Soon, people will travel further from Earth and stay away longer. What’s the path to sustainable off-world civilizations and what issues will they face? Sandy Magnus, the former astronaut and AIAA executive director, and current deputy director for engineering in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, explored the topic in a May 29 webinar with Dynetics executive Kathy Laurini, Massachusetts Institute of Technology research engineer Minoo Rathnasabapathy, and York University associate professor Kathryn Denning. The conversation kicked off the ASCENDxSeries, a prelude to AIAA’s virtual conference in November.
The most important point from the webinar was not to underestimate the challenge of creating and sustaining off-world civilization. This feat will only be accomplished through the combined efforts of government agencies, industry, academia and private citizens around the world.
Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:
- Many nations are eager to play a part in human space exploration. “Everyone is looking for the niche,” said Laurini, a 36-year veteran of NASA human spaceflight programs and current payload and commercialization lead for the Human Landing System at Dynetics of Huntsville, Alabama.
- Beware of a technical divide between established space nations and emerging ones. “When we are thinking about sustainability, how do we ensure the money and the resource investment into off-world civilizations is benefiting everyone,” asked Rathnasabapathy of MIT Media Lab’s Space Enabled Research Group.
- It won’t be easy to create off-world civilizations to benefit humankind. “If the question is how to ‘we’ stay in space, it depends on how big you want your ‘we’ to be,” said Denning, whose researches social and ethical aspects of space exploration. “If you want your ‘we’ to be tiny and elite and hyper wealthy, well fine, you can figure out your own little problems. But if you want space to be something more in line with the Outer Space Treaty, something that really is for everyone, then it is a much bigger challenge on absolutely every front. And it’s slower and it’s harder.”
- Off-world civilizations will need to prove their value. Nations and companies will only support settlements that produce something of value to their residents or to people on Earth.
- We don’t know how people will respond to years or generations in microgravity. Early explorers could pave the way for massive settlements even if it takes centuries or millennia, says Magnus, who spent four months on the International Space Station.
To learn more about future off-world civilizations, join the conversation at www.ascend.events. ASCEND is an outcomes-focused, transdisciplinary conference to accelerate the off-world future coming Nov. 16-18. Through the virtual event, we invite you to connect, debate and help shape the future space economy.
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