Humanity’s next step is outer space

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Credit: Jian Bautista

Humanity is a species that always looks to explore and expand. Our ancient ancestors migrated out of Africa, the Europeans managed high-profile expeditions and the Chinese were blessed with accomplished mariners like Zheng He. There are countless instances in history where the quest to discover the unknown drove humans forward. A common theme can be identified in many of those explorations: self-interest. Nothing draws investments, hires participants and creates ambitious leaders quite like the prospect of wealth or glory.

Self-interest isn’t scandalous. It is the source of humanity’s greatest leaps of progress. But in order to make use of it in exploration, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow needs to be identified. Today’s pot of gold is outer space.

If crossing oceans once seemed daunting to humans, then venturing deep into space must seem unsurmountable. Science fiction media has imagined such a future but often takes creative license when it comes to accuracy. Voters and politicians are reluctant to invest in a future that can’t be readily seen. Correlatively, NASA struggles to find direction and funding for its projects.

Fortunately, the mantle of space exploration can be rescued through self-interest. Private companies have already made great strides in the technological foundation necessary for humanity’s next step. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Orbital ATK, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation are all private companies with spaceflight systems in development.

However, what these companies need is the goalpost, the aforementioned pot of gold. The U.S. government already offers contracts to private spaceflight companies, mainly to service the International Space Station or support NASA’s functions. These contracts have provided sustenance to the spaceflight private sector, but it isn’t enough and it isn’t sustainable.

What we need to do is popularize three goalposts to the public: space tourism, solar energy and asteroid mining. These popularization campaigns will be similar to the 1960s Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The only difference is that a multitude of companies will compete for the goals instead of a NASA monopoly.

Space tourism is the nearest goalpost. For several hundred thousand dollars per ticket, you can reserve a seat aboard a shuttle and visit suborbital space. Microgravity and all. Obviously, the hefty price means that the trips will cater to only the most wealthy of customers. As seen with other technologies, however, the cost tends to decrease over time and widen in accessibility. Commercial airlines used to be immensely cost-prohibitive, but now tickets are accessible for most people.

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Popularizing space tourism requires a passenger safety regime. Currently, customers and spaceflight companies alike are reluctant to jump into space tourism because it is perceived as being extremely perilous. The Federal Aviation Administration has begun to issue safety regulations for passenger and crew, but wordy bureaucratic language does little to change the public’s perception. Space flight will need to be normalized just as automobiles are. The FAA should publicly endorse companies that meet its regulations. Celebrities should be the first to try these flights and post about the experience on social media. Highly-publicized crowdfunding campaigns can buy tickets for certain individuals who have public sympathy. All of these actions can help normalize space tourism.

Where direct investment is needed is with solar energy. This involves placing solar panels in low Earth orbit and beaming photovoltaic electricity to surface-based collectors. The logic here is that the Earth’s surface only receives a small fraction of the Sun’s total output, so surface-based solar panels can only collect whatever light makes it through. Putting solar panels in space will allow for complete collection, unimpeded by cloudy overcasts or nightfall.

The technologies required for this include low-cost launch vehicles, orbit-to-surface transmission without significant loss and the ability to construct and maintain equipment in orbit. The federal government already spends money on energy development, including lavish subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies. This spending needs to be reoriented towards more noble pursuits like awarding contracts to spaceflight companies willing to develop these technologies. Politicians should recognize the public benefit- limitless, clean energy beamed directly to their constituents.

Finally, asteroid mining should be popularized as the attainable long-term goal for space exploration. There are over 16,000 asteroids within Earth’s proximity and orbit pattern. Asteroids are hypothesized to be rich in metals and water, both valuable for sustaining human civilization in space. A future where asteroid mining colonies are common is one where humanity has “space infrastructure.” That infrastructure is necessary for supporting broader exploration of other planets and possibly other star systems. Colonies and stations amidst asteroid belts provide the means to repair, replenish and rescue spaceflight vehicles as needed.

Needless to say, asteroid mining is the most daunting goalpost of them all. So was landing on the moon back in the 1960s. This is where NASA needs to spearhead this project. The financial risk of being the first to mine an asteroid is too much for private companies to tolerate any time soon. NASA has a tradition of pushing these new boundaries. Only they can power through the risk assessments and accomplish amazing things. To do this, they will require a whole-agency focus on this project and adequate funding from Congress. They will also need to exercise discipline afterwards. If NASA can mine an asteroid once, then it will need to publicly share the data and know-how with the private sector and then step back from such operations. NASA does it first and the private sector follows behind to do it better.

All three of these goalposts will set the foundation necessary for humanity’s next step. All three require popularization and investment. It is difficult to rally people around space exploration and development, especially when other issues like health care and the economy are more relevant to our day-to-day lives. But humanity cannot afford to relinquish this next step. We are a species that always expands, and Earth is already crowded.