It's a bit of a strange thing to think about, but the Earth is going to die someday. Given enough years, nothing is permanent, and this beautiful rock we're riding around the universe is no exception.
And so we come to one of the biggest existential questions we can face: When do we leave Earth?
We are talking about huge timescales here—centuries, millennia, perhaps more—but it's not crackpottery. Smart minds have been discussing our need to expand for as long as we've looked at space as a legitimate frontier.
As Russian physicist and rocketry pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who died in 1935, once said, "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever."
Science fiction author Larry Niven perhaps put it best, as quoted by none other than Arthur C. Clarke in a 2001 Space Illustrated interview: "The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!"
A test mule of Moon Express's planned lunar lander. Image: Moon Express
The thing is, it's easy to talk about our need to expand beyond this planet—we've all seen Elon Musk, who hopes to eventually start a Mars settlement, drop the wonderful "Fuck Earth!" line—and it's another thing yet to actually, you know, fly a spaceship to another world and set up shop.
Space isn't cheap, and thus really spreading forth into the cosmos means figuring out how to pay for it. Here comes the good news: We're in the middle of a groundswell of space industry, led by major contractors and startups alike, which is aimed not only at space tourism or assisting NASA but at building entire economies that are based off Earth.
I first heard that Niven quote earlier this year, as paraphrased by Moon Express CEO Bob Richards. Richards's startup has about as ambitious an aim as you can expect: The company plans on mining the Moon for resources. It doesn't stop there: Moon Express also hopes to process lunar water deposits into rocket fuel for further exploration.
It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi, but Moon Express is far from alone in the space resources game. And one of the startup’s neighbors at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, has an idea of what to do with all that Moon stuff: A startup called Made in Space hopes to open up a new world of extraterrestrial roboticized manufacturing.
Made in Space has already sent a zero-gravity 3D printer to the International Space Station, which they hope will revolutionize the space-borne supply chain. Instead of bringing spares for every single thing to the ISS—which is costly, but you can't exactly drive to the widget store when you're orbiting the Earth—Made in Space hopes that its 3D printers will provide more flexible backups for simple parts.
Essentially, by sending a printer and printing material to the ISS, Made in Space will be able to send objects to the ISS by emailing design files, which is far faster and cheaper than the current option of launching an entire rocket.
Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever
It's an impressive vision on its own, as cutting out Earth-to-orbit shipping is a major step towards cutting costs for space travel. But if you put their visions together, Moon Express and Made in Space shed light on the steps we need to take to actually build Moon factories and Mars bases. Moon Express hopes to be able to process resources on site (on whatever planet that might be), while Made in Space hopes to develop and ship entire automated manufacturing facilities to foreign worlds. Oh, and they'll ideally self-replicate, too.
The two companies remain independent in their goals, other startups might find more success, and yes, we're still a couple decades out for the grand concept here. But the two are illustrative of just how the future may play out: Companies mining the Moon for resources will deliver those goods to off-world manufacturers to build the basic infrastructure for incoming space colonists. It's indicative of just how compelling the space startup world is right now, and the even crazier thing is that, for as out there as the vision is, there's no shortage of entrepreneurs and investors who believe that it can all actually happen.
It's very early days yet, and it's impossible to predict how the next decade or two is going to shake out. As this week's Antares rocket explosion showed, space is really hard, and it's also extremely visible—one big Moon disaster would rock the whole industry. And yet for all the hurdles ahead, the dream of humans becoming a multi-planet species has never seemed closer.
Watch more space videos on Motherboard:
- Mars on Earth
- Space Shuttle Parking Lot
- Inside NASA's Last Undersea Mission to Save Earth from an Asteroid, with Neil deGrasse Tyson
- Spaced Out: Season One