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The Need for Scientific Caution in the New Space Race

The Need for Scientific Caution in the New Space Race

On May 30th, 2020, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched from NASA’s facility at Cape Canaveral. Hidden in the roar of the thrusters was the crack of a starting gun for the second era of human expansion: The era of private crewed space exploration was on.

During the last era of expansion, voyagers like Zheng He, Vasco Da Gama, and Magellan leaned on territorial rulers for financial support. This set off a cascade of resource-hungry expeditions the aftermath of which we’re still sifting through today. SpaceX, on the other hand, has managed to raise $36 billion USD, primarily through private funding. If SpaceX were a country and its valuation were its GDP, it would have $4.5 million per person, an order of magnitude above the richest country, Luxembourg. They’ve raised the money by promising investors that they’ll turn a cargo transport business into something that will “enable the space flight capabilities necessary to make humans a multi-planetary species.”

This era is a complete rewrite of what the future looked like two decades ago, when NASA mothballed its crewed spaceflight program in the aftermath of the Columbia Shuttle disaster. In the early 2000s the national space program lacked a meaningful philosophical axis, and so everyone knew the end was coming. The Cold War was long gone, the US budget was deeply in the red, and taxpayers were questioning the value of the basic research that was being done on the ISS. The costs of crewed flight—both in terms of bodies and dollars—weren’t justifiable.

It’s clear that SpaceX investors feel otherwise, inspired by founder and CEO Elon Musk’s promise that they’ll be on the ground floor of an industry capable of minting the first trillionaires. But now that space exploration is in private hands, there’s serious concern among scientists that there may be more costs to crewed space flight than the ledgers reveal. Astrobiologists, like Dr. David Flannery, a research fellow at Queensland University and a contributor to the 2020 Perseverance Rover project, are worried that crewed spaceflight poses serious risks to the search for extraterrestrial life. Reached by phone he said, “as soon as humans come along, we’re going to contaminate the place. This is especially true if we start drilling into aquifers and places where there might be extant life today. We just don’t have the technology to do that without contaminating those environments.”

The concern is well reasoned. By some accounts, humans are more a holobiont—an assemblage between a host and the organisms within it—than we are a standalone organism. For every human cell in our bodies, we harbor at least 30 bacterial cells, as well as uncounted fungi and viruses. This microscopic zoo is necessary for everything from mental health to digestion, and so, because we don’t live in a Michael Crichton novel, astronauts can’t be completely sterilized of their microbial hitchhikers without going insane, getting sick, or even dying.

But the fact remains that, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, it is hard to consider heading into a revolutionary era of exploration without a scientist or two at the helm to direct and integrate the acquisition of knowledge. Broadly speaking, there are two obvious incentives for space developers to include a scientific voice. The first is that science is a powerful tool, maybe the most powerful one we know of, for innovation and progress. The second is that a systematic misunderstanding of extraterrestrial biology poses a serious risk of death, even extinction.

Let’s start with progress. Although science, in an ideal world, is limited to mechanistic proposals that explain how things work, it’s rare to find research into mechanism completely divorced from application. Instead, science is married to engineering, and understanding how things work is often put to work for humans in the form of new technology.

A great example of the synergy of science and industry is Pasteur’s work on the cause of fermentation. In The Enigma of Ferment, Ulf Lagerkvist illustrates how Pasteur and others painstakingly uncovered the biochemical mechanisms of fermentation through dogged pursuit of first principles. What he doesn’t mention is that much of Pasteur’s wealth came from brewers who hired him to prevent what he called the diseases of wine and beer. Pasteur got funding for his work, beer and wine brewers found out how to avoid spoilage, and fermentation was understood. Basic microbiological pursuit of mechanism has paid dividends to industry in the 150 years since Pasteur. Everything from food safety to artificial intelligence to biomimetic design has been driven by the symbiosis between science and engineering.

There are plenty of reasons to think that the biochemical knowledge buried beneath the Martian surface could spark a revolution in our understanding of life itself that’s even more influential than the elucidation of fermentation. Currently, all life on Earth that we’re familiar with is electrical, powered by redox gradients—a naturally occurring galvanic battery. However, cells could theoretically harvest any number of gradients—thermal, electromagnetic, or osmotic. If there is life on Mars, there’s no way to know how it works without careful study—which might itself lead to the development of yet-unknown technologies. The patents that can emerge from this kind of study are clear incentives for integrating assiduous science into industrial exploration.

But if at first you can’t incentivize with reason, then incentivize by facing death. The surface of a foreign planet is a dangerous place—not just for astronauts but for everyone back home who greets the astronauts or their potentially stealthy, live cargo. We’ve already got a Terran model for what first microbial contact looks like, and it isn’t pretty. In his work on the extent of pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas, historian Charles Mann relays how the New England of the 1610s was “thickly settled and well defended.”

But by 1619, “what had once been a line of busy communities was now a mass of tumbledown homes… scattered among the houses and fields were skeletons bleached by the sun.” In five years, the stretch of coast from southern Maine to Long Island was swept clean of 90 percent of its inhabitants by what is thought to have been a strain of viral hepatitis. There’s no reason to believe that a human excursion to Mars would be any different—except humanity itself might be the victim this time around. The continuation of humanity requires us to become interplanetary, and it is resource extraction that will pay for the journey. What we must wrestle with, at the edge of the epoch, is how to move into this era with agility and forethought, rather than stumbling blindly into the dark.

Operators like SpaceX are already using a transport-based business model in the form of commercial satellite launches or ferrying astronauts. As the industry evolves, the inevitable transition to space-mining will grease the wheels of progress. Potential reserves of lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, niobium, molybdenum, lanthanum, europium, tungsten, and gold promise a mineral rush the likes of which we’ve never seen. The only thing that’s holding us back from this bounty is a lack of infrastructure—a barrier SpaceX has already begun to dismantle.

Before that wall comes down completely, there has to be an analysis of the risks we undertake by excavating a place about which science knows almost nothing. There’s precedent for this. When humans invented cloning technologies in the late 1900s, biologists around the world set aside their tools until they could agree on ethical guidelines by which to proceed. Clearly, in the era of the first gene edited babies, things have gone off the rails a little bit, but it seems like this is the time to have a similar international conversation. Presently, we have the Outer Space Treaty, a mostly military agreement with only sparse and ambiguous references to mining and scientific compromise. The Antarctic Treaty of 1969 is a closer approximation of what is necessary, with some efforts paid to promote the sanctity of scientific research and collaboration.

Until science and industry can agree on what rational exploration looks like, development must be constrained by a single primary directive—avoid contamination at all costs. Though many scientists feel that a human presence is necessary for research, pointing to the 40 minute round trip for a radio signal between Earth and Mars, care should be taken to delay boots on the ground in foreign worlds. Moving too quickly risks making irreversible mistakes that our progeny will be untangling for centuries to come.

However, it’s clear that humans must travel with their experiments, as a 40 minute lag makes improvised control of robotics impossible. Especially once we turn our attention to remote worlds like Enceladus, a promising moon of Saturn that’s nearly a billion miles from Earth. Refusing to move in this direction would slow scientific progress and prove as unwise as unregulated expansion.

Stopping technological progress in the name of scientific exploration is unthinkable. At some point in the next 500,000 years our world will be threatened by an asteroid collision and off-Earth colonies present a genuinely necessary back-up plan. Likewise, finding ways to mine rare-earth metals that don’t tax our planet will be a remarkable advancement for the species. Such worthwhile goals might even serve as a cross-cultural rallying point. So then, how do we unify scientific and industrial progress?

First and foremost, there needs to be a moderated conversation between developers and studiers to settle the question of how to proceed. A reasonable compromise would be to develop a network of orbital research and development stations. It would allow space infrastructure to progress and would give scientists access to the worlds they’re studying, all while minimizing the risk of contamination. This way, development can work out the kinks while research settles the question of what awaits us on the surface. Industry will support the costs of building and maintaining infrastructure with the promise of mineral rights, and scientists will chart the unknown and keep the species safe.

If scientists have their way, we would creep onto other worlds with ballet slippers, rigorously careful not to disturb traces of a history that we can only begin to imagine. If the investors, upon whom the scientists depend, have their way, we would blast our way from planet to planet. Yet all acknowledge that science is largely responsible for our species’s recent ascension out of war, poverty, and chaos. If we fail to defer to objective science in space exploration, we will certainly suffer loss to our knowledge-base and consequently wager our quality and security of life as a species.


Michael Shilo DeLay completed his graduate work at Columbia University investigating the mechanics of nano-confined water.  

Anastasia Bendebury has a PhD in bacterial multicellularity. Together, the authors run Demystifying Science, an organization devoted to producing mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena. You can follow them on Twitter @Demystifysci.

Image: Mars Rover by Petr Kratochvil. 

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