There are a lot of challenges we face as we move further into the third millennium. With record temperatures all over the world and weather extremes happening, we are reminded again of the importance of reducing humanity’s carbon footprint to zero.
Many people are questioning at this time, why we bother with space exploration, and why we spend money on this. Aren’t there enough problems on Earth to solve?
Much has been written about this. Elon Musk argues that making life multi-planetary is essential for humanity’s survival in the long term. The war in Ukraine has raised the specter of a nuclear exchange again, a scenario that was all too real during my childhood. So, I think he is right, we should not, in the long-term, bet everything on one planet.
People have pointed out the importance of space as a vision and inspiration for humans — and I agree. I grew up with space technology as a kitchen table topic, and it had a huge influence on my aspirations.
But there is another aspect I want to highlight. We, as humanity, have to get to zero impact on the environment as fast as possible (not “net zero” — zero). People romanticize about living in harmony with Nature. But 10 billion people cannot live “in harmony with Nature”. We essentially need to live next to Nature without impacting it. If we want to have thriving ecosystems, we need to have a zero footprint on Nature.
Space is the ideal laboratory for it.
Most dwellings on Earth, large cities today, were started in regions that are favorable to human life. Ample access to water, moderate climates, and easy access to farmland — all made it easy to settle.
The place where I lived most of my life, Munich in Germany, is such a place. Clean drinking water flows down from the mountains. The temperatures are moderate, most homes don’t have air-conditioning even today.
Often, people see this as a model for sustainable living — and people in other regions are the ones living unsustainably. This argument only works, because the lush nature shields us from reality.
We, however, still massively consume existing resources and hope that Nature magically replenishes them (through rain, snowfall, or other ways). We can make a city more sustainable by helping with this process (by building water treatment plants, that clean waste water before dumping it into the river). But our ecological footprint remains enormous, and we continue to drain natural resources in an unsustainable way, hoping that Nature picks up the bill.
Interestingly enough, over the past decades, we humans have gotten good at building habitats in regions that, in the past, would have been considered impossible to live in. This is thanks to cheap energy and the massive rollout of air conditioning systems. Our office in Singapore is pleasant all-year round, thanks to cool and dry air coming from A/C units. As a result, many fast-growing cities are now in desert regions, as there is ample space to scale.
How can we make a human dwelling zero impact? By making it a self-sufficient closed system. And the place where you absolutely need this is in outer space. There, you have no water flowing down the mountains or air that is replenished through the Amazon rainforest. If your CO2 levels rise, you have to deal with it. If you run out of fresh water, you have to recycle the water you have used before — and yes, that means human urine.
Today, any space station requires resources from Earth. If you want to scale this, however, then food, air, water, all needs to be created locally, cheaply, and with an energy source that doesn’t require fuel. A self-sufficient space station must not produce waste, as anything that is thrown away is gone and cannot be re-used — a space station needs to be circular by design.
This is exactly what we need on Earth — as soon as possible. One of the fastest ways to get there, is to test it out in space, as there, you cannot cheat. You must make it work within the real constraints of a closed system. You have to minimize energy use and maximize efficiency. You cannot consume a lot of material, because it’s hard to get it up there. In short, you are forced to get to a low energy, carbon neutral, zero waste, circular economy by design.
I am not arguing we should bet only on this approach. But comparatively, we are currently spending little money on our future in space. With all the benefits that have been talked about, inspiration, making life multi-planetary as a backup for humanity, all the insights we get from viewing and analyzing Earth and the Universe from off-planet — the fact that space can be a prototype for a zero impact human society, is another good reason I am personally excited about our progress in space exploration technology.
About Lin Kayser
Lin is the co-founder and CEO of the Hyperganic Group. His entrepreneurial journey stretches back to the early 1990s and covers areas as diverse as industrial control systems and transforming Hollywood from analog to digital.
This is his personal blog which contains many posts that pre-date Hyperganic. His views are his own.