Cosmology, humanity and a multiplanetary future

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Singularity University GSP13

We went for a visit to SpaceXElon Musk’s private space company. It was a mind-blowing experience seeing the factory itself, and hearing from one of his engineers how he manages the company on the side of Tesla and other ides such as the hyper loop. It’s not for nothing that they call him the greatest entrepreneur of our time.

How he started SpaceX was that he gathered 30 senior people from the space industry around a table and asked them what they think of the idea of starting a private space venture. 28 said he is nuts and that it will never work – Elon’s reply was that since he is the only person who will do it, he must.

He does not have an advisory board. Most of the money invested in SpaceX is his own. He knows every bolt and screw in his rockets, understands the technology better than any of his engineers and calls all decisions for business. This is his lifework. All communication goes essentially upward in their organization – Elon calls a shot and people execute freely. They are free to do what they want, but they know what is expected of them – a lot, and they are accountable for all they do. Nobody has to work at SpaceX. All the best want to. There is no room for playing around and all the people are working hard, long weeks, for a common vision of getting to Mars and changing people’s ways of seeing space. Elon wants to die on Mars.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.  A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

–Elon Musk

(from SpaceX blogpost Reusability: The key to making human life multiplanetary)

The company says they are not a technology company, instead a business process company. They have not invented any new tech – they just use existing technology in a smarter way. They call themselves the FedX of space, already having delivered things, amongst them an ice cream, to the International Space Station. Why have 9 engines on a rocket? If one fails, 8 are good to go. They are practicing landing the rockets back, and have proven to do so successfully in test runs – sinking costs in being able to reuse the rockets. They can bring a rocket back with 3% of the fuel used to get it up. They can transport their rockets to launchpads on land instead of shipping them around with major costs, thanks to the diameter size. SpaceX does everything in-house. They get in raw materials and manufacture everything, so avoiding delays in delivers and unexpected costs. Elon won’t let anything get in his way.


Saguaro Cacti in Arizona by Jim Richardson

What SpaceX and Diamandis’s XPrize are doing is aiming people’s attention to the forgotten worlds of the Universe again. A potential Mars settlement is rumored to be modeled after Burning Man camp of roughly 60K people, and new little space companies are popping up, such as the various cube sats for education and Made in Space for 3D printing in zero gravity.

A lot of people ask me how long will the space frontier race take to realize, or how far are these predictions. I have no idea, but I do know that the more people like my classmate Afshin Khan, an astrobiologist, working on how to grow food on Mars, the sooner we’ll get there. These people are serious about inhabiting space outside the ISS very soon.

Inhabiting other areas outside Earth raise many questions to me though. Who are the people who are going to form the first settlements? Will they all be from the same country, bringing the culture of just one kind? What if other cultures want to join? What will their children be told about Earth and its humans? Human beings tend to get stupid about owning things, and not caring for things which are not owned by them or their yacht club. Sometimes human beings are evil to one another. Especially if the distance is great and understanding of the other culture not, bad leaders can stop people from thinking straight.

The thing is, we are all human. And we all do share something incredibly precious- the most precious thing known today – the Earth. Why, in the 21st century, are we still thinking that doing something on one side of the earth will not have an affect on the entire planet? Why are companies allowed to think so and why do consumers not care or know? Yesterday Helsingin Sanomat (the most wide-spread newspaper in Scandinavia, the societally most educated people in the world) released an article in the headlines of “Human-impacted climate change is true according to scientists”. How is this new information? How can people, after seeing Google Earth images of humans deforesting the Amazon, our planet’s lungs, still say that we are not harming the environment in an impact full way? The Earth is at present our only habitat, and it needs to support a lot of us. A mistake made somewhere bears a very heavy price, multiple times the momentary yield, and is paid by all of us.

The precious Earth and mother nature are working hard to support us all. Human beings can not, until today, replicate the miraculous way the Earth is taking care of keeping us alive. We need to not think that we can go and invade other planets to destroy, and we need to not think of taking ancient grudges with us into space. Every minute, seven people die of lack of access to clean water, two die because of hunger, two of air pollution and one of Malaria. China, Japan and other countries have acquired land outside their borders due to the growing needs and dying sources of water and food. Agriculture uses 70% of our water today. (For instance, you need 15 000 litres of water to produce a kg of beef. You can calculate your footprint here, and start conserving water today by just choosing what you buy, and from where.)

So before we start acting in smarter ways, realizing the potential of all the good we could do and harnessing it to take action in all our acts, small and large, is vital. We need to care for each other as we need to for the resources given to us and the potential to find more, as a whole humanity.

Now, the good news is, we are going into the better direction. We are learning how to use the resources readily available a bit better each day – when it comes to finding new energy sources or ways to farm more efficiently. However, we need to change our mindset fast. Kids born today are internet native and global. The more intercultural exchange you make, the more amazement you will get to all the wonders of other countries and traditions. What my friend Nancy Ellen Abrams believes is that if we shared a common understanding of the known universe again, and mutual cosmology, we could better understand what our place in this universe is, and how we as humans on this precious, unique planet need to collaborate in living together peacefully and making this world a better place. (Please watch Nancy’s talk and read Peter Diamandis’s book Abundance). So we need to tell ourselves, and our children, about the magic of the cosmic universe, and share this planet so future generations can witness the wonders of the world. Bad news: we are already way too late in stopping burning fossils, consuming obsoletely, polluting (sometimes in “far away” countries whilst exploiting others), deforesting, killing each other, etc. Good news: you can affect these things and work proactively against them starting from this second.

There’s an abundance of resources out there and in you. You educated person on the internet – be aware and pay attention! You can drive change, and we as a bunch can really turn things around and have a great future. Change is not difficult and big change is not either. It just takes the smarter ones of us to DO IT.

I’d like to end this off with Peter Diamandis’s ever-so optimistic answer I got to a related question: “By the time we get to mars, humanity will have completely changed. In the next few decades we will see a complete evolution, mixing with technology and a new kind of idea of humanity as a whole. “


The Author

Building useful things. From Helsinki, Finland.

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