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Commercial interest in space is high, and the technology to get us there is nearly ready

Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

Christopher Wanjek
Harvard University Press
400 pp.
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“To go boldly, if prudently” would be a terrible tagline for a Star Trek spin-off, but it is the most sensible way to colonize space. Space settlements, Moon bases, and Mars colonies—no matter how futuristic—all require a business plan, explains science journalist Christopher Wanjek in his new book, Spacefarers.

Wanjek’s book is an optimistic treatise on commercial endeavors that seek to increase the number of people in space by employing more efficient and cheaper launch vehicles and systems. “The market is there; the technology is almost there,” he writes.

There is plenty of interest and investment in novel space launch systems, but the firms involved are not necessarily driven by scientific curiosity, the wish to inspire, or a desire to tackle a daunting challenge. And while a military mandate or the fear that plagues or large-scale ecological disasters could render Earth uninhabitable drives some to work toward a space-based refuge, a Moon, Mars, or asteroid base will require more than these motivators to keep us there. “A war might get us to the Moon or Mars; economic sustainability will keep us there,” writes Wanjek.

Many private companies have mining in mind. Others are focused on space tourism. A Kevlar inflatable shelter manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace was placed on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016. It is not too much of a leap to imagine that the first space tourists might live in such a shelter for a week or so. Similarly, both Elon Musk’s Space X and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo are methodically clearing developmental and regulatory hurdles. If all continues to go well, they might start delivering tourists to space sometime soon.

As Wanjek sees it, companies such as Space X are attempting “to avoid the sins of the NASA shuttle program by applying basic business savvy.” His argument hinges on a comparable phenomenon that occurred in the auto industry in the 1970s, when General Motors was caught off guard by the lean management of Toyota. Space X, he maintains, could be the Toyota of space.

As with any business plan, however, the devil is in the fine print. Underpinning a new era of space colonization will be the need to ensure life support and the safe return of early adventurers. And although our future in space might be led more by private than public imperatives, it is government space programs that have invested in tackling many of the initial medical studies, engineering projects, and habitability issues. Plants are now regularly grown in space, and NASA has learned about muscle and bone loss by studying the effects of microgravity and radiation on astronauts.

Analogous earthbound missions, from Antarctic expeditions to nuclear submarine deployments, offer some useful insights. “Meals are morale boosters” to people living in confined quarters for long periods of time, Wanjek notes, as is a view outside. Among the most promising of these studies are the ones being conducted in the Eden ISS greenhouse, a 20-foot-long shipping container in which researchers are currently growing crops at Germany’s Neumayer III Antarctic base. This endeavor demonstrates that it is possible to grow vegetables while it is dark and freezing outside, as will have to be done in a space hotel. (The plants also generate oxygen, a welcome by-product for any space inhabitant.)

But if space travel is going to be a commercial activity, then it may make more sense to conceive of such journeys as akin to those undertaken by the first European adventurers, many of whom sacrificed their lives to the cause. As William Dalrymple reminds readers in The Anarchy, the young and adventurous often risked a 50 to 60% chance of death in exchange for the possibility of receiving a share of an eye-watering profit during the early days of the East India Company’s trading expeditions (1).

Readers should consult Spacefarers alongside Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, which documents the current public efforts to return humans to the Moon and to get them to Mars. But Wanjek’s analysis of the commercial approach to space exploration adds an important perspective to the conversation about our future in space.

References and Notes
1. W. Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury, 2019).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY 10019, USA.