Expanding The Final Frontier

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In a lengthy exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, Charles Fishman ponders the future of humanity in space:

We may eventually need resources from asteroids or the moon, depending on how we manage the resources we’ve got here on Earth. We may eventually need to become a multiplanet species—either because we literally outgrow the Earth, or because we damage it. Or we may simply want to become a multiplanet species: one day, some people may prefer the empty black silence of the moon, or the uncrowded red beauty of Mars, just as they preferred Oklahoma to Philadelphia in the 1890s.

These are long-horizon ideas—centuries-long. Even so, what’s missing from them is a sense of how hard living, working, and traveling in space still is, and how long we may need in order to change that.

We’re still at the beginning of the space age. More people can fit on a single commercial passenger jet, the Airbus A380, than have been in orbit. The Space Station’s most important purpose may turn out to be teaching us how to begin to make life in space more practical and less dangerous.

Almost anyone you talk with about the value of the Space Station eventually starts talking about Mars. When they do, it’s clear that we don’t yet have a very grown-up space program. The folks we send to space still don’t have any real autonomy, because no one was imagining having to “practice” autonomy when the station was designed and built. On a trip to Mars, the distances are so great that a single voice or e‑mail exchange would involve a 30-minute round-trip. That one change, among the thousand others that going to Mars would require, would alter the whole dynamic of life in space. The astronauts would have to handle things themselves.

(Vine video via NASA astronaut Terry W. Virts)