The history of all species is that our offspring tend to leave home in search of new habitations and locations in which to settle and live. That’s how bumblebees, ants and human populations have spread across the planet. Incremental exploration is followed by settlement. It’s fundamental animal nature: it’s what we do. Yet, on a planetary scale, we’re always somewhat limited both by our ability to improvise and come up with new ways to do it, and how to fund it.
We’ve had a permanent presence in space for the past 18 years, on the International Space Station. And we’re also now, thanks in part to privately funded initiatives such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Blue Origin — the space-flight company founded by Jeff Bezos — suddenly beginning to see Mars as we never have before. The growing public interest in these endeavours will encourage the intensification of meaningful space exploration. Look at the popularity of movies such as Gravity, Interstellar or The Martian. A futuristic new TV drama series called The First, from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, imagines the first human mission to Mars and interplanetary colonisation. There’s a new wave of public interest because the crossover between dreams and technology is enabling us to do things we could only imagine before.
While sending people to Mars evokes much debate and excitement, recently there was news that Nasa had found complex organic matter suggesting that Martian lakes were once able to support life — but we cannot overestimate the extreme difficulty Mars expeditions involve. Even with just our most basic robots we fail on a regular basis. Since the 1960s there have been 28 failed Mars probes and only 19 successes. Mars is just so much farther away from Earth than most people think.
Fundamentally, though we have everything we need to send humans to the red planet, we still don’t even know what we don’t know about exploring Mars. Would the journey alone involve so much cosmic radiation that it would be unthinkable? How are we going to navigate? How would we deal with the unknown vagaries of weather? And even if we got there, how would we survive? Think of this planet’s great explorations: between Magellan and Captain Cook, every long-distance crew got scurvy. It took two centuries before we finally figured out the science of why people were getting sick on long voyages.
So in space exploration we have to send out probes, find a place that our technology allows us to live, and then slowly start moving there. But learning as we go to Mars presents so many extreme and ethical challenges that for me, the next logical step should instead be the moon. I would go so far as to say we now have a real chance of establishing lunar habitation. Earth’s satellite is only three days’ travel away. There is, of course, political opposition to such endeavour. Are we turning to other planets because we have run out of ideas for tackling climate change, pollution of the oceans and other catastrophes on our own? I think such arguments are both specious and inaccurate. Just because the place across the street is available (and Bezos has suggested that the moon could in 100 years’ time become a base for manufacturing) doesn’t mean you don’t have to tend your own garden.
And true, the cost of space exploration is immense but that was true for Christopher Columbus as well. When John Cabot sailed out of England in 1496 he received government money and private industry money. He was just looking to explore. But it is that combination of a dream, coupled with established technology, and then funding sources from across the board, that made the travel possible. That’s been the pattern of our exploration throughout history, and it is being reflected now in space exploration.
The beauty of a privately funded space mission is that decision making can be nimbler. You don’t have, as Nasa does, 350 million shareholders to please. I think involving the private sector is healthy, normal and the right thing to do. As Nasa has acknowledged, there needs to be a mix for the best chance of success.
To get to the point where people start taking travel to the moon as much for granted as we do air travel will take an enormous amount of research and development, both in making the vehicles safer and in keeping the people who operate them safe. For most of my career I’ve worked to become a competent astronaut, trusted to fly a rocket ship, pilot a spaceship and command an International Space Station. Last year I was involved with the BBC show Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?, to let audiences see exactly what type of skills are required: a delicate combination of great technical ability, physical toughness, and psychological readiness.
But beyond the astronauts, it will boil down to how much risk we as society are willing to take. Navigating space safely is extremely difficult. The Gemini and Apollo and early Soyuz years were fraught with risk and physical danger and we sadly lost lives. Thankfully, we are not willing to put people in harm’s way regularly. But the moon is now within our grasp. Not just to explore but actually to settle. And so the real question is this: can we build an environment where people can be healthy and happy and, most importantly, live? And I think the answer is yes.
We have to find water resources on the moon, just like everywhere on Earth. We have to find a power source for when it’s cold. But as soon as a self-sustaining settlement is on the moon, then it’s just like a settlement anywhere. It becomes independent. It sounds far-fetched, but remember, we could not live in most of the world now were it not for technology. We couldn’t live in Canada. We could not survive winter in many places on Earth without knowing how to harness fire, build shelter, make clothing and process food. And technology will enable us to do things we’ve only dreamed of until recently.
No one had ever been to New Zealand until just under a thousand years ago. No one had been to Antarctica till just over 100 years ago. And we only started venturing into space 60 years ago. Space settlement is both natural and, I believe, inevitable. The only questions are whether we can make it safe enough, and whether our technology can be made good enough. That’s where the undercurrent of excitement is, because the answer to those questions, finally, is yes.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Chris Hadfield is an astronaut.