Space: How advances up there can help life down here

(February 28, 2015) --- Samantha Cristoforetti flashes the Vulcan Salute in the cupola of the space station in honor of the late Leonard Nimroy.

Samantha Cristoforetti on the International Space Station Image: NASA Johnson

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  • On this episode of Radio Davos we talk to an astronaut and two people involved in the business of space.
  • Samantha Cristoforetti is a highly experienced astronaut, she spoke directly from the International Space Station.
  • The CEO of Voyager Space says his own trip to space re-affirmed his commitment to environmentalism.
  • The boss of Relativity Space says we will eventually have a large city on Mars.
  • Subscribe to the podcast.

What are humans doing in space and why are we talking about bases on the Moon or missions to Mars when there is so much here on Earth that requires our immediate attention?

In this episode of Radio Davos, we hear from two people involved in the business of space - one of whom visited space last year, the other who is convinced there will be a city of 1 million humans on Mars.

And we link up with the International Space Station to speak to astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

Podcast transcript:

Opening montage:

Dylan Taylor, Chairman & CEO, Voyager Space: People ask me: the Moon, or Mars? My answer is 'yes'.

Robin Pomeroy, host, Radio Davos: Welcome to Radio Davos, the podcast from the World Economic Forum that looks at the biggest challenges and how we might solve them. This week: space. Why are humans still going there when there's so much we need to do here on Earth?

This investor, himself, a space tourist, gives his view.

Dylan Taylor: These challenges can seem intractable because we have oftentimes too parochial of a view, and space seems to be a universal antidote to that parochialism.

Robin Pomeroy: We'll hear from this astronaut talking to us direct from the International Space Station.

Samantha Cristoforetti, astronaut: As we develop space capabilities and the space economy, that becomes a multiplier of all the technological tools that we have at our disposal.

Robin Pomeroy: What about life beyond the International Space Station? Should we have a permanent presence on the Moon or go even further? What about a city on Mars?

Tim Ellis, CEO and co-founder, Relativity Space: We're literally talking about putting a million people on another planet in an extremely hostile environment. Many of the challenges that we're going to have to solve to do that are going to also help us solve the climate issue on Earth.

Robin Pomeroy: Subscribe to Radio Davos wherever you get your podcasts, leave us a rating and a review, and join us on the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook. I'm Robin Pomeroy at the World Economic Forum and with this look at space, why we go there and where we're going next...

Tim Ellis: I really do think it can be one of the greatest adventures in human experience.

Robin Pomeroy: This is Radio Davos.

Samantha Cristoforetti

NASA Mission Control: European Space Agency, this is Mission Control Houston. Please call station for a voice check

Samantha Cristoforetti: This is Station and I am ready for the event. Welcome aboard the International Space Station.

Robin Pomeroy: That's Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, connecting from the International Space Station to the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos a few weeks ago. She's one of a select band of human beings who've not just blasted into space, but have spent time living and working up there.

In this episode of Radio Davos, we also hear from space entrepreneurs who see human activity in space so far as just the start and who are setting their sights on the Moon and Mars.

First, though, here's Samantha Cristoforetti speaking from space. She was interviewed at Davos by Andrew Sorkin of The New York Times and CNBC.

Andrew Sorkin, journalist: I've never, by the way, interviewed an astronaut in space before, so I want to know what it's been like and what's it like the second time up there? Is it different? Did you bring different things with you? Are you getting better sleep? Just tell us about what what the experience is like.

Samantha Cristoforetti: The second time is very different. Not worse or better, but different. I would say that the first time I came to the Space Station as a rookie, it was quite overwhelming, you know, all the way from from launch. It was this influx of new experiences, new physical sensations, new skills that I had to learn, you know, like like floating in zero-G and handling this rather complex environment of Space Station and handling the work up there - or up here.

And, and I think if I look back at those, especially the first days and weeks, it was all a little bit of a blur. I didn't have very clear memories. So I was really looking forward to come up here a second time as a veteran astronaut this time and have a little bit more of both cognitive and emotional buffer, to experience this a little bit more in slow motion, and it's definitely been the case. I mean, you know, I didn't have to learn everything from scratch. It came back to me fairly quickly, like riding a bicycle, I guess. And so I had that space in, you know, in my heart and in my mind, to observe the experience and really take note of details and and hopefully also remember it better for for the future.

Andrew Sorkin: Given the challenges that we're we're clearly facing about inequality and climate change. And we talked about that a little bit down here before we got to you. Can you tell everybody about the purpose of your mission and how you would tell everybody on Earth how you think it's going to ultimately help resolve some of these issues?

Samantha Cristoforetti: Yeah, I think that global big challenges like obviously climate change and inequality are best faced when societies have at their disposal powerful tools. And those tools are knowledge, technologies and ... strong economies.

And so I think that there's two ways of answering your questions. I mean, of course, I could go and go off and tell you about all the space-based assets that monitor the Earth on a daily basis. And some of those are free flowing assets, but some of those are here installed on the external platforms of the International Space Station. Because they benefit from the fact that they have this platform and all the power that is available and the data transfer. And so it was possible to install them here.

So I could go off and tell you that. But I think that one should also have a more holistic perspective and understand it. Space is really part of our lives, of our technological development, of our scientific advancements, ultimately of our economic resources and the technological and scientific resources that we overall have at our disposal to tackle challenges, especially like like climate change.

So as we develop space capabilities and the space economy, that becomes a multiplier of all the technological tools that we have at our disposal to tackle climate change and all the great challenges that face humanity.

Andrew Sorkin: What's the most exciting thing you're working on up there right now?

Samantha Cristoforetti: Well, this weekend we had quite an exciting event. We actually had a brand new space vehicle. It's called Starliner.

The demonstration flight occurred this weekend, so the vehicle came knocking at our door in the night between Friday and Saturday, I believe. And we had a pretty intensive short docked mission, which demonstrated a number of of capabilities. And then we closed the hatch last night and it will undock. And of course, we are we are all confident that it will safely land to earth shortly after that.

Other than that, there's always a lot of science on board. It's always difficult to pick a favourites ... You may can glance in the camera - that I'm not supposed to touch but I set up yesterday - is a facility to demonstrate tailor robotic operations. So once we are ready to do the demonstration operations, I will actually use this. It's like a haptic controller. So I will hold it in my hand and kind of move my hand. But actually on the ground I will be moving remotely the hand of a robot to perform tasks remotely. So that that's pretty exciting. That's the stuff that is is going to be useful for future surface explorations of Moon and and hopefully one day of Mars.

Andrew Sorkin: And I don't know if this audience knows this and this is so cool, I think. She's been a great champion of women and space engineers. And Mattel, the toymaker, has made and commissioned a Barbie doll of Samantha. And I just thought maybe you could tell us about that, how it came about. I don't know if you have one up there with you. How did that happen?

Samantha Cristoforetti: Yes they have this campaign, which I believe is like the Dream Gap campaign. And the idea is to provide young girls, especially starting at a young age like pre-school age, with role models so that they keep dreaming big. They do not start to think already, like in pre-school age, that some professions are maybe not suitable for them. Some career paths, some, some disciplines that they can study in college, for example, that are not suited for them, that that's what we want to prevent.

I encourage women to consider a STEM career, consider working in the space sector. I don't necessarily have an end state in mind because it depends in the end on individual choices, on individual freedom, which remains sacred. But what I hope to help accomplish is that young girls and women feel that freedom. They make those choices knowing that they are free to choose from the full palette of of human enterprises.

Andrew Sorkin: Samantha, you are an inspiration. I'm super grateful to have this conversation. We want to thank you for joining the World Economic Forum in Davos from space. Thank you.

Robin Pomeroy: Andrew Sorkin ending that conversation with astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Just to be clear, he was in Davos, Switzerland, here on Earth at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting a few weeks ago. Samantha was floating in zero gravity in the International Space Station - in space! You can watch the whole interview on our website.

Dylan Taylor, Voyager Space

Another person who has seen Earth from space is Dylan Taylor. He's the chief executive officer of a company called Voyager Space, which provides space infrastructure and services to companies and government agencies and he's an investor in the business of space. Last December, he was a passenger on a space flight operated by Blue Origin, the private sector company founded by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.

My colleague Nikolai Khlystov, who leads space-related work here at the World Economic Forum, spoke to Dylan Taylor about the business opportunities of space, how investing there can improve life here. And he started by asking about that flight into space.

Nikolai Khlystov: The one aspect which I know many cannot wait to learn a little bit more about is your trip to space in December with Blue Origin making you, if I'm not mistaken, the 606th person to see Earth from space out of 100 billion people that ever lived on planet Earth. Can you share a little bit of the intellectual, but also maybe the emotional, aspect of that experience with us?

Dylan Taylor: Well, it is fascinating to think about that 606 out of 100+ billion. You know, I've always believed, Nikolai, that space is a lot of things. It's a technical challenge. It's a harsh environment. As you mentioned earlier, it's an investment opportunity. It is a frontier.

But first and foremost, I've always believed that space is a tool for transformation. And what specifically do I mean by that? If you look at all the world's challenges, these challenges can seem intractable and they seem intractable, I think, because we have oftentimes too parochial of a view. And there are very few things that I know in the world that exist that allow you to get a new perspective, that allow the fish to understand they're in a fishbowl, so to speak. And space seems to be a universal antidote to that parochialism, in my view.

So I've always been fascinated by this notion. And if you believe that to be true, then the whole question is how do we get more people out there. Not only ... rich white American men like myself, but all different kinds of humans, so that they can not only have this profound effect, but come back to Earth and really impact their communities by looking at problems in a different way. So that's always sort of been my perspective.

That's why I founded Space for Humanity. That's why I'm so passionate about the work we're doing with Voyager Space, building the next generation International Space Station, things of that nature. And I can tell you, as you mentioned, I went in December, I had very, very high expectations because I've been thinking about this my whole life, and I can promise you it is a thousand times, a million times better than I ever even hoped. It is truly a transformational experience, Staunch environmentalism - you know, I was an environmentalist before I went. But this sense of urgency, this sense of stewardship just is so visceral and so penetrating. So we're very excited about where space is headed. And I hope that 606 number that you quoted will be 606,000 in the not too distant future.

Nikolai Khlystov: Why is this sector so important and critical for for life as we know it today? And again, I think a lot of people don't seem to realise a lot of the benefits.

Dylan Taylor: I understand the narrative, you know, 'billionaires escape from Earth,' and all of this. I hopefully have made the case that we go to space to benefit Earth.

But on the technological side, there really has been a massive, massive, massive impact by space. I mean, pretty much every technology business plan for the last 15 years has been based on the GPS constellation in one way or another. The entire environmental movement started, as we all know, with the first Earthrise images coming from space.

Internet communication, which is about ready to be universal, is enabled by space.

We have had many, many, many spinoff technologies from space. There's a lot of fun examples of that, like Teflon and other consumer goods. But when you think about the challenges that we have with developing technologies in space, it really forces us to think about those problems in new and unique ways, and that technology transfer back to Earth is very pronounced. So I think there's all different positive benefits the space has for life here on Earth.

Everyone is in the space industry, they just don't know it yet. And by that I mean every industry on earth will ultimately be disrupted or impacted by space.

Agriculture. We're involved in an ag-tech programme, Voyager is, in the UAE currently, where we're putting greenhouses on the International Space Station to develop advanced seed technology because there's no vaster desert than space, of course. And as those seeds evolve because they're forced to on orbit, we can take those technologies and that new seed technology and repopulate them back on Earth to address food scarcity.

So there's all kinds of examples of that. I also think the International Space Station symbolically is one of the best things humans have ever done. It really has shown international cooperation across many, many, many countries.

So I think for all those reasons and more, space is dramatically impactful. And the other thing that I tell people is everyone is in the space industry, they just don't know it yet. And by that I mean every industry on earth will ultimately be disrupted or impacted by space. And so I think it is a universal platform that increasingly is going to be a very important part of our global economy.

Nikolai Khlystov: We've been or we seemingly have been in this moment where there is new expectation of the sector over the last few decades. A lot of the great achievements happened 50, 60 years ago. Why is this time so different now? Why are we, or we at least in this sector think, we're at an inflection point? What's critical about the last 10 years and where we are now in the coming couple of years?

Dylan Taylor: It's really reusable, inexpensive, reusable launch. That's really what it is. Nikolai, when you think about, let's say, New York circa 1910 or so, if you were to look at Manhattan, the tallest building was probably six or seven stories. And so you ask yourself, was that because humans didn't know how to build skyscrapers in in 1910? And the answer is no. We actually did know how to build skyscrapers, or at least buildings taller than eight, nine storeys in 1910. But what we hadn't done was we hadn't commercialised the elevator and people didn't want to walk 20 storeys. In fact, the penthouse apartment was the least expensive. The garden apartments were the more expensive. Of course, we commercialised the elevator and we unlocked that third dimension. And if you look at New York circa 1920s, after that happened, you would you would see lots of buildings, 20, 30, 40 storeys and up from there.

So a very similar analogy with space. We now have reusable, reliable access to space. So we've 'built the elevator' and that's unlocked all these different business plans, including suborbital travel, including orbital travel. We have people on the ISS today that are not professional astronauts. In fact, I think they undocked and are headed headed home. That's that's really what's changed.

I mean, when you think about the analogy, Nikolai, it's crazy. Imagine taking an Emirates flight from Los Angeles to Dubai on an Airbus A380 and at the end of that flight throwing the plane away. That's what we've been doing for 60 years. And of course, no one could could afford to travel if that were the case. We're now engaging in reusability that's driving the costs down, and that's really changed the industry.

Nikolai Khlystov: Let's talk about the Moon. What are the current plans? We see the name Artemus Accords that's thrown around, we know there are some challenges with that, it's not a global corporation. But there are plans to return to the Moon. NASA has plans to put boots, a diverse set of boots, on the ground in the coming few years. And there's very exciting collaboration between public-private entities to get there. How are you seeing the whole Moon infrastructure develop and what's exciting for you about that?

Dylan Taylor: It is a fascinating topic. One could be the notion of resources. So we talked about that earlier. There are actually two resources on the moon that are actually quite important to the Earth. Many people aren't aware of these, perhaps. But the first is helium. The moon is an abundant in helium-3. The Earth is actually running out of helium. Believe it or not, it is a non-renewable resource. So I think helium-3 mining will be economically compelling at some point in the future.

And the second is rare-earth minerals. So these are neodymium and other advanced rare-earth minerals that go into advanced technologies and advanced electronics. They're actually frankly not that rare on the Earth, but the control of those resources is very concentrated within within a couple of nation states. So it's prone to conflicts like a lot of scarce resources can be. Those resources appear to be abundant on the Moon. So that would be another reason potentially to go there.

But the other thing, of course, is scientific research. Actually having a launch pad or a space-based base that's larger than the International Space Station that would allow us to go further and deeper to places like Mars and elsewhere.

I think the Moon is quite compelling. People ask me, 'The moon or Mars?' My answer is 'yes'. I think it's both. I don't think they're mutually exclusive.

The other thing, we do have technologies now that allow you to extract oxygen from Moon regolith, Moon soil. And that's quite important because when you think about going on a camping trip here on Earth, you typically wouldn't bring all your water with you, especially if you're going to stay for a while. You would bring a water filter and you would find resources in situ to to live from. And it's pretty much the same principle with the Moon as well.

So I do think we'll be on the Moon this decade. I do. I don't think it'll happen in 2024, but it will happen this decade. And I think that will be an important milestone for the Moon.

And, you know, we haven't spent too much time yet, Nikolai, talking about the power of space to inspire especially the next generation, especially STEM education, especially diverse students of colour and in other underrepresented people in the space industry. And imagine having lights on the Moon that you could see at night from a city on the Moon. Imagine how inspiring that might be to a to a young child deep somewhere in the back country of some country, imagining that humans are actually living up there and that maybe they would have the opportunity, one day to go themselves.

Tim Ellis, Relativity Space

Robin Pomeroy: Dylan Taylor, CEO of Voyager Space, talking to Nicole Khlystov of the World Economic Forum.

Back to Davos now and the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting where we spoke to another space entrepreneur. Tim Ellis is CEO and co-founder of Relativity Space, a company that uses 3D printing to build rocket technology that in theory could eventually be used to build an entire city - on Mars.

Tim Ellis: Relativity is 3D printing entire rockets because I have this long-term vision of building a multiplanetary future on Mars.

Somebody has to build the company that's going to create infrastructure on Mars, and it's going to have to be based on 3D printing.

I was inspired by watching SpaceX land rockets and dock with the International Space Station six years ago and I founded Relativity, but no other company had been founded in the world that had this long-term mission of going to Mars and putting a million people there. So I really think it's inevitable. Somebody has to build the company that's going to create infrastructure on Mars, and it's going to have to be based on 3D printing. And so relativity is really leading that charge while also building launch vehicles on Earth as our first product. So we're building the world's largest 3D printing factory. It's about a million square feet or 100,000 square metres. We're and we're doing our first launches here in the next two months.

Robin Pomeroy: We asked Tim Ellis how he counters criticism of grand schemes of going to Mars when there's so much to be done here on Earth to improve lives and the environment.

Tim Ellis: Going to Mars is all about expanding the possibilities of human experience. It's very existential. I think it's really about why do anything at all.

We've been living on Earth for many thousands of years, living and dying through many generations. But I do believe if we had a million people living on another planet it would fundamentally change what it means to be a human being.

It's really similar to why do art or why have sports teams where you spend, at least in the U.S. five times more money on the NFL and football than on the space programme. And so it's not really an either/or for me. I think it's really just about investing and what is the future vision of humanity and what does it mean to be a human being? Lots of investment in space technology helps life on Earth, and it really makes the world better. Certainly space technology is helping solve climate problems on a global scale because we're able to collect data and and use that data to solve those problems.

Also in space, we launched telecom satellites, which are working to connect to the unconnected. So we have billions of people globally that do not actually have access to the internet and access to information. So there's a lot of intellectual capital that is left stranded and not connected to this amazing knowledge database and ability to learn called the internet. And so the space industry is really helping further that connectivity for the billions of unconnected.

Robin Pomeroy: So what about this notion of a 'multi-planetary future'. Why does Tim Alice find that so attractive?

Tim Ellis: I'm so excited about the idea of a multi-planetary future because I really think it's about expanding the possibilities of human experience in our lifetime. If we were sitting here today and had a million people living on another planet, just wrap your head around what that actually means for for being a person. There's going to be Martian government. There's going to be art, creativity, new ways of thinking, new innovations, new challenges to overcome. But I really do think it could be one of the greatest adventures in human experience and one of the biggest innovations, similar to farming and becoming a stable society, I think being multi-planetary is going to be one of the biggest milestones in human history.

Robin Pomeroy: Tim Ellis, CEO and founder of Relativity Space. He was speaking to my colleague in Davos, Greta Keenan.

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to Radio Davos wherever you get your podcasts and please leave us a rating and a review, and join the conversation on the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook. This episode of Radio Davos was presented by me. Robin Pomeroy studio production was by Gareth Nolan. We'll be back next week. But for now, thanks to you for listening and goodbye.

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