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Astrozoic Era
The “Astrozoic Era” marks the beginning of humanity living beyond the Earth. (credit: P. Smith)

The Astrazoic Eon

When ISS Expedition One, carrying William Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko, and Sergei Krikalev, soared into space from the steppes of Kazakhstan on October 31, 2000, they pulled behind them the curtain on an eon that has lasted 542 million years. As the three men entered an infant space station still under construction, six billion citizens went about their business like any other day. Perhaps a few million people tapped into the Internet or turned on the television, temporarily fascinated by the idea of a unique group of roommates sizing up a celestial domicile. Several thousand might have sensed that a new stage of space exploration had been reached, that soon, finally, we would send our own kind to the Moon and beyond. I would guess, however, that only a handful fully recognized the implication of Expedition One: from now on, life will begin to survive, grow, and evolve off the Earth. As soon as those men lifted off the pad on a pillar of fire as bright as the Sun, the Phanerozoic Eon came to an end, and the Astrazoic Eon dawned.

In practical terms, this means very little to most people. However, it really should mean something to our nation’s leaders, because recognizing the beginning of a revolution in thought is the essence of vision, and vision is essential to leadership. For the first time, life is poised to leave the Earth for permanent residence in space. This represents the most significant biological event since the emergence of life itself about four billion years ago. A leader who recognizes this can more aptly produce a policy that will guide us into space.

The big picture

Many organisms exhibit a behavior called motility. Single-celled creatures, insects, birds, whales, and humans move about for all sorts of reasons. Some are slow, others fast. Some travel a few millimeters in their lifetimes, others thousands of miles. We will ultimately traverse light years. When a population of organisms moves, the phenomenon is called migration. The migration can be cyclical, but often it is not. For human populations, migration can be described as occurring in waves: exploration, pioneering, and settlement. In general, these characteristics of migration have taken place throughout recorded history, and significant evidence exists to show that our Paleolithic ancestors shared these behaviors.

For the first time, life is poised to leave the Earth for permanent residence in space. This represents the most significant biological event since the emergence of life itself about four billion years ago.

Space is an infinite territory into which humans will migrate in the millennia to come. This territory will challenge our sense of all four dimensions across countless ecological niches, introducing opportunities to explore new forms of resource utilization, political institutions, technology, art, and philosophy. Human beings need new opportunities in order to grow and survive, and this is precisely what space provides.

The first wave of migration, consisting of explorers and their machines, will take place as relatively small numbers seek enlightenment, wealth, prestige, and other pursuits. Some never return from their adventures, and others return to tell fantastic stories that inspire those inclined to follow. Successful explorers open doors to the inspired: pioneers. Pioneers, a strong and courageous group key to laying the foundation of robust communities, are more interested in finding the freedom and liberty to build a better or at least different life from the one they leave behind. Finally, as fledgling communities of pioneers find an anchor, more risk-averse settlers enter the scene. Settlers and colonists, including a whole range of experts, professions, and skills, will constitute the bulk of activity in space, particularly those dedicated to commercial pursuits. Eventually, mature societies form, establishing new forms of government, systems of economy, and self-defense. I suspect that this evolution into a larger, more complex civilization will also include a good measure of criminal activity and destructive intraplanetary (and ultimately interplanetary) policy, developments necessitating the establishment of security forces and, eventually, militaries.

By now, it will be obvious to the reader that the content of this essay will border on the esoteric, lacking that practical approach sought by those looking for the magic bullet (sometimes called the “killer app” or “unobtainium”) that will somehow open the gates to interplanetary migration. However, this “big picture” approach is necessary to developing a strategic plan or overarching “architecture,” though it seems few have the inclination or imagination to think big. The benefit of big picture thinking is relatively simple to identify. Think of accessing and utilizing space as consisting of a train riding a set of tracks. In this metaphor, the individual train cars represent specific programs, like a new satellite or a new launch vehicle. The train tracks represent a vision that has been translated into a strategic plan leading to some destination, or goal. Without the tracks, the train cars go nowhere. I believe our nation’s leadership has not developed an adequate set of tracks, and instead consistently pursues programs without direction. Despite my focus on the big picture, I do offer a few recommendations of a practical nature.

Exploring space

Migration often begins when the occasional human sets off on a journey of exploration, a sometimes-dangerous exercise usually undertaken by the eccentric few. In modern times, and especially in the case of space exploration, such endeavors are conducted by the government or funded by a wealthy sponsor because the risk and cost are simply too high for the private and communal sectors. For the United States, NASA is officially tasked by the federal government with exploring space. Upon detailed analysis, NASA’s Cold War genesis betrays its true nature—to conduct a high-stakes technology battle in an effort to prove a capitalistic society can beat a communist one when it comes to extremely complex public endeavors. For the United States, the effort was also an excellent attempt to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Since landing men on the Moon from 1969 to 1972, NASA has suffered from a sort of troubled adolescence begun with Skylab and ending with the directionless shuttle and ISS programs. Today, the agency suffers from the same identity crisis that all Industrial Era organizations do: the realization that they are obsolete.

The U.S. Government could fund and order Lewis and Clark to explore the West, but it could not pay or force pioneers to settle the region.

As a taxpayer and adherent to the belief that it is appropriate for the US Government to be responsible for space exploration and high-cost, high-risk astronautical research and development, I recommend the following. NASA should be split into two distinct agencies, one dedicated to astronautical research and development and the other focused on aeronautical pursuits. These agencies would have a similar mission to that of the former National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), whose purpose was to research, develop, test, and evaluate engineering concepts to support public and commercial interests of the nation in aviation and eventually space technology. The new agencies would be customers for commercial entities providing transportation and other services on Earth and in space, following a tradition that a government organization should not provide a service that can be provided by the private sector. All space science missions should be handled by an organization like the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Earth monitoring, already handled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), should continue unchanged in terms of organizational responsibilities.

Pioneering and settling space

Pioneering follows behind exploration, but only if exploration uncovered something that can be exploited in some way. This potential may go untapped for a significant amount of time, either because explorers and pioneers do not recognize a latent opportunity or because the technology needed to extract and utilize a resource is simply not available. Pioneers will attempt to seek economic gain while living in difficult circumstances. These people and their machines will be motivated not only because of their rugged character, but also by government incentives and private sponsorship.

Beginning with pioneers, the bulk of activity in space will be commercial in nature. I quote a statement from Robert Bigelow, who says it best: “The U.S. Government could fund and order Lewis and Clark to explore the West, but it could not pay or force pioneers to settle the region. Governments do have an important role to play in creating an environment conducive to space development, but it is the pioneering entrepreneurs, not the soldiers or bureaucrats, who can take and colonize a new frontier.” Money and the acquisition of things are prime motivators for pioneers and eventually settlers, though by no means are they the only push-factors in migration.

The term “commercial” is understood to describe a free market (or capitalist) system defined by Adam Smith and subsequently practiced in ever-evolving forms in the United States and other countries. A free market system is as essential to the health of a democratic republic as a constitution drafted to protect the rights of its citizens because it promotes innovation and change. A free market system is largely self-regulating and provides the best environment for promotion of opportunity, excellence, personal growth, and freedom of expression. It is a self-sustaining force with the necessary amount of motivation, guile, and passion to tame the challenges of interplanetary space. Curiosity and the desire to explore, while powerful motivators for some individuals and critical to the overall process of migration, are minor motivators on the scale of civilization. A free market system, when supported by a representative democratic style of government, will be the true sustainer of human exploration and exploitation of the solar system. It is important to remember that space is not at all different than Earth when it comes to economic potential. The differences lie in magnitude.

Instead of a vast, unsustainable government-only initiative to send people to the Moon and Mars, the White House should have drafted a space economic development plan.

One of the government’s legitimate roles, working closely with industry partners, is to enable free markets to gain a foothold and prosper, to seed commercial activity when free enterprise cannot do it on its own. Then, when markets flourish, the government stands back and only provides those services deemed appropriate by the people, like keeping the peace, regulation of certain markets, licensing, and so on. These roles are ideally suited for the Departments of Transportation and Commerce. The former already has a specific role, in the form of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, located within the Federal Aviation Administration. The Department of Commerce, on the other hand, barely has a presence related to commercial space activities, a situation that I think requires a good deal of attention from interested parties. In essence, promotion and other forms of support for existing and emerging commercial space activities have no representative in the federal government.

The President unveiled a “new” space vision in 2004 that seemed eerily similar to the 1961 vision that spurred our race against the Soviets to land a man on the Moon, only without the eloquent language. Instead of a vast, unsustainable government-only initiative to send people to the Moon and Mars, the White House should have drafted a space economic development plan. An economic plan includes a broad spectrum of sectors and is likely to be supported by a greater number of Americans because it represents a strategy of investment implicitly involving all interested and capable citizens, not just the few elite. A plan dedicated to exploration and scientific discovery (apparently the driving force behind the President’s current plan) is only part of the big picture, and not the motivating force of the majority.

The military in space

The military will not find its true role in space until we have people and extensive assets in orbit and among celestial bodies. It attempts to find its role every year—and has tried to for several decades, in fact—but to no avail. What it has come up with are new methods of enabling more efficient terrestrial-based warfare. A popular, and amusing, misconception among those in the Pentagon is the belief that the First Gulf War in 1991 represented the first “space war.” For me, a space war will be one involving assets controlled from at least one non-terrestrial location in an effort to affect a political change related to a non-terrestrial dispute. One day, then, when people interact on more sophisticated levels in space, the military will find its role, perhaps tracing its origin with the first person authorized to use force as a method to suppress group conflict (for example, a security chief aboard a space station). Conflict, one should be reminded, is part of who we are and is, in fact, an essential component in the evolution of species. We forget this, I think, because the dramatic destructive power we can wield often blinds us to the underlying normal behaviors that emerge when two or more organisms interact. In sum, weapons, and the violence that often ensues, can be expected to follow our good intentions as we migrate into space.

Unity of vision

Because of the complexities and interest groups involved, the President requires a single-point contact for space issues covering national security concerns, economic development, international cooperation, and infrastructure. Such an individual, a senior space policy advisor to the President, would be responsible for directing a consistent approach for the execution of the nation’s public space activities while carrying out its appropriate role in supporting, promoting, protecting, and to a limited extent regulating commercial space activities. This advisor, the chief space representative for the United States, would also coordinate relationships with international space organizations. Military space activities should be differed to the armed forces, but there are certainly opportunities for cooperation as new technologies and processes emerge.

Catching the wave

I wanted to write this essay because I found myself revisiting two questions recently. First, I wanted to find the deep-down-in-the-gut reason why space is important to me. Why is it my soul is stirred when I look up at the stars in the evening sky or stare obsessively at images downloaded from probes around the solar system? What could it be about the vast, terrifyingly empty universe that energizes me more than the deep blue seas and lush green forests of Earth? Like a hit on the head, the answer struck me one night: Because our greatest days lie ahead. The future activities of our species, I’m reasonably sure, will take place across tens of thousands of years, and the vast majority of our distant descendents will live their lives among the worlds of our solar system and those beyond.

The second question, perhaps more important to me than the philosophically loaded question above, is this: What must we do now to lay the foundation from which a space-faring civilization can grow? Put another way, today we are just entering space. At some point in the future, most of us feel in our loins that our descendents will live, work, and play in space with the same cavalier attitude with which we conduct our lives today on Earth. How do we bridge these two states? How do we go from where we are to where we believe we will go?

What must we do now to lay the foundation from which a space-faring civilization can grow? How do we go from where we are to where we believe we will go?

The answer to the second question is probably too much for one person to answer in detail. But from a big picture standpoint, bridging the gap between a time when we are taking tentative steps into space to a robust spacefaring civilization spanning 20 billion kilometers in the future seems ironically simple for me. By looking into the distant past and taking into account why organisms and populations do what they do, then studying human history in sufficient detail to identify key developmental milestones, I feel a light has been shown through the dark hallway that is the unknown of the future. Glints of what lie ahead reveal themselves enough to convince me that space will eventually become our new home. In other words, the past, present, and future seem to merge into a complete story, though only the chapter headings of the future can be read with any clarity.

I also feel that together we are like a surfer on a beach watching the horizon for that perfect wave. We think we can see the wave and are making off to intercept it. If we stumble and miss the wave, it may take a long time to find the next one. If we catch it, the potential to expand the biosphere beyond Earth to the rim of the solar system and beyond can be realized.


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