Let’s colonize the clouds of Venus
The surface of Earth’s twin planet may be a runaway climate disaster, but its milder sky would feel just like home
What’s at the bottom of the world The Jetsons live in? The old joke — in the same sense that ‘putting a wet smartphone in rice’ is an old housewife’s trick — is that The Flintstones are living down there. Those sarcastic, world-weary dinosaurs are the hyper-intelligent mutant survivors of the nuclear holocaust that drove the rich to the clouds. (For for this to work, we of course ignore the time-travel crossover The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones, for both narrative and aesthetic reasons.)
Considering it first aired a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Jetsons is incredibly optimistic about where the Space Race was going to take us. If it’s right, we can look forward to a nine-hour working week and vacations to the Moon (though at the cost of gender inequality — Jane and Judy seem to exist largely to annoy George by spending ‘his’ money). But it also taps into an old urge — humans like the high life.
You can follow the lineage from Mount Olympus to the Jetson family residence, for instance. Constellations and planets controlled destiny. Skyscrapers come with luxury penthouses. HG Wells made the The Time Machine’s metaphor for class division clunkily obvious by having the Morlocks live below ground. The Tower of Babel was destroyed by God, some would argue, to stop us supplanting him as masters of the world. Civilisation is the process by which we climb out of where we were, towards where we want to be.
So why not move to Venus?
Atmospheric pressure ninety-two times that of Earth. Average surface temperature more than 260°C. Vicious volcanism that recycles the planet’s whole surface every few hundred million years. A runaway greenhouse effect. Metal rain on the peaks of the tallest mountains. Yep, Venus sounds like just the place for humans to test their ability to colonise other worlds.
Beyond the Moon, many people look to Mars for where we should head next as a species. It makes sense, in a way, as much of the technology that we’ll learn to build on the Moon will also work for the cold, dry Martian conditions, and it seems logical to head out of the Solar System, not inwards.
However, Venus holds a secret — it has some of the most Earth-like conditions (that we know of) in the Solar System. 50km above the rocky, smoking surface the atmospheric pressure is the same as on Earth, and average temperatures rarely exceed 50°C or drop below zero. The atmosphere — 96 percent carbon dioxide — is so dense that large metal structures filled with the nitrogen and oxygen mix we call ‘air’ would float with half as much lifting power on Venus as helium has here.
It’s not just zeppelins that would fly on Venus — it’s entire buildings.
Importantly, because there is no need for pressurisation, any leaks would be no more disastrous than opening a door in a house and letting out heat. Rips,tears, holes of any kind can be monitored and repaired long before they cause any deflation issues.
OK, the sulphuric acid rain is a bit of an issue, but nevertheless, it’s not too dissimilar to the conditions you’ll find within the calderas of volcanoes on Earth, and would only require similar breathing apparatus and protective clothing as volcanologists use. More than any other planet in the Solar System, Venus — with its Earth-like gravity, too — would feel the most like home. This is why NASA’s Geoffrey Landis calls it “the paradise planet”.
In 1985, The Soviet Union’s Vega program managed to deploy two balloons into the Venusian atmosphere at 53km above the surface, so we already have some data to go on. Wind speeds were seen to go as high as 340km/h — that’s fast, but not as fast as the 395km/hm world speed record for fastest balloon flight set by the Pacific Flyer in 1991.
At those speeds, our balloon colonies would circle Venus roughly every eight Earth days, relative to the surface — a further bonus since a typical Venusian day is longer than the Venusian year, taking 243 Earth days. We’d get our energy from the Sun (since we’d be high enough for it to break through the clouds), and our Earth calendar would only subtly have to be adjusted.
Be honest with yourself: the floating sky cities of Venus sound much more glamorous than coldly clinging to the dead rock of Mars. Think how restricted scientists are when living in Antarctica — any tin can bolted to the face of Mars will be lucky to give its residents anything like that much freedom. On Venus, we could conceivably build larger, faster, and further — and we could use our experience in the Venusian clouds to colonise the gas giants of the Solar System. In the long run, starting nearer to Earth could take us further.
In this vision of the future, we could circle the Vesuvian globe, high in our blimp cities, strolling along boulevards strung between colonies like fairy lights between branches of a Christmas tree. The sun would beat down on us from above, and below us we could marvel, everyday, at the scorched maelstrom below — close enough to study, distant enough not to fear.
It’s a view George Jetson and family might even recognise.