Spaced out

Living in space was meant to be our next evolutionary step. What happened to the dream of the final frontier?

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Trip of a lifetime: hanging out at the ISS. NASA

Trip of a lifetime: hanging out at the ISS. NASA

Greg Klerkx is the author of Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age and the co-founder of Nimble Fish arts company.

Back in the 1970s, my brother and I shared a cabin aboard a space cruiser. Dominated by a sturdy bunk bed, it was roughly four by four metres square with a porthole at one end and an airlock at the other. Our little cabin was wonderfully hermetic: it contained all necessary life support systems  — a plastic bottle to pee in, rubberised garden gloves for spacewalks — and even advanced communications technology in the form of a chunky transistor radio, whose terrestrial signals we tried our best to ignore. Occasionally our cruiser morphed into a planetary outpost, its precise location varying according to star date. In winter, we gazed upon the snow-blown wastelands of the ice planet Hoth. In the heat of midsummer, our air-conditioned outpost sat coolly on the scorched plains of Tatooine, or a high, wind-blasted ridge on Vulcan.

To be a child of the 1970s was to fantasise not merely about travelling in space but also about living there, permanently. This was the era of Salyut and Skylab, humanity’s first orbiting residences. In the space of a decade, humankind had progressed from the occasional, furtive dash beyond the blue to more extended stays in orbit. By the end of the 1970s, both Mir and the International Space Station (ISS), existed in prototype. Meanwhile, space agencies were busy planning more ambitious cosmic habitats, such as inflatable lunar cities and modular Martian towns. Millions of dollars were poured into planning and testing these and other futuristic space abodes.

Forty years on, we find ourselves at a crossroads when it comes to living in space. Right now, there are four space stations in orbit: the ISS, whose six-person crew occupies the habitable volume of a five-bedroom family home; a tiny but growing Chinese space lab called Tiangong-1; and two un-crewed inflatable stations — each the size of a small caravan — owned and operated by the Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace Corporation. Another Bigelow module might soon link up temporarily to the ISS — a small expansion of our habitable real estate in the vacuum.

The business of getting people to and from orbital space is now largely routine, thanks in no small part to the retirement of the accident-prone Space Shuttle and a greater reliance on sturdier rocket-and-capsule technology. New entrepreneurial companies such as California’s SpaceX and XCOR are also bringing costs down by introducing market efficiencies to an industry historically driven by quasi-governmental sinecures.

Many happy billions of dollars are there to be made in the human spaceflight business

Space tourism, driven by ‘astropreneurs’ such as Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, will soon add hundreds of wealthy people to the astronaut ranks, but only for brief sojourns: they’ll reach suborbital space for a few quick minutes before returning to the atmosphere. Eventually, those high-paying tourists might want to stay awhile; Bigelow Aerospace has made no secret that its inflatables would be ideal for such a purpose, and the ISS has already hosted several tourists. Study upon study has indicated that many happy billions of dollars are there to be made in the human spaceflight business, which includes not just space labs, stations and hotels but also outposts on the moon and beyond.

Space futurists — many of whom I count as friends — can finally, and with some measure of reality, lay claim to the idea that we are on the verge of fulfilling the philosophical promise of the Space Age and becoming what the SpaceX founder Elon Musk describes as ‘a multi-planet species’. Certainly, it has taken longer than they’d hoped: the pace of the Apollo years was unsustainable, being largely fuelled by the geopolitics of the Cold War, and space bureaucracies have been slow to take advantage of entrepreneurial efficiencies. Space futurists argue that things are changing. They insist that a new Space Age is dawning. But what if the signs they see are only the last wispy auroras of the first one?

Whether launched for profit or pride, the ISS, Bigelow Aerospace and Chinese space stations are artifacts of a particular cultural moment, when living in space was thought to be the next step in humankind’s evolution. Space had become more than an ocean to traverse, pace Kennedy. It had become, in that iconic Star Trek phrase, ‘the final frontier’.

I am as big a Star Trek fan as anyone, but I fear the frontier analogy misses the mark. On the frontier of old, one expected to find a better version of the world left behind: more land, more resources, more possibility. But the more we learn about ‘space’, the more we understand that living there would mean being forever enswathed in a portable bubble of Earth, with the goal being merely to survive. Even in the heady 1970s, my brother and I were keenly aware of this imperative: we spent most of our time aboard the space cruiser checking its equipment, its stocks of tubed food-paste and canisters of fuel, and of course air. Always and forever, air.

The dream of living in space was more about Utopia than utility

With our dependence on sat-nav, mobile phones, satellite-based weather prediction and other essentials of 21st-century life, one might conclude that our lives are more entangled with space than ever. But this dependency is rather different from the dream of living in space, which was more about Utopia than utility. While I would still happily squeeze myself into an orbiting tin can (or inflatable habitat), I remain in a minority whose size and demographic has not changed meaningfully since my boyhood. The bulk of humankind doesn’t see its future as inexorably linked to leaving the planet. Outside of hardcore space enthusiasts, we as a species feel more Earthbound than at any point since the earliest days of the Space Age. So what happened? Where did our collective childhood dreams of a life spent exploring the universe go?

The imaginary cosmic outpost my brother and I shared was informed by very specific design constructs. We had a clear idea of its basic configuration: airlock, porthole, and a dazzling array of controls for weapons, robotics, and in-flight operations, which were made of Lego bricks, cardboard, and the odd spare coat button taped to a desk. There was also an understood aesthetic: it had to be tidy, nothing out of place, everything precisely to hand. Our interplanetary voyages were perhaps the only occasions that voluntarily moved us to clean our room. In space, no one wants to see your clutter.

Bad food, messy rooms, uncomfortable beds. Haute cuisine on the ISS; a packet of apricot juice, a can of lamb with vegetables, shrink wrapped lasagna, bread and dried fruit.Photo courtesy NASA Haute cuisine on the ISS: a packet of apricot juice, a can of lamb with vegetables, shrink wrapped lasagna, bread and dried fruit. Photo courtesy NASA

Most of these ideas about the architecture and aesthetics of space habitats were drip-fed via a symbiotic relationship between fiction and reality. They are still with us. Space habitats, whether free-floating or on planetary surfaces, are still portrayed as ascetic environments crammed with technology, their interior surfaces a landscape of pre-moulded plastic or metal. They are not spaces in which to luxuriate or play, but are functional to the point of spartan severity.

This was not always the case. Writing in the early 20th century, the Russian scientist and space futurist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky described free-floating ‘space islands’ that were lush, self-sustaining communities not unlike a utopian collective farm. In the 1970s, the late American physicist Gerard O’Neill elaborated on this idea, proposing massive cylindrical colonies located at a gravitationally stable point between the Earth and the moon. Twenty miles long and five miles wide, O’Neill’s habitats would house thousands of people; constant rotation of the cylinders would provide Earth-like gravity. ‘With an abundance of food and clean electrical energy, controlled climates and temperate weather, living conditions in the colonies should be much more pleasant than in most places on Earth,’ O’Neill wrote in 1974.

I had a chance to clamber inside a full-scale training mock-up of the Mir space station. The experience was like residing inside a computer terminal

And yet, even in 1974, O’Neill was fighting a popular tide that had begun to battle such spacefaring optimism. Beyond the steady churn of futuristic imaginings, whether from O’Neill or NASA or science fiction writers such as Arthur C Clarke, the edifying promise of human space travel was quickly fading. The ‘space race’ might have been the most benign aspect of the Cold War, but the exploits of Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong et al hardly resolved the conflict. Nor had space technology solved other Earthly challenges, as many had been led to believe it might (not least by NASA and its supporters). If anything, by the early 1970s, space-driven futurism and its quick-fix buoyancy seemed to magnify, even refract, the real world: its wars, its poverties, its growing environmental challenges. Within the course of a generation, the perception of living in space had swung wildly from Utopia to dystopia, and nowhere was this more evident than at the movies.

The 1970s and early ’80s were arguably the golden era of science fiction filmmaking, and many of these films solidified in the popular conscience a darker view of life in space, a kind of cultural backlash against the shiny optimism of those earlier Space Age ideas. The Edenic space station in the 1972 film Silent Running isn’t an O’Neillian paradise but rather a grim ecological ark holding the last remnants of Earthly plant and animal life, the rest having been destroyed by human-made ecological carelessness. Sci-fi films of that era also changed our aesthetic perception of space living. Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) popularised a visual idea that the filmmaker James Cameron calls ‘used future’, in which the interiors of spacecraft and outposts are dank, greasy, careworn and, unlike my bedroom cruiser, rather messy. Perceptions of human relationships in space changed, too: even before the acid-blooded aliens came along, it was a dull, bickering life aboard Alien’s spacecraft Nostromo, which looked less like a spaceship than an outsized auto-repair shop.

The 1984 Peter Hyams film 2010, the follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s gleamingly iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was likewise gloomier in its visual and emotional palate. Far from enjoying Kubrick’s sleek Pan Am space cruisers and waltz-powered space wheels, Hyams’s travellers (those who’d survived: several had died in cryogenic suspension) inhabited a ship so dimly lit that it makes it a struggle for viewers to actually see what’s going on. There is also a pervading sense of loneliness in the film, and more focus on inter-crew conflict; 2010 traffics in far muddier notions about human nature and its place in the cosmic order than its predecessor.

Ironically, our actual experiments in space living have largely reinforced this stark perspective. Real life in space is often cramped, unpleasant and even pointless. Some years back, I visited Star City near Moscow, the training centre for cosmonauts since Gagarin, where I had a chance to clamber inside a full-scale training mock-up of the Mir space station. The experience was more like residing inside a computer terminal than one of O’Neill’s cylindrical islands, so proximate and abundant were tubes, wires, levers, buttons and unnameable gadgets.

More disorienting was the placement of controls and conveniences: because space was limited, these were distributed throughout the station without reference to Earthly gravity, thus making use of ‘ceilings’ as sleeping quarters, walls for toilet cubicles and virtually any other surface for any other activity. One could get used to such things (and you’d have to be a true cynic to tire of the view outside your window). But it’s a far, far cry from strolling the wide corridors of the Starship Enterprise.

As with Mir before it, occupants of the International Space Station must undergo a battery of psychological tests to ensure they can get along without incident, given that they are crammed together for months on end in an isolated house they can’t leave (not unlike the TV contestants on Big Brother, surely an unsung living-in-space spin-off). The ISS is easily the roomiest extra-terrestrial dwelling yet built, but it offers a bare minimum of privacy: the NASA astronaut Sunita Williams described her sleep/work quarters on the ISS as being ‘like a little phone booth’.

Most of what we have learned about living in space is that we should not live in space. We are designed for gravity; without it, strange things happen to both body and mind. For each month spent in space, humans can lose up to two per cent of their bone mass. This means that each day, for hours on end, the ISS becomes the world’s highest-flying gym to keep its occupants fit. But even with such precautions, some returning space travellers require months of rehabilitation to readjust to life on Earth. Others, despite having access to the best facilities and treatments available, experience headaches, sight loss, and undiagnosed physical and psychological frailty for the rest of their lives.

But these are mere hardships, not showstoppers, and those who’ve pioneered at the edges of human experience have always managed to endure them. Physiological challenges aside, life aboard the ISS is not unlike life on a submarine or in an Antarctic research station: isolated, cramped, and relentlessly task-focused. ‘But,’ the space futurist will say, ‘who is to say these limitations are permanent?’ After all, we might one day be able to create artificial gravity, which would significantly minimise the damage done to the human body in space. We might one day be able to build, launch and populate some version of the floating paradise envisioned by Tsiolkovsky and O’Neill, giving us greenery and companionship in space — and some measure of Earthly elbow room.

‘One day’ is the sustaining trope of today’s astropreneurs, and it is mother’s milk to the clever engineers and researchers at NASA and the European Space Agency, who continue to churn out studies and CGI animations pushing, ever pushing, for a humans-in-space future. One day, anything is possible: science and science fiction, hand in hand, have conspired to make us believe this is true. One day, living in space might be as easy as living on Earth.

But will it matter to anyone? That we might be able to live in space does not mean that we still want to, or that the arguments put forward for doing so will still resonate across the cultural landscape. Indeed, a closer look at the four space stations now in orbit reveals that the living-in-space dream is, in fact, in serious trouble.

Space, as we understand it, is tabula rasa in its purest form: no life to trample upon, no natives to displace, no border disputes to wrangle over

No amount of spin can mask the incredible expense of the International Space Station, which has thus far cost an estimated $150 billion to build and operate. For that price, NASA could build, launch and operate several dozen Mars Curiosity rovers. The station’s scientific value is routinely criticised as being paltry, particularly when compared with other high-end science projects such the Large Hadron Collider, which was built for about $10 billion, less than a tenth of the price of the ISS. The ISS is routinely promoted as a stellar example of cross-cultural collaboration, but it’s unclear whether the multi-national consortium that runs it will keep it operating past 2020.

China’s ultimate aims for its spaceflight programme are the subject of constant speculation. The country has lately pursued an ambitious manned space programme, but only because it understands that manned spaceflight is a status marker among superpowers. How long will it be before other ‘status markers’ of China’s global rise — its mega-cities, its growing military machine, its tourism, the growing ‘soft power’ of corporate tech brands such as Huawei — supersede the importance of human spaceflight?

That leaves the entrepreneurs. Along with SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace is one of the forerunners of the entrepreneurial space sector, upon which off-world enthusiasts pin their hopes. The American hotel magnate Robert Bigelow has so far bankrolled the company with a reported $250 million, and he is on record as committing to another quarter-billion through 2015. At that point, presumably, he hopes the company will begin turning a profit.

In 2007, around the time it launched its second unmanned station, Bigelow Aerospace boasted that as many 800 paying crewmembers could be flying in 10 years’ time. Six years later, the number of Bigelow astronauts remains zero. Bigelow has launched ambitious self-funded enterprises before, but he is also known for being capricious with them. In 2004 he pulled the plug on the National Institute for Discovery Science, which funded paranormal research. Bigelow’s pockets might be deep, but no one can fund a business endlessly without any paying customers.

The Space Age dream of extra-terrestrial humanity is at its heart a tautology: we will expand into space because we will — ‘one day’ — be able to expand into space. Yet it is easy to find useful analogies to the contrary. In the 1960s and ’70s there were more than a dozen human habitats — occasionally dubbed ‘inner space’ stations — scattered beneath the world’s oceans. The most famous was Tektite II, launched in 1970 into Great Lameshur Bay in the US Virgin Islands, with an all-female crew of scientists led by the American oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

Like the drive to move into space, sea colonisation was once seen as an essential step in humanity’s future. The undersea world is a better fit for the classic frontier ideal: untapped resources, an abundance of uninhabited space (uninhabited by humans, at least), and with most required habitation technologies fairly well-established by decades of submariners.

But by the 1980s the undersea colonisation movement had largely withered away. The French aquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau, who was instrumental in establishing one of the earliest undersea stations, Conshelf off the coast of Marseilles in 1962, was also among the first to disassociate himself from the colonisation movement, which he said was contrary to the real need for human intervention: conservation. Tektite’s Earle, now explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, travelled much the same trajectory. There are just three operational undersea stations left: two are used for oceanographic research off the coasts of Rhode Island and Florida, while the third is a privately owned underwater hotel in Dubai.

The sea/space analogy isn’t perfect. Space, as we understand it, is tabula rasa in its purest form: no life to trample upon, no natives to displace, no border disputes to wrangle over. Taken on more generous terms, our push to colonise the seas or space might be viewed as a natural expression of the human need to expand and explore. But we are now more self-conscious, and less hubristic, about what such expansion might bring. The more we understand our own impact on Earth, the less we seem inclined to inflict it elsewhere.

There might be arguments for living in space that resonate more fully with the concerns of our time. The explosion of a meteor over Russia this February has placed new emphasis on the early detection of stellar objects that threaten to collide with Earth: could human-tended stations or bases be part of the solution? It is unfortunate that suborbital civilian spaceflight has thus far been branded with the ‘tourism’ label, which diminishes its potential to embrace a wider audience. As it stands, civilian spaceflight is largely perceived as what wealthy individuals do when they’ve climbed Everest and want a bigger trophy. It’s understandable that companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR want to monetise their work, but they also need to demonstrate the potential for suborbital spaceflight to be meaningful, which means opening up a few seats for the hoi polloi. Transitioning human spaceflight from a military elite to a wealthy elite would hardly be progress.

There might also be resonance in applying the technological and psychological lessons of living in space to the challenges of living on an increasingly crowded Earth. The potential synergy between the design requirements of close living in space and close living on Earth could use more attention. Space Age buildings such as the Nakagin Capsule Tower  in Tokyo — built in 1972, and so retro-futuristic as to appear to be CGI — are more about form than function. Perhaps architects and urban planners should be offered berths aboard the ISS or Bigelow’s inflatable habitats.

Our drive to live in space has to serve human needs, not human fantasies. Since the days of my childhood space cruiser we have become, by and large, a more self-aware species. Maybe that’s a necessary first step towards a meaningful spacefaring future. Step two will be harder. The next Space Age will require more than humane starships and flashy technologies — more than roomier bunk beds and better rocket fuels. It will take new ideas that are compelling enough to convince us that this wonderful planet of ours isn’t the endpoint of human evolution, but just the beginning.

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  • Walter

    "Our drive to live in space has to serve human needs, not human fantasies."

    Being human often means the need for fantasies. In fact
    without fantasies we would be nothing more than bipedal primates, no different
    from chimps.

    I agree we, space enthusiasts, were wrong about our projections
    for space exploration, but so what? Economists are wrong in almost any
    prediction regarding our economy, yet we still entertain their nonsense. We
    haven’t created true artificial intelligence, yet it is still a serious

    Sure, climate change and poverty are more pressing issues
    than space exploration, but choosing between the two is a false choice. Is not
    so much I disagree with the premise of the article, I just find it limiting in
    an uncomfortable way.

    Besides, think about this: at the turn of the 20th
    century space, for all practical purposes, was a few yards above our heads.

    Once flight became common we pushed space further up, above
    the clouds, our playing ground got bigger.

    Then, in the later part of the 20th century we
    pushed space further still, with visits to low Earth orbit a common thing. The
    fact that most people ignore what happens in a few hundred miles above our
    heads is a sign of how common going into space has became.

    So, in many ways we have accomplished that science fiction
    future we envisioned decades ago, sure the aesthetics if it were wrong, but whoon
    Earth gets that right?

    • Greg Klerkx

      You make a number of valid points about the routinization of space: largely, we take it for granted. And fantasies can be useful things and can even spur future realities...loads of sci-fi examples here. But what now is the future prediction, the future fantasy when it comes to space? Is it worth having one, or have we exhausted the use for fantasy when it comes to human spaceflight and exploration? Have we fulfilled enough of what we'd hoped for in space? I suppose that's at the heart of what I'm interested in here. I don't have answers, but I think they're the right questions.

      • walter

        I agree. I just love space, and a future without space seems
        a little depressing to me. Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clark were like space
        pushers when I was young, and got me addicted to the idea of space exploration,
        now I am having withdraws.

  • ken anthony

    Our drive to live in space has to serve human needs

    Bull's eye!

    What human need? Liberty. To do this is space will take time. However, we can do it on mars now.

    To build in space, currently, requires a costly launch making space, space limited.

    It cost a lot to get to mars as well, but once there, things change dramatically. It doesn't have to be tuna can habitats on mars. It doesn't have to be a crew with limited liberty given out by a captain either.

    Each person is within walking distance or less from all the resources they need. Give them enough resources to start with and they can go as far as they like from there. Each individual working toward their own individual goals.

    This will create markets for further developments that will make the out in space, space dream happen as well.

    We start by parking a space ship in orbit as a tourist destination. This can totally pay the high cost of getting settlers to mars. Once on mars, the high cost is behind them.

    Oh, and we already have artificial gravity (spin) just not the kind in the movies. Isn't it about time they started filming sf movies in real zero g? Say from a Bigelow habitat with it's interior painted green?

    • Greg Klerkx

      Regarding movies in space, you might enjoy 'Out of the Present', which was filmed entirely aboard the Russian space station, Mir. The most vivid account of life in space ever put to film!

    • aeon33

      Something entirely missing from the article and the discussion is the issue of cosmic rays, high energy particles emitted by the sun that put humans at high risk of cancer. The magnetic field of earth shields us from these particles, but anywhere in our solar system that does not have a strong magnetic field is uninhabitable by humans unless they live well underground or in structures shielded by substances such as lead -- and, Ken Anthony, is Mars rich in lead? Is "the high cost behind them"? I think not. We could live in the likes of caves there -- hardly a great view out the window. I read O'Neil in the precursor to Whole Earth Review (forget its name) back in the 70s, but clearly with hindsight he was not up on the issue. There are places in the solar system that could possibly make suitable habitat for humans, Titan, a moon of Saturn, is perhaps the best possibility as it has a magnetic field strong enough to limit cosmic ray exposure to a safe level. The moon and Mars are unsuitable.

  • CoastalRon

    The author said:

    "The business of getting people to and from orbital space is now largely routine..."

    I would disagree with that. As of today we only have access to space through the country Russia, and even then it's very limited. That is anything but routine, which implies adequate supply as well as dependable service.

    This is one of the reasons why we haven't made much progress in expanding our presence out into space, and it is symptomatic of the overall reason why we don't have cities in space in the 21st century - it costs a whole lot of money to do anything in space.

    I love science fiction, but my one basic beef is that most space related science fiction relies on energy sources that are far beyond the laws of physics. This hasn't stopped the telling of good stories, but it has set up unrealistic expectations on what would be nice versus what's possible.

    The other limitation I mentioned was money, in that we can't build cities in space unless there is a robust economy surrounding those cities in space. And we won't expand our presence out in space on NASA's measly $18B/year budget, which is readily apparent in the conversations about whether we can afford to keep the ISS operational after 2020. If we can't afford to operate a 6-person space station in LEO, then we're not ready to explore space in any meaningful way.

    • Greg Klerkx

      You make a valid point about my use of the word 'routine'...mainly, I meant that those flights that do happen, post-shuttle, generally don't run the risk of disaster. The money issue is trickier. At its peak in the Apollo era, NASA consumed just over two percent of federal outlays...that'd be more than $60 billion today, or more than four times the current NASA budget. Even then, people balked but the funding still happened because politicians, media and the general public saw a clear reason for that spending. When it comes to human spaceflight, it isn't so clear these days and the case made is largely the same one that space enthusiasts have been making for years, i.e., manifest destiny, species evolution, more resources, etc. It clearly hasn't stuck.

      Also, as I wrote in my book some years back, NASA and other space agencies are no longer the singular answer to whatever question is most relevant here. I have real admiration for the astropreneurs. But even they can't do it alone. Even they need to engage more broadly and deeply than is happening now, and as you point out sometimes the sci-fi hype hinders rather than helps.

  • Derek Roche

    We already have a perfectly habitable space vehicle. It's called Planet Earth and it's been trundling along for 4.2 billion years, generating its own atmosphere, recycling its water supply, nurturing life from non-life and protecting it from harmful UV radiation and cosmic rays with an ozone layer and magnetic shield.

    We would be better advised to learn how it's managed to do all that and to adapt our lifestyles and patterns of thinking accordingly before having the hubris to think we could replicate it on other planets.

  • tooCents

    What country or countries are in the beautiful photograph?

    • Tony Newey

      The two main islands of New Zealand........I know because I live in Wellington which is near the top of the photograph on the edge of the strait between the two islands.

      • tooCents

        Ah, so it is Ennor and the Great Sea of Belegaer. Just kidding.

      • Greg Klerkx

        If I ever needed further incentive to visit your beautiful country, this would be it!

  • Renee

    "It will take new ideas that are compelling enough to convince us that
    this wonderful planet of ours isn’t the endpoint of human evolution, but
    just the beginning."

    How about the compelling fact that one day the sun will eat the earth? If we don't have a viable means of living and traveling in space by then, we will all die with it.

    • Greg Klerkx

      That event is estimated to happen about 7 billion years from now. We've got some time.

      • Bob Iles

        Actually, less than that - more like 1 billion yrs. as that's when the sun gets hot enough to evaporate all the water from the planet & everything living goes down with it.

        • Greg Klerkx

          I stand corrected on the specifics, though not necessarily the bigger picture!

          • Oliver Milne

            Much more pressing is the danger DIY genetic modification technology poses to our ecosystem. Suppose some terrorist creates a version of Ebola that spreads through the air and has a six-week-long, asymptomatic, infectious incubation period? Or a well-intentioned modified soil bacterium turns out to be wildly successful and incidentally fatal to most food crops? While we have only one ecosystem, all our eggs are in one basket

      • aeon33

        To Greg Klerkx: Two points, 5 billion years from now, not 7, and, more important, due to expansion and rising temperature the sun will render the earth dead in roughly 1 billion years. Still some time, but windows of opportunity -- we now have the rockets to go to space -- have a way of closing.

  • david mcconville

    Many thanks for the balanced and thoughtful reporting on what can be an emotionally (and mythically) charged issue. To my mind, one of the most important considerations concerning "space tourism" is also one of the least reported. The current rubber-based fuels of the rockets used by Virgin Galactic would dump black carbon into the upper stratosphere. According to NCAR simulations, this will dramatically destabilize planetary ecosystems. For more on the research, see the Nature article: - which summarizes, "Climate change caused by black carbon, also known as soot, emitted during a decade of commercial space flight would be comparable to that from current global aviation, researchers estimate."

    For a decidedly more shrill critique from a sociologist's perspective, see

    Given how many 'planetary boundaries' (as Stockholm Resilience Centre calls them) are currently being breached, analyzing the "externalities" of this nascent industry is essential - though complicated, given the levels of enthusiasm and investment.

    Thanks again for the excellent piece. Couldn't agree more that it's high time we re-visit Kenneth Boulding's and Buckminster Fuller's notion of Spaceship Earth. As Fuller pointed out, the "space race" gave us new Earth-observing capacities that we can now use to visualize critical interconnections of our planetary social-ecological-economic flows - and to learn how we might avoid frivolously trashing what is - as far as we know - the most exquisite spaceship in the cosmos.

    • Greg Klerkx

      I think you're right in suggesting that as the astropreneurial movement gains prominence, this will become a bigger deal. I know that an environmental group in Texas, for instance, has very vocally opposed the idea of SpaceX building a spaceport there...ironic, considering that SpaceX founder's 'other' big venture is the electric car company, Tesla!

      • david mcconville

        Richard Branson is also well-known for his Carbon War Room, though it focuses on CO2, not black carbon. Virgin Galactic claims a low CO2 footprint for their space tourism flights, but fails to mention black carbon. This begs the question of how Branson or Elon Musk would respond to the implications of the NCAR research.

        Good news for aspiring space tourists is that there are much cleaner - and cheaper - options in the works: Seems best to use polluting rockets when the externalized costs might be justified in terms of planetary benefit (like with Earth-observing satellites) as opposed to suborbital joyrides. That's a perfect task for balloons...

        • Michael Winkler

          The company I work with at present has had many meetings with these scientists working for Virgin Galactic. Some of which I have attended in London just last year. Although proprietary in nature I can not go into the details of these discussions, however I will say that there were many discussions regarding the overall total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI) of the next 10-15 years of this companies' future profit margins. Needless to say, from a technological standpoint, our company has decided to pull out of the venture due to capital risk mitigation. Need I say more :-)

  • P Edward Murray

    I remember Dr ONeil, he came to XU in the 1970's, still have his book and his autograph.

    • Greg Klerkx

      How interesting; I would like to have met him. What was he like?

  • SmilingAhab

    I'm an unapologetic cynic about such expensive ventures. I don't see any evidence that the common good is a competent motivator in the 21st century. At best we'll see several mini-Elysium style condos or hotels for the new world aristocracy, and any serious developments in spaceflight and extra-orbital extraction and manufacture will come from SOEs and mining conglomerates. An aristocratic society cannot harbor a common imagination - it is a large middle class, with little enough status to retain the humility to dream big and care openly, and enough income to meet the bottom rungs of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs and support public research and private entrepreneurship, that fuels such mass movements; that cannot exist when only a few are fantastically wealthy and uncaring about the common lot or humanity's future outside their own gain from it (and while there are a few forward thinking empathetic aristocrats, who rightly deserve their titles, they cannot sustain the whole of progressive astrofuturism) while the bulk struggle to survive and combat the endless distractions of a consumerist feudal society.

    Humanity will never make it to the stars - not with its Darwinistic hierarchies based on little more than force and influence, nor its quibbling myriad tribal tensions, as it is now.

    • Greg Klerkx

      I'd call myself skeptical, not having quite made the leap to cynical. But I take your broader points and of course there's a reason that most spacefaring sci-fi these days (Elysium, Oblivion, etc.) isn't exactly happy-happy joy-joy. The humanity-driven human space adventure hasn't happened, though one can make a good argument that non-human space activity - from weather-tracking satellites to deep-space probes - has in fact been about the greater good. What's missing about human space travel is rationale. Why do it? Right now, there's neither profit nor political motive...and mercifully, not yet any more direct we-must-escape-the-planet reason. Long may that be so.

      • SmilingAhab

        Wow, I'd completely forgotten about this post.

        While I still don't have enough positivity about the bulk of humanity to fill a chamber pot, I do hope we reach the stars. I've always had a dream: when we look up, we see countless worlds. There's probably some derivative of single-celled life on some of them, but it mostly looks dead and empty from chemical analysis of our first well-analyzed exoplanets - a billion Marses. Unlike many I believe Drake's equation only calculates out to 1, and only for now; I would like to see us go out into the galaxy and seed every inch of it with life. The Brits took some life from every corner of the world and brought it to a single island to see what would happen, and that island is a jewel of ecological research, and I would like to see us do that to the slow, eternal, static procession of heavenly bodies and make this galaxy, and eventually the Universe, shine with the light of life.

        • Oliver Milne

          I can't upvote this enough.

  • Bill Dietrich

    The dream is still there, but the reality has turned out to be VERY hard and costly. Cost to orbit hasn't really budged much in 40+ years. No good destination for humans has been found (with gravity, atmosphere, resources, reasonable temps). Space is mostly a hostile desert.

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