The Soviet Union sent the first person, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961. Other milestones soon followed, culminating in the United States landing on the moon on July 20, 1969.
We haven’t yet been back to the moon, although a race is on right now and there should be a flood of humans landing on the moon starting in 2024. Even though we haven’t yet been back to the moon, we have made a lot of progress in space since the moon landings. NASA built the space shuttle and the international community came together to build the International Space Station (ISS), which has been in orbit for over 20 years. Plus, countless probes and landers have been sent throughout the solar system and space telescopes like the Hubble and TESS have given us incredible photos and insights into the universe.
In the early days, the space race was between the Soviets and the Americans. Since then, many other nations have joined us in space and have developed their own technologies and space programs.
Gradually, private space companies have been taking the reins from government-run programs. The governments aren’t getting out of the space business, but partnering with private companies or stepping aside as the private companies take over missions like the ISS, while governments are freed up to focus on long-term, non-revenue-generating missions like building a space station in orbit around the moon or sending probes to distant worlds.
Enter the Billionaires
Jeff Bezos has talked about his space ambitions since he was a kid. As it turns out, being the world’s richest person gives the guy the capacity to do something about it. So he founded Blue Origin and started sending rockets into space and returning them to Earth. He’s not alone. Other billionaires have similar ambitions, but their end goals differ significantly. We’ll get into that more below.
Elon Musk made millions by selling Paypal to eBay and naturally rolled that money into some other ventures like Telsa and a rocket company called SpaceX. We should give the guy credit for risking the $180 million he made from selling Paypal because he wanted to try to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. I definitely would have just bought a nice house in Paris and taken in some museums and pain au chocolates.
Richard Branson didn’t have enough companies (he has over 200) so he started Virgin Galactic to send tourists into orbit. He has said the first tourists would be orbiting sometime near the end of 2020 and he would soon follow. What an adventurer!
Soon SpaceX will be taking astronauts to the ISS – something the U.S. government hasn’t been able to do for years and Virgin Galactic has already started selling tickets for tourist flights.
Let’s not forget some of the others, like Bigelow Airspace, old school rocketeers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, plus Scaled Composites, Rocket Lab and many others.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are the two leaders in the space right now. Both have launched large rockets, landed them vertically back on Earth again and reused the same rockets in a following launch. That’s a pretty significant achievement. No government has been able to do that yet, which shows how far private industry has come. The cost of launching a payload into space has come down a lot thanks to this innovation and it’s expected to continue to drop. So much so that other visionary technologies, like building a space elevator, are no longer cost-effective in comparison.
Humanity Leaves Earth
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have looked to the stars. In the last couple of centuries we’ve dreamed of leaving and eventually living among them. H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and other authors caught the imaginations of people around the world with their stories set in space and on Mars. It’s admirable and exciting to see theses billionaires and their companies and others building on the work of national space programs. They aren’t replacing NASA, ESA or JAXA, they’re working together for the benefit of humankind.
They are each doing it in a different way. Maybe Virgin Galactic taking tourists to space isn’t going to change the course of humanity, but it will surely add more experience in space flight and help train hundreds more engineers in solving the difficult problems of trying to operate and live in space.
Some look down on the rich for spending money on space tourism, like when the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, spent $20 million to go to space. What a waste of money! However, the money that is spent benefits humankind in many ways. The benefits of the NASA space program have been numerous, from advances in space flight technology to inventions like tinfoil to an increase in knowledge about the world we live on and other worlds in our universe and our place in it.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have a different vision of space exploration and that vision diverges the further out in time we go. One of them is realistic and one isn’t.
So I’m not going to knock the money being spent in space, other than to say the long-term vision of Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin is by far superior, more likely to happen and will benefit more people. Potentially trillions more. I’ll explain why. First, let’s start with Musk.
Let’s all live on Mars
The founding principle of SpaceX (Space Exploration) has always been to enable people to live on Mars. Or as it says on their website:
The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.https://www.spacex.com/about
Musk is well known for his desire to colonize Mars. Before we get to Mars, let’s give Musk and Spacex some credit for what they’ve accomplished. The most impactful innovation was to build a rocket that can return its boosters to Earth and thereby drastically decrease the per pound launch costs. They were the first private company to get to low earth orbit and return in 2010. They’ve been delivering cargo to the ISS since 2012 and will soon begin shuttling astronauts, something the U.S. has been dependent on the Russians to do since 2011.
Their Falcon Heavy rocket is currently the largest in the world by a factor of 2. SpaceX has done some pretty remarkable things. Not that least of which is completely rethinking the way rockets are built, which has ignited (pun?) enthusiasm across the world in both rocket engineers and the general public. SpaceX should be applauded for what they’ve achieved.
The problems with Mars
However, the long-term vision of establishing large settlements on Mars is…well, stupid. Or maybe we can say, in a more engineer-friendly way, suboptimal.
Musk has famously said that he wants to die on Mars, just not on impact. So clearly he’s got a long-term vision of setting up Mars colonies that where millions of people will live. He’s talked about this in many of his speeches. It’s all about Mars.
The benefits of Mars
There’s a lot to be learned from Mars and I’m hopeful humanity can set up one or more permanent research stations on Mars, similar to what we have in Antarctica. Did you know there are 75 research stations there? 1 You may have heard of McMurdo, which is the most well known because it’s on the harbor. However, space is much, much more hostile than a frozen continent. Space makes Antarctica seem like a Caribbean vacation. For starters, Antarctica has air and water, which from personal experience I can tell you comes in handy when you want to stay alive.
Maybe a better parallel is the International Space Station (ISS), which has been operating for over 20 years. Over the past 20 years the ISS has lead to an increase in knowledge and breakthroughs in technology in several areas, like a better understanding of our bodies, how viruses and contamination work, improved vaccines, how to grow crystals for use in medical treatments, and monitoring air and water quality from space. 2
The Twin Study, which concluded in 2019, is one of the most interesting recent experiments. Scott and Mark Kelly are twins who were both astronauts with NASA and are now retired. Scott Kelly spent a year in space while his twin brother stayed on earth. After the year, the researchers compared their DNA and found how resilient and adaptable the human body can be and what kind of changes take place while living in space. One of the most interesting was Scott’s telomeres lengthened instead of shortened, as typically happens with age. It’s suspected that longer telomeres are a determinant in longevity. This kind of study only increases our knowledge in various fields like biology, geriatrics, and genetics.
Types of Mars Research
To be sure, there is a lot we don’t know about Mars. We’re learning more every year from the Mars landers. We’re learning about the Mars climate and getting insight into how Mars formed, which helps us understand how Earth formed. One of the most exciting discoveries from the rover Curiosity is finding the basic elements of life: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur along with methane, which is a gas that, at least on Earth, comes from living things.
Imagine what we could discover on Mars! It would provide not only insights into other planets, but help advance our science and our ability to expand and explore the solar system.
Yet, we don’t need settlements with millions of people to do that. Antarctica reaches a peak of 4,000 each summer as scientists venture down when it’s a bit warmer. In comparison, Antarctica is a breeze to do science on. For one, it’s a bit closer than Mars.
Mars Space Station
A more realistic proposal is to build an orbiting space station around Mars or one of its moons. Conduct science experiments there and send short-term missions to the surface occasionally to collect samples. There are a lot of reasons it’s not practical for a lot of people living long-term on Mars, other than it not being that practical to get to.
Mars has always captured the imagination because it’s so similar to Earth and somewhat close and not the hell world that Venus is. The gravity is 38% of that of Earth’s so you could walk around with a nice spring in your step. For comparison, the moon’s gravity is about 17% that of Earth.
Unfortunately for space exploration, the similarities end there.
Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact, it’s cold as hell. The temperature gets down to – 283 F / – 153 C and a high in the right conditions, at noon on the equator of 68 F / 20 F.
It’s difficult to get to
With our current technology, it takes about 9 months of travel time to reach Mars, but you have to launch within a certain time window when the planets line up, which is about every 2 years.
It’s also difficult to get back because you have to wait for the next travel window. If there were any emergencies on Mars, you’re on your own very far from home on a frozen planet.
Radiation is deadly
To add insult to injury, there’s also a lot of radiation. Low gravity does bad things to a human body, but nothing as bad as radiation. Due to the high levels, humans staying long periods would need to live underground in empty lava tubes. That means they’re cut off from the sky and communications may be more difficult.
Gravity is heavy
As Fraser Cain of Universe Today likes to say, “gravity wells are for suckers.” It takes energy, resources, and expenses to escape a gravity well. That’s why it’s so expensive to launch rockets from Earth. We have to generate enough energy to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. The same holds true for taking off from any other planet. Mars has less of an atmosphere so that helps, but not much.
In fact, the atmosphere of Mars makes it more difficult to land on Mars. If you don’t have enough speed, you’ll bounce off the atmosphere. Too much and you’ll land too quickly.
The Mars landers sent from both Russia and the United States have taught us that is very tricky to land on Mars. Most have failed completely or only partially achieved their missions.
In short, landing and launching from a planet has huge costs.
However, there’s good news. All of these costs and drawbacks can be avoided or minimized by building large space stations called O’Neil Cylinders. That’s the vision of Jeff Bezos and the subject of Part 2 of this series, which is coming soon.
I should add that I’m a proponent of space exploration, both by governments and private industry. I think our past programs have proven that there’s a lot of benefit for humanity. The idea that we need to get people into the solar system in case something happens to humanity on Earth makes sense.
I don’t think we should count on moving to Mars in case we wreck Earth. It will always be easier to fix Earth than to move to or terraform another planet. Earth is pretty awesome.
There are better ways to get the benefits of space exploration and expand humanity into the solar system and Jeff Bezos is working on it.
Read Part 2: The Bezos Vision for Humanity.