Settling the Solar System: Rethinking Offworld ‘Company Towns’

Company towns have existed in America since before the Civil War, where a single firm provided services from housing to employment. This concept is re-emerging as ultra-wealthy elites are seeking to create settlements according to their own vision. For example, Elon Musk has proposed plans to colonize Mars with his SpaceX company, requiring a captive workforce. However, there are risks associated with trusting a single CEO with such control.

A new book by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, “A City on Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?” explores the challenges of creating settlements on the red planet. The authors discuss housing arrangements in company towns and the potential for abuse when workers’ housing is tied to their job. This structural dynamic has historical and unique impact in space settlements.

In company towns, the company often provides housing and other amenities to attract and control workers, which can lead to a power imbalance and potential abuse. The Weinersmiths argue that this dynamic can repeat in space settlements, where companies must provide amenities to retain a workforce, leading to significant control over employees’ day-to-day lives. They also note the potential for mistreatment in such settlements, even if the company is not inherently evil.