Chris Impey on “Beyond: Our Future in Space” & the great entrepreneurial opportunities awaiting us there
From mining asteroids to low-orbit internet satellites, the entrepreneurial space race is on! Jason’s guest is Chris Impey, astronomy professor and author of “Beyond: Our Future in Space,” and they dive into everything from our “exploration gene” to Mars colonization and the Mars tsars, the amazing range of opportunities for startups wanting to break into the outer limits, why we haven’t found evidence of intelligent life and, inevitably, sex in outer space. A fascinating, mind-expanding discussion about the frontier that is closer than you think. As Jason says: “You don’t have to watch science fiction anymore, you can watch startups.”
Here are five points to get you started:
1. We’re going to space a lot sooner than you think
Jason asks Chris when people will be living on Mars, assuming “in our lifetimes” might be a stretch. But Chris surprises him by predicting earthlings on that planet in the next two decades. “That’s NASA’s plan now to have visitors,” he says. “For limited periods of time. They’re setting up an infrastructure. In 40 years, then you have the possibility of a small, self-sustaining colony.”
2. …And it might be via a space elevator
Chris believes the timeline for space colonization could be sped up dramatically with the help of something that sounds straight out of science fiction: a space elevator. Chris prices it at $10 billion (a steal, he claims, compared to a space station) and says it could run on solar energy. NASA could start by anchoring it to the moon, he theorizes, and eventually tether it to Earth to shoot people straight from our planet to a brand new one.
3. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could be Mars tsars
Chris somewhat agrees that Elon Musk is the driving force behind space exploration right now, with Jeff Bezos as the “dark horse.” But he thinks their rivalry will really play out once they’ve both staked claims on the space frontier, which is essentially the wild wild west. “The thing that’s interesting is that all rules are off once you’re in space,” Chris says. “Nobody owns anything, the UN and governments don’t have any authority…. Individuals who want to go out there [can] say, ‘Hey, I got here first, so I’m going to exploit it, mine it, start a colony.’”
4. Exploration is in our genetics
In Beyond, Chris tries to mix as much real science into the fictional story as possible. One particularly interesting piece that Jason points out is the 7R gene, or explorer gene. As Chris explains, it’s an allele that generally correlates with heavy migration (i.e. a propensity for travel) as well as risk-taking behavior and even ADHD. People or populations with 7R tend to “push the frontier,” but it’s not exactly a widespread phenomenon. About 20% of all humans carry it.
5. Sex in space can happen, and probably already has
Finally, Jason asks the question on everyone’s mind: is it possible to have sex in zero gravity? Chris not only thinks yes — he thinks it’s already happened. “I tried to find out. NASA has denied this for decades, of course,” he says. “But there’s a continuing little thread of backroom astronaut chatter that says yeah, it probably happened a couple of times. And probably in a dark corner of the space station.”
25:47–27:54: Jason asks Chris why we haven’t gone back to the moon since the heyday of NASA. Chris calls the Apollo program a “historical anomaly.”
27:55–31:12: Jason and Chris discuss the “explorer gene,” a part of our DNA that explains migration, risk-taking, and even recklessness.
35:54–38:01: Jason and Chris debate the possibility of sending ships of frozen embryos into space to start new populations.
38:59–41:29: Jason asks Chris the Fermi question: why haven’t we found evidence of aliens?
41:32–45:15: Jason wants to know what next big achievement we’ll see in the “Elon Musk era of space.”
49:23–51:48: Jason and Chris discuss the business model of space, including tourism, satellites, and asteroid mining.
51:50–54:52: Jason and Chris talk sex in space. Is it possible and has it happened before?
56:18–57:09: Jason and Chris praise another sci-fi book with some real scientific concepts: The Martian.
57:12–1:01:14: Jason and Chris ponder what space exploration will look like within our lifetimes, by around 2050.
1:02:41–1:03:14: Chris explains how China is outperforming us with its space program.
1:05:53–1:09:38: Could Elon Musk get to space in the next couple years? Chris breaks down the possibility, and what could accelerate the process.
1:11:06–1:14:38: Chris introduces and explains the concept of a “space elevator.”
1:14:39–1:15:58: Jason asks Chris to list off the science fiction films that get closest to reality.
1:15:59–1:19:49: Jason and Chris wonder when we’ll finally make contact with an alien civilization.