Does Humanity have a Space Future?

Ideas and Big Questions from 100 people

We all love the giant audacious rocket launches by SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and we feel the excitement of the even more audacious plans to settle on the Moon, and on Mars. But as a society, what are we doing? Are we really planning to live permanently on Mars? At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Austin TX last February, we held a panel to explore that topic: Does humanity have a space future?

Being sponsored by Interplanetary Initiative (https://interplanetary.asu.edu/) and motivated by its goals, we wanted the whole room to become the team. We distributed paper and pens to the whole room: about 100 people, standing-room only! A number of our friends and colleagues, especially Sheri Klug Boonstra, assisted with soliciting and collecting responses from the audience

First we asked, Why are we in space? What’s in it for humanity?

And then we used one of my favorite techniques: Big Questions. Rather than being distracted by the incremental issues at our feet, think of the biggest questions that need to be solved. If you could achieve something huge, what would it be? And so we asked the audience, what are your big questions about space? All the answers we collected at the end of the session are listed below.

The crowd seems to have been a fair cross-section of STEM-connected people. There were plenty of scientists and engineers working on space issues, and there were middle- and high-school teachers, and some people retired from the Apollo era, and there were biologists and chemists and writers. There was little disagreement that we’d have a space future.

With a crowd so oriented toward technology and science, this surprised me — I expected more harsh realism along the lines of, the technology we need is too expensive…we have too many crises here on Earth…there’s no sustainable way to live on Mars…but instead we got a broad set of ideas and questions stretching across economics, politics, sociology, and technology.

The answers to Why are we in space? What’s in it for humanity? roughly fell into these categories:

  • There’s more to discover…we are explorers…
  • Economic needs
  • To find Earth2.0
  • Exploring space brings us closer to caring for Earth
  • Exploring space makes us better humans
  • Exploring develops technology and brings other advantages

My favorite response was “We are in space to discover, research in space, find new information to better understand the origin of planets and stars, and how planets can obtain life, or humanity.” I believe this entirely — with an audacious goal beyond all of us, we make a better, kinder, more united team. Works for a research group, and it works for a planet.

The Big Questions fell into these broad groups:

  • Exploration: fundamental discovery
  • Life beyond Earth
  • Where are we going and when?
  • Economy, policy, law
  • Can we be better humans?
  • Can humans adapt to space?
  • Practicalities
  • How do we prepare?
  • And…we are not asking the right questions.

A big one is, “How will the culture of space-based societies differ from that on Earth, what problems will we bring, what opportunities are there to solve them anew?” This was one of the greatest charms of Star Trek, the vision of a better, more united humanity of the future. Now’s our chance.

We know the questions, we know the issues…now we need to take action. Are you working on a Big Question? Is it the right one? (I’d love to hear about it.) Let’s connect our efforts. Let’s have an audacious goal for the future of humans.

The panelists were Michael Varnum, ASU associate professor in psychology, who presented a fascinating study of how people might react when we detect life off of the Earth; Erika Wagner, Business Development Manager at Blue Origin, who gave us an update on Blue’s rocket technology; Paul Davies, ASU professor of physics and author, who talked about humankind’s place in the universe; and myself; I talked about the NASA Psyche mission and about the ASU Interplanetary Initiative. The panel was organized by the brilliant Amanda Arnold.

The complete list of responses

1. Why are we in space? What’s in it for humanity?

There’s more to discover…we are explorers…

The truth is out there for us to find, and I don’t see us getting there staying complacent here on Earth.

We have to go to space to see what else is out there. We are killing our planet so where can we go next?

We are in space to discover, research in space, find new information to better understand the origin of planets and stars, and how planets can obtain life, or humanity.

As any private pilot knows, flying is fun!

Feed our deep need to explore the unknown, aka the “final frontier”

We are, as a species, hardwired for exploration. Without an option for exploration, we whither, we bicker, and as a species we fail.

We are in space due to all the potential applications of the possible scientific discoveries. Also, it’s a matter if curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge.

Humans are natural explorers. We want to know what is possible and if we are alone.

We are in space due to the human desire to escape. Escape the world, its problems, and the future.

To strive for more.

Satisfying human curiosity.

To explore the “final frontier”

We can get better understanding of how planets were formed.

The final frontier…a new area to test our ability and knowledge, as well as making a mark (however small) on the universe.

We are in space because we are hard-wired to explore, and space gives us the opportunity to do so. We also seek answers to the unknown, and space is arguably the biggest “unknown.”

Pursuing one of humanity’s core impulses: exploration.

The horizon will call us forever.

Further development of new ways to explore our universe.

In space to learn more about the universe and our world, in it for new discoveries.

We cannot remain in the cradle forever.

Finding life elsewhere is the fundamental question.

Explore our own origins.

Better understand how the universe works.

Curiosity is a driving force of humanity — that is it? If only we could go with more “tabula rasa” than taking preconceived religions, politics, etc.

Expanding our horizons as a species. Exploration, colonization. Also: Scientific understanding

Economic needs

For something to do and to gain resources.

Economic benefits (including creation of a new space economy)

To find Earth2.0

Expanding humanity’s footprint and place to live [Plan B scenario should we ruin Plan A, Earth]

We have to go to space to find a new planet, as we are irretrievably trashed this one. And America is leading the way in the trashing.

Exploring space brings us closer to caring for Earth

Fully appreciate the uniqueness of our planet and the need to take care of it.

Better recognize how special Earth is, and how we need to take better care of it

Finite resources on Earth, and overpopulation.

For the benefit of our fragile Earth, to collect information about Earth.

Earth is a temporary home. According to Darwin, we have to struggle to exist. We must remain.

Exploring space makes us better humans

Space exploration not only opens up learning possibilities, but many other social ones as well.

The highway to space offers so many roadside attractions for mankind — health, wellness, planetary sustainability, and tech breakthroughs that impact our daily lives in positive ways.

Evolve humanity beyond Earth life

To expand freedom beyond nation states of Earth — akin to early American colonies.

Perhaps space colonization allows us to take a very long view again much like native Americans who crossed the land bridge.

Maybe spiritual transformation (scientists, engineers have trouble articulating — we need poets in space! And artists, filmmakers!)

Exploration develops technology and brings other advantages

Space exploration is important to humanity because of the expansion of knowledge of basic science for the possibility of development of new technologies.

We are a curious species and space holds the biggest unknowns for us. We will find new life forms, discover better ways of living to take back to Earth.

Expand our science knowledge frontiers re: impact of gravity, impact of radiation on biology, on materials.

Advancing tech, pushing it so we can more easily travel and study space.

And…

Why do you judge value in “What’s in it for humanity?” Is humanity the only species deserving benefits?

2. What are your big questions?

Exploration: fundamental discovery

What does Mars actually smell like?

Why is our planet located here it is?

Are there any potential discoveries to be made in the field of material science? If so, how do we hope to apply these at “home”?

What was before, or instead of, the Big Bang?

Life beyond Earth

If there are intelligent alternative possibly extra-terrestrial forms of life, are they looking for other forms of life like us?

What are the sociological differences of other intelligent life forms and what can we learn from each other?

Should we discover alternative forms of life in the solar system, what approach, or attitude, will be most beneficial to both science and the society, in general, with regard to human interaction with extraterrestrials.

How did life come to Earth?

Will we discover intelligent life first, or are we more likely to be discovered?

Do we expect to see DNA-based life forms? How much similarity or difference is reasonable to expect?

Is the [study’s result] of a positive reaction to extraterrestrial life really indicative of how we will react when it actually happens?

How will the field of astrobiology grow?

Where are we going, and when?

What is the likely timeline for milestones in space exploration?

Can we start planning the Centauri flyby?

Economy, policy, law

Who owns Mars? Or, Who will own Mars?

Who will own space? Will nation states transfer?

How is space divided?

What will NASA’s role be in the future with companies like SpaceX and Blue?

Why in a democracy should super-vocal (ed:?) business people be defining human objectives?

How will interplanetary law and diplomacy work?

What will ownership right (e.g. land, minerals, on these planets) be like when we reach other planets?

In 20 years do you believe that a government-run space program (NASA) will still be at the forefront of exploration or a private space program (SpaceX)?

Will people be less concerned about energy conservation and sustainability on Earth if they think we can just “start over” on Mars?

Could we really try to be in space by keeping in mind that we are all citizens of the universe? No one nation should have exclusive rights to a place in space outside of the Earth.

How and when will space exploration become self-supporting?

Can we be better humans?

How do we prevent oppressive of exploitative social structures/arrangements from forming in space, especially given the costs associated with getting into space. This seems critical if a permanent off-planet population is to be established.

How will the culture of space-based societies differ from that on Earth, what problems will we bring, what opportunities are there to solve them anew?

Can humans adapt to space?

Can humans survive the radiation of outer space?

How do we deal with not being biologically evolved for life outside Earth?

Does it make sense to permanently inhabit other planets if we always need space suits or protection?

Is there a future of humanity in space, on a planet or space station?

When will long-term space habitation become feasible?

What are our limits?

The biggest question is how far we can reach and what can we achieve.

How long will it take for life in space to be viable? How can laypeople expedite the process?

Practicalities

What are we going to do with trash in space?

The estimated Falcon Heavy is 64,000 kg to LEO for $90M ($1500/kg). This is 4–6 times cheaper than the Delta 4 Heavy. Assume $250/kg for LEO in 2030. Then what can you do? That would be $25,000 per person.

The cost of commercial space travel — it’s very expensive…but [can it be] subsidized? Now or later?

How do we make things in space? Not a thing, anything.

How do we prepare?

I’m a middle-school science teacher. What’s the most important change(s) the K-12 education would need to make to prepare for our space future? What will my 11-year-old students be primed to do in 15–30 years?

Not asking the right questions

At the current rate of progression we aren’t going anywhere that might realistically host intelligent life. More money and resources in general should be devoted toward less conventional methods and ideas of travel. A more radical, less reliable approach should be taken in order to achieve the distant goal of faster-than-light travel, i.e. a method to engineer multidimensional wormholes.

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