Fight or Flight: Climate Change and the New Age Space Race


Photo courtesy of Blue Origin

Blue Origin sketches of self-sustaining space civilizations.

For a millennia, humans have often wondered about, admired and been puzzled by outer space. We’ve written books, made movies and composed music about the wonders of space and all of the mystery that comes with it. The vibrant colors and planets, the bright stars lighting up the atmosphere, the fully functioning Death Star posing an intimidating figure around neighboring planets (okay, maybe that was more of a recent fascination, but still) — the possibilities are endless. This makes the current situation we face all the more interesting, dare I say even ironic, as the end of our own planet (at least as we know it), might be closer than we think.

The ins and outs of the science behind climate change and global warming are, has and will continue to be quite complicated. This is especially true when it comes to the environment and politics, as the two major American political parties have vastly different stances on the issue, which has caused American public opinion to be filled with extremes and inaccuracies about the facts of global warming. This is why the United Nations called together an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018, made up of the world’s top scientists, politicians and diplomats, in order to set the record straight. 

According to the panel’s findings, the Earth (at its current rate as of 2018) is warming up at approximately 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. Humans have caused about a singular degree of warming since pre-industrial levels, and we are almost certain to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, even with potential action. That might not seem like a lot, but if the Earth reaches approximately two degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels, potentially catastrophic events are likely to ensue. Researchers predict disasters such as mass flooding and extreme weather conditions will ravage the Earth. 

Many readers might be wondering how to combat this. The answer is simple, yet complex: we have to start cutting carbon and greenhouse gases. Much of this has been known to the American public, as President Biden has made it one of his key initiatives to go carbon neutral by 2050, as well as to halve carbon emissions by 2035. Yet, the sheer amount of work and resources needed to cut carbon emissions (which remain fairly important to our global economy) would be massive. This is just one reason why many have looked to space for answers: to search for a new planet to call home. 

The quest to expand our access to life beyond Earth is reminiscent of another time in our history, just over half a century ago, when President John F. Kennedy led the United States in competition with the Soviet Union to land a man on the moon. Presently, the new-age space race is spearheaded by billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, each at the helm of a major aerospace company. Musk is the CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., more commonly known as SpaceX, and Bezos is the founder of Blue Origin Federation, LLC. 

Recently, it appears that SpaceX has pulled ahead as the preeminent player in the aerospace industry. In April, NASA announced that SpaceX will be the sole company working in tandem with NASA to build the next moon-landing vehicle. Prior to this announcement, it seemed that NASA would be working with two companies as opposed to just one. Bezos, unsurprisingly, didn’t take the news well; Blue Origin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office in response to the decision. Does this conflict — this time a battle between American corporations — mark the beginning of the 21st-century space race? What does it mean to put our hopes for interplanetary travel in the hands of innovators such as these?

For Musk, now among the most famous names in the space business since Neil Armstrong or Ziggy Stardust, it means the possibility of humans landing on Mars by 2026. He announced this lofty ambition in late 2020, drawing both support and skepticism. It may sound premature, but it’s not too early to begin considering what human life in space could look like.

A near-future in space may include colonies of humans living and working in contained buildings and vehicles to survive the currently uninhabitable foreign planet climate conditions. In 2019, Bezos proposed a plan that involved constructing massive indoor moon colonies, large enough to house a million people each and engineered to include everything from hills to lakes to artificial gravity. 

On the other hand, Musk’s plan for Mars entailed humans living in glass dome structures alongside an attempt to terraform Mars itself, using nuclear weapons to alter the planet’s climate and natural resources. A colony on the moon, or on Mars, could allow all or at least some humans to live and function in a place besides Earth. 

By establishing businesses and industries that operate on the moon or on another planet, we can potentially take the pressure off of saving Earth. Furthermore, developing the proper technology to establish life on a planet like Mars will equip us to do so on other solid planets should we ever need to expand further. We, as a species, can stop depending on what scientists often call a dying planet and quite literally broaden our horizons.

If Musk’s goal of mankind reaching Mars does happen in just five years, this could hypothetically start the transition to a new era — one where the longevity of Earth is no longer a concern and where we instead focus our resources on colonizing elsewhere. However, landing humans on the Red Planet is only the first step.

Will Mars become a playground for the extremely wealthy and affluent? Would there be a global outcry if there is a price tag on Mars that could only be met by the rich, and the rest of humanity is forced to die with the planet?

In order to officially evaluate the possibility of creating human colonies in space, there are several factors to consider and questions that we must ask. For example: How much would a human colony on Mars cost? In order to put humans back on the moon, which is less than 250,000 miles away, NASA estimates that it would need around $30 billion. 

Now let’s go back to Mars, which is 140 million miles away from Earth on average (due to planetary orbits around the sun, the distance could be up to 250 million miles). When applied to Mars, it is safe to assume that the moon estimation is going to skyrocket, considering that Musk estimates about a third of the entire moon mission budget will be needed for a Mars spacecraft alone. 

Another important question must be raised: is it possible to establish a sustainable food source on another planet? There are numerous questions that are yet to be answered here. On Earth, we grow crops through agricultural practices that involve fertile soil, water, sunlight and oxygen. Let’s assume that we can easily transport water and create livable habitats on the surface of Mars where there is oxygen circulation. Can we sustain plant life using solar energy on Mars considering the greater radius to the sun than that of what we have here on Earth? If we can’t, what other food options do we have? How much food can we transport from Earth to Mars, and how long would the supply last if these sources are not sustainable? 

Another notable gray area lies in who the passengers to Mars will be. It is safe to assume that the first voyage (or several voyages) will be composed of scientists who will establish the colony. After the colony is established and proven safe, who will be the next to go? Musk estimates that the cost of transport for each person will be somewhere in the six-figure range. Is this price range realistic? The only assumption is that the price will increase from this range. Will Mars become a playground for the extremely wealthy and affluent? Would there be a global outcry if there is a price tag on Mars that could only be met by the rich, and the rest of humanity is forced to die with the planet? How many people will be able to be transported at one time? How many materials can we transport in one trip? How many people can a Mars colony support? Are there possibilities for industry on Mars and in space? What will happen in the event of an unforeseen error or emergency? Will there be civilian colonizers willing to take the “giant leap for mankind,” considering that Musk predicts that “a bunch of people will probably die” in the process of colonization? These are just a mere fraction of the questions that need to be answered. 

In summation, the prospect of space colonization is really cool to think about. Just the fact that we can consider creating habitats on non-native planets a possibility is incredible, and it shows how far advanced we are scientifically. However, there are still countless important questions that need to be answered. The slightest miscalculation on these missions could lead to the loss of human life. And most importantly, we still have Earth. 

If we take the proper steps to protect our Earth now, we can preserve life on this planet for generations to come and we won’t need to rely on Musk and Bezos. We need to cut our emissions and preserve biodiversity on Earth in order to curb the effects of climate change before they become irreversible. If we act strongly now, there is still time to save our home planet.

It is fun to gaze at the infinite, complex and beautiful night sky wondering “what if…,” but for the moment it should stay a “what if.” There is too much important and tangible work to be done here on the homefront, and too many questions to be answered about our future in space to make a concrete conclusion today. 

Yet, as we tackle our environmental crisis at home as our main focus, we should continue to stargaze, ask questions and ponder the possibility of a future among the stars.