Sixteen Tons of Moon Rock

Space settlements could end up being old-fashioned company towns.

Illustration of a SpaceX settlement.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Nothing in American pop culture has captured the plight of the working man in a company town quite like Merle Travis’ 1947 classic “Sixteen Tons.” Travis’ father, a coal miner, inspired the song by saying, “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.”

Company towns are privately planned settlements built and controlled by a single corporation. Historically, they were built to support industries like mining and manufacturing, often in remote areas where there was no competition. The company would own all of the infrastructure, including housing, schools, and stores, giving it an almost feudal control over the lives of the workers. In these conditions, companies had all the leverage in labor relations. This was commonly exploited to recoup wages in the form of rents and artificially high prices for goods. Workers were sometimes paid in “scrip,” an alternative currency issued by the company that could be spent only at company stores. In many cases, workers were required to rent their homes from the company.

Company towns boomed in the 1800s, but at the turn of the century a combination of poor company decisions and workers’ pent-up frustration over the companies’ paternalistic rule led to the model’s decline. In 1898 the Illinois Supreme Court declared the whole concept of the company town “un-American,” and company towns petered out over the course of the 20th century.

Recently, tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have revived conversation about company towns. Residents of Facebook’s planned Willow Village, which includes 1.75 million square feet of office space, 1,500 housing units, a grocery store, retail space, and a public park, will be able to live, work, and play without leaving the company campus. And with the announcement of its Libra cryptocurrency, Facebook may soon have its own global equivalent of scrip. Willow Village won’t look much like Pullman, Illinois. The workers at tech companies like Facebook are well-educated and well-paid, and can always move and find other employment. And Libra is intended to be a widely used cryptocurrency, not just a token for workers to trade back to the company. But many still find these developments unsettling. Amazon already rewards productive warehouse employees with “swag bucks” that can only be spent on Amazon products. South Park has picked up on the theme, setting work scenes in an Amazon Fulfillment Center to a version of “Sixteen Tons” 70 years after the song’s release.

If the thought of people living at work and using company currency makes modern Americans uncomfortable, the future could be downright scary. Tech luminaries like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are plowing vast wealth from their terrestrial ventures into private space companies to settle the solar system. Given the remoteness and harshness of the space environment, conditions will be ripe for these new companies to develop the future equivalent of company towns. On a long-term mission like a trip to Mars, a ship’s crew would be more isolated and dependent than any 19th-century coal miner. Everything needed to sustain human life would be provided by the company. It won’t just be workers’ living quarters that companies will have control over; it’ll also be their oxygen supply.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck are together James S.A. Corey, author of the award-winning sci-fi book series The Expanse, and they have dedicated more thought to this subject than most. Their books, which have been adapted into a popular show now on Amazon, stand out from many others in the genre for their focus on the lives of “blue-collar people in space.” Company towns reminiscent of the 19th-century variety abound in their setting. The people who live in the asteroid belts—known as “Belters”—are an exploited underclass of laborers, often living in mining towns run by distant corporations based on Earth and Mars. They live under the thumb of private security officers and are paid in scrip.

Franck describes the way that unequal resource ownership sets the stage for these abuses. “If you’re a Belter and you work in a mine on an asteroid, you don’t own that asteroid, you don’t own that mine,” he told us. “You probably live in some sort of habitat that’s been set up to house the miners who live there or the factory workers who live there. But you don’t own any of those things. Some corporation back on Mars or Earth owns those things.”

He also points out that, far from being something particular to space, this sort of exploitation is “just based on how our world works.” He says, “The Belters were always intended to be sort of an oppressed underclass and very deliberately based on things like African countries that are filled with incredibly valuable rare earth metals, but the people who live there, the people who dig it up, are not rich because someone else owns the rights.”

That historical precedent is hard to contest. Assuming human nature never really changes, then power imbalances like those between the Belters and the wealthy corporations of the inner planets should result in the same sorts of exploitation we’ve seen throughout history, company towns included.

But there are other aspects of working in space for which there is little historical precedent. The Belters are so vulnerable not only because their employers control the supplies of food, water, and oxygen, but because the low value of their labor allows the companies to exploit that control.

To date, space has been a place for the elite, people with options. The average astronaut on the International Space Station is a military officer with a Ph.D. Even so, there has already been one labor action in space. The Skylab 4 astronauts went on strike for a day in 1973 to protest their extreme workload and micromanagement from ground control. The astronauts quickly won some concessions, such as more time to eat and rest and more freedom to manage their own work schedules. Although all three were rookies, none of the Skylab 4 crew was ever chosen for a second mission.

As the private space race opens up this new frontier for commerce, we need to imagine what life in space would look like for an ordinary blue-collar worker on a private mining or settlement mission. If three highly skilled, expensively trained astronauts can be grounded after striking for a day, what would happen to a relatively unskilled laborer?

That’s a difficult question to answer, as labor laws in space have not been clearly established. Like Antarctica, territory outside the Earth’s atmosphere is not any nation’s sovereign territory, and it isn’t clear that national labor laws would apply. For example, U.S. courts have ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply in Antarctica.

Common sense would seem to suggest that space companies would be on their best behavior—at least initially. Like the Skylab crew, private crews in the early years of space exploration would be in a strong collective bargaining position if they were mistreated. On a long-term mission it would be virtually impossible for the company to replace them. So the interdependence between the company and employees might check the worst abuses of company towns, and nations could help by extending their labor laws to the operations of their companies in space. But if human settlement of the solar system expands to the level seen in The Expanse, with permanent populations in the asteroid belt, this might cease to be the case.

In The Expanse, the populations of Earth, Mars, and the Belt have diverged to become distinct communities with their own cultures and governments. The differing gravities of their respective homes have even produced physically distinct populations. In the long run, these kinds of changes make it extremely difficult to predict how people will behave in space. It’s easy for Earthers and Belters to view each other with suspicion. Daniel Abraham stresses that one of the most consistent themes throughout the books is “a real skepticism of tribalism and tribal affiliation as a basis for human culture. It’s something we’ve always done, and it’s always come with a terrible price.”

But The Expanse also gives us reasons to be hopeful about how human society will develop in conditions like those in a Belter mining camp. Belter society, adapted to poverty and hardship, stresses the values of community, loyalty, and cooperation over wealth. “People who are not living in abundance are actually more generous in their charitable giving than people who are wealthy,” Franck says. “There is an isolation that comes with a certain level of wealth because you are capable of disconnecting from the community. When you rely upon the community for your safety and existence, the understanding of why you invest in community is a lot more obvious.” As a result, there is strong solidarity among the Belters, who organize to resist the exploitative powers on Earth and Mars.

Like company towns in the U.S., company towns in space might not survive the blowback from mistreated workers.

In all likelihood, the reality will fall somewhere in between the more utopian visions of space settlement and the widespread exploitation depicted in The Expanse. The treatment of workers in space will be determined by the labor laws we choose to apply there, but also by the adaptation of human cultures to life in space. As Abraham concludes, “moving into space we have the opportunity to reconsider what it is to be human, to be part of a group. And it would be a terrible crisis to miss.”

Read more from Future Tense on settling space.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.