Very soon, the United States won’t be the only player to have sent humans to the moon. There’s a new space race emerging—one that looks very different from the Cold War competition that gave Americans the triumph of the Apollo program. From SpaceX to Blue Origin, China to India, Luxembourg to Nigeria, the UAE to the EU, new nations and institutions have been getting in on the extraterrestrial game. They might take tourists to the moon. Fly corporations to asteroids. Transport taikonauts or vyomanauts to Mars.
But will they be competing or collaborating to get to these new frontiers? And how will their successes or failures shape our future in space—and alter life back on Earth?
These are the questions Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—posed to experts at a live event in Washington, D.C., on March 8. The conversation was part of our ongoing Futurography series on the geopolitics of space.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, launched the conversation by setting up the extraterrestrial stakes.
“We have a lot of questions about our future, and I think that a lot of them are going to be answered in the context of space exploration. Not just in international relations, but resources, technology, social behaviors, the fracturing of the human race,” she said. “How are we going to feel when the first baby is born on Mars? What’s going to happen to us on a species when we confirm there’s life off of the Earth, is it going to be a fracturing event or a combining event?”
Elkins-Tanton thinks we need to continue taking bold steps toward big goals (hers is Mars) and do it under a new cooperative paradigm—one that can make life on our planet better as we work to move beyond it.
Former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan agreed that the future of space needs to be international (as she wrote about for our Futurography series). Luckily, we’re already starting from a place of collaboration. “Just look at the International Space Station,” she said, referring to the 15 countries that partnered on the manned satellite, “and keep in mind it’s been up there for 16 years.” In addition to bringing nations together, she said, it’s also led to scientific discoveries that will serve more ambitious future missions. Among them, she said: findings about how microgravity alters combustion, gene expression, and manufacturing (one early success: 3-D printing a ratchet wrench on the station).
But nations aren’t the only ones in the space game. Entrepreneurs are betting big on rockets, satellites, habs, mines, and more, but they’re doing more than just expanding their bottom lines, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Space Flight Federation, an industry association that represents dozens of these new space corporations. They’re expanding access, he said. Competition lowers the price for a private ticket to low-Earth orbit, for a budget-constrained NASA to launch cargo and crews, or for elementary schooler to build and launch a CubeSat.
But these public-private partnerships won’t necessarily produce the Mars shot kind of outcomes the scientific community wants, said Scott Pace, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and director of its Space Policy Institute. Corporations innovate for return on investment, while countries spend on space for political returns he said. Neither acts solely for the sake of mankind. (See: Cold War-era NASA budgets, post-Soviet cooperation with the Russians, the law stopping NASA from working with the China, domestic economic incentives.)
Though some may dream of a near-term venture to the red planet, lunar missions provide more immediate opportunities for commercial and international partnerships, Pace said—and that’s what will drive the agenda. “Mars is in our hearts,” he said, “but the moon is in our business plans.”
George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic (the flashy “world’s first commercial spaceline” founded by kitesurfing business magnate Richard Branson), said he sees today’s dynamics setting the stage for a rapid expansion of human presence beyond Earth. In a conversation with New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter, Whitesides said that we need to think carefully about the values we send with our pioneers. As Slaughter pointed out, current entrepreneurial endeavors in space are overwhelmingly dominated by males—Branson, Bezos, Musk, and the people they employ—so we need to examine whether the gendered competition might be skewing those values in ways we may not desire.
The final speakers highlighted the ways that we are already setting some of these values today. Many of the new players in the space race are trying to make sure that we don’t simply re-create Earth’s dynamics. For some small countries, space offers an opportunity for reinvention. The United Arab Emirates, for one, is building a space program to diversify the Emirati economy and, perhaps more importantly, to inspire youth across the region, said Talal Al Kaissi, a space affairs representative for the UAE Embassy. Meanwhile, tiny Luxembourg is working to become an international hub for the space mining industry, a grand move for a tiny nation of fewer than 600,000, said Véronique Dockendorf, deputy chief of mission for the Luxembourg Embassy.
Thomas Cremins, NASA’s associate administrator for strategy and plans, says that his agency wants to model the norms—information sharing, multinational cooperation, preventing space from becoming another domain of warfare—it hopes to see among new players, he said.
Whether those ideals hold up against a rising tide of nationalism, however, may determine where we go and how fast we get there. “We can be in Mars orbit in about decade if we chose to,” says Rob Chambers of Lockheed Martin, a company that’s been working with NASA to go to the red planet for more than 40 years. But if we want to do it, Chambers said, we have to work with other countries and the private sector so we stop wasting resources reinventing technology that already exists.
Science fiction authors Deji Olukotun and Karl Schroeder said that we also need a story that gets the public excited about undertaking a manned mission to Mars. Human discoveries have already written some of that narrative, said Schroeder. In his lifetime, he says, the red planet has already been transformed from Edwardian fantasy to desolate lunar wasteland to something to a dynamic environment that’s potentially alive. From something imagined to something that’s speaking to us.
Now, the writers agreed, we just have to write a plot where we can imagine getting there.