Future of the Environment

Why the human race must become a multiplanetary species

This illustration shows a newly discovered exoplanet called GJ 367b, that is located roughly 31 light years from Earth and orbits its star in only about 8 hours, with a density greater than our planet's and an internal structure similar to that of Mercury. SPP 1992/Patricia Klein/Handout via REUTERS    THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT

How could becoming a multiplanetary species inspire and expedite advances in human development? Image: via REUTERS

Timothy Reuter
Head of Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum LLC
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Future of the Environment

  • Becoming a multiplanetary species could protect the future of the human race and help humanity reach its full potential.
  • Human habitation across multiple planets will create new hubs of innovation and experimentation leading to advances in science, technology and commerce.
  • Significantly increasing government and private sector spending on crewed spaceflight is an investment in national and international security against long-tail risks.

In 2021, a new era of space exploration dawned with the first privately organized flights ferrying civilian passengers across the line that separates our planet from the rest of the universe. Much of the media coverage of the three flights launched by Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX has either been of the “isn’t this cool” variety or has characterized these endeavours as symbols of inequality. As such, the question of what the value of human spaceflight is has gone largely unanswered.

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Supporters of space exploration sometimes suggest that sending robotic probes to the remote corners of the solar system and beyond can teach us what we need to know about the universe at less cost and risk than sending people. Yet, for the safety of our descendants and to reach humanity’s full potential, we must become a multiplanetary species.

Existential risk

Humans have a one in six chance of going extinct this century according to Oxford Philosopher Toby Ord. In his book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Dr Ord lays out a variety of long-tail risks that are both existential and very difficult to mitigate. These include nature-based risks like asteroids, large-scale volcanic eruptions and stellar explosions. Although we can track many of these phenomena, we do not have the technology (nor are we likely to develop it anytime soon) to prevent large eruptions or redirect large asteroids. Initial efforts to nudge space objects are just beginning. This is to say nothing of the human-created risks of nuclear war or bioweapons intentionally or unintentionally released on the public, a scenario made easier to imagine by the current pandemic.

As long as humanity is grouped together on a single planet there will always be a possibility that all of us can be killed at once. It is equivalent to having everyone in a single building: there is always a risk greater than zero of a collapse or fire that kills everyone. By establishing, at first, small outposts and eventually larger scale settlements on other planets, the risk of our species being destroyed is significantly curtailed.

Realizing humanity’s potential

On a more positive note, human habitation in a greater variety of settings will radically expedite science and commerce. While we currently have small-scale experimentation with manufacturing items in micro and zero gravity on the International Space Station, the potential for us to set up large-scale industry in different physics requires us to have a presence on other celestial locations.

Large-scale settlements of people are hubs of innovation and human flourishing. Just think of how many more discoveries and marvels could be created by 80 billion people in the future instead of today’s 8 billion. Our current planet has a limited carrying capacity but our solar system can accommodate many more people than any single planet can.

Just as cultural and geographic variety contributes to the richness of our current society, further expanding the diversity of human settings would continue to expand the creativity of our species. Space travel itself has already been an incredible inspiration to numerous scientists, engineers and artists with many people citing seeing the moon landing as one of the most formative events of their lives.

Hastening science and technology development

The technologies we develop on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species will also benefit us here on earth. Today, satellites are used to monitor carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions to give us a better picture of the causes of global warming and promote accountability. In her first speech devoted to space, US Vice-President Kalama Harris said: “I truly believe space activity is climate action.” In a recent report, the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Space laid out the many ways satellite data is being used to address climate change and suggests feeding data from space-based assets into an “Earth Operations Centre” to provide a real-time picture of activities and phenomena that contribute to warming.

Benefits of space technology on Earth
Some of the benefits of space technology on Earth Image: World Economic Forum

Less well known are the many other technologies developed on our way to space but used in our daily lives. The CMOS sensor was first invented at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1990s. No one could have predicted that this technology would eventually be part of all our phones, enabling high-quality digital images and affecting everything from how we document human rights abuses to how we present ourselves to potential mates on dating apps.

The limits of space settlement

It is important to note that becoming a multiplanetary species will not address what are commonly understood to be our most pressing problems here on earth. Increasingly, people see global warming and social inequality as twin crises that are the most urgent issues of our time. Although space-based assets can help us better understand global warming, investing in technologies or instituting policies to prevent an ecological catastrophe on earth will always be more efficient ways to address ecological degradation than terraforming another planet.

We can also easily replicate the social inequities of our planet out in space, as has been illustrated by numerous works of science fiction. Spaceflight is not an escape from those important challenges.

Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity, carrying billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and his crew, begins its ascent to the edge of space above Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, U.S., July 11, 2021. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity begins its ascent to the edge of space Image: REUTERS/Joe Skipper

However, for certain classes of long-tail risk that add up to significant existential danger, diversifying our planetary footprint is the most effective mitigation strategy and one that provides a path for human flourishing that exceeds what could possibly be accomplished on one planet. For these reasons, significantly increasing government and private sector spending on crewed spaceflight is an investment in our national and international security.

Right now, NASA’s budget constitutes 0.5% of the US National budget. Doubling that and dedicating the new funding entirely to human space exploration would significantly expedite progress in this area while still representing only 1% of the total budget. It would broaden global participation in this critical endeavour if other countries made similar investments of 1% of government expenditure and further hasten progress.

Public support and understanding of the true value that becoming a space-faring society can bring will be needed to generate support for these large expenditures. We also need to ensure that we do not create debris with our current operations that could prevent widespread access to space in the future. When we look back on 2021 from 2121, perhaps the most significant event we will remember is when the path to space was opened for billions of our fellow human beings.

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