My dad has often told me of his experience of the 1969 Apollo moon landing, where he and other students gathered around a small black and white television at the physics department in Melbourne University. On the way home that day he stopped by the house of an old hermit at the end of his street to tell him the news, where he was met with utter disbelief and then promptly asked to leave. For anyone not up with current events, the very idea of this achievement was so outrageous that it created contempt, yet now we know it was an event that inspired generations to come, and the word “moonshot” has come to mean any crazy idea that – once completed – becomes a breakthrough success.
There are many thought pieces coming out this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, often focussing on it as a testament to the audaciousness of the American spirit, or as an example of 400,000 people being able to work together to achieve a single, far-reaching goal. Many are citing it as proof that people can come together to achieve similarly daunting goals like serious action on climate change, or preventing environmental degradation. That may be true, but in my opinion the moon landing isn’t a great analogy in these cases. Those efforts are things we *have* to do, and will require something more akin to the mobilisation effort by western allies in World War II – that was also something we *had* to do. There are many examples of large goals that humanity has achieved through necessity, but I’d argue the moon landing is not one of them.
The moon landing, by contrast, was a crazy, audaciously difficult goal that we *chose* to do, and I think that’s inspiring on an entirely different level.
I feel it’s important to make the distinction, because it’s an example of a different way of thinking, and it requires a different kind of intelligence. Where deductive reasoning gives you clear, logical outcomes that must follow from a given premise, inductive (creative) thinking requires setting a goal, and working backwards from that goal to infer how you can achieve that outcome with the materials that you have. Thinking creatively is the bedrock of the innovation culture on which we pride ourselves, because it’s only through setting goals and working backwards from those goals that true invention occurs.
When it comes to space, what should the next goal be? It’s important that it be forward-looking, simple, and with success easily measurable, like it was to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth”. As most people in this business are used to thinking *logically* about this, it’s not surprising that most have come to the conclusion that the next goal should answer the ‘where next?’ question, whether that be a landing site elsewhere on the Moon, or on Mars, or even visiting the asteroids.
But hang on… let’s back up a step. Are we still a single organisation like NASA, funded by a government caught up in a war of prestige, trying to win a first-past-the-post competition with flags-and-footsteps on an astronomical body as the goal? Or are we part of an international movement made up of many different types of organisations, trying to ensure humanity settles space and becomes a truly space-faring civilisation? Only one of these is a goal I find audacious and inspiring. Technically, we know we’re capable of planting a flag on another astronomical body… because we’ve done it before. Doing it again won’t create the same level of inspiration that it did the first time, which is why “where next?” is the wrong question.
Instead of ‘where next?’, what if we asked ‘who next?’. Instead of ‘what mission?’, what if we asked ‘how many?’. We can infer what it means to be a space faring civilisation, because we know what it meant to be a sea faring civilisation. It was less defined by where the ships were going, or what they were doing, but more by the variety and quantity of the people and cargo being shipped. I think a simply stated (but audacious) goal should be framed in these terms and easily measurable…. something like this:
To accelerate the advent of humanity as a space faring civilisation, we will work towards the goal of having 50,000 people in space by the year 2050.
Does it matter whether they’re at the Moon, on Mars, at asteroids or in Low Earth Orbit (LEO)? Not particularly: the technology required will have significant commonalities regardless of location. Nor does it especially matter whether the astronauts involved are performing scientific research or mining, participating in tourism or setting up communications infrastructure. All of these pursuits and more will be key elements of a vibrant human civilisation in space, and supporting a large number of people in space will have a fundamental impact on how large numbers of people live on Earth, just as the technological achievements Apollo have had knock-on effects throughout society.
Take sustainability for example: Due to the volumetric constraints of space habitats, supporting large numbers of people in space means managing energy use, resource consumption and waste disposal at levels that have never been necessary on Earth before. Indeed, one of the holy grails of spacecraft design is the creation is a fully closed-loop ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System), where every waste product, and every gas emission by every living thing on a spacecraft is fully recycled back into useful materials. Like every other technology developed in space, it’s the highly exacting nature of the space environment – and the severe consequences of anything going wrong – that results in proven technology that is useful for similar problems on Earth.
This is why it’s frustrating to hear space exploration presented as an “either/or” proposition versus solving the problems on Earth. The fact is that space exploration solves problems on Earth, because it solves the problem in a more exacting scenario, then applies it to the mainstream.
To bring this back to the vision for Exodus, you may have noticed that the website’s tagline recently changed to “A Kinetic solution for Space Debris” from “Technologies Enabling Settlement”. The long term goal is still to build technologies which will enable those 50,000 people to live and work in space, but first, we have to build a successful company using our technology, and that’s where the kinetic solution for space debris comes into play.
‘How?’ you ask? Well, one of the places I believe we can expect to see settlement is in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), not just with one, or a handful of space stations, but with scores or hundreds of space stations supporting tens of thousands of people. This “big LEO” scenario, as I call it, is where I think the majority of those 50,000 people will be located, because of the safety/convenience aspect of being able to move back and forth from Earth’s surface quickly and easily, as well as move many other places in the solar system. As Robert Heinlein once said “Once you’re in LEO, you’re halfway to anywhere” (which if you do the math, is quite a good approximation).
Unfortunately, LEO is also where the majority of space debris is located, so that’s a problem that needs to be solved first, before large scale settlement of LEO can occur. It turns out that there is a nice synergy between our technology and our plans: Our DeTA technology is both what we’ll use to deploy our kinetic solution for space debris *and* eventually build spinning habitats to produce artificial gravity. Our plan is for the early versions of our technology to clean up space debris in LEO, so that later versions of our technology can help humanity settle LEO.
The 50th anniversary of Apollo is a huge week for space exploration, any way you slice it. The Apollo program has inspired generations of scientists, engineers, educators, students and more, and will continue to do so. I think it’s important that the next 50 years in space are even more inspiring than the last, because going to space will be one of the ways we solve humanity’s current problems. Exodus wants to be a big part of that, and I hope you can see we have a vision to match. If you want to know more about what we’re doing, please feel free to get in touch. Till next time!