One technical innovation at a time humanity marches towards the stars.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. -John F. Kennedy
To the winner go the spoils.
Such was the case after WW2 when America claimed many of Germany’s stockpile of V-2 ballistic missiles. Tests began using this arsenal as a means of assuring American leadership in technology.
In the dust of WW2’s end a new sort of warfare emerged.
Not the hot, aggressive variety but a war of espionage, counterintelligence and competing ideologies. This was the Cold War. A war to determine which superpower would inherit the world.
During this period, space exploration emerged as a major area of contest and became known as the space race. NASA was born in response to this race out of the simple preamble;
“An Act to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes.”
We knew nothing of space.
Monkeys, our close genetic companion, went up first. Many perished. They paved the way for humans to follow. Albert II became the first monkey in space as his flight reached 134 km — past the Kármán line of 100 km, taken to designate the beginning of space.
Satellites went up next as part of an international effort to gather scientific data about Earth. Advances here paved the way for our current GPS systems. Then on September 12, 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed America’s intention to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s.
This marked the beginning of the space race.
Russia took the lead. First satellite with Sputnik 1. Then first man in space when Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first passed the Kármán line and later completed the first orbit of Earth.
America quickly caught up in both cases with Alan B. Shepard Jr. reaching space, followed by John H. Glenn Jr. reaching orbit.
In 1969 America won the race. Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the surface of the Moon. This marked the end of what Kennedy would call;
“the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
The Space Shuttle Era
In 1981 America returned to manned spaceflight with the Space Shuttle. STS-1 took off — demonstrating that it could take off vertically and glide to an unpowered airplane-like landing. Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when STS-7 lifted off on June 18, 1983.
Then tragedy struck. On January 28, 1986 a leak in the joints of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters attached to the Space Shuttle Challenger caused the main liquid fuel tank to explode 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 crew members.
In 1988 the shuttle returned to service. Going on to fly a total of 87 missions. Then tragedy struck again in 2003. A breach in the heat dispersion system lead the Space Shuttle Columbia to fill with hot gas causing catastrophic failure and the loss of all 7 crew-members. Evidence hints these brave men and women may have been alive during the fall.
The Shuttle was primarily used to launch the pieces for the next period of space travel, orbiting laboratories. First Skylab in 1973, then in 1998 construction on the International Space Station officially began.
The ISS Program’s greatest accomplishment is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one. The ISS only exists because of the cooperation of the United States, Russia, the European Union, Japan, and Canada. It has been the most politically complex space exploration program ever.
By 2024 at the latest, the ISS will be decommissioned.
Excess fuel will push it into a descending orbit over the Pacific Ocean. Most will burn up, with the remainder plummeting to the watery depths.
In 2004 the rover Spirit landed on the Martian surface. Its mission was to find evidence of life. It collected samples, and showed us life had quite likely existed off our familiar pale blue dot. We weren’t alone.
Then in 2012 Spirit’s follow-up Curiosity successfully reached the Martian surface. In an area near Yellowknife Bay Curiosity discovered evidence of an old lakebed.
Radiometric dating and chemical analysis led researchers to determine this lakebed had a habitability window of 700 million years, ending 3.1 billion years ago. There almost definitely had been microbial life on Mars.
This revelation stunned the world.
SETI is an international mission to discover extraterrestrial life. Using space and ground telescopes like Hubble to scour distant solar systems for traces of habitable planets. Recent findings like the TRAPPIST-1 series of exoplanets has revealed habitable planets are very common in our universe.
The forthcoming James Webb Telescope will give us even greater detail. Primed to be launched to Earth’s L2 Lagrange point it will operate 1.5 million km from Earth, locked to an orbit 3x beyond that of the Moons. It’s viewing instruments will give it a 100x better view of the universe than its predeccesor Hubble.
The modern space race
The newest space race seems to be heating up; JAXA, Roscosmos, the CSA, the ESA, NASA, UAESA and the newest player China’s CNSA are all to various degrees cooperating and competing to reach the next milestone of space — a manned mission to Mars.
Various agencies including private ones like SpaceX all peg our landing date on Mars in the 2030’s sometime. At first it will be scientific, then perhaps a colony.
2033 seems to be the ideal date. A period of low sun activity coincides with an ideal alignment of Mars and the Earth. The next generation of NASA astronauts won’t be the ones to go. With their training finished in 2015, they’ll be the ones winding down the ISS program.
The Mars Generation
The Mars wave will consist of iconic young men and women like Alyssa Carson, Abigail Harrison and Ryan MacDonald. Today they’re in high school and university. But by 2033, they’ll be around NASA’s average astronaut age of 34 and primed to explore the newest world.
When Europe colonized the modern world, they did so first funded by milestone driven governments. Then economics set in and exploration became profitable. With asteroid mining, microgravity manufacturing and offworld power generation this cycle will conceivably repeat itself.
The economics of space
The outer space economy will follow the maxim; energy outward, resources inward. The sun will pulse and provide the inner system with its energy, while outward it’ll be diffused more and of less use. Whereas the beyond Mars asteroid belt, and Kuiper belt even further will provide the rich mineral resources our hungry civilization will crave.
The Gas Giants will provide our gaseous resources and together they’ll build our new civilization. One stretching from one end of the solar system to the other.
People’s bodies will change out there. Reduced gravity offplanet will cause some people’s spines to lengthen and bone density to decrease. Our bodies will become more vestigial than today. Opposing that we’ll begin merging with machines and AI.
Devices like the Neuralink or artifical augmentation will change the paradigm of being human. Different planets and bodies will have unique cultures and customs. There will be clashes, perhaps wars. Humanity will get smarter, we’ll likely never kill ourselves fully. But like our ancestors we’ll posture and clash over change.
Our first candidate for interstellar colonization
Proxima Centauri lies a mere 4.24 light years away, our nearest stellar neighbor. With technological advances, perhaps generation ships, cryogenic freezing, modified biology or robotic substitutes we’ll begin venturing beyond our homely solar system.
Our first faltering steps will resemble our gradual progress towards other celestial bodies from Earth. People will argue about the value, the cost. Others will value the mission over their lives. Fights will occur, there will be setbacks and then eventually we’ll go.
By this point our vast power systems will extract the majority of what our sun can offer. This system will be replicated on our nearest star systems, and then their nearest. The colonization wave will take a million years to spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy.
Like a bacteria we’ll gradually spread to every cell of our 100,000 light year home. Then the cycle will repeat. Why go to other galaxies? What would be the point? We press on.
Humanity’s backup plan
By this point humanity has extinguished the existential threat. We’re not going anywhere. Even if a supernova were to wipe out multiple star systems we’d be too deeply ingrained to lose.
Galaxy by galaxy we spread. Our unending conquest spanning many millions of generations. Age may be irrelevant by now, humanity’s collective concousness stored in a hard drive which we all draw from. Indistinguishable from the machines we once feared, death has been irradicated.
Humanity will be the supreme being in the universe. Our cradle Earth long forgotten we will seek new frontiers. Perhaps we’ll encounter rival intelligences, they may outcompete us. They may not be us, but their trajectory will resemble ours.
We consume resources as fast as we acquire them
The stark reality is — a civilization must either expand or collapse. As populations expand, resources must be introduced into the system to offset the increased demand. Known as a colonization bubble it could be the “Great Filter” that stops universal domination.
As the bubble expands the interior beings run out of resources and are consumed and destroyed by civil wars. This inner wave spreads out and consumes the bubble whole. Perhaps humanity will overcome this.
Whatever intelligent species it is, one will eventually come to dominate the universe. Then an interesting situation occurs. Either they run out the clock and pass along with the universe, as in Asimov’s The Last Question.
Or they find a way to escape to the next layer, what you could call the Multiverse. In this layer they discover they can manipulate other universes at will and create different universal constants in different universes. Their tinkering destroys many universes and creates life in others. They are the simulators theorized to be running our universe.
All things must end, such is entropy.
The multiverse begins to close in on these beings and so they must solve the same problem again. Transcend their environment or be annihilated alongside it. With infinite possibilities one species escapes. The layer above the multiverse. This repeats, ad infinitum.
The great paradox, that there are turtles all the way down.
Naturally everything after NASA’s Mars dates was speculation but it’s a chilling thought. Our universe will end. Hundreds of trillions of years will have passed and we won’t be alive. But intellectually its intimidating. Non existence is scary. For all our intelligence we can’t escape the fundamental nature of a distinct existence.
A source of motivation and liberation.
Life is so vast, beautiful and unnerving. This great paradox of our universes end resembles the reality our distant ancestors had to contend with as they scanned the night sky. What were those bright lights up there? Why are we here? But they pressed on in their search for truth and today we know infinitely more than they do.
This trend will continue. We’ll keep turning over vast rocks to see the unimaginable truths hidden below. It’s not in humanity to give up, despite the great uncertainty surrounding our universe and our place within it.
One thing is certain — humanity has never stopped progressing to its future amongst the stars. Hopefully we never will.