As a young boy, Duane Clark thought NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California was much better than its near neighbor, Disneyland. And like most people of his generation, Clark distinctly remembers watching the moon landing on TV as a child. From that day forward, he was hooked.. Fifty years on, Clark is as enthusiastic about space as he was growing up an avid Estes Rocket hobbyist.
Speaking about the push to bring humans to Mars, Clark says he’d be “more than willing to be a crash dummy for that experiment,” much to the chagrin of his grown children. But in talking to Clark it becomes obvious that he’s not just some overly enthusiastic space hobbyist. The director, screenwriter, and producer-turned-businessman now manages his own portfolio with an eye toward the sustainability and tech sector — and what he sees as the next step in human evolution: interplanetary colonization. Clark thinks deeply and critically about what it will take to get us there — and the care we should take not to screw things up once we do make it.
“It’s all good if we go colonize a place, but if we bring it along with the same sort of human bullshit as [here], we’re just going to create bullshit V2,” says Clark. “So, I think that’s a very, very important component [to space habitation] — how do we evolve the human species so we don’t just recreate the silliness?”
Such deep questions — along with logistics such as food, water, and habitation, and how to fund the efforts toward building such massive infrastructure in space — can only be tackled by a collective group of people with various expertise and a common focus on space habitation. This is exactly the type of community that SynBioBeta CEO John Cumbers is hoping to create through BetaSpace, which held its inaugural event on April 12 in the Mojave Desert of Southern California.
BetaSpace: building the space settlement community
Clark was one of nearly 150 attendees at BetaSpace — he heard about it somewhat accidentally through a friend whose son happened to be involved in event logistics. Knowing Clark is a “big Mars colonist-want-to-be,” they encouraged him to attend. Unsure of what he would find, Clark was intrigued by what he saw.
“I think that there are enough real players there that it could become a Davos of space colonization,” says Clark. Laughing, he adds, “I do think there’s something of a possibility that [it] could just be a bunch of tech bros going in the desert, pie in the sky.”
Yet Clark saw plenty at BetaSpace that suggests people have the right mindset to prevent the latter alternative.
“What I was encouraged by was at the close of the event, someone asked a question, and then John [Cumbers] threw it back at him, how can we do something concrete? And he laid out some specific things that I thought were valuable. And I think that’s the kind of thing that needs to happen for this to become more than an exciting bit of spinning fancy — the concrete steps [we can take] from year to year to advance the idea and start growing the collective of people,” says Clark.
The legitimate business of space tourism
Skeptics may think that assembling a community like BetaSpace for the moonshot (no pun intended) of life off-Earth may be a waste of time. Even Clark himself believes it could take hundreds of years for humankind to figure out how to make Mars as habitable as the Sahara desert here on earth. Investors shy away from companies focused on space, not seeing the possibility for any ROI in their lifetimes. So, why even try? Is there actually a viable market for space habitation — or are we working to figure out how to eat, drink, and build in space for no good reason?
Clark doesn’t think so, and thanks to the efforts of private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, we may need such infrastructure sooner than we think.
“Look at SpaceX. They blew away the traditional NASA time frame and expense rates … they brought a tech company efficiency to it that overstepped what the government behemoth can do,” says Clark. “If Dragon and [others] come together and in a decent amount of time you can bring a hundred people at a time up there relatively safely, [when] actual tourism becomes possible, then you need an infrastructure to support a hotel on the moon or Mars, [you need] food, water, power, radiation shielding, waste management … So I think this a pretty legitimate business.”
Healthy skepticism and shooting for the stars
Yet even Clark himself maintains a certain level of skepticism — but it’s a type of skepticism that will help the field grow and focus on what needs to be tackled to make this a reality, not the kind of skepticism that squelches progress. For now he’s more akin to agree with NASA’s Chris McKay, who at BetaSpace posited the idea that before we can even figure out how to make life work off-Earth, we should aim to successfully establish a research base on the moon that scientists can go up to regularly and do their research. It would be a bit like McMurdo on Antarctica.
In the meantime we can focus on critical considerations that, in Clark’s opinion, people aren’t thinking about enough these days. Things like dust on Mars, radiation on the flight path, and healthcare off-Earth.
“The thing that I don’t hear Musk or anybody really pay enough lip service to is this microparticle dust, it’s just insidious. And Paul Wooster [of SpaceX] talked about the refrigerator they put in place for the crew to crawl into for a day or two if there’s a solar flare event en route, but what happens when you’re ferrying 100 people … and something happens halfway, what do you do then?” asks Clark, bringing to the forefront some of the biggest challenges we will face living off-Earth — even if for only short periods of time.
Yet despite his pragmatism, Clark agrees there is a place for the type of urgency and dreaming big that characterized BetaSpace 2019.
“If all you shoot for is a five, you may end up with a three — but if you shoot for an 11 you may actually get an eight.”
And I’d bet anything that Clark hopes that those big dreamers keep shooting for 11s, making it possible for him to transform from a Mars colonist-want-to-be to one of the first residents of our red neighbor.
If you want to learn more from some of the thought leaders and entrepreneurs that were at BetaSpace 2019 in the Mojave Desert, be sure to attend SynBioBeta 2019 this October 1-3 in San Francisco, where an entire session will be dedicated to all things BetaSpace.2