Climate change is just one aspect of much broader planetary transformation. Ten thousand years ago, when the last Pleistocene-era glaciers melted, our planet entered the geologic epoch scientists call the Holocene. Earth’s air, water, rock, and life were in a stable state that was mostly warm and mostly moist (with not too much ice). Now, human activity has driven Earth out of the Holocene and into a new epoch scientists call the Anthropocene, a planetary change in which humanity now dominates how the planet’s systems function.
The advent of the Anthropocene is often depicted as a battle between one kind of politics over another: Republicans versus Democrats or business interests versus environmentalists. That view is flawed.
Over the past 50 years, humans have explored the solar system and all its worlds. The understanding we’ve gained from those journeys shows us that the Anthropocene is a predictable transition. It’s a change that inevitably occurs when any species builds a world-spanning, energy-intensive civilization like ours. From an astronomical point of view, the Anthropocene is a kind of planetary adolescence. You can’t stop your kids from becoming teenagers. Instead, you can only hope they come out the other side with maturity, wisdom, and compassion. In a similar way, to survive climate change, we need to grow into new kind of cooperative relationship with the rest of the biosphere and the rest of the planet.
There is evidence that it’s already happening.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Five decades after that epic voyage, there are signs that we are, finally, about to take the high frontier seriously. From rocket billionaires to robot asteroid explorers, a new scenario for the future is emerging. The next few hundred years don’t have to be a grind down to extinction. Instead, they may become a grand drama played out on the many stages of many new worlds.
Up until the start of the 21st century, common wisdom held that NASA was stuck. Rather than sending astronauts on bold missions beyond our planet, the space agency had become hostage to the whims of successive administrations, leaving it underfunded and rudderless. By the end of the space shuttle program, in 2011, NASA was hitching rides for its astronauts on Russian rockets.
Then came the “New Space” movement. Private enterprise jumped into the exosphere, and, working with NASA, the future of space travel was reenergized.
Leading most famously with Elon Musk and the founding of SpaceX, a new generation of moneyed entrepreneurs are working to slash the cost of heaving material and people into orbit. Along with SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have all developed working versions of their spaceships. Branson has kept his focus on space tourism, while Bezos and Musk are developing new classes of reusable rockets for space exploration and commerce.
But Musk, Bezos, and Branson are just the start. A small army of new companies are entering space enterprise. As of today, that global space economy is already valued at $350 billion, with predictions it will rise to $1 trillion dollars by 2040. Last year alone, space companies received $3.9 billion in private investment.
But the New Space era is about more than just rockets. Companies like Planet Labs and Spire Global are seeking ways to offer space-based continuous monitoring of the agricultural, environmental, and industrial state of the planet. Space manufacturing represents another frontier, with companies like Made in Space already exploring 3D-printing techniques for zero gravity.
Most of these endeavors, however, remain tethered to Earth. If humanity’s long-term future is to be interplanetary, what will take us far outward?
Figuring out how to make it in space may be a turning point in helping us understand how to make it on Earth.
Our growing understanding of the richness of the solar system’s other worlds is providing much of the motivation. While no human has ventured beyond the moon since the era of Armstrong, our robot emissaries have been fruitful travelers.
Our space probes have now visited every planet in the solar system. More than 20 missions have visited Venus. Mars bears the tire tracks of four different rovers. And it’s not just planets that we’ve visited. Our robot spaceships have targeted every kind of solar system body: asteroids, comets, and even thousand-mile-wide dwarf planets. What we’ve learned from these missions is that the solar system is a whole lot more interesting than Apollo-era scientists ever gave it credit for. And most important, our explorations have shown us that the solar system is very, very wet.
Beneath the frozen surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, lies a 60-mile-deep ocean that contains more water than rests on Earth. Many of the bigger moons of Jupiter and Saturn host subsurface oceans. And while Mars is a dry desert now, scientists have firm evidence that it was once a blue world with vast lakes or oceans where hip-deep torrents rushed across its surface. At least some water remains on the red planet in the form of ice at its poles and below its surface. Just last year, evidence revealed a liquid subsurface Martian lake spanning more than 10 miles.
Water is needed for more than sustaining human life and growing food—it’s also the basis for making rocket fuel. Finding a wet solar system means the raw materials are out there to help build a long-term human presence among the planets. Even a small asteroid orbiting the sun can contain as much as $50 billion in rare metals like platinum. That’s why interest remains high in investigating technologies that may one day form the backbone of a robust space-mining economy.
Even so, none of our solar system explorations have revealed anything like a turnkey world ready for humans. There is still no place in the solar system, other than Earth, where you can walk around without a spacesuit.
What our explorations have shown us, however, is that with the right kind of imagination and technology, we might succeed at carving out new domains for human settlement, commerce, and culture. This is a project that will without a doubt take generations. Building a human civilization beyond Earth will require more than machines. To thrive in artificial environments, we need to probe what exactly an environment is. Giant domed cities on Mars that populate the imaginations of science fiction writers and Elon Musk will need their own ecosystems. There will be plants. There will be microbes. There will be soils and an atmosphere. How do life, air, water, and rock function together to maintain stable conditions?
In order to survive the Anthropocene, we are asking these same questions. Becoming interplanetary will demand the same sensitivity to ecosystems that future climate scientists need to save Earth. In other words, figuring out how to make it in space may be a turning point in helping us understand how to make it on Earth.
So, what does the next 1,000 years hold for humanity? We tend to imagine warp-drive engines taking us to the stars à la Star Trek or Star Wars. But if we take the laws of physics seriously, then the finite speed of light and the vast distances between stars may make interstellar civilization unlikely. Even with the best technologies we can imagine today, it would still take at least 100 years to cross between the stars. Barring a scientific miracle, the next 1,000 years will probably not involve humanity building an interstellar empire.
But with technologies of far lesser capacities that we can imagine right now, crossing the solar system might take just months. Jupiter, for example, is really not that far away. If we can make it through climate change and navigate the Anthropocene transformation, then the solar system could be where the drama of human culture’s next millennia plays out. All the planets, moons, asteroids, and comets could become our stage, Earth included.
The good news is that the first act has already begun.