When President Kennedy announced the Apollo Program, he famously argued that we should go to the moon because it is hard. Solving the technical challenges of space travel is a kind of civilizational achievement on its own, like resolving an interplanetary Rubik’s Cube.
The argument worked, perhaps all too well. As soon as we landed on the moon, humanity’s expansion into the cosmos slowed and then stopped (not counting robots). If you were to draw a graph charting the farthest distance a human being has ever been from the surface of Earth, the peak was in 1970 with Apollo 13. With the successful moon landings, we solved all of the fundamental challenges involved in launching humans into orbit and bringing them back safely. The people watching those early feats of exploration imagined we would soon be sending astronauts to Mars and beyond, but something has held us back. Not know-how, or even money, but a certain lack of imagination.
Getting to space isn’t the hard part—the hard part is figuring out why we’re there. Sure, we can celebrate the human spirit and the first person to do this or that, but that kind of achievement never moves beyond the symbolic. It doesn’t build industries, establish settlements and scientific research stations, or scale up solutions from expensive one-offs to mass production. Furthermore, as five decades of failing to go farther than our own moon have demonstrated, that kind of symbolism can’t even sustain itself, much less energize new activity. Several presidents since Kennedy have tried to duplicate his call to arms and galvanize support for a crewed mission to Mars, with dismal results—we’ll see if Trump’s recently announced lunar ambitions fare any better.
Lately, as billionaires bankroll shiny new space ventures like SpaceX and Blue Origin, there is a lot of focus on the how of reusable launch vehicles and commercial technology. But the why of space in its economic context is just as important—maybe even more so. How do we justify a sustained human presence in space, and how do we make it economically feasible? To answer that question, we gathered together a group of science fiction writers, space scientists, economists, and other social scientists to imagine the near future (as in the next couple of decades) of space exploration as private industry takes on a growing role in the sector. The final product, Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities, is a book of narratives and nonfiction delving into a variety of possible near futures for space exploration, shaped by questions about funding, economic motives and incentives, and paradigms for cooperation among government agencies like NASA, private companies, and groups of citizens and scientists. (Note: Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities is published by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and was supported by a grant from NASA; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.)
In an interview for the book, renowned science fiction author and longtime space watcher Kim Stanley Robinson elegantly summarized the problem: “We don’t need space. We need sustainability in this biosphere. Space is a luxury problem and a luxury opportunity. It’s what we get to explore in some detail, in the centuries after we succeed in inventing permaculture here, if we do.” For Robinson, pinning our hopes and ambitions on space exploration and settlement is an unhelpful, even dangerous dodge: We can’t all pack up and become space refugees if we devastate the Earth, so our first priority has to be getting our own house in order, in terms of the environment as well as other existential threats, like nuclear weapons. A lavish space operation should only happen if it can be treated like a flower, growing in the soil of a peaceful and sustainable global civilization on Earth.
If Robinson is right, and our near future isn’t a sprawling, multiplanetary solar-system civilization, the why question remains. Some of the contributors to our project imagined futures in which the mere promise of groundbreaking scientific discoveries motivates governments and citizens to support space exploration. In Vandana Singh’s story “Shikasta,” a crowdfunded group of scientists launches a probe to a distant, rocky exoplanet in search of mysterious life forms, while Madeline Ashby’s “Death on Mars” imagines a NASA mission with a dual research purpose—first, to establish a scientific colony on Mars, and second, to test whether all-female astronaut crews are more efficient, harmonious, and cost-effective than other alternatives. Other contributors suggested that space tourism for wealthy people could be the economic engine for building a bustling economy in low-Earth orbit. Steven Barnes’ “Mozart on the Kalahari” features the Disney Orbital Platform, which provides a thrilling near-space experience for the 1 percent while most people languish in a dystopia marred by economic collapse and widespread workforce automation. Carter Scholz, in “Vanguard 2.0,” portrays another version of space as plutocrat playground, following the misadventures of billionaire Gideon Pace, who runs a business to clean up orbital debris that might threaten satellites largely as a vanity project—and perhaps something more sinister. Still others imagined mining enterprises bootstrapping a viable space economy: Stories by Ramez Naam, Eileen Gunn, and Karl Schroeder make the case that mining and storing water—which can be used to sustain human life but also as fuel for space travel—is a solid business model and sensible bet on the future of humans as an interplanetary species.
But as some of our nonfiction essayists point out, the economy of water in space will always stay in space. You have to want to be there in the first place, and mining ice rocks becomes a reason to build more infrastructure to mine more ice rocks. Nearly everything we do there will further the ambition of being there, without actually doing much for the vast majority of humans still on Earth. The most cynical version of this story plays out in Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s 1952 novel The Space Merchants, where the exploitation of Venus becomes a new avenue for parasitic capitalism to displace the problems of a depleted Earth.
But there’s a more optimistic way to think about the emptiness of space as the site of new markets, of new networks of human interaction and trade, whether they will significantly change life on Earth. There is something undeniably compelling about Elon Musk’s ambition of retiring on Mars—it’s not a technical challenge but a social and cultural one. It’s about space as a place to dwell, to share a beer, plant a garden, or make a living. Before space makes sense for humanity, we have to wrap it into our social imagination, the space of human affairs.
Ultimately, these questions remind us that space is not a void but a canvas for human imagination. The questions of policy and logistics are scaffolding for a much deeper set of questions about who we are and who we want to become as a species. We explore the universe because we are curious—not just about what we’ll find out but also about what that knowledge will do to us, and how we will grow to match our expanding sphere of action and understanding.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.