Humans on Mars. Futurologist Matthias Horx assumes that several decades will pass before this dream becomes reality. © NASA / JPL-Caltech

"Realistic is everything we can conceive of"

Futurologist Matthias Horx on the new space boom and the future of space exploration

After the Space Race in the 1960s, the fascination for space died down. In recent years, the subject has seen a revival. Even today, the exploration of space still has a military component, but in the view of futurologist Matthias Horx the reasons for the renewed public interest lie in exodus fantasies sparked by the threat of climate change, and the pop-space culture founded by billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. In an interview, he explains why crewed exploration missions need a strong motive and why this means that humanity will most likely not land on Mars until the middle of the 21st century.

What do you find so fascinating about space and space travel?

Matthias Horx: I’m a child of the 60s. So as a teenager, I was incredibly impressed by the lunar landing, it really captured my imagination. I was also a huge fan of all the science fiction series that were on TV at the time. Shows such as the German series “Space Patrol Orion” or “Star Trek”. I then spent a lot of time researching the mental and psychological effects of these visions and contents. Half my generation is also influenced by the Earthrise photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 at Christmas 1968 while orbiting the Moon. This was the first time that humankind had ever seen the Earth in its entirety from space. This overview effect, as it is called, had an enormous impact on how we viewed ourselves and on our spiritual outlook. This was lost as the 1980s and 1990s went by.

What is your explanation for this?

It was definitely because the practical benefits of space flight for addressing the needs and necessities on the surface of the Earth were not evident. On top of that, carrying out new experiments in gravity-free conditions at the cost of millions of dollars had become boring, especially as their ultimate purpose was not clear. But as a futurologist, I find it more interesting to understand why this is happening again today and why and whether we are experiencing a kind of run on space and a space boom once more.

Do you have any answer to that?

If you follow the long-term lines plotted by the zeitgeist, you will find points where they intersect again. However, certain conditions must be satisfied for this to occur. We shouldn’t forget that space travel was viewed as a highly idealistic human activity. In reality, however, it had a lot to do with demonstrations of power and military rearmament. Of course, one of the reasons why the Americans were so determined to fly to the Moon was that they wanted to be the first to get there in the Cold War era. Incidentally, far from being ambassadors of world peace, astronauts were actually trained combat pilots who followed technical routines. For many years, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the Apollo-11 crew, were very reticent about talking in public, something that was due to the fact that they had been chosen – shall we say? – for their functionalistic character profiles. Today we are seeing a new type of astronaut who has philosophical, sometimes even spiritual and often also ecological messages to impart. They are accessible. And some of them are women, too! In addition, new political circumstances are also emerging.

Such as?

On the one hand, the world is seeing a new system conflict, which is mainly being driven by China’s ascent. So, competition has returned, an urge to fly to space, which definitely also has a military component. Secondly, climate change has given rise to an understanding of the vulnerability of the underpinnings of life, and this has also unleashed exodus fantasies along the lines of “if the Earth doesn’t survive, then we must start looking for alternatives”. This is obviously an absurd idea, but it does provide a strong narrative for spurring motivation. Thirdly, large space projects are increasingly being funded by billionaires of the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This has created a kind of pop-space culture that brings space and space travel closer to young people, who see it as being really “cool”. This so-called “Club of Billionaires”, whose members include people such as Musk, Bezos and Richard Branson, has definitely triggered a kind of space hype. Suddenly, anything seems possible again, with space-industry start-ups shooting out of the ground all over the place.

Climate change has given rise to an understanding of the vulnerability of the underpinnings of life, and this has also unleashed exodus fantasies along the lines of “if the Earth doesn’t survive, then we must start looking for alternatives”.

What is this hype likely to trigger in the coming years, say, between now and 2030?

On the one hand, it is kindling a new competition. This will certainly give the industry new momentum. The monopolies held by NASA and ESA were already hermetic, as it was. Now there are some crazy people around who are daring to try something new. However, there is also a certain fragility to this. But you have to hand it to Elon Musk: he certainly knows how to build incredible things. The Space X launchers are great and innovative creations. But the risks associated with manned exploration are also huge. I do not believe that there is still this existential heroism, like there was 50 years ago, when people were willing to accept sacrifices. If any fatal casualties were to occur, a possibility that can never be ruled out, the hype would vanish very quickly.

Nevertheless, it is Elon Musk who repeatedly formulates bold visions, such as the colonization of Mars before the end of this decade, voyages into deep space and the search for planets that could act as a second Earth. How realistic do you think this is?

Culturally, Elon Musk forms part of our pop culture. Everything he says and does is always loud and emotional. That said, I have been driving a Tesla for five years, and during this period I have traveled the same distance as that between the Earth and the Moon – in an electric car that is fast and reliable and also looks really cool. The future of “pop space travel” can be found between these two poles.

What do you mean by that?

There is a big discrepancy between fact and fiction. If you want to physically travel to Mars, you have to get it right. This means that you have to set up a station on the planet and stay there for a while. This is different from landing a capsule on the Moon and flying home three days later. If people are to embark on such voyages in the future, it is not just necessary to solve the basic technical problems. In addition, the whole thing has to become fundamentally cheaper. Not even a global corporation could sustain such spending for long. What is more, it also takes time to develop a new myth and to communicate a narrative for what would be the greatest event in human history. This is why I believe that humans will not land on Mars until the 2040s.

Why the 2040s?

Because this is when there will again be a constellation in which the Earth and Mars are in a certain favorable relationship to each other. Experts have calculated that this will be the case in early August 2048 and June 2050. So, if the planet’s CO2 emissions have been reduced to zero by that time that would be a nice combination. If I were to hazard a forecast, I would venture to say that the first landing will be on one of these two dates. But again, a crewed mission like this must be driven by dreams and imbued with a certain pioneering spirit. It needs a gigantic motive. And that’s not something that is in sight at the moment. At least not yet. It will not be like Columbus’ days when some king or other provided the funds for mariners to set out on voyages of discovery to new continents. In actual fact, they wanted to go to India because of the spices. But what spices does Mars have? Raw materials? I hardly think so. A sitcom, a kind of jungle camp in space? That would be horrific.

This is the one great vision that space arouses: how do we get to other planets and ultimately possibly even beyond our own solar system? But what about protecting the Earth? Will we one day suffer the fate of the dinosaurs?

The protection of the Earth is of course an immediately understandable vision. And right now, it is the most plausible one. In this way, you can get all nations around the same table. A lot will surely happen in this respect over the next twenty years.

Humankind is always bound by the laws of physics in this respect as in all other areas. In the science fiction shows that you say you enjoyed watching as a child, these limitations were overcome by such things as teleportation or hyperlight speeds. How realistic is this in the foreseeable future?

This places us in an area that we call the “Deep Future”, which is outside the scope of serious research into the future, so I can only speculate. What is certain is that you would need an inconceivable amount of energy that we could only derive from quantum physics in order to exceed the speed of light. This would equal the energy of the sun.

The other way to travel far into the universe would be simply for people to just get much, much older. Is that realistic?

Everything that we can conceive of is realistic. But the real question is whether it is likely. If you think about it for some time, it becomes clear that we are on the path of transcendent speculation here. If we say “people could live to be 1,000 years old”, that would implicitly be an incorrect sentence because 1,000-year-old people wouldn’t be people anymore. Any form of radical prolongation of life would touch on the very core of what it is to be human. It is our mortality that makes us a species of inventors and optimizers. Humans with radically extended lifespans would become utterly decadent as the motivation for survival and thus any form of drive to create something would be lost. These beings would probably be organic shells attached to some form of machine. And that would certainly eliminate any remnants of a drive to go out and conquer. What would be the point of venturing into the hostile conditions of space when you can idly enjoy life free of any risk?

1,000-year-old people wouldn’t be people anymore.
It is our mortality that makes us a species of inventors and optimizers.

These are very basic philosophical and ethical issues...

Indeed, but they also raise very practical questions such as what ultimately constitutes a human being. What are our inner motives? But I think it’s exciting enough to look forward into the next 100 or 200 years of the future. How will human perception change once we have outposts on other planets? Because then we will be permanently observing ourselves, so to speak. This will change humanity, just like the Apollo-8 crew’s first glance of the rising Earth from the Moon did. The overview effect is decisive.

What do you mean by that?

Take climate change, for example. This is a problem that poses a challenge for all of humankind. It forces us to grasp ourselves as a whole as this is the only way of solving the problem. The same thing applies to the threat posed by a large asteroid that endangers civilization. This would place humankind in its entirety at a risk. With a permanent view of the Earth and its problems from the outside, this awareness would be lifted to a new level, thus leading to a different collective consciousness. Many more people than before are talking about global interdependencies today. This is a consequence of the overview effect.

This year, several missions, including the European ExoMars 2020 mission, will be headed for Mars. The goal is to search for traces of life beneath the surface of the planet. How would human awareness change if extraterrestrial life were actually to be found?

I think that it will change a lot less than is generally expected. This is because even if we do succeed in finding traces of life, they will probably be just dead microbes, to which we will feel very little affinity as life or living beings. The cognitive dissonance inherent in this research is that there really is no one out there.

Even if we do succeed in finding traces of life, they will probably be just dead microbes, to which we will feel very little affinity as life or living beings.

What do you mean by dissonance?

Well, we know that although there are millions of planets, we are in fact very much alone. As I see it, finding traces of life in our solar system is pretty hopeless as it is the result of a billion-year evolutionary networking process. Life doesn’t exist in isolation, as a lonely microbe. The emergence of life always marks the genesis of tremendous complexity in connected structures. That’s why my guess would be that we won’t find anything on Mars or on Titan. Individual organic cells cannot survive there, and we would have long since discovered larger organisms if there were any. That’s why I am convinced that we won’t find anything on Mars or anywhere else.

This will come as a great disappointment to many space enthusiasts. So, in conclusion, where will we be at the end of this century? What can we expect and perhaps even look forward to?

I’m sure there will be outposts – on the Moon maybe – and there will be orbital tourism for the very wealthy, but that’s probably about as far as it will go. We will have revised a lot of what we think we know today. Maybe there wasn’t a big bang after all. Maybe dark matter is one big misunderstanding. The history of humanity has always been characterized by the alternation between idealization and disappointment, as well as narratives that subsequently turn out to be meaningless. But we will see transfers of space technology that will be quite amazing.

Can you give me an example?

Life support systems that are autonomous will be constructed. Artificial habitats. Once we have succeeded in doing that, we will have learned a great deal about the essence of and conditions for nature. The spaceship is a metaphor for an artificial habitat that is completely autonomous. If we truly master this technology – and not only for a few days or a few weeks – we will, conversely, be able to influence our own conditions on the Earth more effectively. Via space travel, we will learn to terraform the Earth, so to speak. In the future, we will have developed planetary technologies that at least allow us to survive on our own planet. We will learn to understand how nature works and how we can live in balance – if not in harmony – with our natural surroundings. We call this “blue technology”. And that would be quite a feat. Space travel is like a mirror in which we can always view our own image. And maybe that is its ultimate purpose.

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