To paraphrase the late astronaut John Young, NASA is not motivated by a sense of adventure, but rather by a serious desire to save the human species. NASA has never been afraid to take on ideas that are out of this world, but is it possible that they have plans for space tourism, migration and human colonization in orbit?
The concept of space migration may seem too farfetched to be conceivable, but for decades there has been a notable presence of respectable space advocates within the scientific community, including the late Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and many other major space industry players. Hawking himself would like to see the human species migrate off the planet within the next 100 years, if we are to avoid imminent disaster.
In the 1970’s an interest group was set up to promote space colonization, to be achieved in a certain manner designed by physicist Gerard K. O’Neil. The group, named the L-5 Society, later attracted the attention of a serious study by NASA and Congress. The idea was postponed due to the limited success of the space shuttle and other predictions that the concept would not work. In the 1980’s, space migration was kept alive by The Planetary Society formed by scientists Carl Sagan, Louis Friedman, and Bruce Murray. It became a group that would boast over 100,000 pro-space migration advocates, making it the largest society dedicated to the cause.
NASA does not itself have a policy or set plans to begin the colonization, but they have an immense interest in the vision, implying that they would be more than a little interested were it to become financially viable. Although much research is currently underway to further understand Mars, the colonization would likely not occur on the Red Planet. Instead, colozisation, if it were to happen, would likely consist of a multitude of huge rotating spacecraft that would orbit planets or moons.
The ideas developed by NASA are now available in a simple and easy-to-read guidebook form. As a disclaimer, NASA explains that the manual is in support of the NASA Ames Student Space Settlement Design Contest, but the manual is based on the space settlement studies of the 1970’s and represents real ideas on space migration. NASA, despite their reservations, does however mention the possibility that the first colonization of space could occur in just 50 years.
Space migration and colonization is largely restricted by the huge expenses that are incurred in order to send someone into orbit even for a short amount of time. The cost currently stands at around $30 million. Space migration and colonization lacks financial backing, but NASA hopes that the space tourism industry, which is set to take off soon, may lead the way.
In a 2004 lecture, Burt Rutan made some predictions about the space tourism industry. He estimated that 3,000 tourists would be sent to space within 5 years, 50,000 within 15 years, and within 25 years it will be affordable. Rutan was responsible for selling award-winning private spacecraft technology to Virgin Galactic, who recently announced their sub-orbital space flights, available for $250,000, a price that might tempt quite a few millionaires.
Full orbital tourism is much more difficult to achieve, and much more expensive, but Russia has already taken paying tourists up to the International Space Station at a cost of $20 million. Space migration, or at least longer-term tourism, may not be that far away for the privileged. If space tourism was more affordable, it could pave the way for a permanent colonization project.
The vision for space migration would see “gigantic spacecraft,” each rotating to provide pseudo-gravity, which are completely airtight and contain their own breathable atmosphere. Every settlement would be independent, and everything within the craft would be recycled endlessly: water, air, waste and so on. Huge amounts of matter would line every inch of the colony craft, most probably lunar soil, which would protect inhabitants from radiation in space, which is a job that the earth’s atmosphere would usually handle.
One motive behind the advocacy of space migration is the survival of the species. Some scientists believe that the earth will reach a critical point, and most agree that this will happen; it is just a matter of when. Not to say that scientists are predicting an apocalypse, but that they understand that the planet probably has a lifespan, and are motivated to take the species off Earth. Here, people would be free to test out new social and political structures, and would enjoy amazing views of the planet from above, as well as unbroken starry evenings.
Of course, space migration and colonization has yet to be taken very seriously by the general public. In fairness, it is likely that if it is to come, it will be a relatively long time coming, and an even longer time until it becomes affordable for the masses.
Arthur C. Clark once articulated the transition of ideas through three distinct phases – from the assertion that something cannot be done, to the idea that it can be done, but probably is not worth doing, and then to the realization that it was a good idea all along. Space migration can be said to have reached the second phase of its life as an idea. Space travel and tourism is hinting that colonization very well can be done, but with a huge amount of financial input needed for something that is essentially experimental, it may be a while until it reaches stage three.
Space migration should also not be an answer to the problems here on Earth, and many who are against the idea respond by saying that sky-rocketing energy prices are not an excuse to migrate to space. Should the human race really just get in a rocket ship in order to go and deplete the resources somewhere else, before it has even managed to maintain planet Earth? With space tourism falling in price, and continuous advancements being made in technology, space migration and colonization is not beyond conceivable at all, and could one day become a reality.
By Matthew Warburton