Since social isolation is a precondition of space travel, astronauts are some of the individuals best equipped to deal with its challenges. Does that mean that going through the COVID-19 pandemic is making all of us that much more prepared to travel in space?
If you’ve been following our story, you know Exodus Space Systems is a company which is developing a new method to solve the space debris problem, and we think this will be a big part of the space industry in coming decades. But let’s put that aside for a moment and talk about our long-term vision for humanity in space, the origins of that vision, and how a pandemic like COVID-19 relates to that.
If I had a time machine, and we could go back to the significant moments in my life which eventually led to the genesis of Exodus Space Systems, at least one of them would be in the early 2000s when I was an undergraduate studying Molecular Biology at the University of Western Australia, learning about pandemics and why they can be so devastating.
As is abundantly obvious now, the adaptation of a new virus to the human species is an event against which our modern healthcare system is relatively slow and ill-equipped to react. For at least some time after human-to-human transmission begins, we are limited to fighting the disease with much more primitive tools: social distancing to stop the spread, and artificial respiration to give the most serious cases a better chance of survival. It’s like trying to fight a forest fire with firebreaks and heat blankets alone. Eventually it is necessary to bring in the water (vaccine).
Over the last century, humanity has been becoming increasingly susceptible to the spread of a virus with these characteristics (long incubation times, asymptomatic/low-symptoms transmission) because our modern world is extremely interconnected through trade and travel. It’s not at all surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention that the measures which are necessary to control the virus have had such a horrific effect on the world economy. The warnings have been out there for years, concerning the what, if not the when of it. Those who say “nobody saw this coming” are in effect, proclaiming their own ignorance.
It is worth repeating what many visionaries and futurists have pointed out before: Humanity as a space-faring civilisation would be inherently more resistant to pandemic outbreaks, in part because of the time-frame over which space travel occurs. As soon as humanity has self-sustaining outposts on the moon, Mars and elsewhere in the solar system, the transit times to go between these places would in most cases exceed the incubation times of every infectious disease known. There are few plausible ways an infectious agent could infect a significant proportion of the human population when social isolation is a necessary pre-condition of space travel, so the relative cost of a pandemic to society would be much smaller. The exodus of humanity to space is beneficial, not in the biblical sense of running away from an existing plague, but in the pragmatic way that the space between us creates barriers to any new infections that might arise.
I would also add that round-trip travel times to every destination beyond the moon will require far more significant measures to sustainably support other aspects of human health over the long term, including measures to address radiation-induced cancer risk, microgravity-induced biomedical issues, and the need for fully (or near fully) closed-loop environmental control and life support systems. In the long-term, I believe the most plausible vision for humanity is of a solar system network of space settlements which are linked by an information economy, but largely separate in their material needs, since even cargo transport costs will remain prohibitively high and transit times will remain prohibitively long with foreseeable technology.
As difficult as this may be, it is still worth doing! The process of making humanity a space-faring civilisation will not only protect us to a far greater extent against the infectious pathogens which have brought human civilisations to their knees in the past, it will also teach humanity how to be truly sustainable. This integration of sustainable practice into the cutting edge of our technological development processes will go a long way towards solving the other existential issues which now trouble humanity.
Space travel is better positioned to drive this kind of thinking into high technology than any other endeavour. If every bi-product of every energy generation or production process was treated with the same consideration that led space scientists to figure out how to recycle human urine for drinking water, we would be far better placed to solve numerous challenges, including human-caused climate change.
This is why the Exodus vision advocates space exploration and human settlement of the solar system, not just as a dream for rich men, but as a goal for humanity that will benefit all of us.
Going back to my time machine journey, I didn’t know at the time what form it would take, but it was during my studies that I became convinced that humanity needed to go to space as a matter of priority, and that I wanted to find a way to be a part of that. Another important influence for me was the 2004 X Prize, which planted the seed in my mind that maybe a start-up company was the right vehicle to do innovative things in space, and that I wanted to be a part of the “New Space” movement. Being an Australian scientist however, I had no idea yet how I might make that happen.
With each successive space event I attended, my knowledge of the industry grew, with particularly strong memories of meeting the Armadillo Aerospace team at the X Prize cup in 2007 and learning why returning rocket stages to a pad via vertical landing was so much more efficient than horizontal (wing-based) landing. It’s with that knowledge that seeing SpaceX perfect this process to a fine art has been incredibly satisfying to watch.
The International Space Development Conference in 2011 was another major step for me, as this was the first time I presented at a space conference (my Carousel Space Station concept). Highlights included getting to meet Buzz Aldrin, having a great chat with Al Globus on his space settlement concepts and being incredibly inspired by Jeff Greason’s Keynote.
Eventually, I came to know the two co-founders of Exodus Space Systems, Carl Conquilla (we met at the NASA space apps challenge in 2016) and Alexius Julian (we met through Perth’s Latin dancing scene in 2015 and bonded over science fiction when he found out about my Firefly Season 2 pilot script). Initial discussions between the three of us became ongoing talks, and upon completion of my PhD, we founded Exodus Space Systems. That was in August 2017, and the rest is history.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, while it presents difficulties for us as a start-up company, is an interesting experience for me personally, since it feels like I’ve come full circle on why I think the exploration and settlement of space by humanity is so important. Indeed, the recent return of the ISS expedition 62 crew highlighted not only how much the world has changed in the last 6 months, but also how accustomed to social distancing measures the astronauts already are. I’d also point to these comments by Australian Astronaut Andy Thomas on how his space experiences apply to what we are going through now, especially the importance of having a daily routine.
The social distancing requirements we are all experiencing right now would simply become a new normal if space travel across the solar system were to become a common thing. Also – in case you hadn’t already figured it out – the answer to the question I posed at the top of the article is a giant “yes! I’m sure this pandemic has made us all just a bit more prepared for space travel”. Of course there are elements that are more difficult to deal with, but we are collectively proving that adaptation is possible, if not easy, when we have a sense of shared purpose. I can only hope that when we come out the other side of the pandemic, we can reapply ourselves to the goal of space exploration and settlement with redoubled energy.
Currently, Exodus Space Systems is participating in the (now online) accelerator programs being run by both CERI and Quantum Tech Exchange, and we are continuing to develop our understanding of the space debris problem, and those who will benefit the most from our solution. There’s more to come, so stay tuned!