Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
The Space Race Now and What it Means for Humanity
The Museum of Ideas: Conversations on the Blue Couch Series
Originally published on Medium January 22, 2021
By Shannon Mullen O'Keefe & Lakshmi Karan
“[Hemisphere] where the true Tract of this most surprising Zone of Light is distinguished amongst the principal Stars.” | Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe via Public Domain Review.
We are again on the cusp of a giant leap forward in possibilities for humanity.
Remember what a big deal it was way back on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? Americans put a flag on the moon and they left a sign there.
But, consider this.
Now there are people aiming to do a lot more than that in space and those who dominate space will probably hold a great deal of power for years to come.
So, it will matter to future generations of humans that we pay close attention to what is happening in space now.
The problem is that we’ve got our hands full down here on earth with things like the coronavirus and how many people will choose to get vaccinated for it and other things like the current state of politics, poverty, global warming, and the economy, so it is easy not to pay attention.
Even so, we must pay attention now.
We need to keep our eye on the ball — meaning the moon — and what is happening with regard to efforts to move beyond this sphere because it matters to humanity.
There is a space race again
We used to think of the space race as primarily a race between the United States and Russia. But that has changed.
Now the players are totally different. The players aren’t even government entities for the most part — they’re private sector actors.
A November 2020 Washington Post article describes the current players well — Elon Musk (SpaceX); Boeing Co.’s Starliner capsule; Axiom Space’s private orbiting space station (which has a plan to take a Japanese billionaire and his guests to outer space) and other players such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., and Blue Origin owned by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos.
If you are thinking, these guys sound familiar. . .you’re right. These guys also make the lists as some of the wealthiest people in the world.
And, as it turns out, they’re using some of their wealth to raise the bar on space travel. So while 2020 was a bleak year on Earth, it was a huge success for them up in space! (See Below: What’s Up in Space? Quick Resource Guide 2021.)
The space race is different than what it was before
So, the space race is different now. Now, private individuals fund really cool experiments and push boundaries — because they can.
And they probably also see the possibilities that space offers. With the capability of telescopes now humans can see that there are at least 100 billion galaxies.
100 billion galaxies!
This is a part of the problem — or — shall we say — opportunity.
There is a lot of unexplored territory in space which means there is a lot of possibilities. And, it seems like there is probably a lot of money to make up there in space.
Lots of it!
At least the investors think so.
The rush we are seeing from investors and the private sector is igniting a fully-fledged space economy.
According to Merrill Lynch, this space economy will be worth a staggering $3 trillion by 2050. “According to Merrill Lynch, this space economy will be worth a staggering $3 trillion by 2050.”
Remember the wild west?
The Davy Crocketts — or frontiersman like him— benefitted from a culture of minimal oversight — almost no ethical rules as they staked their claims on new territories.
It was a winner takes all and first-mover advantage type of deal.
Why does this matter?
So while most of the world is distracted with the day-to-day angst of political instability, economic insecurity, climate risks, and societal turmoil — a handful of people are setting the rules for our collective future.
It is really important that we all realize that while we’re standing in line waiting for an approved vaccine — decisions like who will own mining rights on the Moon might get made.
This is imminent.
This should scare some of us a little bit. It should be exciting, but it should also have us alert to what this all might mean.
We should be completely enthralled that human beings like Elon Musk and their teams have figured out starships that might in a year or two be taking one hundred metric tons on a six-day round trip to the moon from earth.
But — also wow — that it’s Elon and Jeff and Richard and the Japanese billionaire.
No offense to Elon or Jeff or the billionaire, we should all be grateful they’ve invested in the technologies — but also — we should be invested in helping to shape what they might be doing up there. After all — they are playing in our “universal commons.”
We shouldn’t wait for them to invite us into the conversation. Space belongs to each of us. If there is no seat at the table — we need to expand that table!
If we don’t, it’s kind of like signing off on Davy Crockett to make the laws of the west. For example, if there is water on the moon, humans might be able to live there for a long period of time.
We could make fuel there.
Robots can already excavate up there….and they are getting smart really fast! While that is amazing, the robots are full of artificial intelligence. They can scan the soil and do precision mining. And they can fix themselves. And talk to each other. (Lately, some of them have been dancing.) What happens when they start programming themselves? And what happens when they figure out how to procreate? They seriously might be able to create new versions of themselves!
Are Elon and Jeff and Richard and the Japanese billionaire tackling these questions for humanity? Remember this is all happening fast, and if you blink, it will all be over.
So, in the next article, we will tackle some of the questions that we need to be thinking about now.
If we view space as a clean slate, an opportunity to start anew, how might we ideally create things up there?
Let’s take this as an opportunity to share with Musk and Bezos how we might make the next frontier even better for humanity!
We have some thoughts on this topic. But we’d like to hear what you think we might do with a clean slate up in space?
What values should underpin human endeavors in space?
How might we ensure breakthrough technologies are developed responsibly? (While staying mindful to prevent unintended consequences.)
How can we ensure the healthy ecology of the space ecosystem?
How can the benefits from space development reach all humans equitably?
What types of governance models should we consider to reign in the wild west in space?
What should we ask our leaders to take charge of doing up there?
We’d love to hear what you have to think! How would you answer these questions? What other questions should we ask?
Please share your comments, questions, and solutions in the comments section so that we can read what you have to say.
Then, as we work on the next in this series we will consider your thinking and ours. Ad Astra!!
Shannon Mullen O’Keefe is a lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. I am an Interim Executive Director for a non-profit organization and Founder & Chief Curator |The Museum of Ideas. I’m also a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend and human being.
Lakshmi Karan is co-founder of Future Frontiers Institute, established to ensure sustainable, responsible, and equitable space development with a near-term focus on human settlements on the Moon. Leading with intellectual curiosity and deep empathy, Karan has helped global organizations set big visions and deliver large-scale social impact.
Photo of the Grove Juicery Couch by Shannon Mullen O’Keefe for The Museum of Ideas:Conversations on the Blue Couch Series