Space — the final frontier?

After remaining rather uneventful for decades, outer space is again seeing a lot of action and interest


Farrukh Khan Pitafi July 24, 2021
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. He tweets @FarrukhKPitafi and can be reached at [email protected]

After remaining rather uneventful for decades, outer space is again seeing a lot of action and interest. There are many reasons for it. NASA is under presidential orders to land humans on Mars by 2033. In December 2019, Donald Trump inaugurated the US Space Force with the broader assumption being that the world powers would once again take their competition to space. This is among a few initiatives of the Trump era that are unlikely to be reversed.

The renewed interest in space stems from two contingent factors. Widespread speculations about UFOs and aliens. And the interest shown by tech billionaires to colonise space. Let us address them one at a time. 

Man's fascination with celestial objects and outer space has gone on since the dawn of civilisation. And when the realisation about the true depth of outer space grew so did the idea that we are not alone in the universe. But for those who are committed to this wild goose chase, the Fermi paradox defines the odds. It states that in an infinite universe the probability of the rise of a spacefaring civilisation is huge but this high probability is undermined by a total lack of evidence to support any alien ever visiting Earth. This could not dampen the enthusiasm of the UFO enthusiasts. On July 5 this year, the Pentagon released an unclassified report regarding whatever it knows about the phenomenon. Unfortunately, it does not reveal any startling new evidence. If this was not enough there is plenty of sense in what theoretical physicist and pop-scientist Michio Kaku says about alleged UFO sightings. He believes that if a space-faring civilisation had arisen before us it would be far ahead of us in technology and perhaps not even dependent on corporeal form. Why would such a bunch of aliens use technologies which can be sighted and even identified by human minds and why would they have even a remote interest in us?

But then there are other scientists like Harvard professor Avi Loeb who believe that celestial objects visiting our solar system like ‘Oumuamua (kindly look him up), may contain evidence or relics of ancient aliens and therefore must be studied carefully. Humanity is still not ready for a massive investment of time and money for the exploration of such distant and fleeting objects. Money is handy for other projects as we shall see a bit later. But given that we are on the cusp of a technological revolution and this rapid growth coincides with Covid lockdowns where a huge population was forced to live indoors with a truckload of online conspiracy literature meant that the obsession with aliens would spread rapidly. A desperate person will clutch at straws to make a point. Consequently, old speculations about redoubtable claims on UFO/alien sightings like the one from Bob Lazar (again look him up) have gained considerable traction. Even conspiracy communities like QAnon have witnessed a race to incorporate pseudoscience related to aliens and outer space into their narrative. I can only assume that you have come across US Congresswoman Marjorie Greene's views about California wildfires being caused by what she calls “Jewish space lasers”. This claim is just as divorced from reality as the rest of QAnon fantasy fiction.

But the QAnon interest is useful to highlight another broader point. It is true that many UFO geeks are driven by the fascination borne out of an inability to distinguish well-written science fiction or well-made sci-fi movies from reality and therefore their intentions might be innocent. But there are many among the prejudiced who would want you to believe there are aliens among us disguised as humans. Why? Because if there are aliens here in human garb, the good old pitch for an egalitarian society, all humans are created equal, holds no water. These aliens might even be malevolent and harbour malice against the human race. From this, one small jump will take you to the views of Nazis and the KKK that the othered community is subhuman if not totally inhuman. I want to keep an open mind for real first contact with an alien species but what passes for evidence in this regard is not much.

Now, to the meaty part. The space competition among billionaires. When news broke of Jeff Bezos' retirement as the CEO of Amazon, we also learned that the world's richest man was planning to visit space on a craft made by his space company Blue Origin. It was meant to be a moment steeped in symbolism. A send-off of sorts even if the one being sent off was to stay in space only for minutes. Also, it signalled to many that Bezos had milked the earthly business opportunities to capacity and now space was the new frontier. Ever the showman, billionaire Sir Richard Branson could not pass on the opportunity to steal his thunder. His flight on July 11 could not reach the internationally accepted definition of space but garnered a lot of media attention. Bezos' recently concluded flight was more successful even though it stayed up there only for 10 minutes. Elon Musk has not disclosed his immediate plans to travel to space even though his company SpaceX possesses a reliable history of space travel. Branson has announced that Musk has booked a seat on Virgin Galactic flight and even made a cash deposit. SpaceX plans to send up a civilian only spaceflight before the end of the year but Musk is not on the passenger list.

While this may sound like a testosterone-driven race between billionaires who have a lot of money to burn and to others it may look like another billionaire grift or scam, the instincts of all three are not misplaced. Sir Branson is interested in space tourism. Bezos and Musk believe in the colonisation of space for the benefit of humanity. Where Musk differs from Bezos is that he wants to colonise Mars. The red planet is the closest and perhaps most reliable of all our planetary neighbours. But colonising a celestial object like Mars may not be easy because of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the logistic problems posed by its orbit, distance and terraforming it. Bezos on the other hand believes in building space colonies from scratch, a costlier but much more reliable option. Space might not be the final frontier in view of many new theories about parallel worlds and other fascinating avenues but once colonised it can offer a fetching end to the Malthusian dilemma.

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