But all of these enterprises are businesses, not philanthropic vision boards. Is making life casually spacefaring and seriously interplanetary actually a plausible financial prospect? And—more important—is it actually a desirable one?
Let’s start with low-key suborbital space tourism, of the type Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin would like to offer. Some economists see this as fairly feasible: If we know one thing about the world, it’s that some subset of the population will always have too much money and will get to spend it on cool things unattainable for the plebs. If such flights become routine, though, their price could go down, and space tourism could follow the trajectory of the commercial aviation industry, which used to be for the wealthy and is now home to Spirit Airlines. Some also speculate that longer, orbital flights—and sleepovers in cushy six-star space hotels (the extra star is for the space part)—could follow.
After there’s a market for space hotels, more infrastructure could follow. And if you’re going to build something for space, it might be easier and cheaper to build it in space, with materials from space, rather than spending billions to launch all the materials you need. Maybe moon miners and manufacturers could establish a proto-colony, which could lead to some people living there permanently.
Or not. Who knows? I can’t see the future, and neither can you, and neither can these billionaires.
But with long journeys or permanent residence come problems more complicated than whether money is makeable or whether it’s possible to build a cute town square out of moon dust. The most complicated part of human space exploration will always be the human.
We weak creatures evolved in the environment of this planet. Mutations and adaptations cropped up to make us uniquely suited to living here—and so uniquely not suited to living in space, or in Valles Marineris. It’s too cold or too hot; there’s no air to breathe; you can’t eat potatoes grown in your own shit for the rest of your unnatural life. Your personal microbes may influence everything from digestion to immunity to mood, in ways scientists don’t yet understand, and although they also don’t understand how space affects that microbiome, it probably won’t be the same if you live on an extraterrestrial crater as it would be in your apartment.
Plus, in lower gravity, your muscles go slack. The fluids inside you pool strangely. Drugs don’t always works as expected. The shape of your brain changes. Your mind goes foggy. The backs of your eyeballs flatten. And then there’s the radiation, which can deteriorate tissue, cause cardiovascular disease, mess with your nervous system, give you cancer, or just induce straight-up radiation sickness till you die. If your body holds up, you still might lose it on your fellow crew members, get homesick (planetsick), and you will certainly be bored out of your skull on the journey and during the tedium and toil to follow.
Maybe there’s a technological future in which we can mitigate all of those effects. After all, many things that were once unimaginable—from vaccines to quantum mechanics—are now fairly well understood. But the billionaires don’t, for the most part, work on the people problems: When they speak of space cities, they leave out the details—and their money goes toward the physics, not the biology.
They also don’t talk so much about the cost or the ways to offset it. But Blue Origin and SpaceX both hope to collaborate with NASA (i.e. use federal money) for their far-off-Earth ventures, making this particular kind of private spaceflight more of a public-private partnership. They’ve both already gotten many millions in contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense for nearer-term projects, like launching national-security satellites and developing more infrastructure to do so more often. Virgin, meanwhile, has a division called Virgin Orbit that will send up small satellites, and SpaceX aims to create its own giant smallsat constellation to provide global internet coverage. And at least for the foreseeable future, it’s likely their income will continue to flow more from satellites than from off-world infrastructure. In that sense, even though they’re New Space, they’re just conventional government contractors.
So, if the money is steadier nearby, why look farther off than Earth orbit? Why not stick to the lucrative business of sending up satellites or enabling communications? Yes, yes, the human spirit. OK, sure, survivability. Both noble, energizing goals. But the backers may also be interested in creating international-waters-type space states, full of the people who could afford the trip (or perhaps indentured workers who will labor in exchange for the ticket). Maybe the celestial population will coalesce into a utopian society, free of the messes we’ve made of this planet. Humans could start from scratch somewhere else, scribble something new and better on extraterrestrial tabula rasa soil. Or maybe, as it does on Earth, history would repeat itself, and human baggage will be the heaviest cargo on the colonial ships. After all, wherever you go, there you are.
Maybe we’d be better off as a species if we stayed home and looked our problems straight in the eye. That’s the conclusion science fiction author Gary Westfahl comes to in an essay called “The Case Against Space.” Westfahl doesn’t think innovation happens when you switch up your surroundings and run from your difficulties, but rather when you stick around and deal with the situation you created.
Besides, most Americans don’t think big-shot human space travel is a national must-do at all, at least not with their money. According to a 2018 Pew poll, more than 60 percent of people say NASA’s top priorities should be to monitor the climate and watch for Earth-smashing asteroids. Just 18 and 13 percent think the same of a human trip to Mars or the moon, respectively. The People, in other words, are more interested in caring for this planet, and preserving the life on it, than they are in making some other world livable.
But maybe that doesn’t matter: History is full of billionaires who do what they want, and it’s full of societal twists and turns dictated by their direction. Besides, if even a fraction of a percent of the US population signed on to a long-term space mission, their spaceship would still carry the biggest extraterrestrial settlement ever to travel the solar system. And even if it wasn’t an oasis, or a utopia, it would still be a giant leap.
Last updated January 30, 2019
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