What if There Can Be a Better Us in Space?

The Space Race Now and What it Means for Humanity

By Shannon Mullen O’Keefe M.A.L.D. & Lakshmi Karan Ph.D.

“[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.

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.)

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.

“An Observation I made myself, of a bright Part of this Zone near the Feet of Antinous which, (by a Mistake of the Engraver) is, as it appears through a Tube of two convex Glasses.” | Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe via Public Domain Review.

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?

Davy Crockett?

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.

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?

Images from Johann Zahn’s Oculus Artificialis (1685) | via Public Domain Review.

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

Quick Resource Guide: What’s Up in Space 2021?

By Lakshmi Karan

Note: One can say the space sector is moving at warp speed! So by the time, this goes into publication many new achievements may have topped this list. Keep your eye on space!

  • NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) partners with Russia to send U.S. astronauts up to space.
  • In 2020, this changed and NASA’s human spaceflight program scored several wins with Demo-2 and Crew-1 missions. Now American astronauts no longer rely on Russia for space missions.
  • SpaceX plans to continue flying crewed missions to the International Space Station in 2021.
  • Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is also scheduled to conduct a test flight this tyear and a possible crewed flight.
  • India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission plans to attempt a lander in 2021. Its orbiter launched in 2019 and now circles the Moon.
  • Other 2021 lunar expeditions to watch for — Astrobotic may fly its Peregrine lander on a United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, carrying both NASA and private payloads to the Moon.
  • Intuitive Machines plans to fly its Nova-C lander to the Moon on a Falcon 9 rocket. It will carry several NASA and commercial payloads to the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon.
  • Three Mars missions launched from Earth during the summer of 2020; all three are now approaching the red planet.
  • The United Arab Emirates’ Mars Hope, is due to arrive on February 9.
  • China’s Tianwen-1 mission will arrive around mid-February and plans to land in the Utopia Planitia region.
  • NASA’s Mars Perseverance will likely attempt a landing in Jezero Crater on February 18.
  • Besides the rover, NASA has also included a drone helicopter called Ingenuity on the mission, in a test of whether it can fly in the thin Martian atmosphere, 99 percent less dense than Earth’s.
  • SpaceX has been making steady progress with its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket with rapid iterations and successful tests in 2020.
  • The company is targeting its first commercial mission of Starship in 2021 — to carry 20 metric tons of cargo into space and over 100 tons to low Earth orbit. With the eventual goal to ferry payloads and passengers to the moon and Mars.
  • Reusing rockets has become the norm, thanks to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. In 2020 it flew the first stage several times and plans to repeat that amazing feat nearly 10 times in 2021!
  • SpaceX is also planning to fly multiple Falcon Heavy (aka “world most powerful operational rocket”) missions this year.
  • Several Chinese companies are experimenting with rocket reuse, along with the Chinese Space Agency’s Long March 8 rocket may see successes this year.
  • United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, a heavy-lift launch vehicle, is designed for interplanetary space missions and US Space Force military payloads with high energy orbits as it can place payloads into extremely precise orbits and trajectories.
  • Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2021. A massive vehicle named after pioneering astronaut John Glenn, this rocket is capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond — think of it like creating a “road to space”.
  • Japan’s H3 booster and Europe’s Ariane 6 was scheduled for 2021 but might be delayed into 2022 due to COVID issues. The H3 hopes to deliver more than 6000 kg of payload to the lunar transfer orbit. Ariane 6 hopes to offer “rideshare missions to the Moon” by 2023!
  • 2021 may see commercial suborbital spaceflight successes from both Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s company) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’ company). If the test flights of SpaceShipTwo go as planned Virgin Galactic plans to open up for paying customers. You can travel to the edge of space and back for around $250,000 a ride.
  • Blue’s New Shepard test-launched just once in 2020 but hopes remain high that it is close to flying passengers into space towards the end of 2021.
  • And a Japanese billionaire has already paid to ride SpaceX’s to be the first commercial tourist to the Moon.
  • Once we have reliable, reusable rockets, commercial spaceflight companies are preparing to enter a new market: suborbital flights from one place to another on Earth. Aiming for fast transportation for passengers and cargo, these systems are being developed by a combination of established companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, and new ones like Astra.
  • LA to Toronto in 24 mins! London to Dubai in 30 mins! Anywhere on Earth under 1 hour!!

A lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. Founder & Chief Curator |The Museum of Ideas https://www.themuseumofideas.com/

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