Half a century ago, on July 20, 1969, the world marveled when the Apollo 11 mission successfully put a man on the moon. It was the single greatest achievement in space exploration, and it opened up seemingly endless possibilities to what humans could achieve beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the 50 years since, space travel and research have reached farther frontiers, from building and inhabiting space stations to landing robots on asteroids.
The data and information collected from these many and varied expeditions have not only allowed humans to learn more about what lies beyond our planet, but they have led to the rapid development of greater technologies that have allowed us to explore even farther while also enhancing life on Earth.
Now space travel and the continued exploration of space could hold the keys to the future of humanity — many leading scientists firmly believe that the long-term survival of humankind could depend on our ability to colonize habitats away from our own planet.
While global warming appears, at this stage, to be a large risk for the future of Earth’s habitability, other factors, such as another extinction-level asteroid strike, could one day cause even more immediate consequences.
The fourth wave of scientific advancement
The difference between any future extinction event and the most recent — which occurred approximately 66 million years ago — is that then, dinosaurs were not working on new technologies to safeguard their survival. Humans very much are.
Government-backed programs, led by NASA in the United States and agencies in China, Europe, Russia, Japan, and India, continue to dedicate funds and resources into space exploration.
But it is the increased investment from private companies in recent years that is stoking the imagination and grabbing headlines. Companies like Voyager Space Holdings, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and other organizations are pushing the boundaries as to what might be possible in terms of humanity’s future in space.
These include the development of space travel vehicles as well as what famed futurist Michio Kaku coined “the fourth wave” of science, focusing on artificial intelligence, biotech, and nanotech, which, in theory, could one day make places like Mars and Titan habitable for humans.
“That’s going to change the way we view Mars,” Kaku said in a March 2018 interview with National Geographic. “Many people say Mars is cold and desolate, and there’s nothing to grow there. We can genetically modify plants and algae to thrive in the Martian atmosphere.”
Kaku adds that to build colonies in habitats that are hostile to humans, it would require hugely advanced robots adapted to those specific environments.
MOXIE heads for Mars
Armin Kleinboehl, an atmospheric physicist at NASA, offered a similar take on the potential effects of biotech on Mars.
For her book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, journalist Annalee Newitz interviewed Kleinboehl. He noted that terraforming could potentially make Mars hospitable, but “it won’t be [possible] for at least five hundred years.”
Newitz also hypothesizes about the possibility of terraforming the moon or bio-engineering humans in order to survive on Titan.
While such scenarios may not come to fruition for another half a millennium or more, an exciting experiment is being prepped for the Mars 2020 rover called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE.
MOXIE’s job will be to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, potentially opening up the planet for human exploration. However, MOXIE, about the size of a car battery, is a test model — oxygen generators will need to be about 100 times its size to support human life on Mars.
It is in these areas of science where any possible future for humanity in space lies. Without stating the obvious, humans simply cannot naturally survive anywhere but Earth, so developing technologies to make humans adapt to other habitats while simultaneously making these habitats more hospitable to humans is the clearest way to safeguard our future.
What tomorrow may hold
What is striking is the optimism of many scientists who are at the forefront of space exploration technologies. As government programs work alongside private companies, what the future holds for humanity in space will continue to depend on forward-thinking visionaries.
And while the sort of technological advances that would allow humans to survive and settle on other planets and moons may seem fanciful to the masses, it is worth remembering that landing on the moon was also deemed an impossible feat not much longer than half a century ago.