Charlie Stross examines the economics and physics of colonizing other planets, and he isn’t at all optimistic. Forget going to planets around other stars — the distances are absurdly excessive. But also forget about colonizing planets in our solar system: not only is it ridiculously expensive just to put a human being on another planet, it isn’t even an attractive proposition.
When we look at the rest of the solar system, the picture is even bleaker. Mars is … well, the phrase “tourist resort” springs to mind, and is promptly filed in the same corner as “Gobi desert”. As Bruce Sterling has puts it: “I’ll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes “Gobi Desert Opera” because, well, it’s just kind of plonkingly obvious that there’s no good reason to go there and live. It’s ugly, it’s inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it’s so hard to reach.” In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.
Sterling is being optimistic there — no way is it only 500 times more expensive to go to Mars rather than the Gobi.
I love to read space opera, but face it, it’s about as realistic as your goofiest high fantasy novel with elves and gnomes and magic swords. It’s not going to happen, ever, but it is still fun to dream.