At TEDx Jersey City I recently gave a talk about the importance of space, how it benefits life on Earth, and how entrepreneurs are leading the way. Full transcript below:
This is a story about how space brings us closer together. How our natural curiosity leads us to explore, to discover, to new perspectives, and ultimately greater understanding.
In 1948, an English astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle said, “Once a photo of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” This image, taken by Bill Anders twenty years later when Apollo 8 took humans to the moon for the first time, is one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century and forever changed the world. Anders said, “It's ironic that we came to study the Moon and we discovered the Earth.” These Apollo images had a huge impact on society and arguably created the environmental movement , by generating an awareness of the Earth’s vulnerability. In fact, a year later in 1970 we celebrated the first Earth Day.
Now, it’s one thing to see this photo, but it is apparently very different to experience for yourself. In my line of work, I meet a lot of astronauts – and there is a common theme: The Overview Effect, which refers to the perspective gained from going to space – it’s a cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts after viewing the Earth from outside and seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space - a tiny, fragile ball of life, protected by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this "pale blue dot" becomes both obvious and imperative. Shuttle astronaut Nicole Stott said, “I don’t know how you can come back and in some way not be changed.”
Despite all this, until now only ~550 people have been to space. But things are changing quickly. As you can see, there are a number of new, privately funded operations that will take us to orbit in the very near future. Why is this important? Well, just imagine if instead of just a few hundred people, millions, including senators and congressmen, were to go to space and return with this new perspective, this awareness of the fragility of our planet and the pettiness of our conflicts and the injustices that we tolerate.
Imagine how we will approach conservation, environmental protection, poverty alleviation, and any of the other United Nations sustainable development goals.
Now I know a lot of you are probably thinking, that’s great, but who has that kind of money? And that’s a valid concern considering that the lowest published price we have to go on is $250k, but we can look to the airline industry, which started in much the same way.
The first winged commercial passenger paid $400 in 1914 (that’s more than three months of wages for a typical worker) for a novelty flight, 21 miles down a river in Florida. The world’s first winged airliner carried just 10 passengers – mostly rich celebrities. Then in 1951, almost 40 years later, tourist (or coach) class was created, followed shortly thereafter by the first wide-body jet for mass transit. We are in a similar place today with spaceflight, but with the added bonus that information spreads, and technology develops, a whole lot faster today.
For those of us who grew up thinking that by the time we were adults there would be a starfleet academy and that we would be exploring the universe in Starship Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, well that reality may be closer than you think. These are truly extraordinary times and not only are there multiple launch systems coming online in the next few years that are designed to take humans to destinations throughout the solar system, two of these are privately funded. And they have ambitious goals, aiming for launch around 2020.
So, what has caused this shift from government to commercial endeavors? Well it all comes down to increased access to space, lower barriers to entry for new companies like we’ve seen in countless other industries. Reduced launch costs and miniaturization of technology have made space accessible to startups and entrepreneurs for the very first time. And while these exciting opportunities in human spaceflight will no doubt change our world in the very near future, this increased access to space is already having tangible and significant impact on Earth today, with constellations of small satellites.
A criticism that I hear quite often is: why spend money on space when there are real challenges here on Earth. But it’s not either/or. What if we had said the same about the printing press in the 15th century? I mean, why should the Roman Empire be investing in this new technology when they have real problems, like the Black Death to deal with?
The difference in approach is one of proximity – one is dealing with the immediate need on the ground, while the other is addressing the issue from a point of global understanding and increasing empathy on a mass scale – both are important. What is happening in space with small satellites is similar to what happened with maps and the printing press in the Age of Discovery:
Humans have been mapping the world since we began carving on rocks 40,000 years ago. In the 14th and 16th centuries maps provided political power and extraordinary wealth. They allowed explorers to find their way and communicate their overseas conquests. And this privileged information was used to promote religious and national agendas. With the advent of the printing press, this information became much more widely distributed and broke their established grip on power. As more people got their hands on this information, they began using it to advance an increasing number of humanitarian and social programs.
For instance, in 1885 Charles Booth applied wealth data to maps and discovered that abject poverty in London was much greater than previously thought. He then used this knowledge to influence government intervention against poverty, contributed to the creation of old age pensions, free school meals for children, and popularized the idea of a poverty line.
John Snow, one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, used maps to trace the source of a cholera outbreak to a public water pump in 1854, whose findings inspired fundamental changes in the water and waste management systems in London, which was then adopted in other cities, and led to a significant improvement in general public health around the world.
Similarly, since the first satellite, Sputnik in 1957, data from space has been tightly held by a few powerful governments and used to promote national agendas. But increased access to space is enabling a new wave of entrepreneurs who are providing unprecedented access to this valuable data, thereby breaking the established grip on power. As more people gain access to this information, they're similarly using it to advance humanitarian, political, and social programs. Here are just a few examples of the ways that data is being used:
There’s about a 20% chance that the fish you buy at a store or eat at a restaurant was caught illegally. The environmental cost of illegal fishing is HUGE and the economic costs are high too, estimated at $23B. A virtual watch room in the UK is using satellite technology to combat this practice. This data from space identifies suspicious activity and automated alerts allow them to take action. These efforts have already resulted in the establishment of the largest single marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands.
Our vantage point from space gives us a leg up in the fight against hunger. Food production is already being improved through precision agriculture, enabled by satellite data. Satellites can observe and measure the condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall… which can lead to better farm management and ultimately higher crop yields.
The global refugee crisis has reached unprecedented proportions, with upwards of 65 million forcefully displaced people worldwide. These images, taken from February to August of this year demonstrate how quickly a camp in northern Uganda grew after fighting raged in neighboring South Sudan in July. An analyst at Amnesty International said that this information gives them a way to visualize the invisible, to better understand the shifting situations on the ground.
There are countless other examples of how space and satellites are improving life on Earth from: connecting billions of people to the internet, enabling developing countries to leapfrog large infrastructure projects, disaster monitoring, and on and on…
Space is important because it gives us a new perspective and brings us closer together. And our commercial endeavors in space are important, because they are making space accessible to the general public. If we could all have a better understanding of the “big picture” and gain that new perspective, perhaps we can find more effective solutions to the problems we face here on Earth.
Thank you so much!
There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.