Since time immemorial, humans have gazed at the stars and wondered what was beyond our world. But only until relatively recently (within the long expanse of history) has the dream to visit the stars become a reality. But what exactly is our motivation for journeying away from our planet and how are we making it possible?
At the Salon Dinner #7, a group of interested minds came to discuss these questions and more. The guests included scientists, teachers, students, investors, think tank members and more, as well as members of the space nation Asgardia and the organization Mars One. Over a dinner of Malaysian cuisine and wine and Café Sambal, the guests pondered about the future of space and asked key questions like ‘who will lead us there?’, ‘what is our motivation for exploring space?’, and ‘should we be focusing more on saving the Earth rather than space exploration?’. A discussion centered around topics like space tourism and space nations certainly sounds very Sci Fi, but as Salon Dinner #7 revealed, these things are more real than you might imagine. It would seem that the final frontier of space is now within our grasp.
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As the dinner guests settled themselves around the table, and the introductory chit chat began to die down, the founder of Her Century and the Salon Dinner host, Olga Yanovskaya, opened Salon Dinner #7 with a question: how do we feel about space today? The question, for me, was an unexpected one. For me, space largely lives in the realm of numbers, equations, distances too infinite to grasp, and theories sometimes too complex to fathom. So how did I feel about space? I felt overwhelmed.
Thankfully, the other guests at Salon Dinner #7 had more to contribute than yours truly.
The nonchalance with which the dinner guests discussed space tourism, space nations, space-focused corporations (and so on) spoke volumes about how much humanity has settled into this idea of space as the next frontier. Not all that long ago, space was only a pipe dream, something you read to your children about at night, or something that earlier humans pondered over as they sought to explain the world around them. Today, science has given us many answers about the cosmos and has even enabled us to leave Earth’s atmosphere. But it has also opened the Pandora’s box on millions more questions and has only ignited our curiosity for what’s beyond our world.
As the guests sought to explain how they felt about the space of today, many drew from our not-too-distant past. Space exploration was born out of intense competition during the Cold War. The United States, representing capitalism, and the Soviet Union, representing communism, competed to prove whose military, science, and ideology were superior. In that time, space innovation exploded, and from 1961 to 1964, NASA’s budget was increased almost 500 percent to fund the space race. In 1969, the US put the first man on the moon and the space race was won. Since then, US government interest in lunar missions has waned, but the drive to explore space still remains strong.
‘So, who’s carrying the space exploration torch now,’ the guests wanted to know. And how are we continuing to fund our curiosity? While NASA still leads the charge, there has also been a ‘democratization’ of space – meaning that governments are no longer the sole beneficiaries of space. Private enterprises now own satellites that do mapping or provide data to the government or to other privately-owned companies. For example, a logging company might hire a satellite company to find out how many trees are growing in a certain region. Others, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aeropspace, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin seek to revolutionize space travel and even intend to offer space tourism to Low Earth Orbit, the moon, and Mars. One of the most remarkable inventions to spring from these private companies is reusable rockets that significantly reduce the cost of space travel.
In reality, space tourism has already occurred. Between 2001 to 2009, 7 space tourists made 8 space flights with Space Adventures to the tune of $20-40 million. However, companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are working toward developing suborbital space tourism vehicles, and SpaceX announced in 2018 that it has plans to send two space tourists on a free-return trajectory around the moon. The owner of SpaceX, Elon Musk, also has high hopes that the BFR (Big Falcon Spaceship) will be ready for an unpiloted trip to Mars in 2022 and a crewed flight in 2024.
Virgin Galactic also aspires to space tourism, hoping to offer regular commercial spaceflights. They originally intended their first commercial spaceflight to commence in 2015 with tickets selling for $250,000 – a price improvement but still out of range for the average Joe. However, they suffered a major setback in 2014 when one of their commercial rockets broke up over the Mojave Desert during a test flight.
So while space tourism may be an unattainable dream for the middle class as of now, new space technologies have made it possible for the super-rich to achieve their childhood space dreams. The guests, however, still questioned the likeliness of any wealthy space tourist voluntarily making the six-month trip to Mars (and that only being one-way). Plus, what would these Mars tourists do once they got there? Mars has no tropical beaches or stunning mountain vistas. They say, in fact, that it’s a whole lot of red rock.
But with technology advancing, the limits of space tourism are only confined by our imaginations. Olga highlighted this point, saying that while space tourism seems cumbersome at the moment, one day it might be much more feasible. Six months to Mars might become six weeks or even six days, and the price to get there might eventually reduce to the cost of a mere Earth flight. One day there might be Mars resorts where tourists can relax by the pool while they drink a Mars-tini and gaze into the galaxy above them – uninhibited by the pesky atmosphere of Earth.
Although space tourism sounds out of this world (no pun intended), it also seems like a rather shallow venture in the big scheme of things. Would we really fund voyages into space just so that humans can enjoy a far-out holiday? Sure, Mars-tinis and pool lounging to the backdrop of the Mars scenery sounds cool, but you might enjoy a vacation to the Seychelles better. Is space travel, propelled by capitalist ideals, really a good idea then? And should space really be in the hands of private industry, or should we urge our governments to spend our taxes, not on war, but on space exploration?
The guests pointed out that China also has a space program, and that theirs is government-funded. But many of the guests quickly dismissed the idea of China becoming a leader in the space industry. Diversity, the guests said, is what really propels the innovation that makes space travel possible. Countries like the US welcome brilliant minds from around the world to lend a hand in the space effort, resulting in companies like SpaceX – an American company founded by the South African Elon Musk. China, on the other hand, tends to pull talent from only within its borders. And while China’s borders are admittedly vast, they lack the diversity that results from allowing new ideas to come from all corners of the globe. Other guests, however, pointed out that many Chinese today are receiving their educations abroad, and choose to return to China with new perspectives and new ideas. While we do not yet know who will lead us into space in the future, it seems that the private industry sector is the champion currently, and those companies are intent on space tourism.
But beyond the idea of commercial space flights (and maybe Mars resorts), the founders of these private space companies have grander ideas and more visionary motivations. Virgin Galactic insists that the drive to go to space has expanded our understanding of science, and had taught us amazing things about human ingenuity, physiology and psychology. From space, they say, borders are insignificant, making it clear that there is more that unites us than divides us.
Perhaps space exploration, enabled by capitalism via space tourism, is only a means to an end. Space exploration, after all, is expensive, and space tourism could be the necessary means for funding new space technologies and fueling new galactic discoveries.
Blue Origin takes a different tack, suggesting that in order for the human species to survive, we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy. “Like the Industrial Revolution gave way to trade, economic abundance, new communities and high-speed transportation - our road to space opens to the door to the infinite and yet unimaginable future generations might enjoy.” – Blue Origin
With humanity using up every available resource o n Earth, Blue Origin has a point. We are currently in an ecological crisis, with climate change, rising oceans, an abundance of plastic, and overpopulation (just to name a few). The dinner guests imagined that, just as Australia was at one time a colony of British prisoners, Mars might one day become a colony of Earth prisoners as the human population continues to rise. But if our planet continues to warm up, all of Earth’s citizens may seek to escape the dying blue planet. This idea didn’t quite sit well with the dinner guests. “Have we given up on Earth?” they wanted to know. They pointed to the fact that it would be cheaper, easier, and more ideal to enact sustainability measures and to save our planet than it would be to develop technology to go to Mars and to survive in space.
Despite this, we still expend effort and resources to go to space. Perhaps the best explanation for this is humans’ unquenchable thirst for new frontiers – a theme that the dinner guests returned to from time to time throughout Salon Dinner #7. Since the dawn of man, humans have expanded their frontiers. Although our origins can be traced back to the African savannahs, humans have found ways to seek new territories and to adapt to new climates – settling even in the icy Arctic and the hot, dry Sahara Desert. So what’s another frontier to a species with this kind of track record? Even the formidable nature of space that one guest described as “less hospitable than living on the highest peak of Mount Everest” does not deter us – not when there’s new frontiers on the horizon. Some of the guests even suggested that, just like Europeans sought their fortune by claiming new land in America, the new pioneers might strike settle new territories on Mars once we’ve determine how to make it habitable.
One guest pointed out that we have yet to exhaust all the frontiers of Earth. While we may have mapped the planet, there are far more complex discoveries to be made. For instance, we do not know everything about our own biology, and there’s plenty we can still learn about physics without jumping into a space shuttle. We’re far from cataloguing every species of flora and fauna, and we know very little about the depths of the ocean. But perhaps we’re like a New Yorker who has never gone to visit the Statue of Liberty. Because this is our home, we take its wonders for granted. Another guest commented that, because we came from the oceans, maybe we we’re less interested in looking back, preferring instead to look to the frontiers ahead of us.
Projects are already underway to make those shiny new horizons a reality. Mars One, for instance, is dead set on creating a permanent settlement for humans on the red planet. Their roadmap posits that the first Mars crew will land on the planet in 2032 to make it their home. The Mars Society, of which one of the dinner guests was a member of, is also dedicated to the exploration of space and the settlement of Mars. Their purpose is to create awareness about the feasibility of a Mars settlement. One of their greatest contributions is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) which is a center in the Utah desert that teaches visitors about the challenges and possibilities of living on Mars.
These organizations largely focus on the technologies that will allow us to alter the space environment to make exploration or a Mars settlement a reality. However, In Salon Dinner #6, we talked about cyborgs and the idea of altering our bodies, instead of our environment, to survive in inhospitable regions. The term ‘cyborg’ was actually coined by two researchers who wrote a report for NASA on how we could more easily explore space. Combining the words ‘cybernetics’ with ‘organism’, the researchers suggested that we could somehow enhance the human body through technology to make it more adaptable to space. Wouldn’t it be easier, after all, to augment our bodies to withstand extreme temperatures or to take oxygen pills than to wear cumbersome spacesuits or live in pods?
Perhaps most interesting of all is the notion of Asgardia, the first space nation. This nation believes that “the creation of a new legal platform for the exploration of near-Earth and deep space is crucial to keep pace with humanity’s rapid technological and scientific expansion off-planet,” and that “universal space law and astro-politics have to replace the current outdated international space law and geopolitics.” It was originally developed with three main goals in mind: to ensure the peaceful use of space, to protect the Earth from space hazards, and to create a demilitarized and free scientific base of knowledge in space.
Gracing the tables of Salon Dinner #7 was a citizen of Asgardia who claimed that the nation holds elections for leadership, collects citizen fees, and even has a constitution. A quick visit to their website reveals this and more to be true. The citizens fees are intended to one day set up habitable platforms in space and to build settlements on the moon.
It seems that our future in space is no longer a question of if, but rather when. With companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Bigelow Aerospace funding space travel, and organizations like Mars One, The Mars Society, and Asgardia leading the way in space settlement, it does begin to feel that that dream is within our grasp. The guests pondered what that might look like, going so far as to imagine the first Mars settlement as a reality TV show. What if we could watch Big Brother: Mars one day? Or what if the first human settlers on Mars became fully “Martian” and, like the colonists in America, decided to eschew the laws of the motherland in favor of their own? Most hopeful of all is the notion of Asgardia where humans could potentially shrug off outdated ideas of geopolitics and become unified across nations and boundaries as we build our future together in space.
Text prepared by Ariana Crisafulli
Ariana Crisafulli is the Managing Editor of an expat magazine in Shanghai and a freelance writer. A California native, she has not called California “home” for three years. A year ago she moved to Shanghai where she acquired a position at a Shanghai-based magazine. She continues to write for the magazine as well as accepting freelance writing jobs. WeChat ID: arianacrisafulli