During the first half century of the space age, only governments launched satellites and people into Earth orbit. Not anymore. Hundreds of private space companies are building a new industry that already generates $ 300 billion in annual revenue.
I am a professor of astronomy who has written a book and a number of articles on the future of humans in space. Today, all activity in space is linked to the Earth. But I predict that in about 30 years, people will start living in space – and soon after, the first baby out of Earth will be born.
Space began as a duopoly as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in a geopolitical contest with strong military overtones. But while NASA made the moon landings in 1969, its budget has since shrunk by a factor of three. Russia is no longer an economic superpower and its presence in space is a pale shadow of the program that launched the first satellite and the first person into orbit.
The new kid on the block is China. After a late start, China’s space program is booming, fueled by a budget that has recently grown faster than their economy. China is building a space station, the country has landed probes on the Moon and Mars, and is planning a moon base. On its current trajectory, China will soon be the dominant space power.
But the most exciting advances are being made by private space companies that market spaces for tourism and recreation. Elon Musk’s goal for SpaceX is to transport 100 people to both the Moon, Mars and beyond, although in public presentations he is hesitant to give a timeline. Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origins, also aims to colonize the solar system. Such grandiose plans have skeptics, but remember these are the two richest people in the world.
Governments will continue to launch rockets, but it would be safe to say that the future of private spaceflight arrived in 2016 when, for the first time, commercial launches outnumbered launches from all countries of the world combined.
Living on the Moon or Mars
For a spacecraft, the trip to Mars is about 1,000 times longer than a trip to the Moon, so the Moon will be humanity’s first home away from home.
China is partnering with Russia to build a long-term facility at the Moon’s South Pole between 2036 and 2045. NASA plans to put “boots on the moon” in 2024 and establish a permanent colony called Artemis Base Camp in another decade. As part of the Artemis mission, NASA also plans to launch a lunar space station in 2024 called the Gateway. NASA is partnering with SpaceX for this lunar project and future ones, and the lunar station will make it easier for SpaceX to resupply the future lunar colony.
After the Moon, Mars, and the collaboration between SpaceX and NASA is speeding up the timeline to get there. NASA’s plans are helpful, but the organization has not given a timeline. Elon Musk, on the other hand, has loudly proclaimed his intention to have a colony on Mars by 2050. Humanity’s attempt to colonize the Moon will give us a good idea of the challenges we may face. on Mars.
Sex and Babies in Space
For a civilization to be truly liberated from Earth, the population needs to grow, and that means babies. Living on the Moon or Mars will be arduous and stressful, so the first inhabitants will likely only spend a few years there at a time and are unlikely to start a family.
But once people accept permanent residence off Earth, there are still many unknowns. First, little research has been done on the biology of pregnancy and reproductive health in a low-gravity space or environment like the Moon or Mars. It is possible that there are unexpected dangers to the fetus or the mother. Second, babies are fragile and raising them is not easy. The infrastructure of these bases would have to be sophisticated to make possible a version of normal family life, a process that will take decades.
Given these uncertainties, it seems likely that the first baby out of Earth will be born much closer to home. A Dutch start-up called SpaceLife Origin wants to send a heavily pregnant woman 400 km just long enough to give birth. They tell a good story, but the legal, medical and ethical hurdles are formidable. Another company, called Orbital Assembly Corporation, plans to open a luxury hotel in orbit in 2027, called the Voyager Station. Current plans show it could accommodate 280 guests and 112 crew, with its spinning wheel design providing artificial gravity. But the breathless reporting omits any discussion of the difficulty and cost of such a project.
However, on April 12, 2021, NASA announced that it was considering allowing a reality TV show to send a civilian to the International Space Station and film him for 10 days. It’s plausible that this idea could be extended, with a wealthy couple reserving an extended stay for the entire process from conception to birth in orbit.
At this time, there is no evidence that anyone has had sex in space. But with around 600 people having been in Earth orbit – including a couple from NASA who kept their marriages a secret – a space historian has been able to pull together many salacious moments from the space age.
I guess around 2040 a unique individual will be born. They may have the citizenship of their parents or be born in a facility run by a company and become stateless. But I prefer to think of this future person as the first true citizen of the galaxy.
This article by Chris Impey, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.