Skip to content

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Humanity and the Final Frontier.

· 20 min read
Should We Stay or Should We Go?
Stanley Kubrick's A Space Odyssey, (1968)

In the early hours of November 16th, 2022, after two previous attempts were scratched, NASA’s Artemis I mission took flight from Cape Canaveral. The mission, flown by the Orion spacecraft and powered into orbit by the Space Launch System (SLS), was in space for 25.5 days and covered 1.3 million miles. The main goal was to orbit the Moon to gather data and to test systems. Orion spent a couple of weeks in what’s called “distant retrograde orbit” which balances the gravitational pull of the Earth and Moon (enabling minimal fuel usage) before heading 40,000 miles past the Moon. No astronauts were aboard, only three mannequins to test the effects of radiation on the new Orion Crew Survival System suit (two of the mannequins were modeled with female anatomy), Amazon’s Alexa, a few toys, and a variety of plant and tree seeds.

At 32 stories and 2.6 million kg for 8.8 million lbs of thrust, the SLS was the most powerful rocket ever built (at least until SpaceX’s Starship’s maiden voyage in April 2023 with 16.7 million lbs of thrust). It carried a secondary payload of ten mini satellites, called CubeSats, that were launched to carry out various science missions. One of these made seven orbits of the Moon, scanning for water and soil; another hunted for hydrogen which possibly could be used for future rocket fuel; another landed on the Moon to test surface radiation. Upon returning to Earth, the spacecraft performed a new maneuver called a “skip entry,” initially plunging to an altitude of 61,000 m, then rolling 180 degrees (future astronauts would be upside down at that point) changing its center of gravity. This caused the ship to skip off the atmosphere and bounce back to 99,000 m, then resuming its descent. The goal is a more precise landing.

The point of all this is supposed to be what comes next. Artemis 2, scheduled for launch in 2024, is slated to have astronauts orbit the Moon for the first time since 1972. This is to be followed by Artemis 3 a year or two later, which will land humans on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17, again in 1972 (the crew will include the first woman to step foot on the Moon). Eventually, NASA’s target is roughly one Artemis mission a year with the aim of establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon. This includes a plan for a lunar space station called Gateway to be completed later this decade. “After 50 years, we’re going back to the Moon but this time to stay,” says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. All of this is being undertaken with an eye on the ultimate prize: a trip to Mars and perhaps the beginning of a permanent human presence on the Red Planet.

From a purely practical standpoint, the Artemis program has its critics. The idea of returning to the Moon goes back some time. Under the Bush II administration, the initiative was dubbed the Constellation program with a new heavy-duty rocket named Ares V. NASA spent years working on the program, including the Orion and Ares V. However, the Constellation fell behind schedule and ran heavily over-budget by the time Barack Obama assumed office. The program was iced in 2010 and the Orion money was shuttled into other NASA projects, including the International Space Station.

Predictably, Congress—particularly representatives from states where there are space-centric jobs such as Texas, Alabama, and Florida, though money is spent in all 50 states and Puerto Rico—fought to restore the funding for SLS and Orion. The Obama administration relented somewhat. Constellation was still dead and the Moon was still off the table. Instead, the administration proposed an unmanned spacecraft flying to an asteroid and towing it to the Moon so that astronauts could explore it. This proposal was called the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The new rocket that would get the astronauts there was not Ares V but the intentionally duller-sounding SLS. It was the Trump administration that cancelled ARM and restored the Moon as the first location of SLS and Orion, naming the program Artemis, after the sister of Apollo.

Meanwhile, the same period saw the emergence of private space companies including Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and especially SpaceX. Blue Origin and SpaceX argue over which company accomplished the reusable rocket first, but it is SpaceX, through reusable rockets and vertical integration, that has substantially lowered the cost of spaceflight. Between 1970 and 2000, the cost to launch a kilogram to space remained steady at an average of $18,500 per kilogram.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has substantially reduced the price, perhaps by as much as ten times.

All told, NASA has spent more than $40 billion, way over the original budget projection, to get Artemis off the ground. SLS rockets are not reusable and currently cost $2 billion each (though defenders argue the price will drop as expertise in building them grows). A 2021 audit projects that, by the end of 2025, the cost of the Artemis program will reach $93 billion, some $25 billion over NASA estimates. SpaceX is contracted by NASA to build the Moon lander on future Artemis missions. However, critics claim that NASA, beholden as it is to political pork projects, isn’t getting enough bang for its buck and that its money is better spent on more novel private-public partnerships.

The greater question is, of course, the ultimate point. Obviously, we are more knowledgeable now about the Moon than in 1969, which makes for fascinating explorations regarding, for example, the amount of water on the surface, particularly in the frozen poles, that can be potentially harvested for drinking, breathable oxygen, or rocket fuel for further exploration. NASA recently announced plans to explore lunar mining. Still, some space enthusiasts don’t seem overly excited about Artemis. After all, in the short-term at least, it seeks to repeat something that was achieved over 50 years ago. And in the years since, about two dozen spacecraft from various countries have visited the Moon. Then there is the International Astronautical Congress, which is arguing that Venus—despite its hellish environment, including a surface hot enough to melt lead that makes surviving a landing impossible—should be the initial target for a crewed mission to another planet, via a fly-by.

There appears to be a growing consensus that NASA lost its focus to some extent, particularly regarding human space exploration, in the years after the Apollo missions. Consider the initial burst of space activity that lasted roughly a quarter-century, from the launch of the German V-2 in the early 1940s through Sputnik in 1957 to the Apollo Moon landings. Space thinker Dandridge M. Cole published a book in 1965 titled Beyond Tomorrow: The Next 50 Years in Space, in which he projected that there would be large colonies on the moons of the outer solar system by 2015. Instead, NASA faced declining budgets and a lack of political support.

Actually, ambivalence about the importance of space exploration was evident among the US political class even at the height of the Space Race. President Eisenhower was at Camp David when news arrived that the Sputnik launch had been successful. Eisenhower didn’t even feel compelled to return to Washington and sent a note of congratulations to the Soviets. Even after President Kennedy set the goal of landing on the Moon, recordings reveal him saying to NASA Administrator James Webb in November 1962 that if we can’t beat the Russians “we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this amount of money, because I’m not that interested in space.” By 1963, he was openly discussing cooperation with the Soviets. Barry Goldwater lambasted the Apollo project as a grand waste of money and probably would have cancelled it had he been elected president in 1964. Gallup polls at the time showed that a majority of Americans felt the same way; only 35 percent thought going to the Moon was worth the cost in 1965. By 1969, it was still just 51 percent. Clearly, if the Soviets were attempting a journey to the center of the Earth, the race would have gone in that direction rather than to the heavens.

NASA’s response to its declining standing was to invest in a reusable space transportation system to lower costs—the Space Shuttle. Approved for construction in 1972, the first Shuttle launch took nine years to happen. The Space Shuttle project never ended up being cheap. NASA spent approximately $4 to $5 billion a year in operations. Nor was it especially reliable. The worst two NASA accidents, the Challenger and Columbia flights, were both Space Shuttles. When the Shuttle program was retired ahead of schedule in 2011, NASA was forced to hitch rides on Russian rockets for trips to the International Space Station (ISS) until the emergence of SpaceX. In 2020, NASA paid Russia up to $90 million.

If space exploration presents a sort of boom-and-bust cycle, we seem to be at the beginning of another boom. There is the innovation of the private space industry, though in the short-term it is hard to see anything other than near-Earth orbit activity being profitable. Funding will still be a public endeavor. It is also quite possible that geopolitics will again emerge as an organizing principle. With the recent completion of the Taingong Space Station, it is safe to say that China is now a major space power. With ISS being slated for retirement in 2030, it is possible that Taingong may soon be the lone space station in Earth’s orbit for a while (NASA is investing in a few private partnerships to replace ISS with possible launch before ISS is retired).

In January 2019, China landed the first spacecraft ever on the dark side of the Moon. The country also has plans for a Moon base within the next decade, at which it plans to deploy a telescope with 3000 times the field of view of the Hubble. China has its eye on Mars as well. It isn’t hard to find voices warning that the US again risks “falling behind’” in a space race. In August 2022, the Pentagon predicted that China would surpass American capabilities in space as soon as 2045. And China is hardly the only other country with an expanding space program. The United Arab Emirates became the fifth country to reach Mars with its Hope satellite. India just became the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon, and the first to land on the moon’s southern pole. Whether collaboration or cut-throat competition or something in between will dominate the epoch’s space exploration remains to be seen.

Still, there remains the question of the point of all these efforts. If polls are to be believed, the general public is more concerned about global warming and killer asteroids than space exploration. A 2019 Ipsos poll, commissioned by C-SPAN to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, found that only eight percent of respondents thought going back to the Moon should be a top US priority. Only 18 percent thought a human mission to Mars a top priority while 52 percent favored satellite monitoring of environmental changes on Earth as a top priority.

NASA did recently have success with the DART mission. The first mission to knock an asteroid off course by slamming a spacecraft into it, the craft hit a small moon of the asteroid Didymos altering its orbit by 36 minutes—a potential dress rehearsal for saving civilization. Indeed, this is hardly an abstract concern. In 2013, a 66-foot-long meteor burst through the atmosphere and exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia with the energy of about two dozen atomic bombs, damaging thousands of buildings and injuring hundreds of people. Russia also experienced the Tunguska Explosion in 1908 when scientists believe an asteroid the size of a 25 story building exploded three-to-six miles above the Earth’s surface in Siberia. The energy released by that explosion was equivalent to 185 Hiroshima bombs. The blast flattened trees over an area of two thousand square miles. If the object had arrived some six hours later, it would have struck over much more populated areas in Western Europe. As of now, there are about 2000 potentially dangerous near-Earth objects. Everyone knows about the asteroid that brought down the dinosaurs. It may be a rare event, but it would probably only take one to alter things in a big way.

What Is the Point?

So, is there a universally agreed-upon rationale for human space exploration that humanists can get behind? Despite the visions of Elon Musk (Mars) and Jeff Bezos (gigantic space stations orbiting earth) filling the airwaves, one thing can be ruled out for a long while: space expansion is not providing an escape from any pitfalls on Earth. It is not just eccentric billionaires with money to burn that have put forward that idea. During a 2017 speech at the Starmus Science and Arts festival in Norway, Stephen Hawking declared, “We are running out of space and the only places to go are to other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”

Hawking gave us a 600-year deadline. In roughly half-a-billion years, our sun will become a Red Giant—its core will shrink and its outer layer will expand, consuming Mercury, Venus, and Earth. If Homo sapiens are still around, we’d have to be off the planet. And while we are not about to run out of materials, nor are resources infinite. If we survive long enough, eventually we will have to expand beyond Earth. But space expansion won’t be an escape from global warming or the next pandemic. Living on Mars would be far more gruesome than living on Earth through even the most extreme (and unlikely) scenarios of global warming. NASA is hoping to make the first trips to Mars in the 2040s, and these trips won’t involve anyone staying permanently.

To describe any future pioneers aiming to live on Mars as “dedicated” is a titanic understatement. To begin with, getting to Mars will be no stroll in the park. The trip will take about seven months each way (nuclear-powered rockets could cut the trip in half but are likely decades away). A round-trip figures to take over two years, as the return leg will need to wait for Mars and Earth to relink to their closest points to each other. Homo sapiens evolved on Earth with its magnetic field, oxygen-rich atmosphere, and 1g gravity. We would not have been able to survive on Earth for about 90 percent of the planet’s history. This combination doesn’t exist anywhere else in the near vicinity. Venus solves the gravity problem but with that insanely hot surface we’d be forced to live in blimps or floating cities. Mars no longer has a magnetic field, its atmospheric volume is less than one percent of Earth’s, and its gravity measures 0.38g (Mercury has similar gravity to Mars but again there is that extremely high temperature).

The vacuum of space experiences zero gravity. Astronauts at ISS experience microgravity and must exercise at least two hours a day on stationary bikes and treadmills, to counteract bone and muscle loss. A recent study reports that astronauts on space missions lasting six months or longer experience bone loss equivalent to two decades of ageing. The standard proposed solution for this is to create artificial gravity with a rotating spaceship or space station as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, The Martian, and plenty of other science fiction (though it is worth noting the Orion does not rotate). Without artificial gravity, there is only the exercise regime and a hopeful quick recovery from microgravity’s effects after landing. As for rotating ships, as explained in an interesting article in Wired titled, “The Problem with Spinning Spacecraft,” this brings its own challenges including the size of the ship. You can have a small ship that spins faster or a larger one that spins slower, which at least raises questions about individual physiologies (how fast a spinning can some humans take). Smaller, cheaper spaceships will have to deal with annoying Coriolis forces while larger, more comfortable spaceships will be expensive (perhaps explaining NASA not using rotating ships).

Then there is the matter of dealing with space radiation. A 2018 study showed that astronauts in space for six months will receive the total radiation dosage recommended for an entire career. Plus, spending many months at a time cooped up in a spaceship traveling through space with other people may cause some psychological issues to emerge. Think roommates without fresh air. There are questions about the potential havoc space can play with the microbiome of travelers. Inducing hibernation for travelers is an option that may allow for smaller ships with fewer supplies, but obviously this possibility is untested and brings its own risks.

Assuming a successful trip and landing, the problems of habitation remain. The air on Mars is not breathable and there is nothing to shield us from radiation. Being outdoors will require space suits at all times. For long-term stays, living spaces will have to be built underground with proper air exchange mechanisms to prevent the shelters from filling with carbon dioxide. Temperatures at Mars’ equator during the day can reach a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius but at night, with no atmosphere to trap heat, the temperature plummets to -100º Celsius (nearly twice as cold as Earth’s South Pole in winter). The driest place on Earth is the Atacama Desert in Chile and Mars is many times drier. Dust storms on Mars can last for months and block out the sun, which will pose a problem if settlers are using solar panels.

As for growing crops, evidence suggests that, although a variety can grow on Mars, the nutritional value of crops grown there remains unknown. Given the 0.38g, humans living on Mars will have three times the level of strength relative to Earth, at least those who arrived on a 1g spinning ship. However the two-hour exercise regimen will be permanent and it is unclear whether procreation is even possible in such a gravity environment. The closest possible equivalent environment on Earth is Antarctica, and though used as a science outpost and for some eco-tourism, crowds are hardly lining up to live there full-time. Life on Mars would be exponentially more difficult. Efforts to terraform the planet in order to create an atmosphere similar to Earth's, would take centuries, if they are even feasible.

Elon Musk’s suggestion to hit Mars’s polar ice caps with nuclear bombs? According to mathematician Robert Walker, this would require building, launching, and detonating 1,728 bombs per pole per day, a total of 3,456 daily nuclear explosions. That’s almost twice the current US arsenal. Besides being of highly questionable effectiveness, the process would turn Mars into a radiation wasteland. A recent NASA study determined that there isn’t even enough CO2 on Mars to warm it sufficiently.

Thinking further ahead, one has to wonder what kind of Lord-of-the-Flies societies may develop in such harsh material conditions. Contrary to the libertarian vision of space as a boundless frontier, it is more likely that the specter of totalitarianism would hang above any developing settlement as serious questions about resource distribution emerge. Where there is dictatorship, there is conflict, and such conflict might rebound back to Earth, which threatened by a future self-sufficient Mars colony may be inclined to move toward a one world government (see the TV show/book series The Expanse). On Earth, the ocean has a tendency to dissolve workers' rights at sea. Is it reasonable to think that the vastness of outer space will be an improvement?

It is quite easy to imagine humans coming down with severe cases of homesickness in such a context. In the Danish-Swedish film Aniara, a Mars-bound cruise ship goes adrift with no chance of rescue. The passengers get addicted to an AI system called a “Mima” that taps into participants’ memories and emotions to produce experiences of Earth’s lush past. The same sentiment can be found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora, in which a large crew flies a huge ship equipped with 24 self-contained biomes for seven generations to settle a distant planet. As the ship’s biomes start breaking down, the first settlers touch down on the moon of Tau Ceti, where they are infected and killed by an extraterrestrial prion. A character facing imminent death rants to another about those who organized the mission: “So what’s the point? Why do it at all? Why not be content with what you’ve got? Who were they, that they were so discontent? Who the fuck were they?” He sums up what may be the long-term sentiment about Homo sapiens and space expansion:

“So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. I’m sure it happens. I mean, here we are. We did it to ourselves. But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.”

The rest of the novel deals with some of the crew making their way back to Earth. Any Mars pioneers would have to be fanatically mission-orientated.

In the face of all this, another school of thought suggests we simply leave space travel to the robots for the time being. This is what Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees argue in their book The End of Astronauts: Why Robots are the Future of Exploration, because robots can explore the cosmos more safely and cheaply than humans. There are currently three rovers on the Martian surface. The NASA rovers Curiosity and Perseverance and China’s Zhurong, and these followed four previous landings, three of which explored the surface to some degree. For the time being, robots are no match for trained humans in terms of knowledge and ingenuity, but this difference will likely diminish in the coming years. Rovers and satellites have already provided vast knowledge. The James Webb telescope is already challenging and expanding our understanding of the origins of the universe. Besides, don’t humans have a tendency to muck places and things up? Who are we to terraform a planet?

Goldstein and Rees write:

And yes, exploring Mars—understanding its geology, searching for traces of ancient life and for possible existing life in places where liquid water exists, uncovering Mars’ history and how it fits into the origin and evolution of the solar system[—] … is a marvelous goal that fascinates all of us. But to achieve this we don’t need astronauts, whose presence inevitably degrades their surroundings. ... When we send our ever-improved robots there, they confirm that we are indeed on Mars—not individual humans but all of us, the earthly species that has the ability to explore another planet in an efficient and ecologically sound manner.

“Earth is the cradle of humanity,” Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote in 1911, “but one cannot live in the cradle forever.” Inherent in that idea is the inevitability, necessity, as well as the desirability of humanity expanding to other planets. Tsiolkovsky envisioned widespread space industrialization and colonization. In his book The Case for Space, Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, lists the reasons humans must expand as knowledge, challenge, survival, and freedom. Zubrin sees people moving to Mars for the same reasons they moved to the New World: out of ambition, to escape persecution, to build new societies according to their principles:

Without a frontier from which to breathe life, the spirit that gave rise to the progressive humanistic culture that America has offered to the world for the past several centuries is fading … human progress needs a vanguard, and no replacement is in sight … without a frontier to grow in, not only American society but the entire global civilization based upon Western values of humanism, reason, science, and progress will ultimately die.

On the other hand, in Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics and the Ends of Humanity, Daniel Deudrey counters:

If humans on Earth are indeed in an infant state, then it also stands to reason that many—if not most—of their visions of the future are infantile as well … coming to age means putting aside the fairy tales of childhood. … The maturation of humanity as a species should be marked by a sober—if wistful—setting aside of the limitless space fantasies of the species’ infancy.

Concerns about saving humanity, or even the more abstract “life” itself, by expanding into space can easily slide into cultish thinking (a touch of which can perhaps be seen in Zubrin’s argument), where the ends justify the means, such as treating much existing life as an expendable stepping stone to future life. If space expansion is dangerous, risks making war more likely, is prone not to freedom but to authoritarianism, and is likely not all that popular or desirable, maybe it is best to not pursue it, or at least put it off for a bit until technological progress makes it easier. It will be quite a while before the sun burns out.

Are We Alone?

Hovering over all this is the timeless question of whether we are alone in the universe. Recent studies from data gathered from the Perseverance rover on Mars show evidence of life-friendly organic molecules on the floor of a Martian crater. It is possible that life also exists on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, as under its frozen surface could lie a salty ocean. The presence of phosphine may be a sign of life even in the clouds of Venus. As of August 2023, there have been 5,496 exoplanets discovered. All five bases in DNA and RNA have been found in rocks that have fallen to Earth, supporting the idea that life’s precursors could have come to Earth from space. Life has been found in the most extreme environments on Earth so it stands to reason that life forms will be lurking in the harsh environments of other planets.

Though confirmation of life somewhere else would be historic, that isn’t the final answer we’re waiting for. After all, the majority of life on Earth is made of simple prokaryotes. What we mean by “life” is intelligent, conscious life. Life like us. So, since the sheer vastness of the universe implies that there must be intelligent life out there somewhere, where are all the aliens? Presumably, intelligent societies in older solar systems would have millions of years’ head-start on ours to develop technology to explore the far reaches of space and make contact with us.

There are several possible reasons why we haven’t heard from any. Perhaps they visited Earth before Homo sapiens were around and didn’t find our planet interesting or worth exploiting or destroying. Perhaps attempting to expand from their home planet or star brought about their downfall. Or it could be that this alien civilization, when faced with the choice, calculated that the risks outweighed the benefits and wisely decided to stay at home. The Drake Equation, first proposed by Frank Drake in 1961, attempts to calculate the number of communicating civilizations in the Milky Way. It’s a long equation with eight variables, but in short, the 1961 estimates put the number of such civilizations anywhere between 20 and 50,000,000. In The Case for Space, Zubrin modifies the equation to include the possibility that intelligence could evolve in a solar system more than once (after an extinction event). His best guess is 1.5 billion stellar systems within our galaxy.

Or perhaps when it comes to intelligent, conscious life we are actually alone. This theme is explored in films like Ad Astra and Interstellar, which present the rest of space as inhospitable. In his book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique, John Gribbin argues that we should get used to this idea. According to Gribbin, the right mix of metals necessary for the existence of planets is confined to a very narrow part of our galaxy. Our solar system has planets with orbits that are nearly circular and don’t interfere with each other. Our moon was formed after the Earth collided with a Mars-sized object. Earth has plate tectonics, a magnetic field, and is in the right Goldilocks zone. It all adds up to a very rare, perhaps unique dynamic. The Cambrian explosion that birthed much of the multicellular diversity on Earth was a mere 550 million years ago and it is not clear how likely it is to happen elsewhere. This question was best summed up by Arthur Clarke when he said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

If we are actually alone, it raises the possibility that it is only our existence that gives the universe any meaning. Since we are part of the universe and we are beings with consciousness, we are able to make the universe aware of itself. A history of mass extinctions on Earth proves that, despite the fantasies of many environmentalists, there is no “balance” in nature that our species has disrupted. That being the case, the preservation of our species is a moral responsibility, both in terms of preserving the conditions for our flourishing on Earth, even if it means eventually expanding to other planets.

Clearly, though the prospect likely won’t entice many, some people will be going to space. In Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond, Christopher Wanjek predicts, among other things, that mining operations will be established on the Moon and asteroids by the 2030s, people will be living on the Moon temporarily by the 2040s, boots will be on Ceres, and the first attempt to forge a nongovernment settlement on Mars will occur in the 2080s. The book, which was published in 2020, also predicts the first space hotels by 2025—a prediction that currently seems ahead of itself.

None of this has ever been attempted. Many a prophecy about when and how the future happens has been wildly off in the past (recall what 2015 looked like in Back To the Future 2). If the past is actually any guide it seems safer to bet on later than sooner. It also seems certain that, whatever borders we reach, the question of justice in all forms will travel along with us. Therefore, so too will the cause of humanism.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, the author of Aurora was incorrectly identified as Stanley Kim Robinson. Apologies for the error.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette