Throughout our history, humans have looked up to the stars and dreamed. Dreamed of gods, of other worlds, of other forms of life. Today, we are still dreaming. Engineers, biologists, astrophysicists and yes, even a few science writers, are working together to realize the dream of living on another world. It’s a romantic dream without question. But behind that romanticism lie some of the most challenging scientific—and moral—questions of our time.
Last week, at SynBioBeta 2019, we got the chance to look behind the curtain to see what it will really take to build human space settlements, hearing directly from those actively working to make it possible. The speakers acknowledged a wide range of challenges. But their most aspirational words were often directed here, to our home world—going to space may help save the Earth.
Getting to — and living in — space is a challenge
This biggest problem with space travel is… well, everything. Simply getting into space is extremely energy intensive and therefore very expensive. According to NASA, it currently costs $10,000 to send 1 pound of payload (about the weight of a guinea pig) into space. True, pet guinea pigs were never a packing list priority. But the “simple” solution of sending humans to space with metric tons of supplies is laughably cost prohibitive.
It’s clear that we’ll need to survive using mostly local resources. Mars, a lifeless, frigid, irradiated desert, is our nearest and best source of supplies. The moon may be significantly closer, but it lacks an atmosphere. Mars’ atmosphere isn’t breathable—it’s about 95% carbon dioxide. But, for some scientists, this toxic gas will be key to human survival.
Adam Arkin, director of CUBES (the Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space), spoke on SynBioBeta’s space panel about his group’s work devising a Mars habitat system that runs on little more than CO2 and sunlight. Four CUBES teams are working as one to construct a zero-waste, closed-loop autotrophic biofactory, where one system’s output is another’s input. Add in the right microbes and, suddenly, you can create biofuels, biopolymers, and microbial feedstocks, as well as transform Martian regolith into arable soil. For Arkin, manufacturing life’s basics is at the heart of putting humans in space. “So much of space travel is logistics and supply chain,” he said. It may not be romantic but it sure is realistic.
The other, decidedly unromantic aspect of human space travel are humans themselves. “Humans are the weak link,” said Chris White, a private consultant who attended the conference. Life can quickly become arduous when we’re separated from our creature comforts. White half-joked how many people struggle with the limitations of camping. Going to space is significantly harder.
No one knows this better than Tim Kopra, former NASA shuttle commander with 244 days in space. Speaking on the space panel, Kopra kept everyone’s feet on the ground, as it were, with his firsthand knowledge of how difficult space flight can be. “Space is hard on humans. [Astronauts] have to exercise 2 ½ hours every day to prevent bone degeneration,” explained Kopra. Space also impacts vision and the immune system and raises the risk of radiation exposure. There aren’t just physical dangers; space stresses the human mind.
“[Space] is high pressure,” Kopra explained. Astronauts need the right mindset. Living with the same handful of people in cramped, noisy quarters eating freeze-dried meal packets is hard enough. Adding to all that guaranteed exhaustion, possible feelings of isolation and depression, and the inherent dangers of living in a vacuum, it’s a wonder anyone goes to space at all. But astronauts must still work as a team no matter their personal feelings or state of mind—if something goes wrong, they only have each other to fix the problem.
Kopra has a military background, a tremendous asset for surviving in such a physically demanding and mentally taxing environment. But as Arkin pointed out, “[Going to space] is not a military mission anymore.” Esther Dyson, executive founder of Wellville, agreed, saying “We need to grow stuff, like in Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’. It’s about settlement.”
(Synthetic) biology to the rescue
Questions of fitness and mindset will be important for future space travelers. But before we decide who goes, we first need to be able to keep them alive. Whether military or civilian, synthetic biology will be crucial for any extraterrestrial settlement. It may be counterintuitive to rely on biology to survive in a lifeless void. But bio-based systems have a number of key advantages including converting sunlight into oxygen through photosynthesis. They also have the potential for self-repair. If something breaks, regrow it. Need more tools? Use biopolymers and 3D print them. The power of synthetic biology can take a lot of pressure off early space explorers.
Space travel doesn’t just call for new approaches to biology, it also calls for new ways of thinking about ourselves as a species. Speaking on the space panel, Blue Origin Payload Sales director Erika Wagner, discouraged referring to space communities as ‘colonies’. “Colonization has a bad history,” said Wagner. “I prefer to use ‘settlement’.”
Wagner’s distinction is an important one. Not only does “colonization” have terrible human rights connotations, it’s broadly associated with the destruction of natural environments and resources—the consequences of which we are learning all too well. If we’re to avoid repeating our mistakes, it will be important to change how we view ourselves in relation to new environments. Space may be inhospitable, but we shouldn’t go to conquer it. We need to live with nature, not against it. On that theme, Wagner also spoke against the notion that putting humans in space is a cop-out in stopping climate change.
“It’s not about abandoning planet A [Earth]–there is no better planet B,” she said.
It’s true, no known place in the universe supports human life as well as our home world. But solving the challenges of space travel could help solve our climate crisis. The panel agreed that whatever we build to live sustainably off-world can be used to live sustainably on Earth. This could include novel biofuels, crops engineered to use less water, and perhaps most importantly, a zero-waste mentality.
The romantic notion of travelling to the stars had led our species to do things that were inconceivable just a few generations ago. Today, many say we can’t build human space settlements, just as many say we can’t save the Earth. But take it from an astronaut like Tim Kopra: we can push the boundaries of science and human endurance to tackle our most extreme challenges. With sustainable innovations and new ways of thinking, we may just be able to achieve the impossible.1