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What’s next for space exploration

Pit stops on the moon, food smells in zero gravity, and other things to look forward to as more humans launch into orbit

By Josh Sullivan

The purpose of outer space exploration isn’t to ready humans for life on another planet — it’s to help improve life for humans on Earth.

That was the message from speakers at June’s JFK Space Summit, where dozens of technologists, astronauts, and entrepreneurs gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“This is the planet that we have to save. This is the good planet in our solar system,” said Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, who dabbles in rocket ships in his spare time through his company Blue Origin. “We’ve sent robotic probes to all the planets now. This is the only good one.” 

Bezos’ dream? Move all of the Earth’s polluting industries off the planet and “zone Earth as residential.” He imagines space manufacturing, too: microprocessors built off of the planet, and shipped back down to Earth.

That’s a process that likely won’t happen in his lifetime. But there’s plenty of space innovation coming sooner, from tourism to new space careers to food that feels far more enticing than astronaut ice cream. Here’s a sampling of what had people talking at the summit.

Shooting for the moon…or Mars

The future of space exploration seems to be routed in one of two directions: revisiting the moon, or landing humans on Mars. And if you’re Bezos, the moon is a perfect rest stop on the way to Mars.

The red planet is the most obvious place for a human colony, he and other speakers explained, since robots have been inhabiting the planet off and on since 1997. But many — Bezos included — insist on returning to the moon first, to learn more about it. Eventually, he argues, the moon could be used as the outer space version of a gas station: Astronauts could stop by on the way to Mars, stretch their legs and mine some needed resources, then continue on to their final destination.

An international space race

Space exploration has historically been a race between the Americans and the Russians. But today, other countries are getting into the business. One unlikely pioneer? Luxembourg, which recently became the first country to establish regulations on mining resources from other planets. In May, Luxembourg and the United States signed a treaty, pledging to cooperate on future space exploration regulations. Russian diplomats have made it known that they are interested in joining the treaty as well.

Meanwhile, China wants to be a space superpower. The European Union has allocated 16 billion euros for space programs. India is working toward its own moon landing, and Singapore has been trying to launch one of its citizens into space. New Zealand, too, has a budding space industry, built on its niche as a small, stable country with minimal air traffic — ideal for launching rockets.

Not your average tourists

It’s not just official astronauts who are heading into space. Space vacations are on the way: NASA just announced that it will open the International Space Station to tourism — for a hefty fee — in 2020. But while tourism can be the ultimate relaxation, space tourists will need to stay in top physical shape, at least if they want to be able to walk normally once they return to Earth. After all, it takes astronauts years to prepare to leave the planet, and if you don’t exercise regularly in space, you will lose bone and muscle density. And with a reduction in gravity comes added challenges, such as learning how to sleep without a pillow, or moving about the inside of a spacecraft.

The good news is, technology is in place to help humans adjust; in fact, some of today’s everyday essentials here on Earth came out of space exploration projects. Memory foam was first made to cushion potential hard landings on a return to the planet, and certain resistance-based workout machines were developed to help astronauts maintain bone density while floating in orbit. Some of the mind-blowing inventions developed now, for tourists rich enough to go into space, could become household items in the next 20 years.

Astronauts gotta eat

For too long, “space food” has conjured the image of freeze-dried ice cream, anti-gravity Skittles, and dehydrated sandwiches that give off a “Jetsons” vibe.  

But space tourists will likely demand better, and Maggie Coblentz at the MIT Media Lab is working on space food that’s less space-y and more enjoyable, both for tomorrow’s tourists and today’s astronauts. That’s important work: Astronauts often lose their sense of appetite, and if they don’t eat enough, they could encounter health issues.

One challenge is the fact that, in a zero-gravity environment, food has no enticing smell. That’s why MIT’s Ani Liu has invented polymer beads that are able to deliver familiar scents. Coblentz has also developed a silicone bone that can be cooked into spaceship food, in an effort to prevent astronauts from getting bored with eating out of a package every day.

“Hopefully, we will have sushi on the moon,” Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata said. 

All hands on deck

At one point during the summit, an audience member raised his hand and asked a pointed question: “What would you say to a child who wants to help in the space exploration process, but is bad at math and science?”

The short answer: Space needs all types of people, not just astronauts. 

As more and more of humanity creeps into the universe, space-related careers will branch well beyond engineers and astronauts to incorporate different professions. At a base level, NASA, SpaceX, and other space powerhouses will need communications specialists and lawyers who specialize in — yes — space law. But it goes further than that. If one day, water is recovered from Mars, hydrologists will be called upon. When the International Space Station opens up to tourists, people involved in the hospitality industry will be crucial to making that happen.

Get excited

Do you remember a time when your elementary school class gathered around a television —  perhaps wheeled into your classroom on a cart — to watch news coverage of a rocket launch? 

Most of the astronauts, engineers, and scientists at the JFK summit could remember a pivotal moment that led them toward a career in space. Wakata said that even in Japan, the launch of a U.S. mission to the moon had young people excited about what was to come. But for now, there are no regular space shuttle missions — and the most likely place to see NASA’s logo is a fashion runway, a Target t-shirt, or a Vans shoe store.

So space exploration is looking for ways to regain kids’ attention. NASA has a website that allows you to track the International Space Station. And Draper Laboratories, a Massachusetts company that was heavily involved in the Apollo launches, has launched a website called “Hack the Moon.” The site offers podcasts, stop-motion videos and forgotten pictures from the days of the original moon landing.

The goal? To inspire the next generation of space careers. Stories abound, these days, about ambitious college students who launch websites and apps out of their dorms. As more independent companies enter the space exploration market, speakers at the summit said, the barriers to entry for space-based entrepreneurship will drop.

Indeed, Bezos said part of Blue Origin’s mission is to create more sustainable space shuttles, whose parts can be reused and sold at a far lower cost — so that “one day, we will see the next Blue Origin made in a dorm room.”

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Josh Sullivan is a production assistant for Experience.

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