faster then the colony can produce income to pay off the debt; but that will be a follow up question only after this one is answered.

  • $\begingroup$ interest over decades, if not generations - you sure investors are happy to wait for generations for just get their money back? If any at all in case high risks, as you say. Yes, earth may force such colony, but little outside boundaries you have set in question. Main problem trough, it is because you model is't viable, and yes it may be fixed - information exchange good start. Handwave genetic disease, will not make in 3 generation - will die, key to cure on earth and can be send as instruction and information. Unique for each colony. They may solve, but it probably means they can pay too $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 21, 2016 at 3:08
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    $\begingroup$ I think you are going to have to supply more info. The colonists have a whole planet to themselves, so will create their own economy. A 'stuff' rather than information based economy - they'll be mining, growing crops, manufacturing clothing, etc. What's the incentive for someone who has become filthy rich doing diamond mining to become a performance artist or programmer and to thus produce something which Earth needs? If he pays taxes on his diamond mine, how is that converted to information which Earth wants to buy? $\endgroup$
    – DrBob
    Jun 21, 2016 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ If reality is any indication, maybe squeezing your colony for every last penny and enslaving them to their debt isn't the best way to go. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2016 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ A colony being pressed into paying hefty debts is what sparked the american revolution in the first place. Your scenario could develop in very interesting ways. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2016 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ "Telemarketers calling Earth"... So no FTL travel, but FTL communication? If not, I'd have hung up before the telemarketer even knew I picked up... ;) $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2016 at 11:55

4 Answers 4


Why would anyone want to invest into space colonies?

What are the sources of income new colonies are likely to generate?

  • Teleworking
  • Media & Entertainment - a small but steady source, especially if you have a beautiful planet
  • Original research - esp. from colonies that had their own ecosystem, could be potentially extremely valuable
  • Information services, like safe storage of sensitive data
  • Savings at home - exporting prisoners and troublemakers - a one-time bonus many governments would be happy to pay

So there is a stream of income for investors on Earth. But besides a few dreamers and maybe insurance companies, few would like to invest when the pay-off is generations away.

Instead, you should invest into colonization. The first few colonies will be producing losses for a long time, but once they get up and running, they'll practically guarantee a steady income. Then, anyone can invest money that will go into new colonies while getting profits from the established colonies. This will be hard to start but will get more attractive the more colonies there are.

What are the colonies getting out of this?

The colonies are obviously getting valuable information. Besides their own benefit, they can also pass on or sell the information to other colonies (the piracy aspect you've mentioned), which gives them an additional motivation to buy information and a chance for some good old-fashioned Arbitrage.

Since any 'tax' or surcharge on information will be annoying in the long-term, it is in the interest of any large colony to eventually repay their debt.

A colony will either grow into a big information-producer or likely never repay its debt, scrounging credits to get the most important stuff or buy or exchange data with other colonies.

Any colony can renounce its debt at any time, but then it's back to the Basic Plan. If its government wants to keep its population happy with the latest 3D series and the intellectuals busy debating the latest books, it better acknowledges the debt again - even if it's NEVER repaid.

So how does Earth keep the colonies friendly?

It is in the best interest of Earth to supply some basic information (news, sports results, some of the research) for free. This is to build goodwill, help colonies grow and maintain cultural ties.

Earth will also have to recognize the potential for piracy and the rapidly declining value of information. If you want the latest hits and hottest research, you'll have to pay extra. The older the material, the less of a premium there will be.

Because of all this, the best way to keep the colonies happy is to reasonably price the information and be willing to change the price. It is the same as when companies started to sell music by the song - each song costs the user a reasonable amount that is just under the pain threshold for a user. If you are a big music fan, it's time to buy in bulk.


Your premise is flawed.

Investors loaned money to governments. Regardless of what governments use that money for, they are the one who owe money, not the colonies.

Your governments are likely already neck deep in debt, so those investors will have to take a number and get in line along with all the other people who loaned them money. Like all the people who are loaning money to US or France despite abysmal debts. If you have investors who specifically gave money for space colonization because they deeply believe it makes humanity a better race, chances are they're fine with parting with that money in the first place.

Secondly, your colonies will need people. Those people will be citizens of Earth nations. So you'll have governments selling colonization to people for the low, low price of eternal indebtment for you and your grand-children. Not going to lie, I've seen better value propositions. If you try to pull a bait-and-switch on them, they'll likely throw space-tea in orbit and tell you where you can shove your government.

Furthermore, your colony is a territory of your government. You can't ask French Guyana to pay for the French debt because it's not cheap to export Nutella to there. Nutella is already going to be overpriced when it gets there, so you'd be asking them to pay twice with interests. That's just preposterous. Revolutions typically happen when people feel shafted by the system, and they would have legitimate reason to feel shafted in this particular instance.

You can't pin the sins of your whole nation on one single colony. Historically, that hardly ever ended well. If you do pin it on them, you'll alienate them and eventually they'll either secede or abandon the colony.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah the space-tea, not as good as earth-tea but it hits the spot when you need it, +1 for space-tea and the rest of your answer as well but mainly the space-tea $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Burns
    Jun 21, 2016 at 12:53

My first thought when reading your question is "Why colonize?".

Colonization happens because of valuable resources that are in heavy demand and plentyfull in the uncolonized location.

Let's begin with the easy case of the transferable resources, these include valuable matterials but might also be energy (beamed to Earth or the moon and then to Earth). It might for example be too dangerous to run an anti-matter reactor on Earth so it is build on Mars instead. Yes space travel is expensive now but costs will go down and shortages in our supply on Earth will occur. As to control, the colonists would likely not be full-time colonists but will serve for contracts of say a half a year and then return home. This results in having a lot of leverage as controlling transport is rather easy.

Another resource would be space. As Earth becomes more crowded colonization might be needed just to be able to keep our population fed as a new planet means a new source of solar power as well. This case resembles most what you want to do as there will be no exchange of resources (except information if you want to call it a resource). So how to pay for this colonization? Well why not the people that are about to leave Earth? They will have no use for their Earthly belonings that aren't taken along and the mission failing horribly won't be so much a financial risk to them. (Survivalble failings can still be covered under some insurance and will likely not be a complete loss.) It also keeps everything payed up front, so no nasty dept.

There is the strategic value, but that would mean military funding, not private or corporate funding.

What else is there? I can name other resources like time, but fail to see them as valuable to us and plentyfull on an uncolonized world. As such I can't find a realistic situation where you would find yourself funding a colonization with an expectation of return on investment but without a firm grip on the colony. There just doesn't seem to be a valid reason for the situation you describe in my honest opinion, though I'm interrested in being proven wrong.

As for the more general question of how to control a set of colonies.

The easiest method would be to have colonies focused on minig/harvesting/generating a specific resource. This doesn't mean they don't have a basic level of self-reliance, which is good for logistics. For example say a mining colony might have a basic oxygen/water and food self-reliance but has no manufacturing capabilities which means they might "declare independence" and will hold out for a period of time but will in the end need to find replacement parts to maintain its operations.

Another method I mentioned already is to have the workforce rotate like for example on an oil-platform. This is distantly related to slave labour mining/harvesting, where you send the males to do the labour while their wife and children stay at a different location. While working they are dissuaded from rebeling as their oppressors control their families, while back "home" their time with their family is limited and as such are unlikely to start a rebelion in their off-time.

With space colonies the key will however always be transport. As long as colonies are not 100% self-reliant of themselves they will need to group up together to be able to become 100% self-reliant. As long as you are able to maintain control on the transport you are effectively in control. (Unless you depend on one colony for fuel like in Dune.)

Once a colony is self-reliant it has for all intense and purposes become like a new Earth and should be threated as such. Which is how for example the USA became independant. The difference being that war would be very costly as black-ops missions are very difficult (stealth in space not being possible) and full-on war is heavily in the benefit of the planet (or moon) as they can hide their defences and have a lot of time to prepare as they see you comming.

Edit: Found some more time to answer the general question of how to control colonies.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Selenog. This is a solid first answer. I will note as a general rule you should try to take the premise of the question as "the way things are." Though it is ok to point out logical inconsistencies via answer. Check out the help center for more info and feel free to join us in Worldbuilding Chat $\endgroup$
    – James
    Jun 21, 2016 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ not bad, think about O'Neil cylinder aka space habitat it will help you to go farther $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 21, 2016 at 14:29

I think that the most issues were already covered, however:

1) Earth may have problems to restrict flow of pirated information, but would be able to enforce lack of access to electronic services. Like no Earth specialist assesing some medical patient data or no access to new multiplayer computer game.

2) The interest rates in far future may be actually quite low, damn it nowadays already some govs (Example: Germany) pay negative interest rates. Possibly huge debt, if interest rates rates are barelly above zero and repayment can be done in centuries, may not be such a big deal.

3) Anyway, why invest money in making the colonies self sustainable? I mean if they can provide most of electronic services as tiny ones, that produce their own food but not hi tech electronic, let it stay this way. Why put more money in to making the investment more risky?


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