Last week, I had the opportunity to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I’ve been there before, though. The last time I visited Kennedy Space Center I was 6-years old. Back in the late 80’s, it was all about the new Space Shuttle program and building the International Space Station. It seemed crazy and ambitious. People living in space, can you imagine! I vividly remember the ongoing global news coverage and excitement every new launch created around the world. A globally unifying experience much like the Olympics. Space was cool. Space was important.

Atlantis exhibit at Kennedy Space Center

The ISS became a symbol of the end of the cold war, perhaps more so than the Berlin wall. After all, this was not solely an American endeavor. The Russians sent their own astronauts, and built their own modules too. The Europeans pooled together and added more modules. Then Japanese joined in. The nations of the world were literally connected in space. Doing zero-gravity research on materials, chemicals, plants, and the astronauts themselves.

Then it stopped in 2011. Space was no longer on the global agenda. It had gone out of favor years ago. Manned missions were not high on the U.S. political agenda. There’s enough to worry about domestically to focus on international concerns, let alone space. Today, the space shuttle Atlantis is an exhibit. Literally a museum. The Russians have courageously kept the fledgling candle flame that is the ISS alive, by providing monthly supply missions. But you wouldn’t know it if they had stopped. Bieber has more followers than NASA. Nobody cares anymore.

Last manned mission by NASA in 2011. No reason to go back to the moon after 1972. Most spacecraft launches peaked in 1965 at 180. Nothing to get the masses excited again. Space became a luxury the world could no longer afford.

Elon is making space cool again

It was incredibly inspiring to see the big blue SpaceX logo at launch pad 39A, where Falcon Heavy and Starman captured the world’s attention just a few weeks ago. Originally built for the Apollo Program, pad 39A is also where the first Space Shuttle mission launched in 1981, the year I was born. Not gonna lie, was a little choked up there. *manly cough*

SpaceX hangar at launch pad 39A

The 1965 record for most space launches in a year was finally broken in 2013, after almost 50 years of stagnation!

There’s a fresh buzz and excitement at Kennedy Space Center now. Like it’s no longer a tribute to something historic of a bygone era of exploration and curiosity, but a place where the future is being defined each day. It’s catching on. The world is reigniting a passion for the final frontier. A feeling that amazing new things are coming any day.

For most of us, the image of Starman floating away from Earth was cool. Really cool. But… maybe not as cool as your epic win in Fortnite. That was sick. So what is the point of all this? Why is Elon doing these publicity stunts?

He’s going to Mars, remember? And he’s taking you with him.

Why do we need to care about Mars, tho?

It’s an important question. Perhaps THE question to ask. Why go to such extreme lengths to do some expensive nerd science? Is this just some massive billionaire ego stroke? Aren’t there a lot more pressing issues to fix right here on Earth? Has Elon forgotten about poverty? Disease? What about global warming for god’s sake, we have to save the planet first!

You’re not wrong if you think those things. But I’ll try to make a case why it could matter more than anything else we humans could choose to focus on. If I change one person’s mind about space and Mars, it could be worth more than any single contribution I make in my entire career. *knuckle flex*

We have to go, because to explore is to be human.

Isn’t exploration something we’ve always done? The frontier has always been set further out, beyond anything we could imagine just before it happened.

I mean cavemen weren’t satisfied with caves forever. Sure, it was safe. You had fire. You could protect your family. But you kept wondering what’s behind that next hill over there. The Johnsons in the next cave over said they heard some strange animal noises coming from behind the hill just the other night. Maybe we should check it out?

Much later and much wiser, we still thought the world ended at the great oceans. If you went too far, you’d just drop off at the end of the world, like at the end of a table. But a few curious thinkers thought otherwise.

Yes, to most it still sounds weird. If you tell your friends you’re taking Elon up on his offer to go to Mars, they’ll think you’re a huge nerd and kind of stupid. People thought exactly those things about friends hitching a ride with Columbus, too. It just takes a few to show the example to the world.

We have to go while we have progress.

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into thinking that everything we have today just kind of happened. Someone had an idea, and the rest is history. Not true.

Most of the biggest breakthroughs in our history have come from determined, single-minded focus and astounding effort. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Besides making lots of war to take control of the world at large, they had to invent government to support what happens after said control is achieved. They invented taxes to pay for said war. They invented aqueducts, plumbing, and public baths to allow cities to grow large and not die of thirst and drown in human waste. They created new forms of art including literature. Mathematics. It took generations of the brightest and best on Earth to get there.

And even then, the shining light of civilization and progress collapsed, under the boot of a bunch of naked guys with cool beards and blunt axes who lived in the forest. Why? Because the Romans’ progress wasn’t fast enough. Once you conquer the world and all it’s resources, what’s left to do, really? As much as the Romans had created, as far as they had lifted the limits of humanity, their own hubris in their grand achievement had gradually slowed down that progress and ambition just enough. Enough whereby the barbarian hordes could defeat them by sheer force of numbers. The flame of progress had died.

If they had kept pushing and discovered gunpowder just a few centuries earlier, then no number of barbarians would have defeated such a technologically superior Roman force. But it did, because stagnation. For the next 1,000 years the world was not progressing at all. No new technologies were invented. You were born, you lived your life exactly as your parents had, and you died. In poverty and misery, unless you were a king. Live. Procreate. Die. Repeat. Stagnation.

We are the Romans. You and I. Everyone. Everything we are and have is built on that defining legacy built over a thousand years of constant conscious struggle for progress. Barbarians are all around us even today. War. Disease. Trump. Asteroids. You name it.

Humans need big goals. Big goals to unite us. Big goals to make living our life worth a damned. Doing better than the previous generation. Pushing the boundaries of knowledge, of science, of human existence.

“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” — JFK

That’s why we have to go to space. We intend to win the future.

We have to go before it’s too late for Earth.

Tim Urban is kind of mandatory reading for all things Elon, including his 40,000 word series on SpaceX and Mars. There’s a good bit in there on the numbers for flawless human survival. Flawless meaning we keep living. Meaning no asteroids, no gamma rays — basically nothing really bad happening on Earth. The facts are that it’s just a matter of time-scale and probability. Stretch far enough and not only is something really, really bad likely to happen, it has already happened more than a few times in our past. Luckily for us, we weren’t around, and the dinosaurs took it on the chin for us. Thanks T-Rex.

Aside from the real party-pooper scenarios Tim vividly paints, I’d like to focus on the Interstellar scenario. Best movie ever for space nerds like me. Rather than very low probability scenarios like asteroid catastrophe movies, what if things just kind of went a little worse steadily. No biggies, just kind of sucking more year by year. Kind of like right now, amirite?

Santa’s keeping a list, and it’s super naughty:

  • Politics refocusing on domestic priorities, weakening of international relations and collaboration.
  • Slowly polluting our urban environments, to where they’re barely livable. Breathing masks are a common sight in many Asian cities today.
  • Gradually overpopulating coastal regions, leading to exposure to global warming risk. Half the world’s population already lives less than 200km from the coast.
  • Seeping pollution of lakes and fresh water reservoirs increasing the cost of potable water to a precious commodity.
  • Over many decades, global warming slowly but steadily doing it’s job. Today’s lush farmland withering away to arid plains. Today’s arid regions crumbling into lifeless deserts across Africa, southern Europe, and even the Americas. Polar ice caps melting away, leading to rising oceanic water levels.
  • Regular food shortages, perhaps even extinction of many staple food crops due to lack of suitable growth environments.
  • Eventually rising water levels of those overpopulated coastal regions I mentioned creeping up too far. Billions of people having to uproot their lives and industry, causing astronomical costs to the global economy, and political and societal instability.
  • Desperation driving humanity to focus entirely inwards on solving these existential crises, leading to stagnation of all new technology and knowledge.

Basically, everyone’s getting giant lump of coal for Christmas.

Perhaps even wars break out over scraps of farm land and fresh water reservoirs. Forget about space, we’re fighting a losing battle just for survival here. This is a point of no return. With dwindling resources, any decision to refocus remaining and (very) visibly finite resources on some outlandish space exploration seems pretty unlikely. That’s even assuming that structured forms of government still exist to allocate and coordinate any resources at all. Okay, let’s leave it there before we go full apocalypse.

Map of the world after sea level rise. Notice holes.

Imagine a world just kind of slowly wasting away in it’s own hubris. Chewing up precious resources without any coordinated effort towards a sustainable future. Today is all that matters #YOLO. Me first. Earth later. Or never. A new type of dark age, such as we last saw at the end of the Roman Empire. Except this time it’s not a pause button on progress. It’s a stop button. No rewind.

We have to go while it means something to be human.

So let’s assume all that is happening, but progress is actually faster than we thought. Yes we’re depleting the Earth’s finite resources on a linear curve, but advances in information technology are exponential. As we know, exponential takes over linear, and then shoots for the moon.

This one’s a real celebration of nerditude, so depending on your persuasion you’ll either love this or doze off. So here goes.

The Fermi Paradox is a simple question: where are all the aliens? If the universe looks like it’s infinite, then infinity has a unique quality. Whatever probability you evaluate against infinite possibilities, it always happens. Think about it. If there are infinite galaxies, with infinite stars, with infinite planets, then by definition there is life all over the place. If the probability of life is like 0.0000…go for a walk….00001, it still happens all the time, if there are infinite possibilities. Numbers don’t lie.

Given that since 1997 and the Hubble telescope we can see billions of years into the history of the universe, why aren’t we seeing anything, well… living? Given that SETI has been listening for signals from intelligent life forms for decades, why is the sky eerily dead-quiet?

Again, Tim has you covered on a whole bunch of cool reasons this might be happening. But one scenario is actually already happening, right now, right here on Earth.

Do you have a virtual reality headset at home? No? Have you tried one on? Do you have a friend that does? Have you seen them in shops? Yes, they are becoming mainstream. The new TV. The new Nintendo. VR will be in every home. Computer graphics are becoming so powerful, that soon you won’t be able to tell a virtual experience from the real thing. So what? Well, everything. If you think little Billy is spending too much time on the Xbox, think about other things than games. Jobs. Relationships. Holidays. Everything can be virtualized. Even going to Mars.

If that isn’t enough to stop our curiosity, then A.I. becomes the nail of our virtual coffin. Right now you would get a real whoopin’ if you took on AlphaZero in a game of Go, chess, or almost any game, really. But the real party trick is still mimicking human intelligence. Making the computer think like a human. Work like a human. Even feel like a human.

Real or not? Do you even care?

What do you get with life-like VR and human-level A.I.? Well, you get to upload yourself. No death, just cloud. It sounds stupid, but given the option of death or virtual life, you’ll take it. So will everyone else. You can continue your life together with all your virtual A.I. loved ones. Or you could just reboot. You could live any life. Be anyone. You could be Elon. No hunger, no poverty, no pain. In fact, it will be so much easier and more fulfilling than real existence that soon kids will upload too.

It’s not the end, really. It makes humanity something else. No more squishy flesh, just 1 and 0 into infinity. We can still do science. Write poems. Go to Mars. Just not, really. Only virtually. Trapped in the box forever. If some exploring aliens who never lost their way found us some day, they would just see the ruins of a long-lost civilization. The rest would be gone, all visible signs of all our life and progress extinguished.

Elon to the rescue

So now that we all agree that we have to go, for many a reason, we’re kind of in a hurry, actually. Ray Kurzweil who has been right about many breakthrough technologies, like the internet, says we’ll get human-level A.I. already in 10 years. Then some fundamental breaking point in exponential progress beyond which we can’t even imagine in 30 years. Elon is projecting we’ll need a good 50 years to get Mars up and running as an independent civilization. Yeesh. Can we speed things along, maybe?

Besides actually building spaceships with his own money and getting the world’s priorities straight, Elon is at also quadruple-tasking on the side to keep us in the game.

  1. OpenAI is a non-profit research organization trying to advance SAFE artificial intelligence, so that some early rogue attempt at cracking the stock markets won’t disrupt Elon’s best laid plans by turning us into paperclips, for example.
  2. Neuralink is private research company trying to create an interface for humans to plug into artificial intelligence, as a direct extension of our brains. That seems like a great plan, if one were inclined to designing super fast spaceships that go to Mars much faster than the projected 3 months every two years when the planets are aligned.
  3. Tesla is tackling clean energy production, storage, and consumption to slow down the Interstellar scenario. Thanks Elon.

What are the next steps here?

It’s worth reminding ourselves that if SpaceX and Elon are our “only hope”, then the rest of this movie better play out like we’re Luke Skywalker. As awesome as that sounds, I would prefer to hedge our bets. We need more Kenobis. More Skywalkers. More Elons.

Beyond some early embarrassments into space tourism, there are many serious players pushing us into deep space. Some looking to lower the cost of orbital launches. Some designing cheap reusable rocket components. Going back to the moon. Some are thinking about mining asteroids for resources. Even building rockets in space. All are needed.

Over the next two years already, there are a few big milestones to wait for:

  • Blue Origin, Boeing/ULA and SpaceX first manned test-launches, mid/late 2018
  • SpaceX first test-launch of the Mars rocket “BFR”, early 2019
  • NASA James Webb Telescope to see much much further into the universe, early 2019
  • NASA’s own interplanetary Space Launch System first test-launch, late 2019

From there the timelines are a little hazy for now, but Elon has set a goal for a first manned mission to Mars in 2025. NASA is targeting 2030. Others will come. Maybe you can play your part?

For me personally, the next time I visit the space port in Cape Canaveral, I hope to see it looking more like an airport. Not a series of relic launch pads, with only one in active use. I want to see people touring the hangars, rather than the historical exhibits. I want to see tens of active launch pads, buzzing with the activity of our brightest minds, weekly scheduled launches capturing the curiosity of the entire world.

How you can get involved

  • Everyone can track the increasingly busy space launch schedule.
  • Students can study space and Mars relevant STEM fields, and stay super fit so they can go to Mars when the time is right.
  • Working professionals can save up money they would waste on Rolex, Mercedes and Louis Vuitton for tickets to Mars. They’ll probably start at $500K a pop. Maybe you won’t go, but do you want to make that decision for your kids, too? Call it “Marsurance”, just in case you want to, or even need to go, if above scenarios start becoming reality.
  • You can expose your kids to these ideas of science, progress, and space to get their imaginations going in places we can’t even dream of.

Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.