2020: the year we looked outward in a new way

At this writing, no one can say with absolute certainty that human society will ever manage to expand into space in a physical sense, whether aboard the O’Neill cylinders reportedly favored by Jeff Bezos and featured in the movie “Interstellar,” or on the surface of Mars as Elon Musk proposes. If either of those are going to happen, it’s going to take an almost unimaginable variety and scale of technical and policy achievements over a span of decades.

Historians could look back on 2020, the year of the infamous covid-19 pandemic and the inaugural AIAA ASCEND gathering, as the moment we decided to explore our destiny more seriously than just the fun stuff of driving buggies in the desert and living in biospheres. This could be the year we pledged to take on the wider challenges toward dreams of an off-world economy and society.

In this month’s cover story, we touched on some of the necessities. Take note that the experts in this piece are not just talking and pitching ideas. They are taking concrete steps, however small, toward potential breakout moments. The necessities they discuss are not the only ones. This magazine will be there to delve into other topics in future issues. There is one challenge in particular that I don’t think receives enough ink or research dollars: We humans don’t yet know whether or how our biology can exist for years on end beyond Earth’s protective magnetosphere. And yet we are conceiving rockets and habitats and food experiments to get us out there.

Also, the policy realm must not be forgotten. The nations of the world haven’t waged a coherent international response to the covid-19 pandemic or to climate change, so one wonders how humanity can possibly survive in outer space in the face of exotic threats that even science fiction writers have not yet imagined. Perhaps the value of NASA’s Artemis Accords for the moon is the underlying recognition that we can’t have the same discord in space as on Earth and expect to succeed.

So, that’s reality as I see it in 341 words. If we do go, I hope it’s because we choose to create a thousand Einsteins and Mozarts, as Bezos says, and not because we’ve ruined Earth. We won’t survive long out there if we can’t master sustainability here. These challenges don’t bring me down, at least not for long. A great human drama is beginning to unfold, and I’m lucky enough to be here to help chronicle the start of it.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

2020: the year we looked outward in a new way