Look up. Just 62 miles above us lies the border of space. About an hour’s drive if you were to make the journey by car. Or three minutes if you take the trip in a rocket ship.
“Space travel, in three words, is ‘you go fast,’ ” says William Shatner in a documentary about the space flight he took last October. The Star Trek actor flew 347,539 feet aboveground in a four-person spacecraft built by Jeff Bezos’s rocket company, Blue Origin. “I’m overwhelmed,” Shatner exclaimed upon returning to Earth. “Everybody in the world needs to do this.”
Yet until about 60 years ago, such a high-speed journey was the stuff of science fiction. Then came the launch of Sputnik, the Apollo missions, space shuttles, and Dennis Tito, who, in 2001, bought a ticket to ride on a Russian rocket and showed the world that private citizens could boldly go into space. Since then, more than 600 people have made the voyage, and countless uncrewed craft and satellites have traveled even farther.
Not only do these flights challenge the notion of space as a place far, far away; they’re also transforming the way we think about life on Earth, our place in the cosmos, and the qualities that make us human. They’re the forerunners of our eventual migration to other parts of the solar system. It’s a matter of when, not if.
THE GREAT BLUE MARBLE
In 1969, legendary designer Buckminster Fuller popularized the term Spaceship Earth. As more images of Earth were taken from space, the words concisely and eloquently defined this beautiful truth: Earth is the best spaceship we have. And all of humanity are crew members on this majestic vessel. Saying “Spaceship Earth” aloud reminds us that we need to take better care of our planet, which is, at present, our only home.
After Shatner returned to Earth, he described seeing the planet’s atmosphere as “this comforter of blue that we have around us,” as if recognizing our planet’s uniqueness and perhaps its fragility. “You look down, there’s the blue down there and the black up there.… There is Mother Earth and comfort, and [up] there is, is there death?”
But what lies “up there” is not death. Rather, the canvas of space is an infinite palette for our imagination. Whether through simulations (VR, AR, parabolic flights), in-space experiments, or research projects, we soon will see a multitude of new inventions and experiences that will serve as catalysts for social, philosophical, and even political movements. More immediately, we’ll start to think about space as a domain where we can do anything we do on Earth.
Some have already adopted this new mindset, which is inspiring new entrepreneurial and investment activity: $46 billion was invested in the space industry globally in 2021—there are over 100 companies in California alone. Meanwhile, in 2020, the entire space economy reached only $447 billion, suggesting that business activity is still in a prelaunch phase. The U.S. automobile industry, for example, generated $1.2 trillion in the same time period.
Businesses including Amazon, Astranis, OneWeb, Planet, and SpaceX are building constellations of satellites to provide internet access to nearly our entire planet. If successful, this widespread connectivity would deliver a cascade of benefits, from increased global literacy rates to a lowered digital divide.
The new generation of satellites—approximately 4,550 were aloft as of September 1, 2021—also includes those that can monitor ecosystem changes. Among the tasks they might tackle are identifying new sources of drinking water; scouting locations for solar-energy plants; reducing illegal fishing, logging, and deforestation; improving weather forecasts; tracking endangered wildlife; and safeguarding people and cities from threats natural and otherwise.
Space has long been seen as a frontier to explore and adapt environmentally for human life. There are efforts underway by companies like Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Nanoracks to develop space habitats and stations. And with the emergence of new space stations—think long-term outposts and villages drifting in space or on the moon or an asteroid or another planet—humanity has the potential to become, as Elon Musk tweeted, “interstellar.”
But for what purpose? For starters, these stations could greatly increase opportunities for research and development leading to medical discoveries. We know that microgravity presents unique stressors that change the way cells can behave. New therapies or regenerative applications could one day be derived from zero-gravity research. Astronauts who spend extended periods in space experience a temporary change in the length of their telomeres—the tail ends of chromosomes—which is thought to be caused by one of the stressors of space. This could become a future focus of research on aging, a process in which telomeres tend to shorten. Thus far, though, such activity has been scattered and largely underfunded.
Other areas being investigated include developing biomanufacturing systems to grow human organs and improving ways to cultivate stem cells. There’s even an effort to look at new ways of raising crops. Last December, Clemson University sent an ambitious study to the International Space Station (ISS). “Conducting these experiments in microgravity gives us a unique environment to disentangle the genetics of somatic embryogenesis—regenerating a whole plant from a single cell—and we believe we can translate this research into application,” said Chris Saski, associate professor of systems genomics.
There’s also our need to explore. The Breakthrough Initiatives is a series of Silicon Valley–based programs launched in 2015 to address many of space’s most daunting challenges, like finding other habitable planets and sending probes far, far beyond our current limits. Particularly exciting is the Starshot initiative, which may one day be able to send an uncrewed interstellar probe past the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b, which resides in the Alpha Centauri system, and then have the probe send images back to Earth.
MORE THAN A FEELING
When humans visit space, they often experience what is known as the overview effect, a cognitive shift in perspective and consciousness that can be realized only by leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Author and philosopher Frank White coined the term more than three decades ago, in part after interviewing dozens of astronauts who had gazed on Earth from space, where it appears without international borders and protected only by a very delicate and thin atmosphere. Richard Garriott, a private astronaut who lived in space for 12 days in 2008, shared with me that the overview effect had enveloped him in an intensity of feeling that even the most dramatic film, book, or music couldn’t realistically capture.
This effect often transforms one’s understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Sian Proctor, who was a crew member for the privately funded flight Inspiration4 in 2021, says, “For me as a geoscientist, just having that beautiful view and seeing our environment in the clouds and everything, it’s art.” She adds, “Our planet is beautiful. On that grand scale, you could never imagine.”
How might you feel if you were in space looking back at Earth and had the sudden realization that everyone you knew, loved, or had studied in history had been born and either had died or would die there? It’s provocative to consider what such a shift would mean if thousands or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people ventured to space and experienced it.
My friend Nicole Stott, a former NASA astronaut and an artist, describes the overview effect as “a feeling of interconnectivity that you sometimes just don’t get when you’re in the middle of something. I think separating ourselves from things that are important to us is good, because you then appreciate it in a new way. That definitely happened for me.”
Dylan Taylor, another friend, is an entrepreneur who took the Blue Origin flight with Shatner. He wrote on his blog, “This was the most profound experience of my life. I had always believed Space was a tool for transformation. Now I know viscerally that this is true.”
TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
If humanity had access to vast new resources in space, whether it was energy or materials, imagine what our civilization could build. Today, the typical person uses about 35 pounds of resources extracted from Earth—metals, fossil energy, and minerals—every day, according to the World Counts, a Danish environmental organization. And if the person lives in the Western world, their consumption is vastly greater: up to 125 pounds of mined materials every day. Given our society’s quest for efficiency, desire for new technologies, and insatiable hunger for energy, the demand for resources will only grow, and space may soon be a viable place to find them.
While we are not yet able to mine the moon or asteroids, there are trends—advances in AI and robotics—that suggest it will be possible. In the meantime, the cost of sending mass to space (and back again) continues to decrease. It’s likely that the first space mining will take place on our moon, which has water, silicon, rare earth elements, aluminum, and other precious metals. Then, as humanity gains confidence in extraction activities there, asteroids might follow.
And hypothetically, if an asteroid with useful deposits of, say, platinum is identified, let’s not fret about its crashing the terrestrial economic markets. Sure, there could be an interstitial period of uncertainty and volatility. But I imagine that smart people will find many other uses for platinum if it’s available at a vastly reduced price. Economists will have fun debating that issue ahead of the first return of materials at any scale.
There’s also the promise of creating space-based solar power stations and beaming the energy back to Earth. This feat would offer the possibility of uninterrupted power 24 hours a day (see “The Ultimate Solar Power Plant”).
These developments are part of the avalanche of activities I predict we’ll see over the next 5 to 20 years as access to space continues to become easier and less expensive.
We’re still very much visitors to outer space and not yet long-term residents. Even the crew members who inhabit the ISS generally spend only a few months living there as rarefied astro-campers, highly trained backpackers aided by a support network on the ground.
However, with more people visiting space, there will be a subset that stays for longer periods. Once we start to see individuals who choose to live the majority of their lives off-planet, some might start to think of themselves as different from Terra sapiens. Space philosopher White describes this group as Homo spaciens.
It might initially be a social construct and a label, but if our species starts to split into earthlings and off-worlders, imagine the new literal and metaphorical perspectives that might evolve. Just as we are still figuring out our digital lives, imagine the vast new complexities and challenges that await us as we peek our heads farther out.
If we allow human creativity and cooperation to flourish in space, we will experience a multigenerational era of innovation and prosperity the likes of which our species has never seen. So go outside tonight, look up at the sky, and take a moment to marvel at the possibilities space holds for us. Space is much closer than you think—you’re already in it as a passenger on Spaceship Earth. Consider that and leave yourself open to the prospect that space may transform us in ways that we can and might not be able to imagine.
I hope the journeys ahead help make us all better people no matter what planet we eventually call home.•