This Chinese New Year was about fear, hope and sacrifice, not just for China but for the world. Now streaming on Netflix, The Wandering Earth, a dystopian tale about saving the Earth from a collapsing sun and directed by Frant Gwo, is the biggest grossing Chinese film in history with takings of £ 232 million in six days. It also broke another record as the highest-earning Chinese film on IMAX. Popular entertainment reflects the fears and hopes of the times. Ours, in this young century, is planetary destruction. The hope is that science will be the saviour. The MaddAddam Trilogy by Booker-winner Margaret Atwood—which incidentally has been adapted into a popular TV serial—also deals with the end of the world, caused by rising sea levels and environmental degradation. As far back in 1962, The Drowned World written by JG Ballard foretold a global apocalypse caused by global warming. Is Frant Gwo’s film a premonition? Will Atwood and Ballard be right?
Countries such as India and the US are seeking habitable planets in outer space. The purpose of Chandrayaan-2 is not just to map the moon’s surface but also to explore lunar craters and caves for water and gauge the possibility of establishing environmentally controlled lunar cities. Virgin Group owner Sir Richard Branson and billionaires such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk are spending great amounts of their combined wealth of £140 billion to find habitable planets.
In June, an Australian environmental report concluded that life on Earth as we know it will end by 2020 - over half the population will reel under 20 days a year of lethal heat, crop yields will drop by a fifth, the Amazon ecosystem will collapse, all Arctic ice will melt, sea levels will rise and over a billion people would be displaced. Dibyendu Nandi, Professor and Principal Investigator of the Centre of Excellence in Space Sciences India at IISER, Kolkata, and Vice-Chair of the Space Weather Panel of the International Committee on Space Research, says, “In a few billion years, the Sun will run out of hydrogen that keeps it stable. It will enter a phase known as the Red Giant. It will expand and its atmosphere will engulf the inner planets, including Earth. We must make incremental progress today, to be able to face up to an uncertain future.”
ELECTRIC DREAMS: Is there life after death? Sure. On another planet, if scientific imagination becomes real one day. Both real-life and fiction explore redemption and idyll as ultimate rewards—an intergalactic Garden of Eden. Space scientists are already predicting holiday resorts and barbecues on the Moon. Sudip Bhattacharyya, Associate Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, says, “The situation of spacefaring now is similar to seafaring in the 15th century. Most of the Earth’s surface was unknown.
Some people stepped out investing whatever little wealth they had. The result was spectacular and rewarding.” In the 1920s, scientist John Desmond Bernal conceptualised the 10-mile-wide floating space colony—Bernal Sphere—with residential areas and farms. In the 1970s, the idea was advanced by physicist Gerard O’Neill—the constantly rotating O’Neill Colony accommodating one million people living in an Earth-like state of artificial gravity.
In 1975, Stanford University participated in a NASA Summer Study to design the ring-shaped Stanford Torus Colony that could ‘permanently sustain life in space on a large scale’. Bezos is inspired by O’Neill’s vision—colonies constructed with material from lunar mines and run on power generated by using huge sunshine-reflecting mirrors and solar panels. Mammoth electromagnetic catapults will aid propulsion. Bezos’ extraterrestrial vision is radical: massive future colonies housing a million residents each and millions of such colonies housing trillions. Space taxis will ferry visitors.
With paraterraforming, an Earth-like biosphere teeming with verdant parks, virgin forests and unpolluted lakes would be created on Mars, enclosed within an oxygenated bubble with the right air pressure. (Mars has an air pressure of just seven millibars. A person landing on it will float at an altitude of 21 Earth miles.)
In 2013, ISRO launched Mangalyaan, a harbinger of an interplanetary mission. In Musk’s words: “There is a strong argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen.”
BOLD AND BOUNTIFUL: Environmental conscience is changing the way money is spent on researching alternate futures. And money is being made too. Over 10 years before Musk’s arrival on the scene, space pioneer Branson started Virgin Galactic—300 enthusiasts plonked down USD 2,00,000 each to book seats on the inaugural flight. Starting 2020, US space agency NASA will charge two dozen space tourists millions of dollars a year to spend a month on its USD 100 billion International Space Station (ISS). NASA chief Michael Griffin had said in September 2005, “The goal isn’t just scientific exploration… it’s also about extending the range of human habitat… We may well have people living on the Moon, or on the moons of Jupiter, and other planets, or even asteroids.”
That was 14 years ago. Bhattacharyya says, “Things may not happen according to our initial imagination, but big changes will happen.” Now, NASA takes the three-seater Russian Soyuz spacecraft on hire to send US astronauts to the ISS and back at USD 80 million per trip or USD 35,000 per person per night for lodging, food, water and life support systems. A major chunk of the proceeds will go to private companies to develop spacecraft. The ISS is a hybrid commercial adventure by NASA and big private space players. Since space travel is expensive, good old capitalism has come to the rescue. NASA will grant private firms the right to film ads in space at a hefty fee. It will also allow businesses to hire astronauts to market their products ‘intended for commercial sale on Earth’ after paying the cost of 90 percent of ‘crew time’ each year to ‘accelerate a thriving commercial economy in low-Earth orbit’.
GALACTIC RIVALS: If the Arms Race was the obsession of the 20th century, today Space Race is the idée fixe. Rocket company SpaceX is worth USD 33 billion. Galactic’s business adversary Bezos owns Blue Origin into which he puts USD 1 billion worth of his Amazon stocks each year. This year, SpaceX will commercially send the first humans to space on the Crew Dragon transporter, which successfully docked unmanned on the ISS in May.
“The choice of astronauts will be made by the tour operators,” says NASA CFO Jim DeWit. Musk is developing Starship, which can carry 100 passengers. It will be launched by a gigantic reusable rocket to take the first Earthlings to Mars. Colonising Mars is high on Musk’s agenda. On the other hand, Bezos’s ambition is to send millions to live in colonies across the solar system. The Amazon founder says in an interview: “We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilisation.
We have become big as a population, as a species, and this planet is relatively small. We see it in things like climate change and pollution and heavy industry. We are in the process of destroying this planet.” Back in India, too, things are moving spacewards. Business houses such as Tata, Mahindra, L&T and others are beginning to invest in aerospace technologies. Many smaller players are driving a NewSpace movement which would hopefully complement ISRO’s endeavours. “But the scale of investment by Indian business houses and billionaires needs to be exponentially increased to match up to the West. A good balance between public and private funding can potentially catalyse a faster growth in Indian science and technology front,” says Nandi.
COMING CLOSE: The Earth’s atmosphere ends at the Kármán Line, 62 miles away. Blue Origin plans to send space tourists beyond it. The New Shepard rocket, named after cosmonaut Alan Shepard, is capable of launching humans in space by the end of 2020. It has successfully made 12 return landings so far. Bezos has three ambitious projects: a larger reusable rocket, the spaceship New Glenn and a Moon landing craft—Blue Moon. By 2024, he plans to establish a lunar colony.
Says company CEO Bob Smith, “Earth is finite. We will burn out of energy and resources at some point. So we look to space to preserve us.” However, Virgin’s Branson could beat both his rivals to it. In December 2018, Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo christened Unity, crossed the Kármán Line unmanned. The company is moving operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico from where the first flights are slated to happen this year to honour the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing on July 20, 1969.
The first backer of Branson’s rocket was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, another space billionaire. The website of Stratolaunch Systems, which Allen founded in 2011, describes the company as ‘an air-launch platform to make access to space more convenient, reliable, and routine’. Meanwhile, Boeing, which had signed a USD 4.2 billion contract with NASA, is developing the Starliner astronaut capsule. The deadline for its first flight to the ISS is November, according to Reuters.
Last year, Musk launched Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket that can carry more weight and is far cheaper. SpaceX also flamboyantly launched one of Musk’s Tesla Roadsters into solar orbit, where it continues to spin around the sun like a burning ambition. Bhattacharyya cautions, “All these efforts require a huge financial investment which only a few super-rich or a country with a substantial economy can provide. It will be a disaster if technological know-how, scientific knowledge and other profit fall into a few hands, particularly private hands.”
LIMITLESS DREAMLAND: Musk is not impressed with the Martian plans of his Amazon rival. He tweeted: “Makes no sense. You’d have to transport vast amounts of mass from planets/moons/asteroids. Would be like trying to build the USA in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” Building a Mars colony is a challenge since travel time at current estimates is four to nine months. By Musk’s calculations, a spaceship carrying builders, planners and workers etc to Mars to build a colony for 80,000 residents will carry a 15-tonne payload.
The minimum distance between the two planets is about 33.9 million miles. If it takes 500 such voyages to create a colony with 4,000 trips to ferry 80,000, it means, 50 years for 25 spacecraft to complete a two-year round-trip and 400 years. The National Space Society moots the Moon as a better proposition. The contour of the Shackleton Crater—named after Bezos’s idol, the explorer Ernest Shackleton—which lies at the Moon’s south pole, gets continual sunlight, while its inside is in shadow.
The Lunar Prospector spacecraft discovered excessive hydrogen inside, pointing to the presence of ice. The first projected mission is planned for 2024. In water terms, the University of Hawaii speculated that Moon craters—Sverdrup, Haworth, Shoemaker and Faustini—have ice deposits exceeding Shackleton’s, a conclusion supported by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
STEPPING UP: The Earth faces a man-made crisis, where billions of species face extinction. Oil spills, plastic waste and toxic chemicals are damaging resources. Deforestation is reducing oxygen supply and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, the Environmental Performance Index ranked India at 177 of 180. The country is home to 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. It is running out of water. Groundwater and air have turned toxic. Last year, Morgan Stanley predicted 2019 as ‘the year for space’. It may well be coming true.
“Rich business houses have enough financial resources to invest in transformative technologies that are too risky otherwise to be funded by taxpayers’ money,” believes Nandi. Branson, Musk and Bezos aren’t the only ones. Mars One, founded by Bas Lansdorp, is a USD 6 billion plan for a one-way Mars migration by 2031. Thousands have signed up. The UAE has announced its project Mars 2117 to establish a human colony in the next 100 years.
Moon Express, co-founded by Delhi-born Naveen Jain, has plans to build an outpost on the Moon. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency promises to construct the first human colony on the Moon in 10 years, in collaboration with NASA. In April 2016, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the USD 100 million Breakthrough Starshot to build new technology to launch an unmanned space flight at 21 per cent of the speed of light to reach Proxima, the closest star to the solar system.
On August 15, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India will send a three-person crew in 2022 aboard the Gaganyaan mission to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Independence. National pride is reflected in space too: the US calls its space travellers astronauts, Russia has cosmonauts and China sends taikonauts. The Indians space travellers will be known as ‘vyomanauts’, derived from vyoma, the Sanskrit word for space. Bhattacharyya says, “Since our origin, we humans are confined to the Earth’s surface, which is like a small room. Now for the first time, we could open one door. By a natural process we will now go out, roam and settle as we wish. It will be impossible not to do it.”
RARIFIED SPACE: Technavio, leading global technology research and advisory company, foresees the global space tourism market exceeding USD 34 billion by 2021. But with its high operational costs, will space travel ever be affordable? Former NASA astronaut Don Thomas who orbited Earth 700 times, says, “I would think that, in a decade or so, you will see flights to space for USD 10,000 to USD 15,000. Space travel will be more in line with an exotic trip to Antarctica.” Finnish company Space Nation has developed the Astronaut Program App in collaboration with NASA for ordinary citizens.
Competition drives prices: transatlantic air travel was an expensive proposition until the 1980s when low-cost carriers and more numbers of flights brought down prices. With space travel set to be a booming business, inter-planetary luxury cannot be far behind. Privately-owned Axiom Space is building space stations based on the design and operational skills of the ISS’s ‘17-year legacy of continuous human presence in Low Earth Orbit’.
Bookings are open for an eight-day space trip by 2020 at USD 55 million a pop, though there is a USD 5 million discount on the first jaunt. Axiom plans a luxury space experience curated by the acclaimed French designer Philippe Starck. Houston-based aerospace company Orion Span is in the process of constructing the luxury space hotel Aurora Station which bills a passenger USD 9.5 million for a 12-day trip, excluding rockets costs.
NanoRacks has announced plans to build space ‘outposts’ using spent rocket stages to establish tourism-friendly ‘near space’ habitats. Bigelow Aerospace will be sending inflatable space pods into orbit. Space Nation is the first space travel firm to be accredited by the UN World Tourism Organisation.In all religions, the heavens are considered the abode of the gods. With life in space getting closer to reality than ever before, for once man is playing god to keep the future of the Earth safe. At a price.
One step at a time
- In 1920s, scientist John Desmond Bernal conceptualised a 10-mile-wide floating space colony now known as the Bernal Sphere, which has residential areas and farming regions
- In the 1970s, the idea was further advanced by scientist Gerard O’Neill with the O’Neill Colony to accommodate one million people, which rotates in space to create artificial gravity
- In 1975, Stanford University participated at the NASA Summer Study where a group of professors, students and volunteers together helped to design the ring-shaped Stanford Torus Colony that could ‘permanently sustain life in space on a large scale’
- Russia’s Soyuz launch vehicle is being used for crewed space flights. American businessman and multimillionaire Dennis Anthony Tito is the first space tourist to pay USD 20 million for an eight-day trip to outer space.
- Google has entered the fray with Lunar XPRIZE. It plans to facilitate affordable access to Moon.
The Big Picture
The Martian by Ridley Scott
This gripping tale of human strength follows an American astronaut who is stranded on Mars. His sheer will to survive drives him to find a way to contact Earth.
Interstellar by Christopher Nolan
Earth is slowly becoming inhabitable pushing a group of explorers to make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel.
Mission to Mars by Brian De Palma
The first manned mission to Mars meets with disaster, mysteriously killing every member on the crew, save one. Soon, a rescue mission is launched to bring back the survivor.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick
This epic film has it all. A supercomputer that goes rogue, a secret mission, time travel in a vortex, an alien monolith, and a combination of Utopia and Dystopia.
Prometheus by Ridley Scott
The film follows an ancient star map. Seeking the origins of humanity, the crew of a spaceship arrives on a distant planet. They discover a threat that could cause the extinction of human species.
Launched on July 22, 2019, by ISRO, the purpose of Chandrayan-2 is not just to map the moon’s surface but also to explore lunar craters and caves for water and gauge the possibility of establishing environmentally controlled lunar cities.
Founder: Richard Branson
Net worth: USD 5.1 billion
Type of launch: Horizontal from mid-air plane
Capacity: Six astronauts
Destination: Thermosphere, 62 miles high
Founder: Elon Musk
Net worth: USD 19.2 billion
Transportation: Crew Dragon/Starship
Type of launch: Vertical
Capacity: Seven astronauts /100 passengers
Destination: International Space Station (ISS)/Moon orbit
Cost: USD 35,000 a night at ISS
Founder: Jeff Bezos
Net worth: USD 165.4 billion
Transportation: New Shepard/New Glenn
Type of launch: Vertical
Capacity: Not known
Destination: Thermosphere, 62 miles high
Cost: Not yet announced
It is an air-launch platform to make access to space more convenient, reliable, and routineBas Lansdorp
Plans to send a group of people on a one-way trip to Mars by 2031
Mulling to build an outpost on the Moon
To build new technology to launch an unmanned space flight at 21 percent of the speed of light to reach Proxima, the closest star to the solar system
Across the world
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA has always been in the forefront of space explorations—from sending astronauts into orbit to sending the first human to the Moon. With maximum crewed flights to its credit, it has sent a total of 567 people into space.
Soviet Space Program/Roscomos
Russia’s contribution to space flight is undeniable. It sent the first satellite, animal, man, and woman to space. Now the country wants to send ‘Anthropomorphic’ robots to the Moon.
European Space Agency
Comprising 21 member nations, it has evolved to become a major contender in space. It was the first to send a robotic spacecraft to orbit a comet and also make a soft landing on the surface of a comet.
Chinese National Space Agency
China has established itself as the third largest space power after the US and Russia. If reports are to be believed, the next Neil Armstrong may be a Chinese. It is also planning a robotic mission to Mars.
(With inputs from Medha Dutta Yadav)