September 29, 2016

Humanity’s Future Among the Stars



It’s Mars or bust for Elon Musk.

On Tuesday, in a much anticipated presentation at the International Aeronautical Congress, the Tesla tycoon finally unveiled his plans for human colonization of the Red Planet. It definitely lived up to the hype, and the Internet has been abuzz with love, scorn, technical analysis, and general pontification. From the eternal optimists to the perennial pessimists, everybody is staking out their perspective on the plan.

As for me, I’m unapologetically throwing in with the optimists.

While some may decry the public-private partnership Musk discussed in his presentation, the reality is that an undertaking of the magnitude envisioned cannot—and rest assured, it undoubtedly will not—fall to the purview of market actors alone. Space is the common heritage of mankind. If we are to realize our place among the stars, it will require cooperation and collaboration with a wide array of individuals and organizations, from nation states and the military to commercial launch providers and private sector entrepreneurs. For the time being, let us put aside the question of whether Musk can get us to Mars; the real question is whether or not he should be allowed to try.

Choke points and barriers abound aplenty, but one area that shouldn’t hold up this opportunity is regulations. As my colleague Joshua Hampson has noted, there is a great deal of regulatory uncertainty and confusion for the emerging commercial space sector. Approval for beyond-orbit flights, though recently surmounted by Moon Express in a mission to the moon, requires navigating a morass of requirements throughout a network of federal agencies with no clearly defined approval process. Export controls currently play a significant role in holding back the competitiveness of American commercial space companies. Even issues of defense and military space policy will have big consequences for this industry, to say nothing of the larger geopolitical dynamics involved.

From treaty obligations to international competition, space policy is rife with overlapping challenges. Congress and various federal agencies will need to get serious about tackling these issues if the vision of an interplanetary human species is to be realized.

The path ahead will not be easy. There will be failures. There will be setbacks. Such are the features of any nascent commercial endeavor. For space launches, those setbacks may be more significantly pronounced, but failure along the way is an important feature of learning how to succeed in the future. SpaceX has travelled down an untried and unproven road for many years and the lessons learned have all been leading up to this undertaking. Make no mistake, this isn’t just a moonshot, it’s a “Mars-shot,” in every sense of the word. But the potential gains are unlike anything we, as a species, have ever known. This wouldn’t simply be the opening of a new industry. It wouldn’t just be another stage in the commercialization of the space launch industry, or the economic gains that accompany it. If SpaceX succeeds, an entirely new frontier for human civilization will be opened: the final frontier.

Of course, we’re still a long way from that future, but that shouldn’t forestall us from committing ourselves to actualizing this new cosmos-centric era. There are technical, legal, and regulatory challenges ahead, no doubt. Surmounting those obstacles and tearing down anachronistic barriers to space travel and commercialization will require a lot of effort from many different quarters. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. It will, however, be worth the effort.

The big takeaway from Musk’s presentation wasn’t the detail in the planning, the technical expositions, or the personal financial commitment to the project. Rather, it was the visionary grandiosity. Too often we lose ourselves in day-to-day trivialities. Merely seeing the world as it is leads us to embrace a strong and remorseless bias towards normalcy. We ignore what may lay far ahead because we’re too attuned to what lies directly before us. If to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle, gazing far beyond the horizon requires a Herculean effort. That’s why incredible and audacious ideas so seldom make their way past mere ideation, remaining little more than fanciful dreams. Monumental tasks require monumental effort.

Yet we should not be deterred.

In fact, we ought to be inspired and roused to action. “Life needs to be more than just solving problems every day,” Musk said. “You need to wake up and be excited about the future.” He definitely delivered that excitement on Tuesday. His plan is bold, ambitious, and maybe even a little outlandish, but if you’re not dreaming big, you’re not dreaming right. If we’re willing to embark on this journey with Musk and other would-be space barons, we’ll never again be able to claim “the sky’s the limit.”

I’m all in.