Humanity In Space: The Next Fifty Years

Aug 17th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

In last week’s Issues in Perspective, I explored the topic of thinking biblically about space exploration.  Human beings are the only creatures created in God’s image.  Among other things, that means humans represent God.  We are God’s dominion stewards over His world (see Genesis 1:26ff).  We have been given the authority to rule over it, to explore it, and use it as good stewards.  But, given this dominion authority, human sin remains the essential challenge.  Genesis 3 declares forthrightly that humans have joined Satan in a rebellion against God.  Humanity remains in God’s image, which is the basis for all value, dignity and worth of the human being.  But now humanity must function and live in a world that is broken, fallen and chaotic.  Therefore, God the Father sent His Son to redeem rebellious humanity and reconcile them to Himself (see Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5).  But humanity remains in rebellion against God, which is the fundamental cause of war, disputes, arguments, and conflicts between humans and nations.  The history of humanity has been one of tragedy and pain because of that rebellion.

As God’s dominion stewards, humans still have stewardship responsibility over the physical world.  We have the authority to mine products from the earth, to explore and bring under our authority all parts of God’s creation.  But without the wisdom and discernment that is sourced in God, humanity will never do this very well.  Human history is filled with conflicts and wars over resources, land, food and raw materials.  It is an ugly story.  These brutal facts must factor into our consideration of the next frontier of space.  Will human exploration and possible colonization of space be different?  In its exploration of space, will humanity be able to overcome the penchant for selfish competition and war?  This is what I seek to explore in this edition of Issues in Perspective.

Recently, The Economist magazine published a series of articles on the subject of the next 50 years in space.  The possibilities and excitement of space exploration are exhilarating.  It is truly amazing what is currently being planned by both national governments and private corporations.  But can all of this be done without conflict and potential military confrontation.  “Space will become ever more like an extension of Earth—an arena for firms and private individuals, not just governments.  But for this promise to be fulfilled the world needs to create a system of laws to govern the heavens—both in peacetime and, should it come to that, in war. . . At worst space could add to earth’s problems.”  Can fallen humanity peacefully explore and exercise dominion over the part of God’s world called space?

The previous 50 years of space exploration largely focused on the Moon and unmanned satellites.  For part of that timeframe, space exploration was a dimension of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  Only 571 human beings have been in orbit around Earth and, since 1972, no human being has set foot on the Moon.  However, “the next 50 years will look very different.  Falling costs, new technologies, Chinese and Indian ambitions, and a new generation of entrepreneurs promises a bold era of space development.  It will almost certainly involve tourism for the rich and better communications for all; in the long run it might involve mineral exploration and even mass transportation.”  What are some of these new developments in space exploration?

  • China plans to land people on the Moon by 2035. President Trump announced that Americans will be back on the Moon by 2024.
  • The private sector is aggressive in its goals for space exploration. Between 1958 and 2009 almost all of the spending in space was by state agencies (e.g., NASA, the Pentagon, Soviet space agency, etc.).  But, in the past decade private investment has risen to an annual average of $2 billion a year, or 15% of the total, and it will no doubt increase.   “SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket firm, made 21 successful satellite launches last year and is valued at $33 billion.   Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, sells off $1 billion-worth of his shares in the company each year to pay for Blue Origin, a space venture.  Virgin Galactic [Richard Branson’s British company] plans to go public this year at a value of $1.5 billon.  As well as capital and ideas, the private sector provides much greater efficiency.  According to NASA, developing Space3X’s Falcon rockets would have cost the agency $4 billion; it cost SpaceX a tenth of that.”
  • Two commercial models exist or are within reach: the big business of launching and maintaining swarms of communication satellites in low orbits and the niche one of tourism for the rich. “Virgin claims it might carry almost 1,000 wealthy adventurers a year by 2022. SpaceX is developing a reusable ‘Starship’ larger and much more capable than its Falcons.”  Musk hopes to send settlers to Mars.  Bezos, the richest man in the world, wants to see millions of people living on space stations.  The result?  “Such possibilities could see the annual revenues of the space industry double to $800 billion by 2030, according to UBS, a bank.”

One of the more momentous challenges of all of this space activity is rule of law in space.  The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 declares space to be “the province of all mankind” and forbids claims of sovereignty.  But this treaty is clearly inadequate.  For example, “who would have the best claim to use the ice at the poles of the Moon for life support?  Should Martian settlers be allowed to do what they like to the environment?  Who is liable for satellite collisions?  Space is already crowded—over 2,000 satellites are in orbit and NASA tracks over 500,000 individual pieces of debris hurtling at velocities of over 27,000km an hour?”  All of these complexities and difficulties beg for co-ordination and common standards to which nations and private enterprise can agree.  But, currently neither nations nor private companies demonstrate any interest in either co-ordination or common standards. Competition and intense nationalism seem to be the primary concerns.

These difficulties and uncertainties are magnified when one adds the use of force in space.  “America, China and India are rapidly increasing their destructive capabilities: blinding military satellites with lasers, jamming their signals to Earth or even blowing them up, causing debris to scatter across the cosmos.  They are also turning their armed forces spaceward.  Mr. Trump plans to set up a Space Force, the first branch of the armed forces since the air force was created in 1947.”  Emmanuel Macron, president of France, has announced the formation of a new space command.  Since America outspends the rest of the world on military space capabilities by a ratio of three to one, this makes its satellites attractive targets.  China has developed technology to destroy a satellite with a missile from Earth.  Spy satellites can be blinded with lasers.  They are also vulnerable to hacking and many satellites are “riddled with security vulnerabilities.”

The thrill of the Apollo landings on the Moon resonates with all of us as Americans.  Most would agree that the human and financial capital investments were worth it.  But the next 50 years in space will not be dominated by the United States.  Private corporations and intense competition between nations are the new normal for space.  Space will no doubt become an extension of the pervasive depravity evidenced on planet Earth.  For that reason, it is difficult to be completely optimistic about the next 50 years in space.

See The Economist (20 July 2029), pp. 9, 18-20, 50-51 and 65-66.

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