“Trillions” of humans could one day be floating through the vast, endless void of space, living in giant space stations and dreaming of the Earth we’ve left behind. That is, if Amazon founder and sometime-world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, gets his way.
Bezos discussed the space-based future of humanity in a recent interview with podcaster Lex Fridman where he noted that the planet we currently call home is simply far too small for our — of his — ambition.
“I would love to see a trillion humans living in the solar system,” Bezos said. “If we had a trillion humans, we would have, at any given time, 1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins.”
“The only way to get to that vision is with giant space stations. The planetary surfaces are just way too small.”
Granted, this is not the first time that a billionaire has opined positively about the potential for space station living. Bezos himself spoke about the idea back in 2019 while space cowboy rival and founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has maintained a long-term vision of establishing a colony on Mars since 2001.
Millions of people could one day live on the surface of the red plant, Musk has claimed multiple times. Indeed, it is essential to the survival of the species, a kind of interplanetary insurance policy.
“There’s always some chance that something could go wrong on Earth. Dinosaurs are not around anymore,” Musk said at SpaceX’s 2022 Starship progress update.
Bezos however appears to have far grander plans for humanity than living on a dusty, freezing rock. The founder of his own space exploration company, Blue Origin, Bezos noted that he is inspired by the cylindrical space colonies theorised by physicist Gerard K O’Neill.
“People will live in those. They have a lot of advantages over planetary surfaces. You can spin them to get normal Earth gravity and you can put them where you want them.”
Can We Live in a Space Station?
Despite the outsized vision of Earth’s billionaires, who appear fairly resolute in getting off this planet they have to share with the rest of us, space station living of the kind Bezos is talking about won’t be happening any time soon.
The question posed to Bezos by Fridman was on a timescale of hundreds or thousands of years from now. That said, Musk believes he will have organised a permanent, occupied base on Mars by 2029 with a population of a million by 2050.
Experts have however said that Musk’s plan, which involves terraforming the surface of Mars, is impractical for a number of reasons, not least of all the fact that there isn’t enough CO2 on Mars to convert into oxygen and make it habitable.
NASA itself has had ideas of space colonisation since at least the 1970s and, in 2019, announced the upcoming Artemis project which would see a base on the moon established by 2030. That plan for a small, temporary base that could house astronauts for a few weeks, has already been pushed back until at least 2034, underlining just how hard it is to get these sorts of projects established.
Bezos’ own idea of using an O’Neill cylinder is however thought to be at least theoretically possible. However, the project involves first latching onto an asteroid and then hollowing it out, using the extracted interior as building materials to make it habitable. Studies suggest it could one day be a reality, but not in our lifetimes.
On a more basic level, previous experiments in humankind’s ability to live for long periods of time in artificial chambers have not been very successful. In 1991, eight people lived for two years in a 0.01 square kilometre chamber called Biosphere 2. The project had to be pulled however as the plants in the sealed environment didn’t produce enough oxygen or food to sustain the participants. There were also personal conflicts and psychological issues that resulted in the project being abandoned.
Couple these issues with the harsh conditions of space, where microgravity plays havoc with our physiology and solar radiation creates huge risk of cancer, and it seems like space just really doesn’t want us living in it. There is a reason that astronauts do not spend more than a year or so in space, even on the most advanced space base we currently have, the International Space Station.
That might be okay, Bezos concedes; “I think a lot of people, especially in the early stages, are not going to want to give up Earth altogether”.
However, these technical challenges are going to have to be overcome, Bezos said. Earth is a planet with finite resources and, in order for our species to keep expanding and growing, we’re going to need more stuff which we can only get from elsewhere.
“So, we have to out into the solar system,” Bezos said.
“You could argue about when you have to do that, but you can’t credibly argue about whether you have to do that”.
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