Op-ed | Where Next, Columbus?
In the final days of 2014, a small group of under 30-year-olds in Mountain View, California, changed the way space exploration will be done forever. Behind closed doors, in a small mission operations room at NASA Research Park at historic Moffett Field, my colleagues and I at Made In Space emailed the first instructions to a 3-D printer on the International Space Station — commanding the printer to begin manufacturing the first object that our species has built off Earth.
This begins a new history in our ability to imagine, design, manufacture, develop and live in space. What used to take millions of dollars, thousands of employees, a huge supply chain and a launch complex can now be done with a computer and a handful of people. We can now virtually launch goods to space.
Made In Space proved that something once thought to be impossible without tens of millions of dollars and extensive contracting is in fact achievable at low cost in a short period of time — in the private sector or within a public-private partnership. Until recently, making huge accomplishments in space was reserved exclusively for the large aerospace corporations and heavily funded space companies on contract to the federal government. Space was not a place for young Silicon Valley startups working without venture funding. Now it has been proved that a small group of motivated individuals can move quickly on decade-long dreams for space.
Obviously, the concept of space manufacturing wasn’t created by Made In Space, but it was realized by this team in less than five years. Gerald O’Neill, the well-respected author of “The High Frontier,” explained space manufacturing in great detail, and the Space Studies Institute has held countless Space Manufacturing conferences during the past few decades. Meanwhile, NASA engineers have produced hundreds of journal papers and ground prototypes of space manufacturing concepts over the years.
But something was different this time. Real action was taken, showing that the concept of manufacturing in space could actually be done. Now the floodgates are open, which leaves me asking a very important question:
If one small group could do this, what could one large collective group do for space exploration? This is the voice of our generation.
The Evolution of Exploration
I would argue that NASA’s Apollo Program was the last time, perhaps the only time, that we saw a huge portion of the space community focus on a single goal. More than that, the entire nation was heavily focused in some way on the goal of landing humans on the moon. By the mid-1960s, NASA’s budget reached the highest level it has ever been, nearly 4.5 percent of the total federal budget. And while war times and the need to keep funding allocated to the large military contractors across the country accounted for most of the rationale for why Apollo was undertaken in the manner that it was, at that time there really was no alternative of a lower-cost method for achieving this goal of space exploration in just 10 years.
Today there are myriad methods. Exploration can be done by small groups of individuals in ways never before possible thanks to rapid advancements in technology. James Cameron’s mission to Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench proves this point. It was a record-breaking dive in a submersible that his team designed and built and for which many new systems needed to be invented — and it was accomplished through private money and funds raised from industry partners.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) hackers didn’t exist in the years of Apollo; in fact, the concept of an open source community and citizen scientists was anathema to the leaders, funders, inventors and developers of the 20th century. But DIY hacking is endemic to our generation — and a basic tool. DIY hackers are signals that in today’s widely connected world, with access to unprecedented amounts of valuable information, we as individuals and small groups have new untold powers to create new futures. What historically would have taken a presidential mandate and a huge portion of the national budget is now within our reach as individuals.
With these newfound ways for the individual to make radical course corrections to the future, we are now at a point in which true space colonization can begin. For the first time in history, it really seems like we have the ability to irreversibly leave this planet and colonize other worlds.
If we use Apollo as the marker of the possible of what a collective group can do for space exploration within one decade, and acknowledge that today, we as individuals and private groups have the power previously only held by nation-states, then we should be able to do something amazingly impactful for space exploration — now.
The settlement of space shouldn’t be a one-place-only destination. The moon, Mars and even city-size rotating space colonies have their merits. So I say when given a choice, choose them all!
This view is what leads me to the answer to the big question: As a collective whole, our goal for space colonization should be to spread outward from Earth and find ways to live wherever we go. We can settle these new worlds in the same manner that humans on any frontier have always found a solid rooting. In search of new opportunities, our tool set will enable us to “live off the land,” and we will create a system of trade with the developed world to supplement our basic standard of frontier living.
Life on the frontier has to pay for itself, and this will be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for space colonization. Long gone will be the days of the camping-trip-inspired version of space exploration that we have today. By living off the land, whether it is harvesting nickel-iron resources from asteroids or water from lakes on Enceladus, we will form an independence from Earth that will allow us to truly evolve into a multiplanet species.
I know that I am not alone in these thoughts, and that is why I say my generation is ready to truly explore and settle space. We see no need for any more flag-and-footprint exercises; this time we will go to stay.
Jason Dunn is co-founder and chief technology officer of Made In Space. In January, he and his colleagues were named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for their achievements of designing and operating the first space-based operational 3-D printer. He can be reached at @imjasondunn.